Belfast Telegraph

Answer to parades row could lie in downtown New Orleans

By Ed Curran

I am standing in the eye of Hurricane Katrina, the worst natural disaster to befall the United States.

It is four-and-a-half years since Katrina struck, but the devastation is all around me along the stretch of silver sand that runs from Mississippi towards New Orleans.

Imagine the entire coastline of Co Down washed out to sea in 30ft-high waves. Imagine whole districts of Belfast flooded to attic level. Imagine a third of the population and half the city's public schools gone, possibly for ever, 1,400 civilians losing their lives and tens of thousands more mentally or physically damaged for life.

As I surveyed the coastline of For Sale notices on vacant plots where once homes, churches, bars, hotels and other community buildings stood, I thought that Hurricane Katrina was to New Orleans, and the adjoining Gulf of Mexico coastline, what 30 years of terrorism had been to Northern Ireland.

The parallels between the two societies thousands of miles apart, requiring to pick up the pieces and move on, were obvious.

Perhaps it would be worth Northern Ireland considering twinning with New Orleans because both have so much in common. The starting point must be Andrew Jackson, born two years after his parents emigrated from Carrickfergus in 1797.

Today his statue stands right in the heart of New Orleans, in the square named in his honour. Jackson remains revered to this day as the battle hero of Louisiana and seventh president of the United States.

I don't know what he might make of Mardi Gras, New Orleans' world-famous annual parades which reach their climax on the eve of Ash Wednesday. Given the current controversy over the Orange Order parades, I couldn't but reflect on how the Mardi Gras celebrations unite different ethnic groups and, at the same time, allow everyone to display cultural diversity.

Mardi Gras is the Twelfth, St Patrick's Day, the Lord Mayor's annual show and every band and float parade imaginable, all rolled into one hugely hedonistic display of human eccentricity.

There is outrageous behaviour, excessive alcohol and incredible fancy dress everywhere, but curiously nothing like the trouble and tension we experience with parades in Northern Ireland.

Yet the history of Mardi Gras has its roots in the once deeply divided black and white communities of the Deep South.

The sight of people from such distinctly different backgrounds enjoying themselves on the streets of New Orleans in what is the city's most lucrative tourist attraction is another parallel to be drawn with Northern Ireland. For lodges and districts, read 'krewes' in the Mardi Gras parades. Like Northern Ireland, the parades build up over several weeks culminating in the big day on Fat Tuesday, when massive crowds line the city centre route.

The 'krewes' have diverse origins, some in the wealthy white business community, some with old Masonic ties, others like the Zulus, steeped in the enslaved past of the black community. They hold their own earlier parades and have different assembly points throughout New Orleans just as Orangemen do in Northern Ireland.

On Mardi Gras day, the city becomes one big, happy family in a land where civil rights, discrimination and segregation were common practice until Martin Luther King's dream began to take hold in the late 1960s.

Standing in downtown New Orleans among the hundreds of thousands watching the parades and participating in them, I wondered if this united community spirit could ever be transferred to another divided society - Northern Ireland.

The experience of New Orleans suggests that cultural diversity should not be willed away. The trick is to find a way of bringing black and white together or, in our case, orange and green, and turning the whole occasion into the biggest money-spinning extravaganza of the year with benefit to the entire community.

That seems sadly premature to ask for in Northern Ireland. Yet the leadership of the Orange Order has an opportunity to build a new future which is not constantly threatened by its narrow pursuit of a few contentious parades.

There is a much greater prize to be won and it is not in petty political point-scoring. New Orleans, like Northern Ireland, has experienced deep divisions and is now trying to climb away from the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. It is no easy task, as we have found at home, and it will be years before the scars of the past are erased.

I saw in the faces and heard in the voices of many people the same sense of suffering and despair which we have encountered. But I also witnessed in the Mardi Gras parades a new spirit of togetherness and a unified hope for the future which is far from apparent at home.

Evidence of community revival was everywhere. Hope, it seemed, was springing eternal among black and white alike. It made me ponder whether we in Northern Ireland were dwelling too much on our difficulties, contemplating our problematical navels, engaging - not least in the media - in too much negativity. Maybe we need to recognise more positives. Maybe we should stop moaning and complaining as much as we do and get on with reconstruction.

Maybe we are a lot better off than we give ourselves credit for.

To quote a slogan from the eye of the hurricane: 'Unless you get off your knees you can't stand on your feet.'

After two weeks in America's Deep South, I wish more people in Northern Ireland would say Hallelujah to that.

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