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Why we must keep Twelfth heritage in its proper place

By Alf McCreary

Published 11/07/2015

Marching on: Members of Portadown District LOL No1 at the annual parade at Drumcree Parish Church
Marching on: Members of Portadown District LOL No1 at the annual parade at Drumcree Parish Church

Once again thousands of members of the Orange Order will march on Monday to celebrate the victory of King William at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

To people living outside Northern Ireland, that statement would be meaningless. They would ask why grown men and women feel the need to put on an Orange collarette.

They would also wonder why people feel it is so important to march along city and country roads in Northern Ireland to prove that they are Protestants, and also to commemorate the victory of a long-forgotten British monarch on an Irish battlefield so long ago.

All of this defies logic, but logic has nothing to do with the situation in Northern Ireland, where 17th century religion and politics loom as large as ever.

In this time-capsule in which we are all trapped, two things matter most of all to too many of our people - the Irish border, and religious background. We have become so used to it all, that we cannot see how bizarre it all is. While the rest of the world marches to a different drum, we are confined to the same old beat, the same old drums, the same old flags and emblems, and the same old insoluble problems, and the same old deadlock.

Most of the marches will pass off peacefully, and Orange members and their families will have a day out - as if this was a sort of Ulster Wimbledon or Boat Race or another familiar landmark in the annual calendar. These people are entitled to enjoy themselves and to be members of the Orange Order. The trouble lies with a minority, usually in urban areas, where the Twelfth parades and similar marches are tribal totem-poles which mark out territory, and a curious mixture of insecurity and of one-upmanship.

Very often the Orange are blamed for all the trouble, but unfairly so. The sad truth is that in these confrontations at Drumcree, Ardoyne and elsewhere, both sides are as bad as one another.

However, there is evidence that the Orange Order is trying hard to clean up its image, and that other people are trying to help. Recently, former Irish President Mary McAleese and husband Martin attended the opening of the new Orange Heritage Museum in Belfast. As well as this, former GAA Armagh star Jarleth Burns visited another Orange heritage centre in Co Armagh and spoke eloquently about the need for a shared future. The brave initiative of these people was followed a few days later by the arson of yet another isolated Orange hall, the 61st since the Troubles began.

Obviously there is fault on both sides, and there is no point in heaping the blame on the Orange, through green-tinted spectacles.

That said however, the Orange Order still has much to do. For a start, the lodges could look hard at some of the bands they choose to accompany them on their marches. It will take courage to discard those sectarian bands and hangers-on who bring the Order into disrepute, but unless this is done, all the other efforts to improve the image of Orangeism, which claims to follow Christian principles, will be in vain.

The saddest fact of all is that hardliners on both sides fail to realise they are trapped by each other, year after marching year.

What a relief it would be if they could at last solve this dangerous problem rooted in the 17th century, and move on into in the real, modern world.

Belfast Telegraph

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