Marching bands bring real benefits to our communities

Stephen Cooper
Stephen Cooper
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A recent survey estimated that marching bands bring in around £55 million per year to the struggling NI economy – but this isn’t where the real value lies.

The benefits to PUL communities across NI are immeasurable.

The sense of belonging, the camaraderie between band members is as close knit as most families.

Many are life long friends who have marched for decades all over Northern Ireland, Scotland and even in the Irish Republic in Donegal where paradoxically, bands are welcomed with open arms at the annual parade in Rossnowlagh, in contrast to dogged republican opposition here in NI.

With approximately 700 bands, it is estimated active membership is around 30,000.

As a regular spectator, I still see fellow bass drummers from twenty or thirty years ago who have remained friends.

This cohesive aspect is often overlooked, and placed in the wider context of a society ill at ease with social media and the perils of legal highs, drugs and alcohol abuse, it offers a secure disciplined structure for adolescents and adults alike.

The band scene has changed drastically since I marched in the nineties.

To watch flute bands today is akin to watching regimental bands, and in some cases, at a much higher standard.

This takes dedication and practice, members rehearse for hours per week, honing their skills in not only musical performance, but style and appearance, drilling as a unit to march in straight lines and attention to detail in carriage of drumsticks, and protocol of flags when passing memorials and places of worship.

When conversing with band members it is clear that most, if not all, feel representative of their area and harbour a certain responsibility to each other to turn out in their uniforms with military-like pristine.

Weekends are taken up by competitions held all over NI, many have made friends with others in faraway counties, friendships that would never have been established but for their shared interest.

The excitement felt by spectators from their area watching their band in a different town is palpable, matched only by the pride of the band members representing their people, their traditions, and their culture.

If the GAA can receive millions in funding, then I think its high time the band fraternity were treated on an equal footing to ensure the tangible benefits on the ground continue and our communities are provided with an adequate platform to evolve an already thriving movement.

• Stephen Cooper is a TUV councillor from Comber