Every year in Northern Ireland, both the Irish Republicans and the British Unionists build huge bonfires to celebrate their culture. The bonfires are built out of scrap wood and stolen pallets. They often reach up to 30 feet in height. They’re illegal, unstable, and often represent a deep hate from each side of the cultural divide. Both the Republicans and the Unionists burn the other’s flag as a sign of protest against the partition in Northern Ireland. Not only this, they burn the names of slain fighters and civilians who’ve died in “the Troubles” conflict that’s plagued the country for decades.
This year, with my colleague Conall Kearney, I went to meet with some of the young men building thee bonfires in the Bogside in Derry. The Bogside, an Irish Republican stronghold, was the scene of the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972, when British troops shot 28 unarmed protesters in the streets. Fourteen people were killed. Since then, IRA militancy has had a hold of the Bogside.
The largest bonfire was being built by the side of the road at one of the main entrance’s to the Bogside. The youth, maybe 20 of them in total at the time, kept watch of the area where they’d stacked their wood. It was partially hidden in a dirty fenced off bit of wasteland. They had to guard the wood as the police would confiscating it whenever they could. The youth absolutley despised the police for this, and many other reasons.
Whilst many consider the Northern Ireland conflict over, there’s still a so-called “dissident” element that want to carry on fighting. These young men often agree with and sympathise with the dissidents. They don’t recognise the Good Friday Agreement that ended the conflict, and they believe in using violence once again to reunify Ireland.
“We’re making a bonfire,” said one of the young masked men guarding the scrap wood. “It’s just our culture.”
Several of these young men climbing the pyramid of pallets laughed about the recent rioting in the Bogside.
“[There were] riots for weeks,” laughed on of them.
“Anything we can get our hands on we’ll throw it,” said another.
Many of these young disenfranchised young men support a relatively new hard-line Republican group called Saoradh, which emerged in the last few years. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (the PSNI) has said they consider Saoradh the political wing of an Irish militant splinter group that they call the New IRA.
We went to a Saoradh march recently, where around a hundred of their supports marched through the streets with Irish Republican flags. There was a huge police prescence due to the violent nature of the situation.
Stephen Murney, one of the Saoradh spokesmen, told us that his group is not aligned with any militant factions.
“We’re purely politcal,” he said. “We’re involved in a wide range of politcal campaigns—we’ve heard it all before aboput links to various groups. We’re simply not, we’re a stand alone politcal organistaion.”
“You’ve got the PSNI that are coming into the [Republican] areas—they’re goading them [the youth]. They’re harrassing them everyday of the week. There is going to be a reaction. If that’s what the young people in society today are faced with, that’s what’s going to happen.”
This year Saoradh has been increasingly active, putting on marches in Belfast, Derry, and other Republican areas. An Easter march ended with the youth in Derry attacking the police.
A few months later, riots broke out for a number of days in the Bogside. Two improvised explosive devices and 75 petrol bombs were thrown at police. The week ended with an assault rifle being fired at them from the Bogside. The PSNI blamed older “Dissident Republicans”, saying they were organising the rioting youth.
One of the main issues, as Murney mentioned, is the poverty and complete lack of leadership. Derry has the highest rate of unemployment in Northern Ireland, more than twice the average. The city is also one of the most unemployed in the UK as a whole. The young lads of the Bogside have nothing to do and nowhere to go. The dissidents know this, and they exploit it.
Back at the Bogside Bonfire, before the night began and the time to burn it was near, one of the young men told us that there’s “fuck all” to do in the Bogside. He said the only thing he and his friends do is search for wood in the summer.
“That’s literally all we do.”
We asked if he supported any of the politcal groups in Northern Ireland, like the republican joint leadership part Sinn Fein.
“It’s the best time of the year.”
“Nah, we don’t like Sinn Fein down here,” he said angrily. “They’re scumbags.”
All of the young men did however admit that they supported Saoradh, which sets a dangerous precdent ad the poverty is getting worse and the violence is increasing.
As night fell, young men wearing balaclavas and carrying petrolbombs emerged from the darkness. There was a huge crowd surrounding the bonfire, all of them waiting. One of the masked men lit his petrol bomb—a bottle full of petrol with a rag to ignite it jammed into the top—and threw it full pelt at the bonfire. It burst into flames and lit up the bonfire, which had already been doused in petrol.
Everyone cheered as more petrol bombs came flying at the bonfire, burning up British flags and even scortching a poster of a police car that had the names of murdered policemen attached to it.
“Let it burn, let it burn, let it burn,” said one of the balacalva clad young men as he carried a lit petrol bomb through the crowd.
Despite this scene, and the recent violence, most Irish Republicans in Derry are peaceful, but the young men building the bonfire are reckless and easily led.
The PSNI said the recent riots were the worst they’d seen in years, and paramilitary violence is on the rise.
This, coupled with the backdrop of the conflict and now the looming border crisis that might amount from Brexit, could be the perfect storm that creates more trouble for Derry.
This means more trouble for the Republicans, the Unionists, and the leadership in London that seems to have forgotten that Northern Ireland exists.