The cost of democratic rights # 294

PARADE problems of a different kind, this time to do with the cost of policing them. The News Letter reports that a loyalist band parade to raise money for the tsunami appeal cost £29,444 to police – and only raised £500. Then a band parade was halted, not by the Parades Commission, but by the PSNI – because there weren’t enough officers to police the event. Marching is an expensive business……so when the Orange Order published the findings of a survey in February that suggested that “Orangemen and their supporters spent an estimated £6.3 million on The Twelfth last year”, I’m afraid I wasn’t in the least impressed – even if they did think that might only be half the true figure.

OK, I know the Order isn’t responsible for every parade that happens, but it does have influence over bands and, as the largest marching organiation here, sets the tone for others. And yes, I’m aware that there are some people opposed to marches that won’t accept parades in the area they live in (and sometimes don’t) and the results (no matter who started it) require a large security presence.

But what of the examples above?

Over the past decade, and even taking into account the Order’s ongoing fundraising for charity, parading has probably cost us much, much more. Not just in terms of security – the cost of the Army’s one day operation surrounding 2003’s peaceful Drumcree was half a million alone and 1999’s cost £14 million – but in terms of lost investment by wary Americans worried about ‘instability’ and tourists put off by selective foreign TV pictures.

I’m sure someone has done research on this, but since I keep hearing the same story every time I’m abroad, I’ll skip the surveys. An outsider might tactfully consider the cost of policing parades here a tad indulgent. A local might think it was rippin’ the pish a bit.

This might sound like an anti-Orange rant, but it isn’t. There’ll be plenty of that in the comments. It’s simply asking if taxpayers (and charities) get good value for money from parades. And if it’s not possible to put a price on expressions of culture, heritage and the right to do whatever – or to protest, for that matter – does that really mean it should still cost quite SO much?

The Order does now seem to be starting to grapple with the problem of its image and the effect it is having on the economy. It’s press release accompanying its February survey said:

The Order now plans to use the survey to persuade the tourist authorities to market the Twelfth as a major heritage and cultural event capable of attracting thousands of overseas visitors to the Province with particular emphasis on Ulster-Scots communities in other Orange Order jurisdictions such as Canada and the United States.

While some republican and Ulster-Scots readers will be less than impressed by those ideas, it must mark a major change in the Order if it is to succeed. The Twelfth will only attract more visitors from abroad if it can present a positive, peaceful image, in line with the unrealistic media-filtered expectations tourists always have (and I include myself there).

But the Order can only achieve that aim if parades are seen by tourists as something worth spending on and getting to. And right now the local police aren’t even sure if they’re worth going to. Even republicans must take some heart by considering that change might not come through the Order’s efforts, but through a subtle – or literal – lack of physical Force.