The bonfires of Northern Ireland have long been part of the rituals of the marching season. Now efforts are being made to convert the symbols into affirmation of the peace process
The marching season in Northern Ireland comes each July with a host of symbolically and culturally significant actions which reinforce historic loyalties.
The challenge for leadership is the management of the meaning of such actions and images. This has become increasingly recognised since the publication of an influential article by Smircich and Morgan in the 1980s.
Leaders of the peace process rightly worry about the impact of symbolism and associated violence. But it is hardly surprising that efforts are being made to avoid counter-productive reactions by too direct action against such symbols.
The BBC reports a more subtle approach this year [July 2009]
Traditionally, bonfires are lit the night before the Twelfth of July and the aim is to make them as big – and as brutal – as possible. Over the years, for many loyalists the fires were not complete without an Irish flag, a Glasgow Celtic shirt or a Catholic emblem on the top for a ceremonial burning.
In the past, there have been so-called ‘shows of strength’ when hooded gunmen appeared from the shadows and fired bullets into the night air.
If all goes according to plan, a very different scene will be witnessed this weekend in loyalist parts of Belfast. The centre piece will be a custom-built beacon. Although technically bonfires are illegal, Belfast City Council is taking a pragmatic approach and trying to manage them rather than get rid of them.
The council’s Good Relations Officer, David Robinson, explained: “People might say that bonfires are never going to be environmentally friendly, but this is about as close as we’re going to get.”
Communities willing to work with the new system will be eligible for a grant towards a street party.
Action and Reaction
Maybe the initiative will trigger opposition. Bribery, cry some. But whatever happens, the sensitive management of meaning will remain in important aspect of any leadership within attempts to influence the processes of social and cultural change.