Why are huge bonfires lit across Northern Ireland on Eleventh Night?

Huge bonfires will burn in loyalist areas across Northern Ireland late on Thursday night to usher in the main date in the Protestant loyal order parading season – the Twelfth of July.

Here is an overview of what the event is all about.

What is the Twelfth?

It is a day of commemorations, organised by loyal orders, marking the victory of Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne, north of Dublin, in 1690 – a triumph that secured a Protestant line of succession to the British Crown. The Orange Order, which was founded in 1795, continues to champion William’s legacy by espousing loyalty to the Crown and the Reformed faith. While the Orange Order is strongest in Northern Ireland, it does have a presence in Great Britain, the Irish Republic and many former British colonies. Thousands of Orange lodge members parade through the summer months to celebrate William’s victory and other key dates in Protestant/unionist/loyalist culture. Those commemorations culminate on the Twelfth – the anniversary of the Boyne encounter.


Why are bonfires lit the night before?

It has long been tradition to burn bonfires in loyalist neighbourhoods across Northern Ireland on the night of July 11 as a way of celebrating the upcoming Twelfth. Most “Eleventh Night” fires pass off without incident, with organisers promoting them as family-friendly community celebrations, but a number have become the source of controversy in recent years.

What are the issues?

The disputes are of a different nature to those associated with loyal order parades on the Twelfth, as they tend not to involve significant interaction with the nationalist community. The problems are more centred on safety and environmental concerns within loyalist communities over the prospect of the towering pyres causing damage to homes and businesses. Bonfire builders, most of whom are teenagers and young adults, have found themselves at loggerheads with the statutory authorities and, sometimes, older members of their own communities. Police believe loyalist paramilitary elements also exert a malevolent influence in resisting efforts to relocate bonfires and restrict their size. Bonfire builders portray efforts to curtail the tradition as a veiled attack on their culture. Disorder has erupted in Belfast in the past when authorities moved in to remove material from bonfires constructed close to properties.

Bonfire tyres
Bonfire tyres

Have the bonfires always been so big?

No. Eleventh night fires were traditionally much smaller. There were also many more than there are today, with more numerous modest fires constructed on street corners across loyalist communities. Over the years there has been a move towards consolidating the smaller fires into one central bonfire at the heart of each neighbourhood. This has partly been driven by a dwindling number of derelict sites for fires, but also by competitive rivalry among loyalist areas as to which can build the biggest bonfire.

What is the problem around tyres?

While the bonfires are mainly constructed from wooden pallets, old tyres are often placed in the centre of the pyres as another fuel source. This is an ongoing source of controversy, with widespread concern, including within loyalist communities, on the health and environmental damage caused by torching noxious rubber. Convincing young bonfire builders not to use tyres has often proved difficult. The problem has been exacerbated by suspicions that unscrupulous tyre dealers use the fires as a way to dump old tyres, avoiding the fees associated with conventional disposal methods. In some areas the dumping has been on an industrial scale. When police and contractors moved in to remove tyres from a bonfire in south Belfast early on Sunday morning, they recovered 1,800 from the structure.

Why is the Twelfth so contentious?

Politics in Northern Ireland has long divided along traditional green and orange lines. Not surprisingly, the celebration of an historic battle fought on religious grounds is viewed very differently by the Protestant/unionist/loyalist and the Catholic/nationalist/republican communities in the region. Older generations would contend the Twelfth was a non-contentious community event attended by Protestants and Catholics alike in the years before the Troubles. That changed markedly during the 30-year sectarian conflict that blighted Northern Ireland during the latter half of the 20th century. The routes of certain Orange parades became a key friction point, often leading to widespread rioting and violence. While Orangemen insisted they had the right to parade on public roads following long-established traditional routes, residents in many nationalist neighbourhoods protested at what they characterised as displays of sectarian triumphalism passing through their areas.

Orange Order parade
Orange Order parade

Are there still parading flashpoints?

Over the years there have been many volatile flashpoints involving Orange lodges and nationalist residents. The most well-known include the Garvaghy Road/Drumcree dispute in Portadown, the Ormeau Road in south Belfast and the Ardoyne/Woodvale interface in north Belfast. A Government-appointed Parades Commission was established to adjudicate on contentious marches, with its decisions often the source of major controversy. While tensions around Drumcree and the Ormeau Road largely dissipated as the peace process developed, the Ardoyne stand-off remained an annual source of intense community discord until relatively recently. A locally negotiated deal brought a measure of resolution to that impasse in 2016, resulting in largely incident-free Twelfths over recent years.

So are the parades now sorted?

Not really. The agreement at the Ardoyne was essentially a temporary truce pending a broader resolution being found. Stormont leaders have previously agreed to eventually take on the responsibility for parading issues from the Government, potentially replacing the Parades Commission with a new model. That plan was subsequently consumed by the wider political fallout at Stormont and is now well and truly on ice amid the ongoing absence of powersharing. A Stormont-established working group set up to examine ways to deal with the thorny issues of flags, identity, culture and tradition has made little progress. A lack of devolved government means there is little prospect of any emerging recommendations being implemented in the short-term.