Thanks to the Orange Order in July and the Royal Black Preceptory in August, Northern Ireland managed to squeeze itself into the silly season headlines again for all the wrong reasons.
The media silly season extends across the summer, when European governments and politicians go on holiday.
Usually, the world’s news industry is left scratching around, but this year it had plenty to report upon, with the Olympic Games, a war in Syria and the third in line to the throne revealing all in Las Vegas.
There was a time during the Troubles when Northern Ireland could be relied upon for dramatic film footage to fill the silly season void.
While the rest of the world went to sleep in the summer, we were guaranteed to peak for news during the marching season. Regrettably, even in 2012, we can still catch the eye of the outside world.
Prince Harry deserves a special note of thanks from Stormont for stealing the main headlines and thus ensuring that the report of seven police officers injured and the pictures of a young female officer lying on the ground shielding her head with her hands from a snarling mob of protesters outside St Patrick’s church was not given more prominence.
The long tradition of Orange marches through the central streets of Belfast is now threatened because the Order failed to deal properly with the offensive behaviour of one youthful flute band in July outside the Catholic church in Donegall Street.
Worse has followed. The same band and around 30 others breached a Parades Commission ruling not to play as they marched past the church on Saturday week past. No less than the Presbyterian Moderator has criticised those involved as “acting in an unchristian manner”.
As the controversy gathers steam, the Orange and Black institutions appear to wash their hands of responsibility and to apportion blame to everyone but themselves, while unionist politicians rage against the Parades Commission.
A glossy page in the official Belfast guide for July/August — Our Time, Our Place — is devoted to OrangeFest, promising ‘on-street entertainment’, a day of ‘family fun’ and ‘Belfast open for business’ on the Twelfth.
The brochure says: “OrangeFest showcases aspects of Ulster’s rich heritage and culture, such as Orange lodges, marching bands ... this tradition welcomes tourists and locals alike to enjoy displays of pageantry and soak up the carnival atmosphere ...”
How does that square with the images of the summer of 2012, of supporters confronting and attacking police officers and bands blatantly defying the law of the land outside a Catholic place of worship? Hardly the stuff of ‘welcome for tourists and locals alike’.
Is this really what |the broad Protestant |and unionist population wants? Is this really a stigma with which the tens of thousands of other Orange and Black members, who paraded peacefully and respectfully this past summer in many towns and villages across the province, feel comfortable?
Where is the leadership? Why is it not exercising more control over the tiny minority of members and supporters who seem hell-bent on destroying the image reflected in the visitors’ brochure?
If the Orange and Black institutions were football clubs, they would be fined heavily for failing to control their supporters. The leaders of these institutions complain about the Parades Commission, but it cannot be forgotten that they even rejected the alternative proposals for the control of marches put forward by unionist parties at Stormont.
The impression remains that the loyal orders are a law onto themselves. An aura of inflexibility hangs over them.
Every so often they have a tendency to shoot themselves in their marching feet by handing propaganda victories to both their |nationalist and republican critics. Northern Ireland cannot continue to go on like this every summer. This is a challenge to the unionist leadership of Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt. It is time that they re-engaged with the Orange Order and refused to take no for an answer.
A viable, constructive, cross-community plan is needed to address the small number of unruly, or contentious, parades which are doing nothing but harm to the well-being of the entire community, unionist and nationalist alike.
The onus rests with the unionist leadership to start the ball rolling. A century after the signing of the Ulster Covenant, such an act would speak volumes and show that Northern Ireland has not stood still since 1912.