Whatever controversy or tensions the Twelfth stirs in some corners of Northern Ireland, there is a bigger picture emerging which we cannot ignore. An ultra-conservative organisation steeped in age-old tradition is starting to adjust to the modern world.
‘The sash my father wore’ may still tug many Protestant heart-strings but if the sons of the fathers do not follow in their footsteps, then the Orange Order has a big problem.
No organisation can afford to stand still in the modern world. The churches have found that out to their cost. So also have businesses and institutions in every walk of life which have failed to adjust to today’s demands and to attract a new generation of customers or members.
The Twelfth fortnight signals a nationalist exodus from Northern Ireland but what may be overlooked are the numbers of unionists who find other distractions at home and abroad these days.
The better off they are, the more educated they become, the less younger unionists may think of marching on the Twelfth or having anything to do with the celebrations of King William’s victory, no matter how glorious, pious and immortal their parents and grandparents thought of it.
The Orange Order in celebrating the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 has another battle to fight in 2009 to ensure that its columns of marchers do not dwindle away with time and that its annual parades do not lose spectator appeal. Hence the concept of Orangefest with Belfast city centre shops and stores opening for the first time.
Orangemen in rural counties such as Tyrone and Armagh have pioneered the idea of extending the remit of the Twelfth with a wider array of events.
I think those behind the changes should be commended and the Order should be encouraged to walk down this road in future rather than along some of the more contentious routes it still insists on trodding.
Flying back to Belfast the other day, I was thumbing through the easyJet passenger magazine with its listings of European city destinations. Who would have believed even five years ago that the Twelfth would be included in Belfast’s ‘attractions’? It is this year and I hope the inclusion in the airline’s magazine is a foretaste of more peaceful and pleasurable Julys ahead for visitors and locals alike.
The Orange Order has taken a lot of stick in the media over the years and it is still playing catch-up to the Apprentice Boys of Derry who have forged improved community relations with the Maiden City in recent years in relation to the August parade around the ancient walls.
In contrast, the Orangemen’s bogey remains Drumcree. The Order’s leaders should not allow themselves to be obsessed to the point of intransigence over whether they can cross this bridge or march down that road when there is a much greater challenge staring them in the face — namely to make their organisation fit for purpose in the 21st century.
The Twelfth has the potential to be a great tourist brand which could bring additional benefits to the local economy. In that respect, July 13, 2009 is a test for the Orangemen and the community in general.
After today we may know if the Orange Order has turned a corner for the better. Some people may wish away the Twelfth — or St Patrick’s Day — but that will not happen. What we need are imaginative ways and means of enhancing community enjoyment of these historic dates in our calendar.
The Orangefest is a step in the right direction. We need to leave behind the Julys of confrontation and, if we can, perhaps future Twelfths will be promoted in not just one airline’s travel guide but in many other international tourist brochures.