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Parade season: Orange Order must move with the times

The 2015 marching season got off to a peaceful start this week. So far, so good. But what will it take to avoid another summer of discontent, asks Alex Kane

Published 08/04/2015

Monday’s Apprentice Boys of Derry parade in Coleraine is one of the vast majority which pass off without incident, but it is clashes around other parades which make the headlines
Monday’s Apprentice Boys of Derry parade in Coleraine is one of the vast majority which pass off without incident, but it is clashes around other parades which make the headlines
Police use a water canon as Loyalists confront them in north Belfast, after an Orange July 12 parade was stopped from passing a Nationalist area

Today is day 6,122 of the Drumcree stand-off. It's also day 634 of the Twaddell Avenue standoff. And Easter Monday was the official first day of the 2015 marching season. There are somewhere in the region of 2,600 loyalist/unionist parades every year, the overwhelming majority of which are non-contentious and peaceful. But it's the ones that aren't peaceful which cause the problem and create a broadly negative impression for the loyal orders and for unionism.

For, no matter what happens anywhere else, the media attention will remain on the problem parades and on Twaddell Avenue: particularly since the parades issue has long been tied in with peace talks, Haass/Hart negotiations and the Stormont House Agreement.

July 4 is a public holiday in the United States. It's Independence Day and right across the country - "from sea to shining sea" - millions of Americans celebrate the day with parades, picnics, carnivals, pageants, hoe-downs and family get-togethers. It's a coming together of all the races and creeds within America to rejoice in the very fact that they are American and, generally speaking, proud to be American.

July 14 is a public holiday in France. It's Bastille Day and across the country the people remember a revolution that began in 1789 and changed the face of European politics. More importantly, the political establishment remembers and celebrates the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which laid the basis for the sovereignty of the people and the protection of their individual rights. Again, it's an annual opportunity for people to celebrate their legacy and nationality.

July 12 is a public holiday in Northern Ireland. For the sake of convenience let's call it Orange Day and across the province Protestants and unionists (for it is mostly them) will gather along roadsides and in fields to celebrate the fact that their side won the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

But, unlike July 4 and 14 in America and France, or dozens of other days of national celebration across the world, July 12 is not about the coming together of the people of Northern Ireland. It's a one-sided celebration, a public holiday from which a growing percentage of the population feel excluded.

That's a pity, for the consequences of what happened at the Boyne in 1690 are every bit as important as what happened in America in 1776 and in France in 1789. This is how the constitutional historian Elizabeth Wicks describes it: "The significance of 1688 is not widely appreciated today and yet many of the constitutional facts taken for granted in modern Britain are a direct legacy of this Revolution and the settlement which followed it... the contemporary relations between Crown and Parliament, and between individual and government, still rest upon the foundations of this 17th Century revolution settlement."

The battle is worth remembering and the Orange Order is right to trumpet the political and constitutional importance of William's victory. Yet it remains the case that not everyone in Northern Ireland sees it the same way.

Too many - and not just nationalists - see it as triumphalist and sectarian. Elements of the Orange Order - particularly in Belfast - see it that way, too: not as a celebration in its own right, but as a chance to say something like "this land is our land, not your land".

They see it as cocking a snook at the "other side", rather than a harmless, yet important cultural/political/historical event.

The fact that some elements within republicanism have a thoroughly hypocritical attitude to the Orange Order should be neither here nor there when it comes to long-term strategy for the Order.

At some point, the Orange Order must decide if its celebrations are primarily political (a celebration of the UK); religious (a celebration of a Protestant victory over Roman Catholicism); cultural (a celebration of "unionism"); or historical (a celebration of the 1688 Settlement and the accompanying Bill of Rights). And the Order will have to clarify what it means by inclusiveness and "welcoming to all".

Yet, as the Orange Order historian Clifford Smyth notes: "The Order isn't well under- stood. It is an inarticulate organisation which doesn't explain itself well to the world."

It doesn't explain itself to its own supporters, or potential supporters, either, because many members and bandsmen would be hard pushed to explain precisely what the Twelfth is about in terms of the realities and political priorities of the 21st Century.

So, maybe the Order should first concentrate on educating its own members and supporters rather than trying to promote itself to others. I think it needs to be accepted, too, that a rebranding, or makeover, of the Orange Order will have very little effect on those who already oppose marches, or indulge in their annual ritual of recreational rioting.

These people are not simply opposed to the Orange Order, they are opposed to just about every manifestation of unionism and Britishness and, when you address one of their concerns, they can always be relied upon to manufacture another. In other words, they will never be happy. But they shouldn't be allowed to set the Orange agenda.

So, would it really matter if the Orange Order and other loyal order organisations didn't actually parade in certain places? How much damage would be done to their culture and tradition if they negotiated with the Parades Commission (or whichever body has responsibility for these things) and focused on the end result and purpose of a demonstration, rather than getting bogged down with routes that they know will cause problems?

How much damage would be done to them if they said: "This is about members, musicians, families, friends, observers, bystanders, tourists and the people of Northern Ireland being able to join in with our celebrations and cultural traditions: so we will avoid places likely to cause problems for supporters and the security forces"?

The Orange Order is a broad church, but that church is exclusively Protestant in membership and regarded as anti-Roman Catholicism in terms of belief. That's why it is viewed as sectarian: that's why elements of both unionism and nationalism have problems with it.

It is deluding itself by pretending otherwise. It must face that reality and then address it. Pointing the finger at others isn't the answer.

The Orange Order has a story to tell: and it's an important story, too. The problem, as I see it, is that it isn't telling that story properly; either to its own people or to those who wish it silenced, sidelined, or transformed beyond recognition or historical significance.

The vast majority of its members are mostly ordinary men and women who just want to be able to remember, celebrate and promote their core beliefs.

Their problem - and it is their problem - is that their leadership is still fighting the little, unwinable battles, rather than adapting the organisation to the media/political/image realities of today.

Belfast Telegraph

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