From relaxed spectators of City Hall, to a sea of drunk teens and sectarian singing
Alex Kane follows the Twelfth parade in Belfast to The Field for the first time, and finds it a day out with disquieting undercurrents
It's 10.30am on Saturday - The Twelfth - and I'm at the gates of Belfast City Hall.
It's curiously quiet. People are standing or sitting on foldaway chairs along the pavements: not as thronged as I would have expected it to be, yet there's an air of relaxation that I didn't expect either.
There are children everywhere, many of them in prams and nearly all of them dressed in variations of red, white and blue.
Whole families are there, standing in the very places where earlier generations of their family have stood. They make space for children to squeeze through or for older people to sit – even when they don't know them.
There's nothing threatening about any of this, which probably explains why there are lots of tourists snapping away.
Yet when you talk to the people you realise that the relaxation masks a sense that their identity is under threat: "We have to let Sinn Fein see that this is our city"; "These pavements should be packed with our people standing up for their British rights,"; "We have to be here because our leaders are letting us down".
Ten minutes later and the first bands and lodges (booted, suited, smart and ready for the long haul) are rounding the corner from Royal Avenue to make their way past us and upwards into Bedford Street.
The people on the pavements start to dance – that strange dance that can only be done to the beat of a drum.
Behind me the band followers start to appear, mostly teenage girls (very short skirts or hot pants seem to be the preferred style) wrapped in Union flags and caked in make-up.
A few tourists, having watched me writing notes, come up to chat. They don't get this. They don't understand why the bands seem to play the same tunes over and over again, or why so many of the uniforms have a military look to them.
"Is this supposed to scare Gerry Adams?" asked one.
"It's not him we need to scare," replied the elderly man I had been chatting to earlier, "it's our own people who keep selling us out."
Around 12.30, as the final bands came into view, I decided to do something I had never done before – travel the complete route to The Field (marchers always talk about it in capital letter terms) on foot.
The walk from the city centre to Shaftesbury Square was a dispiriting and slightly scary one.
The pavements were ankle-deep in broken glass, rubbish and discarded burgers.
Almost everybody seemed to be drinking cider, beer, Buckfast or wine straight from the bottle and many of them were already drunk: and it wasn't even midday.
Maybe they had been to the bonfires a few hours earlier and hadn't bothered going to bed. More disturbingly an awful lot of them seemed to be teenage girls.
They are singing, too: singing songs that are nakedly sectarian and brutally graphic about Catholics and the Pope.
The off-licences and bars along the way are doing a roaring trade and there didn't appear to be any attempt to check the ages of those buying the stuff.
I saw one group of boys and girls – none of whom looked older than mid-teen – stagger out of one place with cans of beer and bottles of cider.
A few minutes later they were drinking and dancing. Unlike the City Hall I didn't spot any tourists. I'm not surprised.
This was a manifestation of The Twelfth that wouldn't make any sort of ‘outsider' feel welcome. It meant nothing to me.
It was noisy, boozy, sectarian and unpleasant.
It had nothing to do with a celebration of culture and everything to do with triumphalism and in-your-face bigotry.
That said, the police were terribly laid back about the whole thing. They were everywhere: probably aware that they should have been doing something about the on-street drinking, yet equally aware that the wrong action could trigger a riot.
Given the circumstances it seemed the right approach.
As I passed the entrance to the City Hospital on the Lisburn Road the levels of rubbish and presence of booze just disappeared.
It was like I had stumbled across yet another manifestation of The Twelfth.
This was more middle-class, much more subdued: sandwiches and flasks of tea and polite applause for particular bands and lodges.
And yet some people who recognised me (“the man from the telly” as they like to describe me) made exactly the same points that I had heard outside the City Hall: “We are being sold out”; “Our leaders are useless and always outdone by Sinn Fein”; “Say what you like about McGuinness, he gets things done for his people”.
Finally — almost two-and-a-half hours later — I reached The Field.
Most of the bands had boarded buses and gone somewhere else for lunch, leaving an awful lot of teenagers drinking and singing in groups. This was not a family-friendly place.
I was glad I hadn't brought my daughters with me: partly because there was absolutely nothing for them to do, but mostly because the behaviour, language and obvious drunkenness of many of the teenagers was, frankly, very unpleasant to watch. I headed across to the platform to hear the resolutions and the keynote speech from Edward Hyde, Grand Secretary of the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland.
There were almost as many people on the platform as there were listening to the speeches. I'm not surprised.
Having walked the guts of 10 miles to get here, and having
just a couple of hours before they had to begin the return journey, the last thing people wanted was speeches or prayers.
The journey back seemed to take forever and it wasn't helped by the rain.
So thanks to the very kind couple on the Lisburn Road who gave me a mug of tea and a Mars Bar to keep me going and to the group outside a bar who offered to buy me a pint. Those who focus on the rubbish left behind and the amount of alcohol consumed by youngsters and bandsmen at The Field and at certain points along the route, or the sectarian chants, have a point.
That is something that the Orange Order and the PSNI need to deal with.
And Belfast organisers have a lot to learn from how rural organisers provide a family fun day at their Fields and don't have anywhere near the same level of drunkenness and vulgarity. I grew up in Armagh — and saw my first Belfast Twelfth when I came to Queen’s in the mid-1970s — so I've always known about the chalk and cheese difference between the Belfast Orange and the Orange elsewhere, but that difference has grown and become worse. It needs dealt with.
The other message from my day was the huge level of discontent that there is with mainstream unionism across Belfast.
I think I spoke to some 100 people during the day (many of whom came up to me) and their dissatisfaction with their leadership was clear: probably explaining falling turnout.
I enjoyed the day. Orangeism is part of our collective culture (it isn't going away, you know) but the Orange Order could do and should do an awful lot more to make it more attractive, more friendly and more in keeping with what is, on The Twelfth, a public holiday for everyone.
But it would be unfair to end this piece without mentioning that this was the quietest Twelfth in Belfast for years.
That took a lot of hard work and discipline.
Twelfth in video