Peace report suggestion that loyalist bands should march to new tune described as 'cultural engineering'
Loyalist marching bands could become one of the official sounds of Northern Ireland - but only if they widen their repertoire, a report has found.
However, an Ulster Bands lobbyist has questioned some the report's recommendations, voicing fears that they appear to aim to "institutionalise neutrality" within bands.
The report, Music Unite, by the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building, is the result of a pilot project to examine how music could help promote non-violence here.
It follows a scheme involving the Shankill Road Defenders collaborating with musicians from other cultural backgrounds, experimenting with different music and performing at high-profile events such as Culture Night in Belfast.
The report found that the bandsmen were initially apprehensive about taking part but quickly became enthusiastic participants in performances with musicians from Kurdistan, India, Slovakia, Ghana, Jamaica and Ireland.
The Ulster Bands lobbyist praised the project and the bands which took part as contributing to increasing positive perceptions, but he also expressed concern about some of the 14 recommendations made in the study.
The recommendations include looking at targeted funding for loyalist bands to encourage them to widen musical horizons and collaborate with musicians from other cultural backgrounds; to develop codes of conduct for bandsmen as part of their music training; that bands should employ professional musical directors and include neutral music in their repertoire; and that large musical events, festivals and public celebrations should routinely involve loyalist cultural and musical traditions.
The lobbyist said it was felt that the project organisers had preconceived ideas about the bands. "Within the report itself, several elements unfortunately minimise the positive aspects and would challenge the value of bands participating in a future extended or related project," he added.
"In its recommendations it becomes clear that the project organisers have both entered the process with preconceived ideas about the band movement and a directly related agenda. Its claim that the arts provides an opportunity to bring bands into the mainstream both labels the band scene as not being part of the arts while also casting aside a movement of more than 600 bands and 30,000 members - the largest musical-centred movement in Northern Ireland by some length and massive on any terms - as being an underground practice."
He also said he found the aim to "institutionalise neutrality" in bands to be disturbing.
"The terminology used and the goals defined clearly fall far beyond education and into the realms of cultural engineering," the lobbyist added.
"Every bandsman and woman in Northern Ireland welcomes the public display elements of this project. The opportunities and goals to create further similar opportunities are honourable and hopefully can be built on."
Lord Alderdice, chairman of the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building, said the aim of the project was to find ways of addressing the alienation of young people, especially young men in the working-class loyalist community.
"I have long been of the view that the arts, especially music, have a key role to play in the processes of healing," Lord Alderdice said.
"However, taking this principle from individual treatment to wider community problems when certain kinds of music had deeply divisive resonances was a much more challenging option."
The peer added that he feels bands are "beginning to find a new route to peace and relationship building in our divided society".