Sectarian Orange Order bonfires
Sectarian Orange Order bonfires


by Tom Cooper (for

Perhaps one reason why the Northern state turns a blind eye to the naked sectarianism displayed at 11th July bonfires is the fundamentally sectarian foundations of the British Constitution. The Act of Settlement of 1701, the cornerstone of the British constitution, forbids the Monarch, its spouse or any of the great office holders of state from being a Catholic (Tony Blair converted to Catholicism after he stood down as Prime Minister), and automatically grants seats in its upper house to Anglican bishops. A strange traditional practice in a country which prides itself on its secular and progressive ethos.

The burning on bonfires of the Irish national flag, the papal flag and more recently the Polish national flag, are the highlights of the 11th July Orange Order celebrations and are extremely offensive. One of this year’s bonfire highlights was the image of Ulster Unionist MP Danny Kinahan posing for photographs in front of a Co Antrim bonfire with an Irish tricolour placed on top of it. When questioned if his actions were appropriate Mr Kinahan replied “ This is Protestant culture, let’s recognise each other’s cultures and get on with it.” This disgusting behaviour does not warrant even the slightest admonition from unionist representatives.

Every 11th night, in what can only be described as deliberate acts of provocation, sectarian bonfires pollute not just the atmosphere but poison community relations throughout the north. Many of these bonfires are adorned with not just the Irish flag, but in some instances images of murdered Catholics. Pictures of Catholic schoolboys Michael McIlveen and Thomas Devlin, who were random victims of loyalist murderers were placed on top of bonfires and burned, much to the approval of the local bigots. Incredibly and bizarrely, in excess of sixty Grand Officers of the Orange Order are also Church of Ireland ministers. One wonders to what extent would the Church of Ireland permit its ministers to belong to an organisation that burned effigies of Muslims, Jews or Hindus who had been murdered because of their religion?

Nowhere else in Europe would the annual ceremonial burning of many hundreds of the national flag of a peaceful neighbouring state go virtually without comment.. What if every Bastille day the Union Jack was burned across France, or if every St George’s day the flags of Pakistan, Jamaica or Nigeria were burned in British cities?

Understandably, there would be harsh diplomatic protests and perhaps riots in the streets. But in Northern Ireland this systematic and deliberate incitement to hatred has been allowed to become an integral part of unionist/ Protestant culture to such an extent that it hardly draws comment from British secretaries of state, unionist politicians, the media and, in particular the Irish government, who allow this annual affront to their national flag to continue without a word of protest.

The British Government seems to be in a state of denial over its obligations to prevent and punish such flagrant incitements to hatred. In April 2007 Britain, along with 26 other EU countries, signed a declaration to punish those responsible for incitement to hatred on the grounds of colour, race, nationality or ethnic origin with terms of imprisonment. Britain herself enacted a similar ‘Religious and Racial Hatred Act’ in 2006.

Following the ending of the second World War in Germany, an extensive body of legislation was put in place to outlaw all remaining elements of anti-Jewish culture that had grown up around the Nazi party. Is it not imperative that similar measures be introduced in the North to deal with the endemic anti-Catholicism so prevalent in large parts of the Orange Order facade?.

A constant media spotlight and relentless unionist condemnation might help to change attitudes to anti-Catholicism although the fact that no senior elected unionist is willing to enter a Catholic church, under any circumstances, is a bad sign.The history of the Orange Order has been a shameful litany of Protestant supremacy. The Order provides religious camouflage for those members who wish to maintain a system of privilege and power and defines itself more by a hatred of Catholics than a love of Christ.

Is it not long past time that the Orange Order ceased closing its eyes and turning its back on the actions of those associated with its yearly marches and bonfires?

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