Sometimes cliches are actually meaningful. The photo below (from the Belfast Telegraph) confirms that a picture can often be worth a thousand words. It was taken from the slopes of Cavehill, overlooking Belfast, on the evening of 11th July, the Eleventh Night in Orange folklore, the eve of the Twelfth parades when Loyalists light bonfires to symbolise…what? Their wish to burn Catholics out of their homes? To incinerate IRA leaders? To warn their community of impending danger? Or all of these?
Whatever the answer, the bonfires have grown in number and size in recent years and that must say something about the mood on the ground in Protestant districts twenty years after the first IRA ceasefire and fourteen since the GFA when the Troubles were supposed to start the wind down to peace. They are not the only symptom of what one well-placed local recently described to me as “an uneasy peace”. Clearly something has gone wrong.
My own view is that there was a serious flaw in the process and that was that it was a top-down affair, hatched in secret by political elites, developed furtively and only fully disclosed to competing grassroots when leaders thought they could get away with it. The surprise and shock within the ranks of the IRA at the ’94 ceasefire or the commencement of decommissioning was mirrored by that within the DUP when the first television images of Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams seated at the same table at Stormont flashed across their screens.
Things that grassroots activists were told would and could never happen without their say-so suddenly did. The shock has arguably been greater amongst Loyalists than within the republican community where Protestant anger at a changed Northern Ireland has softened discontent within IRA ranks. Doubtless that has brought great satisfaction to the Sinn Fein leadership, playing on Unionist angst to stabilise their own base. But it is no way to build a real peace.
Let’s see what happens if the PSNI gets its way and the Boston College archive on the UVF falls into their hands.