A Republican take on this year’s Twelfth- and more!

Sorry to steal a march on Fair Deal (poor pun, I know) but I’m posting this piece I’ve been working on containing my observations on this year’s Twelfth, possible repercussions for the future and my own suggestions for transforming Orangeism. Responses are welcome, regardless of political affiliation.This year’s relatively peaceful marching season has left a mood of quiet optimism in the air and generated some welcome discussions and debates about how the pinnacle of the Orange marching year can be transformed to effectively close the chapter on the violent era of communal instability often precipitated by contentious marches and sectarian incidents associated with marches.

The decision by the British Government and local government councils to use public funds as a means of enticing unionism and the Loyal Orders to favourably address the Orange ‘agenda for change’ has proven contentious in itself, not least because there is no guarantee that the path being laid out for the Order and associated loyalists will be followed.

For nationalists, the funding of 11th Night bonfires is particularly galling, given that these often incorporate the burning of effigies and/ or posters of nationalist and catholic leaders, not to mention the burning of the National flag of the nationalist population. Reciprocal funding for a 9th August bonfire which included the burning of the union flag and effigies of Ian Paisley would not be countenanced by local councils- and nor should it.

The British government’s funding for the optimistically entitled ‘Orangefest’ is a clear attempt to steer the Order in a new direction, using a financial incentive to keep the Order on board. Again, nationalists have expressed unease at this proposition and, for this, have incurred the wrath of some commentators, eager to point to similar funding being received by the various nationalist festivals in Belfast.

But there is a distinction here which runs to the core of the nationalist unease. The funding being received by Feile an Phobail, and its equivalent festivals in other parts of Belfast, was only obtained after the bonfire culture had been long abandoned and on the basis that its replacement involved a wide variety of events, none of which involved burning flags and/ or effigies of political leaders, nor involved provoking communal instability by seeking to impose the republican tradition on unionist communities through marches into those communities.

For nationalists, the Orangefest funding- and bonfire funding- has come without the promise and real potential merits of change being clearly agreed-nor yet delivered- by the Order. This year has signalled an undeniable advance from every perspective. The Orange Order at last appears conscious of the need to deliver change, with its decision to meet with some leaders from within the catholic and nationalist tradition being particularly positive; 11th Night bonfires are being addressed from an enviromental perspective; but there remains a sense that the supremacist and deeply bigoted elephant in the room, represented by the worst aspects of the bonfires, the antagonising practice of erecting loyalist flags and bunting to provoke, and the remaining contentious routes has yet to be truly addressed by the Order and unionism in general.

A second observation arising from the various discussions about the place of the 11th Night/ 12th July within unionist culture is the value we place on single identity v. shared identity celebrations. This occurred to me when listening to former Newsletter editor, Austin Hunter, on a radio programme on the 12th July. When asked about the cross-community appeal of the Twelfth, he was (in my opinion) rightly dismissive of the notion, and pointed out that not all celebrations need be cross-community to be positive.

In this I found myself concurring with Mr. Hunter. In reality those who believe that nationalists will ever likely feel comfortable at an Orange celebration are delusional at best and mischievous at worst. By definition, the Twelfth and associated Orange- and other Loyal Order celebrations- are about remembering an exclusively Protestant and British identity, celebrating victories over their neighbours and remembering defeats inflicted by this enemy.

Orangefest must be less about becoming all-inclusive (an impossible goal) and more about becoming a positive assertion of the unionist identity which achieves the objective of providing an outlet for the unionist identity but without antagonising nor provoking their nationalist neighbours at the same time. As one Scandinavian tourist incisively put it when questioned during a UTV vox pop outside the City Hall, it is a ‘loaded’ celebration; let’s not deny that but simply acknowledge it and plan accordingly.

If this is sought after and achieved, then nationalists would have no grounds for objection and indeed would be churlish to do so- as unionists look today when they rather spitefully attack the Feile an Phobail. Essentially, the Orange Order will have transformed itself into a protestant version of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians: an exclusivist organisation with exclusive appeal, but one which has long celebrated its culture in a non-offensive manner (so much so that very few nationalists- never mind unionists- know what it actually stands for!)

