Let's hope for a peaceful Twelfth at this time of political instability
The Twelfth of July is a pivotal part of our summer, whether you like it or not. For some people it is the time to make sure that they are as far away from Northern Ireland as possible.
For tens of thousands of others, the Twelfth is the time to stay here and to show the world that they are Protestants by donning an Orange sash and marching along the public highways.
The focal point is supposed to be the speeches at 'The Field' but, as television footage shows, very few of the marchers bother to listen, instead spending their time resting or finding refreshment to sustain them on the long walk back.
In most cases this is harmless and only a few Orange marches lead to trouble.
Sadly, however, some of these in north Belfast and in earlier years in the Portadown area, including Drumcree, have caused serious violence and confrontation.
Hopefully, the marches this year will take place peacefully, because the last thing we need is violence at this time of great political instability and uncertainty in Northern Ireland.
We have become so used to The Twelfth demonstration that we may have overlooked how others see us and how much The Twelfth itself has changed down the years.
Outside Northern Ireland, it is seen by people as archaic and totally meaningless, or by others as an excuse for a party, and often a cross-community one at that.
As a student, I was working as a bus-conductor in Eastbourne when I mentioned to my driver that July 12 was a big day back home.
"Oh, is that Paddy's Day?" he asked helpfully. By and large, English knowledge about the Twelfth is as hazy as ever.
Not so long ago I attended a Twelfth cross-community party in a fashionable part of Washington DC, where Irish diplomats entertained their American friends .
Many of them sang Irish (and some Orange) songs with the fervour that only Irish-Americans can muster.
This was fun, and entirely non-political, but far removed from the reality of front-line demonstrations in Northern Ireland, with all their community and political implications.
Once, on Territorial Army exercises in Luneburg Heath in Germany, I was awakened by an 'Orange' band moving among the tents shortly after dawn, to be greeted with hilarity by all, including our Roman Catholic colleagues.
In the distant past there were Twelfth demonstrations in my native village of Bessbrook, which I watched as colourful spectacles, but as a university student studying Irish history at Queen's I was very aware of the importance of placing Orangeism in perspective.
In some of the worst years of the Troubles, the Twelfth was a dangerous period.
I remember reporting for this newspaper on the views in the Falls Road, which were summarised by one resident who said: "I hope it piddles on them big time on the Twelfth."
Meanwhile, my colleague Ed Curran reported on the obvious sentiments along the Shankilll Road. What I remember most about that day was the news that a British soldier had been murdered by a Provisional IRA sniper near Andrew's Mill. Those were dark days indeed.
In recent years, the atmosphere has improved, and the attempts of Orange leaders to make it a 'funfest' have been partly successful, though there has been anti-social behaviour on the fringes, apart from the set-to confrontations.
Some of the worst incidents have occurred outside the historic St Patrick's Roman Catholic Church, when some bandsmen have played blatantly sectarian music which has brought them and the Orange movement into great disrepute.
Despite the best efforts of Orange leaders to eliminate such behaviour, there is still an element of sectarianism, which can raise its ugly face without warning.
The Orange personnel have also changed and gone are the days when Church of Ireland bishops, other clergy and professional and business people used to swell the ranks.
They have nearly all gone, and the Orange Order has achieved its own level.
They have a right to march and to hold fast to their beliefs, but the longer it goes on the odder it seems that people feel the need to parade their Protestantism in this way.
However, the 'Green' also march on their day and both are a legacy of our troubled history.