The Twelfth of July is denigrated and generosity from the Orange Order is ignored

Why is it that one of the largest cultural festivals in Europe (in terms of population) consistently gets a bad press?

Wednesday, 14th July 2021, 6:08 pm
Updated Wednesday, 14th July 2021, 6:39 pm
The parade in Shaftesbury Square, Belfast on Monday. Some nationalists look down their nose at our culture but nationalism has nothing to match the musical talent of the bands and artistic skill on the banners

Why is it that the successful efforts of the Orange institution to provide leadership during the pandemic and call off the traditional demonstrations in 2020 and hold smaller ones in 2021 isn’t appreciated more widely?

Why is it that some are desperate to find fault with a small bonfire in Tigers Bay?

Just what is the problem with the Twelfth?

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For a while it was claimed that the problem was parades in places where the loyal orders and bands weren’t welcome. In the last couple of years the loyal orders have largely defused this issue by making — at most — low key, symbolic protests.

Many parades which had been taking place annually for many generations — comprised entirely of locals — have been sacrificed.

The cultural diversity of those areas has suffered with the musical talent of local musicians, many of them young, denied expression in their home town.

Orange generosity in relation to allegedly controversial parades has been ignored.

There’s been zero recognition of efforts to de-escalate the issue.

So the problem with the Twelfth isn’t the parades in ‘nationalist areas’.

This year there was controversy over bonfires and particularly one bonfire which has, apparently, justified three nationalist departments being involved in an attempt to force the hand of the PSNI.

The silence of the Justice Minister who likes to lecture us on respecting the operational independence of the PSNI is telling.

If we turn the clock back to more normal (pre-pandemic) times the premier Eleventh Night event attended by many thousands in Kilkeel seldom merits a mention on the broadcast media because it isn’t news if it doesn’t fit the narrative.

If the only agenda when it came to bonfires was to promote safety and more family friendly events it would be held up as a role model, not studiously ignored by supposedly concerned commentators.

In truth, the problem with the Twelfth isn’t the bonfires.

In previous years there have been complaints about the conduct of bands outside Roman Catholic places of worship. In the last few years I didn’t read or heard of any such issues. I did, however, see players for the biggest GAA outfit in Northern Ireland taunt bands with rebels songs without getting a reaction from the (mainly young) musicians in 2019.

So the problem with the Twelfth isn’t the bands.

What’s the problem with the Twelfth?

Year after year we are told that the Orange Order is on its last legs. The membership is dying off, young people aren’t joining and the values it represents — loyalty, remembering the past and most of all (whisper it) Protestantism — are out of step with the modern world.

Yet in a normal year if your town or village is hosting one of the major Twelfth demonstrations it will most likely be the largest public event you will see there. This year there were 100 parades all over the Province. Obviously I cannot speak for those I did not attend but in my area Lower Iveagh District Number One put on a show worth seeing in the biggest parade — indeed the biggest event full stop — Dromore has seen since we hosted the main 12th demonstration about five years ago.

At several points in the parade I stopped during a straight stretch of road and looked forward and then back and either way you could see a sea of colour which stretched beyond vanishing point. Halls which anyone who wasn’t native to the area would be hard pressed to find produced 20 - 30 brethren on parade.

The procession took half an hour to pass any given point and the town was packed with spectators of all ages.

On Monday across Ulster tens of thousands of men and women turned out in their Sunday best. Hundreds of bands — pipe bands, flute bands, sliver bands, brass bands and accordion bands — in spotless uniforms and many produced music of a standard which would have justified going out to see that single band on its own.

They were bands and lodges made up of people you knew — the butcher, the builder, the librarian, the electrician, the plumber, etc. What’s more, all those tens of thousands of men, women, boys and girls knew exactly where they were to march in the parade.

You didn’t find a lodge out of place. If you went to a parade and saw the lodge from the hall down the road you could be sure that the lodge from the hall up the other road from your house wasn’t far away either.

That degree of organisation, that defiance of the perceived logic of the way the word is headed not just once in one place or one year but many times over every year in spite of every attempt to make it no longer a respectable thing to do is a threat to some people.

Some nationalist politicians love to look down their nose at our culture. But the reality is that nationalism has nothing to match the musical talent displayed by the bands and the artistic skill displayed on the banners and the drums.

Liberals love to say that those who don’t conform to their view of the world are on the wrong side of history. Yet for all the reasons listed above the Twelfth provides evidence to the contrary.

People still love flags and their country.

People love to celebrate their past rather than forget about it and pretend that we are all the products of an artificially created ‘shared history’.

People enjoy a parade displaying numerous scenes from that ‘Bronze Age collection of myths’, the Bible — suggesting that not a few people actually believe they are true and that the Book is relevant in the 21st century. Oh the horror! It even suggests there are people who are actually Protestants!

And that is why for many prominent voices the problem with the Twelfth isn’t the parades, the bands or the bonfires.

When you boil it all down the problem with the Twelfth — is the Twelfth.

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