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20 July 2017

Bonfires and parades

Bonfires and parades

David Smyth is the public policy officer in the Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland.

I have written on many occasions about the complex relationship in Northern Ireland between Protestantism and Unionism/Loyalism. The roots of this relationship are at the same time historical, political, cultural and social. 

The picture seems obvious at first glance, like the two are almost equivalent. But as we know, the picture is more nuanced when painted with colours beyond the crude palette of black and white or orange and green. 

Locally, bonfires and parades, key aspects of loyalist culture have been in the news. How should the Church engage winsomely and wisely? 

As a follower of Jesus Christ reflecting back on the past few weeks, the question I return to is about mission. How does this Protestant/Loyalist relationship help or hinder the witness of the Church as we strive to see people coming to faith? How should we engage? What should we celebrate, critique or challenge? What aspects require reform, renewal or re-creation? 

There were colourful scenes of pageantry and festivity as bands and lodges marched as they commemorated the Twelfth of July. Many people have commented on the goodwill, order and respect of those marching this year. Members of the Orders walk to commemorate the ‘glorious revolution’ which was foundational to the constitutional democracy in the UK and across the West. The institution says it defends the “…civil and religious liberties of all: special privileges for none.” These are ideals where many from different backgrounds will find common ground. It’s also clear that for so many people the day is primarily about celebrating heritage with family, friends and community. 

I know that many of those involved in the loyal institutions strongly profess the Christian faith. Some groups use the Twelfth of July and other demonstrations as an opportunity to share their faith with the marchers and the crowds. When the Orders call themselves a ‘Protestant fraternity’ and a ‘Christian organisation’ there is both a clear opportunity to share faith in Jesus with others and a responsibility to model the same faith. So in many ways, the Orders are well-placed to reach many in the ‘culturally protestant’ community with the message of Jesus. 

However many Christians will have theological difficulties with the idea of a Christian being a member of such Orders. Others will be more concerned with their method, their tone of witness and their strong links to one side of the political divide. There is no doubt that the Orders engage in acts of public witness which are deeply tied to the geography, politics, religion and cultural identity of this place. The challenge might be to move people beyond events which strongly testify to Protestantism and King Billy to bearing witness to relationship with the king of kings. 

When it comes to bonfires, much can be learnt from common sense. The idea of people gathering around a fire to celebrate is not unusual and is seen across many cultures. Bonfires happen every year across the UK every year in the name of culture for Guy Fawkes night and they are generally not contentious nor a danger to life or property. This year in Northern Ireland saw the fire service receive 213 emergency calls in total and they mobilised to 133 incidents overall - a 49 per cent hike on 2016. The issue comes down to property ownership, public nuisance and public and environmental safety. There is actually very little law around the burning of fires on private property and if you own the property and can burn a fire without causing a public nuisance, health or environmental hazard then there is no real restriction. We must move to a point that where the property is publicly-owned then public permission must be sought before a huge fire is lit on it. This is in the common good for everyone. 

This will inevitably and properly come with restrictions and limitations. Burning unsafe material and/or grossly offensive material on public property and without due regard to other property, health, life or the environment is not a cultural celebration. It just isn’t. Other acts, which often accompany the burning of bonfires including fly-tipping, on-street drinking and anti-social and sometimes sectarian behavior, also need to be addressed. No-one is suggesting that the cultural act of lighting bonfires be stopped completely, however almost everyone agrees it should be safe and legal. This is a space where the Church again may be able to help in the brokering of better community relationships and the co-creation of new cultural events for the good of everyone. 

The Church is an outpost of another kingdom. We are two-Corinthians-five ambassadors of Jesus Christ, charged to carry his good news into the culture around us. In the context of Northern Ireland, a pressing question for the Church must be about the health of its relationship with the nominally Protestant/Loyalist community. Are there good opportunities to build relationships in some areas and to better witness to Jesus? On the other hand, how does this relationship appear to those outside the Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist community who don’t yet know Jesus? Will they see a distinction between those aligned to PUL culture and those who follow Jesus Christ? 

These are sensitive and difficult discussions but ones that we would be happy to help facilitate. Please do get in touch if you would like to discuss these areas further – d.smyth@eauk.org

For more information on how the Alliance has engaged with the Northern Ireland Assembly on these issues, have a look at this consultation response.