Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, Edward Stevenson, takes a look back over the last 12 months ... and appeals for respect and tolerance for his Institution’s culture and traditions
What a year it has been!
2015 will forever be remembered as a momentous 12 months for the Institution, witnessing the transformational completion of two state-of-the-art interpretative centres, in Belfast and Loughgall, Co Armagh.
The Museums of Orange Heritage mark a major step change in the Order’s educational outreach with the wider community in Northern Ireland and beyond.
Given the interest, and footfall already exceeding 5,000 visitors in Belfast, it is clear that both sites have captured the public’s imagination and long may that continue into 2016 and beyond.
It is fitting the sacrifice of the Institution’s murdered brethren has been poignantly recognised at both sites with the unveiling of an impressive stain glass memorial window at our headquarters and the opening of a memorial garden in Armagh.
This year, on the 40th anniversary of the Tullyvallen massacre, we remembered particularly the five innocent victims of the most notorious attack inflicted on our Institution by republican terrorists.
Their families and those of all our murdered brethren, the majority of whom are denied the justice they deserve, remain in our thoughts and will be forever in our prayers. We owe it to them that they will never be forgotten.
Likewise we will always remember those who served and continue to serve, on the front line, on our behalf, in defence of Crown and country.
As the nation prepares to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme next summer, the Orange Institution looks forward to playing its full part in recognising the heroism of those in the 36th (Ulster) Division during the First World War, and remember the many tens of thousands of our members and others worldwide who bravely enlisted at that time.
God willing, the UK’s commemorations will be led by Her Majesty the Queen who recently became Britain’s longest reigning monarch.
Since ascending the throne over six decades ago, Queen Elizabeth has remained a constant focus for the nation. Her leadership has been outstanding, and her commitment and dedication incomparable. We all owe Her Majesty a huge debt of gratitude for her extraordinary sense of duty and service.
Sadly in 2015, another Orange hall was destroyed by arsonists, while a number of others were targeted in separate attacks. Such vile hate crimes should be condemned universally without reservation.
What hope is there for a genuinely shared future if the mere presence of a building – associated with a Christian organisation – cannot be tolerated by republicans?
Likewise, the Loyal Orders continue to be curtailed in expressing their cultural heritage with restrictions placed on many of our processions.
Thinking particularly of the ongoing impasse at both Drumcree and Ligoniel, it is essential the New Year marks a ‘new start’ for parading.
Grand Lodge has consistently maintained any new approach should include the demise of the current unfair regulatory structures, and the existing flawed legislation which impacts on parades across Northern Ireland. Any future system of regulating parades must be fair and equitable.
We anticipate the findings of the independent review regarding parades and protests on the Crumlin Road, north Belfast, will be published in the coming weeks. We pray such an impartial viewpoint will contribute to a lasting and just solution.
Despite the continual demonisation of our heritage by some, the Orange Institution remains committed to playing its role in making Northern Ireland a better place for everyone.
In return, all we ask for is respect and tolerance for our culture and traditions.
In conclusion, I would like to take this opportunity to wish all our members, their families and the wider Orange fraternity across the world, a very Happy Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous New Year.