Nelson McCausland: Why putting the Orange tradition at the heart of Northern Ireland culture would be a step towards genuine equality
The Order remains the poor relation when it comes to funding ... that must be addressed, says Nelson McCausland
Today is the Twelfth and across Ulster as many as 40,000 Orange brethren and sisters will be on parade, along with hundreds of bands, to mark the 328th anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne. The victory of King William's army secured the benefits of the Glorious Revolution and was of both national and European significance.
Hundreds of thousands of spectators will be there today to enjoy the spectacle and the pageantry of the banners, the lodges and the bands.
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For many of them, as for the participants, it is more than a commemoration of an historical event. It is also an expression of community and identity, an opportunity to see friends and neighbours who are on parade, an opportunity to meet up with people you may not have seen for some time.
Yes, of course, there are those who will spend the Twelfth fortnight on holiday abroad, something that nationalist newspapers seem to find newsworthy, but the fact that hundreds of thousands of people are involved on the Twelfth as participants and spectators says a lot about the importance of the Orange Order and the Orange tradition.
I joined the Orange Order in 1975, but the Twelfth has always been part of my life, and as a small child in the 1950s my parents took me to watch and enjoy the Twelfth parade, morning and evening, just as many families will do today.
Check out pictures from last year's marches: Belfast - Annalong - Beragh - Cloughmills - Ballymena - Cookstown - Lisbellaw- Hillsborough - Bangor - Kilrea - Ballynahinch - Coleraine - Cullybackey - Clogher - Richhill - Newtownabbey - Broughshane - Banbridge - Ardoyne
Critics and opponents try to paint a picture of inevitable decline, but they are often people who know little about the Order and the vibrancy and vigour of the Twelfth is the answer to the critics.
There is no other organisation in Ulster that could organise a community event of such scale and magnitude.
The membership is smaller than once it was, but there are encouraging signs.
New lodges are being formed, or old warrants taken out and revived. Indeed, in Belfast a banner that had been off the road for several decades is out today in front of a lodge which has been revived and now has 50 members.
Many Orange halls, both urban and rural, are vibrant centres of community activity, with more than just the normal programme of lodge meetings. They accommodate a wide range of activities, such as musical tuition, band practices, dance classes, concerts, community education, youth activities, credit unions and cultural and historical lectures.
Recently I gave a lecture to a group of American visitors who were over here for a symposium. It was organised through a university, but that day of the symposium was based in the Limavady Orange Heritage Centre.
Some halls in rural areas have also been able to develop sports pitches beside their halls, providing a wider range of opportunities for the local community, while others have brought their facilities up to date through funding from a Northern Ireland Executive community halls scheme.
Unfortunately, the SDLP and Sinn Fein demonstrated their prejudice against the Order by their "outrage" when halls managed to secure some public funding from that stream. A nationalist newspaper even managed to run a "fake news" story on this for most of a week.
This was in marked contrast to nationalist support for the £8m from the Treasury in London for Irish language centres, a pot of money which enabled them to lever in twice that amount, creating a total investment of around £25m.
We hear much from Sinn Fein about equality, but there is no equality about their approach to funding. We also hear Sinn Fein speak about respect and reconciliation, but Sinn Fein's actions speak louder than Sinn Fein's words.
A "shared and better future" has to involve a place for the Orange family and the Orange tradition.
That has to mean mainstreaming Orange culture as one of our cultural traditions and part of our cultural wealth. Moreover, it has to be across the cultural and community landscape, whether within the education system, broadcasting, the Arts Council, the arts sector, museum services, or, indeed, funding streams.
That would demonstrate real respect and would be a meaningful step towards reconciliation.