Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

Graduates can show Orange Order new road to the future

Fresh thinking: the Orange Order needs to reinvent itself to stay relevant as our new graduates begin to build their futures
Fresh thinking: the Orange Order needs to reinvent itself to stay relevant as our new graduates begin to build their futures

The summer university graduation ceremonies are in full swing and the Twelfth is almost upon us. The month of July in Northern Ireland would not be the same without these two very different traditions.

I had the privilege of addressing new graduates and their families at the University of Ulster in Coleraine last week on the same day as the Grand Secretary of the Orange Order, Drew Nelson, was in Dublin to deliver his historic words to the Irish Senate.

Finding a way of leaving the past behind us is not easy for anyone who lived through the Troubles. We are now reaching a stage where a new generation of students is going out into the world with few, or none, of the tragic memories of their parents' generation.

I was conscious of that fact as I watched the young arts graduates cross the platform at Coleraine to receive their degrees.

They will be starting their careers in a very different atmosphere to that encountered by many of their predecessors and, certainly, the first students at the University of Ulster 44 years ago.

As a young trainee journalist, I reported from the first lecture of what was then called the New University of Ulster (NUU) and spent a week living with the students in a guesthouse in Portrush, reporting on their experiences.

The NUU's opening ceremony coincided with the October 5, 1968 clashes between police and civil rights marchers only 20 miles away.

Thus the New University of Ulster was baptised with fire and, like Queen's University in Belfast, which I attended in the 1960s, it had to educate thousands of students through the most difficult and dangerous of times. It is to the enormous credit of both universities that they came through it all. The students of today are fortunate to have the opportunity to study at two such internationally-respected academic institutions.

In a community like Northern Ireland, where many children are still educated apart at primary and secondary school level, the role of our universities and further education colleges is vital to copper-fastening true and lasting partnership.

Hope for the future rests on the shoulders of the young graduates of July 2012 - and all the more so because they are not so bound by the past.

Notably, the Grand Secretary of the Orange Order, Drew Nelson, told his audience in Dublin that he wasn't, either. He said that, while his organisation remembers 1690, he did not want to live in it.

That is certainly a challenge for the Orange Order on the eve of the 322nd anniversary of King William's victory at the Boyne.

It is also a challenge for everyone on this island.

Whether we like it or not, the tradition of Orangeism runs so deep that those who run it down, or wish it away as an outdated institution, are not living in the real world.

The best that can be said about the Irish national flag - green and orange with white signifying peace and compromise in between - is that it still only symbolises an aspiration which has yet to be realised.

The first, tentative steps in what must be a two-way process were taken last week in Dublin.

Notwithstanding the ongoing disputes in places like Drumcree and the Ardoyne district of Belfast, there are hopeful signs that the Orange Order and the nationalist community, north and south, are coming to terms with the need for tolerance and understanding of each other's feelings.

The Orange Order is a uniquely historic cornerstone of the culture of this island, but it has an ageing profile.

It also needs to find closure swiftly to those contentious disputes over a few marches which besmirch its overall image.

It is all very well to cherish a 'sash my father wore' tradition, but the Orange Order needs to reinvent itself to survive in the future.

Looking back to 1690, looking forward over new horizons, the Twelfth parades and university graduation ceremonies can be viewed from sharply different perspectives. However, just as the new graduates of July 2012 are putting their dreams and aspirations before their memories, so the Orange Order needs to open its eyes to a new and more peaceful future, as well.

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