The law cannot make a man love me, but...

It's the Eleventh Night, as it's known in Northern Ireland, the eve of the Twelfth of July when members and supporters of the Orange Order march to celebrate the victory of King William's forces over those of King James at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. It's also a chance for much of the Protestant or unionist community to come together in mutual reinforcement of their political and religious world view.

The Eleventh Night is basically a grassroots (Protestant) community Bonfire Night in cities, towns and housing estates across Northern Ireland, as a prelude to the big day of parades, bands and speeches at The Field.

The bonfires (hundreds of them) are usually built by the boys and young men of a particular area, often with months of preparations and with lots of local rivalry as to whose will be the biggest this year.

The Eleventh Night isn't part of my life, although it was a feature of my childhood in Antrim, when we children were under strict parental orders (as if they were needed) to stay firmly indoors that night and throughout the following day. For we were one of the few Catholic families in the predominantly Protestant housing estate of Ballycraigy in Antrim (just a few miles from Belfast International Airport for those of you from outside NI).

For most of the year, despite our segregated schools and despite the fact that this was the 1970s and height of the 'Troubles', us Ballycraigy children kicked ball and played on our bikes with each other, mostly not worrying too much about religion or politics. But things were different in July. Our family and the children of the few other Catholic families of the estate weren't part of the bonfire preparations. Nor did we want to be, beyond that simple childhood feeling of not wanting to be excluded from or by our normal playmates.

This all came back to me today as the Ballycraigy bonfire hit the headlines in Northern Ireland. Not because of the sectarian dimension to the whole affair – that's taken for granted – but because of the potential environmental damage likely to be caused by the burning of hundreds – maybe thousands – of tyres, which, along with wooden pallets, make up the main superstructure of the towering inferno-to-be. Well done Al Gore – your efforts were not in vain!

I happened to be close to the old neighbourhood this afternoon, visiting my parents, who still live nearby. On the way home I thought I'd take a look and show my wife and children, who were with me, where I spent the first half of my childhood.

The old house was still the same, although, inevitably, it looked a lot smaller. Probably because it was small – even more so for a family of six children, as we were. One significant change. Standing proudly from the wall, were two large flag poles – one with a Northern Ireland flag, the other with a Scottish saltire.

The garden was certainly different. The lawn, which my father had kept so meticulously, was no longer there. Neither were the flowerbeds, which I had so often, if reluctantly, weeded. Now there was just a mass of unkempt two feet-high grass and weeds. Next door was the same. A pity.

One or two hundred metres away was also something new. A memorial garden dedicated to the memory of Billy Wright, the murdered loyalist paramilitary, whose suspicious death is currently the subject of a collusion inquiry. This garden was clearly kept immaculately. Credit where credit is due. Again, two large flag poles marked the scene, standing sentry over the pebbled garden, this time with flags of the LVF (Loyalist Volunteer Force), which Wright had founded and led and which has killed numerous Catholics.

The TV news-featured Ballycraigy bonfire was certainly an impressive sight; at least two or three times the height and width of the surrounding houses. For those of you pyromaniacally-minded (like me) there's a great slideshow of last years effort, allegedly Northern Ireland's largest, here. Mounting its peak was the Irish tricolour flag with another huge tricolour attached to one side, this one additionally adorned with the large letters 'K.A.T.'. Just to clarify, that stands for 'Kill All Taigs' ('taigs' being slang for Catholics).

Just to one side of the bonfire, an 'Eleventh' family fun day was in full swing, complete with bouncy castle and supervising adults.

I'm glad my own children are still too young to understand any of this, but what chance do the kids on the bouncy castle, the current generation of Ballycraigy youngsters, have to leave these attitudes behind?

I left Ballycraigy estate in 1978 when I was nine years-old. I have never much wanted to go back. Reflecting this evening on my brief visit today made me think of how far Northern Ireland has come in the intervening years. We have travelled through vales of tears, but, eventually we have achieved relative peace and shared political structures.

But, more than anything, Ballycraigy today made me think of how far we still have to travel. Politicians can sign peace agreements, but, as WB Yeats noted, real "peace comes dropping slow".

I think too, of Martin Luther King Jr's line, when talking about the battle to end segregation in the US:

It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important.

Maybe it's time for that Northern Ireland Bill of Rights.

What is clear to me is that, together, we need to nurture a new, shared human rights culture. It's worth striving for – and that's part of Amnesty's purpose here in Northern Ireland. And that makes this thirty-eight year-old Ballycraigy kid pretty proud to work for Amnesty and very determined to pursue its vision.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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