Belfast Telegraph

Monday 24 November 2014

Time to give this annual spree its marching orders

Northern Ireland is an economic Bermuda Triangle during the Assembly's long vacation. Could scrapping the marching season provide the fillip it so badly needs, asks Robin Wilson

The Irish Times cartoonist Martyn Turner once wryly commented on the Northern Ireland summer season, penning a calendar whose monthly sequence unrolled as 'January, February, March, March, March, March ... '

It is a graphic symbol of how far Northern Ireland has to go towards becoming a normal society that in July and August the streets are still handed over to the various Protestant communal marching orders - and that this is still so fatalistically accepted by the rest of us.

My father was a worshipful district master in the Orange Order - I still have two of his sashes - and he once recruited me to help him clear up the mess that had been the field at Carrickfergus on the evening of the Twelfth.

But it is meaningless to claim that an organisation which was a product of the sectarian and paramilitary milieu of Co Armagh in the 1790s can play any part in a 21st-century Northern Ireland - other than to say 'Stop the world: we want to get off.'

The welfare role the organisation once performed - albeit confined to the Protestant community - has long been superseded by the post-war welfare state.

There is no conceivable threat to freedom of religion in Northern Ireland. Tough anti-discrimination laws - ironically, of course, the product of anti-Catholic discrimination under the Stormont ancien regime and demanded by the civil rights movement - guarantee otherwise.

How tough these are was, with further irony, recently evident in the tribunal ruling against the former Sinn Fein minister for regional development, Conor Murphy, for discrimination against a Protestant candidate to be head of Northern Ireland Water.

Murphy's dismissive reaction to what should have been a hugely embarrassing ruling showed him still to be part of that old Co Armagh culture himself.

Indeed, the only threat to freedom is from those - Protestant and Catholic - who deny freedom from religion by insisting on imposing their views - on abortion, homosexuality and so on - on non- and other-believers. The only way for everyone to enjoy freedom of conscience is if public authorities are studiously impartial between different beliefs.

In yet a further irony, religious fundamentalism and the whole associated culture of parading merely serve to make Northern Ireland seem a foreign country to most people in Britain.

It is perfectly reasonable that the moral conservatives who support the orders should enjoy freedom of expression, but this freedom, as enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, is not unqualified.

I march on May Day with the trade unions and would be supportive of the Gay Pride march each year. But these annual events are relatively non-disruptive to the wider public and, certainly, cause far less public nuisance than is associated - in sharp contradiction to many banners proclaiming temperance - with the Twelfth (or, indeed, with the 'Catholic Twelfth' that the St Patrick's Day celebrations in Belfast have become).

Just think of the benefits of the Orange Order, the Apprentice Boys of Derry and the Royal Black Preceptory confining themselves to one well-stewarded annual parade, with beacons replacing bonfires on the Twelfth.

Ratepayers would be saved the clearing-up costs. There would be major savings in public-order policing.

We could, thankfully, have one less commission in Northern Ireland's unwieldy governance arrangements, the Parades Commission.

There could no longer be any justification for Catholics being required to endure - again in sharp demarcation from the rest of the UK - the flying of the Union Flag, never mind paramilitary insignia, from flagpoles. Or for retaliatory flying of the Tricolour.

Nothing defiles our beautiful north Antrim coastline so much as the successive ethnic marking out of villages en route by this sectarian flag-flying. And if anyone thinks 'Orangefest' travels as an international attraction, they need to get out more.

Businesses would no longer suffer from the summer disruptions and reduction of demand.

Northern Ireland's Gross Value Added (GVA) per head bumps along at around four-fifths of the UK average. If the economy did not go on to snooze in July and August, that might help close the gap.

No summer riots, either. No one in the Catholic community could reasonably object to one annual parade per order.

That, too, would help reduce economic under-performance, by removing the continuing chill-factor for internationally mobile capital as images of Belfast in flames flash across the world in July.

And, finally, there's the politics. Northern Ireland's remarkably cosseted politicians see nothing odd in swanning off for nine weeks' summer vacation. If all normal activity no longer disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle that is the Northern Ireland summer, then maybe, just maybe, that would change, too.

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