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How my Belfast Telegraph article played a key role in sparking initiative

By Alex Kane

Published 09/06/2016

Part of the campaign launched by the Orange Order
Part of the campaign launched by the Orange Order

I wrote this in the Belfast Telegraph on July 14, 2014: "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.

"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."

Mervyn Gibson cited the article at a Press briefing yesterday, acknowledging that the Orange Order was rising to the challenge I had posed them about needing to do "an awful lot more to make the Twelfth more attractive, more friendly and more in keeping with what it is, a public holiday for everyone".

So I welcome the launch of the It's About The Battle Not The Bottle campaign. It's a sensible move and an important signal that the Order is prepared to listen and respond positively to criticism.

It's good, too, that they have involved the Public Health Agency and the PSNI, as well as talking to a range of organisations involved in the pub trade, community groups and PR experts.

The Twelfth is an important day for many, many people across Northern Ireland and it's important that the intemperate behaviour of a few thousand people along a small part of the route in central Belfast is not allowed to do huge PR damage year after year. It's been very easy over the past few years to be critical of the Orange Order: indeed, in many cases they are their own worst enemy.

But in accepting that they have to tackle the "booze problem" (and, in fairness, it is primarily a Belfast problem) they have also accepted that they need the help of outsiders.

Equally important, they have acknowledged the importance of perception in a world where a photograph, or film, of unruly behaviour can be circulated to tens of thousands within a matter of minutes.

But this is more than just a challenge for the leadership and Press team of the Orange Order. It's also a challenge for every member who dons a sash and parades through Belfast; a challenge for every bandsman; and a challenge for all of the ordinary, sober, laid-back spectators who come out with their families to enjoy the day.

Every drunken fool, every broken bottle, every pile of vomit, every sectarian chant and abuse aimed at the PSNI undermines the occasion and provides a negative front page, or thousands of damaging tweets.

I accept that perceptions won't be turned around overnight.

That said, the very fact that the Orange Order has put so much thought into this campaign is the clearest possible signal that they know they have to change.

And, who knows, if they can get to grips with one big problem then they may discover that there are outsiders and critical friends who can help them with other problems - particularly with parading disputes and cross-community co-operation.

All in all, it's a positive step forward.

Belfast Telegraph

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