When I was a youngster, I loved the week coming up to the Twelfth.
School was finished, collecting for the bonfire started in earnest, huts were built to sit in to guard the wood from the boys from adjacent streets, the 11th night was a street party which the whole of the neighbourhood joined in and the Twelfth day was just magic with the bands, banners and pageantry.
Although I wasn’t even left primary school, from morning until it got dark I was away hunting for firewood wherever it could be found. Householders held on to old boxes, furniture, wood, etc, to give for the bonfire and children who would hardly lift a hand at home engaged in Herculean feats as they hauled mounds of combustible material to the chosen bonfire site.
Despite being up half the night sitting around the dying embers of the bonfire, first thing on the Twelfth morning we were there to see the bands leave east Belfast and then to the Lisburn Road for the parade which seemed to last for hours.
I particularly loved the blood and thunder bands who usually had a noisy cheering crowd following them and usually had a pole throwing show-off leading them. I still have a good laugh at the spot on the Lisburn Road where one unfortunate drummer was nearly knocked out by the bandmaster’s pole after it had been thrown so high that by the time it came to earth it was in the middle of the forward marching band.
My young entrepreneurial tendencies were not set aside either. After the parade was passed there was a pretty penny to be earned by collecting empty bottles which could be given back to shop owners for 3d (just over 1p).
How times have changed. What should be a time of celebration and an event to exploit for tourist potential is now approached with fear and trepidation. How often do I hear “I hope everything goes well over the Twelfth” and of course many people just want to get away from Northern Ireland because they worry about possible trouble.
I have no illusions about recreating the Twelfth of the 1960s. Too much water has passed under the bridge. We have the legacy of bitterness from 40 years of sectarian terrorism. We are still experiencing the cultural bigotry of republicans. And we have the fear from beleaguered Protestant communities, especially in areas where there are violent interfaces, that to give in on a parade is the first step towards surrendering their locality and their homes. That is why the Crumlin Road parade has assumed the significance which it has.
However, the Orange Order and the Unionist community must be careful of our reaction to a few contentious parades and absurd and biased decisions by the Parades Commission around them.
The violence which has occurred over the last number of years, regardless of who started it or what caused it, has been detrimental to the Twelfth celebrations. It has taken away from the scores of parades which went off peacefully and were enjoyed by thousands and has been bad for the image of Northern Ireland. Ironically it has also aided and abetted Sinn Fein in their cultural war against Unionists.
Inevitably Unionist politicians either get involved in or are dragged into the controversy around these few contentious parades. This year the stakes have been raised even higher because the media, though I would point out not the politicians, have suggested that failure to resolve the Crumlin Road parade could jeopardise the political institutions. It does get me angry to see the irresponsible way the media raise the stakes on these issues which have immediate consequences for local people who are in the front line if violence breaks out due to heightened tension.
Let us be clear. This is an issue for the Orange Order to sort out within its own ranks and with those who are opposed to the march. It has successfully managed these issues elsewhere and needs to do the same in those areas where there is still contention. The Apprentice Boys celebrations in Londonderry were sorted out this way.
A few weeks ago the Tour of the North parade passed off peacefully with 13 bands and 830 individuals taking part. The role of politicians is to give guidance and support where they believe such support can help resolve difficult situations and that sometimes involves telling people hard truths.
That is why it has been made clear that however biased the Parades Commission ruling is (and it is an atrocious one) it has to be accepted the law cannot be broken. Secondly violence has no part to play in the response to provocation by republicans.
Thirdly that situations which may result in violence erupting should be avoided, that is why I believe that it would be wrong to march back into north Belfast to the police lines at Ardoyne because once there, no one can possibly control everyone in the crowd.
Lastly, and here there is a role for politicians, work must start immediately as to how confrontation can be avoided next year and the issues which concern the beleaguered unionists in that part of north Belfast must be discussed with local people and their representatives. Where there is a role for government departments then a programme of investment, local projects or support for local groups will need to be worked out. It would be a better use of public resources to address the long- term problems than to have a continual leakage of money to police this problem.
This may not be the message which the aggrieved Orangemen want to hear but the alternative is to tarnish the Twelfth, hurt the country and leave Sinn Fein strategists with a smug satisfied smile.