The recent funding wave which has been delivered to the Order raises some uncomfortable questions for unionists regarding St. Patrick’s Day and more specifically, the need to publicly accept the legitimacy of and expressions of the Irish nationalist tradition in the north of Ireland.

Nationalists view the protestations of unionists regarding St. Patrick’s day celebrations as an attempt to suppress expressions of their Irish identity. It is more than likely that future attempts by Alliance and unionist leaders to demand an effective ban on Irish nationalist emblems on what is universally recognised as the day in which Irish people express their identity will be ferociously resisted by nationalist politicians, who will simply point to 11th Night and 12th July funding initiatives as the prototype for the funding of single identity celebrations.

There may be those who believe that it is better to attempt to transform Belfast’s St. Patrick’s Day parade into a shared celebration through the suppression of Irish nationalist symbols in order to make events more appealing for unionists. Whatever the merits of this objective, in reality it will be viewed suspiciously by nationalists as simply another attempt to deny nationalists the right to express their identity with official ‘approval.’ Shared celebrations must be natural, not manufactured through the deliberate suppression of one identity, if they are to succeed in the long run.

Lastly, I opened a thread during the week asking for Slugger contributors to provide individual recollections of their 12th July experiences. I would like to thank all of those who did so, whatever their background. My intention was to provide Slugger readers with a chance to listen to the varying experiences of the day which inform our perceptions and opinions. None of us are likely to change what we believe, but we lose nothing and gain much by acknowledging and taking into consideration the views of others.

From my perspective, I have given some thought to what it would take from a nationalist viewpoint to perceive the 11th/12th July period in a more benign, non-threatening way. These are, obviously, my opinions solely, and collectively amount to a number of steps the Orange Order, remaining Loyal Orders and unionist political leaders could take to achieve the stated goal of transforming the Twelfth into a productive expression of positive unionism:

1. Restrict parades to non-contentious areas: a simple step, given that we are talking now of probably less than 20 parade routes across the 6 counties that could be deemed contentious. On this one, I’m going to be blunt: nobody buys the ‘traditional route’ crap, and by pushing it, you only expose an arrogant attitude which is utterly inconsistent with an objective of wanting to be primarily concerned with creating a fun, family-based occasion.
2. Show greater regard and sensitivity to your neighbours when erecting flags, bunting and arches. Personally I believe us nationalists have no grounds for complaining about the appearance of such unionist symbols in unionist areas, though the tactless manner in which such items are often erected will more likely offend local unionist residents. It is when scenarios like that in Lurgan arise, where the PSNI work with loyalists to provoke nationalists by erecting bunting in areas they are not wanted, that nationalists get their proverbial ‘backs up.’ For this, I would propose a simple rule of thumb: when considering the location for flags, bunting and arches, loyalists should ask themselves whether they would be offended or object to the erection of republican flags or bunting in that precise location, be it town centres and/or mixed residential areas.
3. Do something to address the nakedly sectarian appearance of the 11th Night bonfires: on another thread here, I pointed to the beacon initiative being pursued by Belfast City Council. In reality, however, that will have more impact on the environmental damage caused by the bonfires. Tackling the sectarian dimension of the bonfires should be priority number one for all those in unionism genuinely interested in transforming perceptions of Orangeism and their cultural expression. There should be no tolerance for the burning of effigies of religious or political leaders, nor of election posters and most certainly not of the National flag of some 45% of the population of the 6 counties.
4. Genuinely work to broaden the appeal of the Twelfth (within unionism never mind nationalism!) by incorporating additional events which do not revolve around marches. This may take the form of theatre, exhibitions, debates or children’s festivals. This will provide a broader, less threatening appeal to the celebrations and may even allow for nationalists to become involved to some extent- if only as visitors to exhibitions or as participants in debates.

These are my own personal observations and thoughts. Orangemen and their fellow loyalists will ultimately determine the future format for 12th of July celebrations. But ultimately, the objective must be one of taking the tension out of the air and of providing their own community with an enjoyable, appealing and non-threatening celebration.