Orange Order bids to tackle drunkenness at Twelfth
Loutish behaviour just makes everyone look bad, brethren admit
The Orange Order has launched a drive to tackle drunken behaviour on the Twelfth of July with a campaign proclaiming: "It's about the battle, not the bottle"
The initiative, which is supported by the PSNI and public health bodies, will see thousands of leaflets sent out to Orange Orders members and bandsmen ahead of the big day, alongside a campaign on social media.
Members of the group previously denied they were fighting a losing battle against the bottle in Belfast, where drunken scenes have become as much a part of the day as bands and lodges.
The organisation's attempt to make the Twelfth more inclusive by branding it "Orangefest" was widely derided, with critics calling it "vodka and Orangefest".
But speaking at a briefing in south Belfast, Grand Chaplain the Rev Mervyn Gibson said he was confident of success and revealed the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister was helping to fund the initiative, which was designed by a team of Orangemen and independent advisers.
He also denied the campaign was part of an attempt to get contentious Orange parades down the Garvaghy Road in Portadown or past Belfast's Ardoyne shops.
"The cynic might say that, but those are separate issues which have to be dealt with - this isn't about brownie points," Mr Gibson said.
"It's not just about (police) enforcement. It's about prevention, but the PSNI can't do it alone. Excessive drinking leads to antisocial behaviour, which creates problems. We all have a responsibility to do something about it."
The Grand Chaplain described the problem as societal and similar to scenes on St Patrick's day and more.
"No public event seems complete unless accompanied by a sea of drink," he said.
Mr Gibson additionally claimed that some of the bad publicity the Orange Order attracted was "spiteful, hypocritical and bigoted".
But he nonetheless acknowledged that some of it was deserved, adding: "Sometimes, our members and supporters make it easy for people to accentuate our faults."
Rev Gibson described this year's Twelfth as not just a celebration of the Battle of the Boyne, but also a commemoration of the centenary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, which he said made respectful behaviour even more important.
He added: "We don't want to be killjoys on the Twelfth. We're not saying, 'don't drink', we are saying, 'keep the main thing the main thing'."
Every Orangeman in Belfast is to receive a letter urging them to share the "battle, not the bottle" message with their family, friends, work members and neighbours.
More than 20,000 leaflets will also be circulated to Orange Order members, bandsmen and spectators in Belfast and visitors from Scottish lodges and bands.
On top of that, 20,000 bottles of water will be handed out on the Twelfth by Orange Order members, who are also distributing 25,000 beer mats with information about the campaign to 50 pubs and clubs across the city.
Similar messages will also be posted on buses and on billboards.
The Order is convinced social media will ultimately prove a powerful weapon.
Mr Gibson said: "We believe Facebook and Twitter will help us reach a particular part of our target audience, with prominent members endorsing our campaign online."
However, he also accepted that the campaign would not get rid of the ugly, violent scenes overnight.
"It will take time," he explained. "It's all about changing attitudes. This is not a one-off initiative, and we have to start somewhere".
"I think that it benefits everyone. I can't see any logical reason why anyone would say that it's a bad idea."
Actor Dan Gordon has been recruited to develop projects about addressing problem drinking in four schools in Belfast.
"We are starting in small groups, but in September if the opportunities and the finances are there, we hope to roll this out into a much wider area," he said.
Mr Gibson was asked why Orange Order stewards could not adopt a more proactive role in confiscating alcohol from drinkers on the Twelfth, especially under-age ones.
"We don't have the power to do that," he replied, "but we have stood beside the police at times at what are called choke points along the parade's route and we support them taking the drink off people."
Mr Gibson also said Orange leaders were not advocating the idea that drinking should be banned from their fields on the Twelfth of July, and he added that there were rules already in place to sanction lodge members for bringing the organisation into disrepute.