12th July: how was it for you…?

Before getting to the meat of yesterday’s events, I’d like to try and explain what were for me some of the benefits of yesterday’s coverage here on Slugger (though credit for the idea once again must go to the enterprising Mark McGregor). Last week my friend JP Rangaswami hooked out a fascinating quote from Chip Heath of Stanford University written back in 1996 about the way people consume news. It seems we (ie all of us humans) are predisposed to consume news in particular (prejudicial) ways:

…..People typically prefer to pass along central rather than extreme information (i.e. news that is less surprising rather than more surprising). However, when confronted with extreme information, the results support a preference for congruence, that is, people prefer to pass along news that is congruent with the emotional valence of the domain in question. This means that in emotionally negative domains, contrary to some theoretical predictions, people are willing to pass along bad news even when it is exaggeratedly bad. At the same time, however, people transmit exaggeratedly good news in emotionally positive domains…..

Now to yesterday’s Orange demonstrations. We had four people in the Slugger team going from place to place (sometimes with some considerable difficulty). We had seven others in different parts of the country and a larger number of Twitterers (H/Ts to invaluable contributions from Daithi McKay and Niall Ó Donnghaile, who I forgot to mention late last night) helping with other micro detail or simply spreading the word. The idea was in part to get a smart mob rolling, by which I mean a group speaking from different places and different perspectives. Extremes, as Heath might put it, capable of producing a complex real time map of the overall event.

For a first effort I was pleased. For an entirely unfunded project it has immense promise; founded on the back of an heroic effort on the part of some. Not least Belfast Gonzo who found himself on his own making his way to the Crumlin Road at 7.30 last night in the pouring rain on foot and with a flat phone battery (we should see his video footage of the ‘riot’ later today though). Needless to say it is something we would like to be able to scale up considerable next timewith the proper funding in place. If the effort was unpaid, the results were far from amateur.

With the content being ‘devolved to the extremes’ its was my job at the ‘centre’ to co-ordinate and hold it together. From that ‘virtual’ centre several things became apparent about the 12th celebrations that had not been so clear before.

One, is probably only stating the bleedin’ obvious: not much happens. Particularly in rural areas it is all about the esoteric rituals of the lodges and the showmanship of the bands. As Mark put it the field looked like nothing so much as a school fete. This seems particularly true out in the countryside, but the reports we got from the Belfast field also gave the impression that it was more of a day out for the kids. For long stretches of the day, there was nothing more exciting coming in than reports on the state of the weather in different parts of the country.

Two, the Belfast parade and those in the most of the rest of Northern Ireland have a profoundly different character. Scale for one thing. Our Banbridge correspondent, ‘gmcflurry’, was almost as flummoxed by it as Mark was. A strong drinking culture and a residual attachment to paramilitarism was present, if only in relatively small sections of the crowd. And there was some isolated insignia in one feeder parade from east Belfast, indicating that some have not yet heeded the Orange Order’s attempt to provide leadership out of a grimy sectarian past.

Three, it was also obvious that this drinking culture is associated with the parades, the people involved appear to have little to do with the Orangemen themselves. Large crowds were spotted in Shaftesbury Square drinking in public and to excess yesterday afternoon at a time when the Orangemen and the bands were several miles away in the field. What appears to start as good natured and low key celebrations on the ’11th night’ turns fractious and at times abusive by the afternoon of the ’12th’.

Four kind of leads on from three and it’s one that Conall McDevitt raises eloquently in his blog post yesterday. The effects of running a festival, any festival, means there is the inevitable trail of human detritus. The difference is that this festival literally does follow a long trail on which there are too few facilities for thousands of people to make the walk. You simply cannot expect to be welcome where people are seen by locals relieving themselves (in great numbers) on garden walls.

Five, the flash points. There was always going to be trouble in some spots. Niall anticipated tensions in the Short Strand after a memorial was vandalised days before the march, but in the end the trouble there seems to been limited to a few thrown objects and loud chanting… The big rip in fabric was, as anticipated, at the Ardoyne shops. In part that relates to a lack of local agreement on a difficult interface area. But the fact the riot kicked off an hour before the parade actually past possibly meant they’d burned themselves out sufficiently before the Orangemen arrived. It also made it transparently clear that nothing was done by the Orange or their bands to provoke the violence.

Six, the media coverage, on the BBC at least, was possessed of a bizarrely split personality: juddering between tourist board schmalz and an utter distaste for the whole thing. If I were to venture a guess I would say it was less a case of being conflicted than the modern BBC utterly loathing the whole thing within their very hearts and souls. I’ve nothing against Walter Love, but he retired from the BBC years ago as a working journalist. Mark Carruthers’ series of tough questions on Evening Extra last night were all sharp and relevant, and Drew Nelson, one of the ablest men to hold his post of Grand Secretary in modern times, was able to field them with some alacrity.

But you are left with the feeling that at the very least there is a huge emotional vacuum within the BBC. It gave the impression that no one of any ability or talent inside the modern BBC wants to do the job of publicly being nice to the Orange Order. To return to JP’s accute analysis, the Orange Order exists almost entirely as a negative valence in BBCNI’s inner emotional life.

Because the BBC holds a public service broadcasting remit, it has to cover things that perhaps its producers and journalists feel at best ambivalent about, and worst find inimical. It is, to follow Heath, incongruous for the BBC to cover an Orange parade which is not responsible for all the trouble it attracts. And if it does not attract trouble, like the parade in Dromore where demonstrators took their pints in three nationalist owned pubs bedecked with Tyrone flags, it is not news.

Some will see this as some kind of liberal conspiracy. And to some extent I am sure that it is a liberal reaction to what is widely seen as an illiberal movement (despite as Burke’s Corner notes, the Orange has always signified the Whiggish/liberal tendency within Ulster Protestant opinion. The Orange certainly have their own demons, and a past in which members of lodges serially failed to live up to their own stated high moral standards. It also true that the events themselves fluctuate wildly determined by the wider context of Northern Irish society. In times of fear and danger, ‘celebration’ has verged on ‘riotous assembly’, or worse.

But at base, and in the changed context of recent years, it is a fear of a movement many of us simply do not know, whilst many of its insiders take their own discreet knowledge of the boring repetitiveness of ceremony and mild days out in the country as publicly read. The vast majority of yesterday’s activities was an internal affair, much like the local parish fete, or country fare. The antics of Mario, Queen of the Circus in town was a transparent attempt to reach out way beyond the Orange population, and provide them with distinctly non Orange form of entertainment.

If the evidence yesterday is anything to go by, it has a way to go yet. And yet it has also, although liberal opinion has been slow to publicly accept this, come a long way from Drumcree to Mario. Perhaps it is time to fing some way of putting the bitter (and in some case profoundly justified) enmities of the past to rest. And get on with working out how spaces can be safely and civilly shared rather than continuing with the separate development paradigm of the Troubles’ generations…

That, IMHO, can only be achieved by attending to the important details that will make life bearable for those the leaderhip of the Orange Order wishes to attract back out of their fortress homes, or back from temporary refuges in Donegal and other safer, more civil parts of rural Ulster…

As for the BBC moving their big set piece cameras out of their comfort zone in Bedford Street, and down towards Shaftesbury Square might just have a civilising effect on the antics down there. Throw in a few local features too which might help bring a truer picture of why the 12th is important to Orangemen right across Ulster (not just in the Belfast Bubble)…

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty