Why we should beat the drum to make Twelfth even bigger
It was old but it was beautiful and its colours they were fine ... but in all the 318 years since the actual Battle of the Boyne, The Sash My Father Wore has never been like this.
I refer to the global wizardry of the internet which enabled me on a gloomy wet afternoon in south-west France to see the Twelfth in all its orange and purple bedecked glory.
There I am sitting by the open shuttered window of my 500-year-old holiday bolthole in an ancient French village and the unique and unmistakeable sounds of Sandy Row No 5 and Ballymacarrett No 6 districts are booming out down Rue de la Ville. Some observers view the Twelfth as a 17th century relic that has no place in 21st century Europe. They see the Sunday-best suits, collarettes, sashes, banners and Bibles, as not of the modern world. I don't happen to share that view.
The Twelfth is a great barometer with regard to the mood of the Protestant community. Every politician from London or Dublin, who has an interest in Northern Ireland, should be forced to — if he or she won't volunteer — to witness one Twelfth parade in Belfast.
In two hours, they will learn more about the unionist and protestant psyche than from a dozen books on Ulster politics. They may be frightened by what they see, but so be it. This is the real naked flesh of Northern Ireland and they better believe it, try to understand it, or they may never appreciate how this place can be governed.
We have reached a new crossroads where the likes of Martin McGuinness, Ian Paisley and now Peter Robinson share power. What that means is that the respective cultures of Irishness and Britishness, of Orange and Green, cannot be airbrushed from any picture of Northern Ireland. The challenge to us all is to find ways and means to respect, or at least tolerate, all traditions without bottles flying.
We can treat the Twelfth in two ways. As some people have tried to do over many years, we can play it down, write it down, do it down. Or we can accept that this Ulster-based tradition has something uniquely special and — just as with Irish gaelic traditions — find ways of building on the uniqueness, and, most important, find ways of removing the tensions and trouble which still leave a bad taste. Orangefest is timely and correct and every Orangeman and woman in Northern Ireland should embrace the concept.
Two days after the Twelfth, I stood in the small square of my French holiday village as the Marseillaise was played. The mayor, a red, white and blue sash across his chest, saluted old soldiers and laid a wreath to mark the Siege of the Bastille.
The village band struck up its umphah music, and paraded off towards the Hotel de Ville, followed by the mayor, the villagers and their children. It was a simple, joyous scene, probably repeated in every corner of France and evidence that we in Northern Ireland did not invent street marches.
Unfortunately, we have excelled at creating unnecessary tension and trouble surrounding them.
As I watched the Orangemen in far-off Belfast on my laptop, I concluded that this global village of a world in which we live is moving on faster and faster, and it's time for the Orange Order and Northern Ireland to move on, too.
I'm not sure that enough people, never mind the leaders of the Orange Order, recognise what an extraordinary marketable event the Twelfth could be. The First Minister Peter Robinson was right when he launched Orangefest and spoke of the need for "cultural tourism".
What a pity the Orange Order itself still has people on its platforms, political and religious, who appear dinosaurial in their regalia, who are rooted to the spot, and who fail to see the great potential that rests in the music and the pageantry of an occasion unique in Europe.
I ask myself what place have bitter, mournful, divisive speeches on a day that should be a great mardi gras occasion? No place, I would have thought, as Northern Ireland begins to emerge into the sunlight. Is it any wonder so few Orangemen, or their followers, bother to listen to what is said on Twelfth platforms? Isn't it sad that some Orange leaders bury their eyes to this obvious fact and continue to believe that the Twelfth should be a boring platform for politics.
Everyone has a part to play in preserving the best of the Twelfth traditions and rejecting the worst. The Orange Order, like the Catholic Church, must adjust to changing times. This applies equally to those who might wish the Orangemen would simply stay at home, or fade away. They should ask themselves where else in the world does one organisation manage to attract onto the streets so many marchers, bands and supporters.
The Irish government, for long in a state of denial over the Battle of the Boyne, is giving the site near Drogheda its rightful place in the history of this island. The Apprentice Boys of Derry are setting an example for the Orange Order with much-improved relationships with the nationalist community and a range of attractive events surrounding the annual August parade along the walls.
Orange culture can be maintained. Not exterminated, but extended to the outside world, to the new global village, through its pipes and drums, flutes and accordions and hundreds of years of tradition.
The old guard of the Orange Order need to wake up to the potential but I fear some of them are fast asleep.
To those who are making moves to sell a new image, who are behind Orangefest, or other efforts around the province, to give the Twelfth a fresh, more appealing perspective, I say: more power to your elbow.
Go for it and you will be able to wear your sashes more proudly than ever.
Marching on — Orangefest is the only way forward