Orange Order interventions in unionist politics do not undermine its claims to be a purely cultural organisation, a leading Orangeman has insisted.
The Belfast County Grand Master Tom Haire welcomed plans to continue with an experiment to overturn tradition and open the shops in Belfast on July 12, the height of the marching season.
Mr Haire said the Order was trying to widen the appeal of the 'Twelfth' and claimed that tourism figures showed large numbers were prepared to holiday in Belfast during July, despite the historic trend of a summer exodus from Northern Ireland.
Mr Haire is among the senior Orangemen who have called for the DUP and Ulster Unionists to form a single unionist party in a bid to halt the growth of Sinn Fein, but he denied this undermined the Order's efforts to promote an inclusive marching season.
"We are not a member of any political party, therefore I would say we are not political, but as an organisation we are interested in what happens in our country," he said. "Orangemen and their families, are all part of the political scene, they all have their political views. I do believe we have a right to express the views that we are hearing from the people on the ground, from the grassroots. And people are fed up with one party sniping at the other and so forth."
Mr Haire helped launch part of the rebranded 'Orangefest', an attempt to soften the image of the parades which in some flashpoint areas have often been a source of sectarian tensions. The 'Twelfth' is the annual highpoint of the loyal orders' parading calendar. It commemorates the victory of the Protestant King William of Orange over the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
The city centre would normally have closed down on July 12, but Orange leaders and Belfast traders confirmed plans to continue with the experiment of opening stores from midday until 4.30pm. Shops would be closed as the parade left the city centre in the morning and when it held its return march in the evening. Both sides reported positive results from the agreement, which is in its second year.
Orangefest supporters said Belfast Visitor Convention Bureau figures showed that in July 1999, the city's hotels sold 22,694 rooms. By 2009 the July figure jumped to 64,900. The Orange Order said this pointed to a growing willingness among holidaymakers to choose Belfast at the height of the marching season.
Belfast City Centre manager Andrew Irvine said: "The Twelfth of July celebration, in terms of visitor numbers, is simply the largest annual event we have in Belfast City Centre. Whether visitors wish to watch the Orangefest procession, or simply enjoy the shops, Belfast City Centre is open for business and has something to offer everyone."
Mr Haire said that in the past Belfast was a 'ghost town' after the parade passed through it, but he added that the ongoing changes were to the benefit of both marchers and wider society.