Fermanagh can be template for Order reformers
"I make no apology" is a phrase I hate that is much used by politicians, but I'm highjacking it today and proudly announcing that I'm making no apology for bragging about what I did on the Twelfth in Irvinestown.
It has to be a first in Northern Ireland that a female atheist from a Roman Catholic background made a speech from the platform in the demonstration field.
Well, to be accurate, for I am an historian, I made a speech to the dogged few hundred who hadn't drifted away in search of comfort from the food stalls and shelter from the driving rain. ("How can we persuade Orangemen to pay attention to the platform?" someone asked Stuart Brooker, the new county grand master. "Three fences of barbed wire and a machine-gun might do it," he suggested).
What I said (very briefly) was that I was there because, in the mid-1990s at a time of mayhem over parades, an Orangeman in Tyrone who thought my journalism was fair-minded had reached out by inviting me to be his guest at a rural parade.
The kindness shown to me there and the friendships that developed with members and spouses of the loyal orders had led to my writing The Faithful Tribe: an intimate portrait of the loyal institutions.
Fermanagh people had been particularly welcoming over the years, so I had gladly agreed to write the foreward to the County Fermanagh Grand Lodge's Audit, Good Relations Strategy and Action Plan, published earlier this year.
I wished that other county lodges – and especially Belfast – would learn from their example how to improve community relations.
As the audit mentions, 31 of the 336 members of the Orange Order murdered during the Troubles came from Fermanagh and the sectarian attacks on Orange halls still continue.
Yet, though Fermanagh people have had to be tough and resilient, they are well-known for their absence of bitterness.
They make fun of each other and of themselves (travelling with the dignitaries in a toy train as they mocked each other and the onlookers laughed was a hilarious experience I won't easily forget).
And in their day-to-day lives they prize and encourage good relations with all their neighbours and – though never pushovers – have favoured dialogue and good manners over macho confrontation.
It worked for the Apprentice Boys in Londonderry and mostly it works in Fermanagh.
Through extensive polling, as well as focus groups, the audit revealed how both members and non-members view the Order and its relations with the wider community.
It revealed starkly how misunderstood members feel and how little outsiders know about them. It also showed how upset many are because of the bad reputation given the whole Order by the thuggishness and stupidity of a minority.
Under intelligent leadership, the Grand Lodge has already been hard at work developing the charitable and cross-community aspects of Orange activity.
Bolstered by the knowledge that 71% of their members realise there is much more they can do to help outsiders understand them, they are set on putting into practice a wide range of good ideas for reaching out to Protestant and Roman Catholic neighbours alike.
May I suggest to any members of the loyal orders who want to improve the their poor public image to get their hands on the audit (http://www.grandorangelodge.co.uk/docs/fermanagh.pdf) and consider how they could help spread its message throughout Northern Ireland.
There's plenty of money to be had under the Shared Future banner, so organising audits for every country should not be difficult.
There will always be sectarian bigots and metropolitan sneerers who will never give the loyal orders a fair hearing, but they're in the minority.
Over the years I've seen the unthinking hostility of many journalists and southern Catholics dissipate after honest conversations with the ordinary, decent people who dominate these institutions.
Fermanagh has provided a template for reformers. By the way, I've accepted an invitation from the Grand Orange Lodge of Glasgow to be their guest next year at the Twelfth and the keynote speaker at their Orangefest.
Who knows? One of these years I may get an invitation from Belfast.