The stage is set — it’s ‘The Big One’ to celebrate Northern Ireland’s 100th birthday!

The stage is set for an event which one of its organisers has dubbed simply ‘The Big One’ – the most gigantic unionist parade in Northern Ireland’s capital for at least a decade.

By Adam Kula
Saturday, 28th May 2022, 2:53 am
Updated Saturday, 28th May 2022, 12:16 pm

The city centre and much of the east side will see 25,000 pairs of soles on the march, as both brethren and bands traverse a 4.5 mile course from Stormont to City Hall to mark Northern Ireland’s 100th!

The centenary event will be not only the most vast such loyal gathering since Covid arrived on these shores, but stands to rival – or exceed – the colossal 2012 Ulster Covenant centenary march.

And whilst the Union Flag will not be flying above the starting point at Stormont (after a bid to have it displayed was shot down by the non-unionist-dominated Assembly Commission this week), last night organisers had begun festooning the platform next to Parliament Buildings with red, white, blue and orange.

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While the Union Flag will not be flying above the starting point at Stormont last night organisers had begun festooning the platform next to Parliament Buildings with red, white, blue and orange

Meanwhile out of 110 hotels and lodgings in the city yesterday, just eight had a room-for-two left to offer as guests from across the island and beyond began checking in en masse.

Senior Orangeman Harold Henning yesterday predicted the number of spectators to be around 65,000, adding: “You know, we lost out on celebrating properly last year and we want to see everybody out.

“This is The Big One as far as we’re concerned – probably the biggest parade in the city of Belfast from 2012 when there was the covenant parade.

“And it will be the biggest parade in the city of Belfast for many, many years. It’ll not be met or not be touched by anything else as far as we’re concerned.”

Stormont is expected to be bathed in orange tonight to mark the centenary.

But the specially-arranged illumination of Parliament Buildings comes on the heels of the refusal to fly the Union Flag atop them – and the TUV yesterday said this just serves to show how lax the government has been in marking Northern Ireland’s 100th birthday.

The DUP proposal to have the flag raised above the Province’s parliament was scuppered by the Assembly Commission, chaired by Alex Maskey and with members of all five of main parties on it.

The UUP’s Robbie Butler last night said today is “a landmark event that marks the end of the decade of centenaries”.

“I am delighted that we have secured permission to light it up orange,” he said.

“I hope that everyone taking part in and watching the parade on Saturday has a fantastic day as we look to the next one hundred years of Northern Ireland.”

The DUP put the refusal to fly the flag down to a lack of “respect and tolerance”.

Its MLA Keith Buchanan said yesterday: “Ultimately, the ballot box is where unionists who are frustrated by this decision should make their voice heard. The lesson of the election a few weeks ago was that unionism must stop infighting and work together.”

Meanwhile the TUV issued a statement in the name of party secretary Ron McDowell, saying: “Officialdom has monumentally failed to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland.

“The Northern Ireland Office events were low-key and indicative of an organisation which was merely going through the motions.”

He also recalled that last year at Stormont “a centenary stone which could have been erected at zero cost to the public purse was blocked by the Sinn Fein veto”.

But he added: “Yet [today] tens of thousands of ordinary people will throng the streets of Belfast to celebrate 100 years of Northern Ireland.

“Where government has failed the loyal orders and our glorious band culture has risen to the challenge and I have no doubt that the display which will be put on will be one which is worthy of celebrating our first century.”

The parade will begin at 1pm, following the route shown on this map.

When it reaches City Hall it will fragment, with county lodges heading to their buses and many Belfast ones making their own individual ways home. The end time notified to the Parades Commission is 7.30pm.

For those eager to track their progress during the parade, the News Letter has drawn up a mile-by-mile diagram of the route, right, with street names and landmarks close to each milestone.

And it will be an especially red-letter day for the Kellswater Flute Band from the Ballymena area, which will lead the parade.

Founded in 1947, the band is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year and is going from strength to strength, with engagements across Northern Ireland, Great Britain and further afield.

As band secretary Alistair McDonald explains, the band is very proud of its long musical tradition.

“We have alto and bass flutes although we don’t play bass on the road, it’s a bit like a group where you have your rhythm guitar, lead guitar and your bass guitar, and we do competition work as well a lot too and have won quite a few competitions,” he said.

“We were formed in 1947 so it’s kind of special that we have been asked to lead the parade.

“But there are so many good bands there and it will be a great honour for everybody to take part in such a prestigious event, and such a great opportunity to showcase our culture.

“It’s also good because we never get the chance to parade in Belfast because we are always in Ballymena on the Twelfth, although we were in Belfast for the 2012 Ulster Covenant parade.”

“We have got a group of people in the band and a lot of young people. Nearly 50% of them under 20 so there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes with learners.

“We [bands] tend to get a bad press sometimes it’s the sort of thing where it’s not just about the music, but about other life skills like working as a team and responsibility and self-confidence.

“There are a few people from our band who have actually made a career out of music, both flautists and percussionists.

“I play the alto flute and I will be in the back row, basically where the old guys are.”

The band has organised a dinner dance to celebrates its 75th anniversary in October, and will be taking part in the Lord Mayor’s Show in London in November.

• See Morning View, page 10; Ben Lowry, page 11