Twelfth Thoughts

Another Twelfth gone, several more families across the North looking for new places to live and others cleaning up after their homes were targeted; members of Orange Lodges, Hibernians and GAA members picking up the pieces after more attacks; church congregations in fear that the return of attacks on their places of worship will bring a return to the bad old days. Oh, and the inevitable rioting where the interfaces were infringed, with dissident republicans kicking into the open goal provided by the loyalist parade along the Crumlin Road in Belfast.
Alternatively, another Twelfth gone, another good family day’s outing for thousands, another year away from the Drumcree era plagued by violence surrounding Loyal Orders parades, Orangefest firmly established and promoted by public authorities and shops (some perhaps reluctantly) deciding to open in a sign of confidence that the future looks brighter.
Two distinctly different opinions on the 11th Night/ Twelfth proceedings, some reluctantly conceding evidence of the latter, others airbrushing distinct evidence of the former being linked to the contentious and provocative aspects of the annual Orange weekend.
First the positives.

The Twelfth celebrations clearly remain an integral part of unionist culture and it is clearly much larger for many from an Orange tradition than simply winding up the catholics. Like most traditions, it evokes happy memories of yesteryear, provides the occasion for renewing old acquaintances and can be thoroughly enjoyed by many without any malice of heart nor mind.

There is no question but that some within the loyalist/ unionist community are seeking a way to lift their community out of the destructive tendency to seek to identify themselves in relation to ‘the Other.’

The most provocative aspects of the Twelfth festivities relate to the 11th night bonfires, deliberate policy of erecting loyalist flags in mixed and nationalist areas, as well as the contentious routing of the parades.

On these fronts, there would appear to be some movement in relation to the first issue, though the ridiculous policy adopted by some in the mainstream media of concentrating primarily on the need to remove the environmentally damaging element of the bonfires (ie tyres) is an example of what Comrade Stalin has correctly identified in an earlier thread of the MSM going to considerable lengths to adhere to a narrative which sweeps under the carpet the poisonous sectarian dimension of loyalist culture- hence the BBC policy of not discussing those bands as they march by during the annual Love/ Smyth commentary on The Twelfth morning programme.

The annual Twelfth festivities illustrate the different stages the two communities are, broadly, in relation to accommodation and respect for the Other. Whether it is in relation to the flying of flags in mixed communities, parading through such communities or through seeking to identify one’s community in relation to the Other, Irish nationalists are a generation ahead of northern unionists, and narrowing the gap holds the key to developing a more stable, tolerant society based on equality and mutual respect.

Indeed, this has been reflected in the differing speeds with which both communities came to accept the premise of our future shared society- the Good Friday Agreement delivered a firm game, set and match from nationalism, whilst St. Andrew’s a decade later still hasn’t delivered a reciprocal level of support within unionism for a future based on sharing and equality, as the Allister vote and performance of a number of DUP Ministers to date illustrates (and wasn’t it depressing to see the DCAL Minister, Nelson McCausland, amongst those parading passed Ardoyne Shops. Clearly, Nelson knows his history: Faulkner had his Longstone, Paisley his Divis, Trimble his Garvaghy, and Nelson evidently wants to make the Ardoyne walk his own.)

Allison Morris made an insightful comment in yesterday’s Irish News when she compared the scenes at the Woodvale Park beacon on the 11th Night with an event during the early stages of the Feile an Phobail. Today, a generation after republicans took the initiative in leading their community out of a destructive means of celebrating identity, the Feile movement has never been stronger, with such festivals across nationalists areas of the north defined by their openness to others, albeit with events broadly indicating the organising community’s own political outlook. There is no tension surrounding such events, nor for that matter during other distinctly republican commemorations, simply due to the fact that republicans abide by the practice of organising such occasions in areas where the ‘Other’ community will not be directly affected, and flag flying in nationalist areas- never mind mixed communities- is at its lowest point in recent history.

Feile an Phobail will this year have a number of political platform discussions, in which loyalist leader, Jackie McDonald, and an unknown DUP representative will have the opportunity to air their views to a broadly republican audience. A play written by a former loyalist prisoner will also be performed as part of the Feile. Yet it remains as much a republican festival as the Twelfth is a unionist celebration.

Getting back to the Twelfth, the shift to beacons is important, but of considerably more importance is the need to end the policy of unionism/ loyalism seeking to identify itself in relation to nationalists by burning stolen Irish tricolours, election posters and other items daubed with hate-filled slogans. Progress on this front is slow and not without dissenters- the intra-loyalist feuding in Tiger’s Bay this week was said to be linked to some opposing the moves to beacons; for them, the local bonfire remained, with sickening gloats of catholics killed at Greysteel and Milltown Cemetery. But there are real signs of progress here, and I would single out the Woodvale 11th Night celebrations, which not only involved a beacon, but also banned the burning of the Irish National flag. Loyalist spokesman, Winston Irvine proudly pronounced that loyalists did not need to disrespect anybody else’s culture to celebrate their own. How right he is, and fair play to him for it.

The erection of flags remains a contentious matter, and will probably become more pronounced in years to come as a number of commentators have noted that loyalists seem to have adopted an orchestrated policy of seeking to ratchet up tensions through flag-flying- the Fortwilliam area of Belfast a case in point, though more interestingly, protestant displeasure with this loyalist practice was evident in Ballymena, Craigavon and Bangor this Summer.

As in the case of contentious parading, it is here that the Loyal Orders can intervene to make a significant contribution which could potentially transform the atmosphere and perceptions of an Orangefest in a manner that Freddie Mercury impersonators, face painters and opened shops can not.

Imagine were the Order to call for its supporters to refrain from seeking to offend others (including many protestants, who appear distinctly unimpressed by the avalanche of flags bedecking their areas) by erecting flags in mixed communities. Such an intervention would have a powerful impact on how the organisation is perceived, not least by nationalists, but perhaps more importantly by the broader protestant community, which should remain the primary target audience of an Orangefest celebration.

There should be no demand upon unionists to transform Orangefest- or the Twelfth weekend as a whole- into an all-inclusive event. Not only is it an unrealisable objective, it is also an exercise in dishonesty as, due to our divisive history and political-religious allegiances, it is stretching what is credible to expect nationalists to move past a less benign view of the entire proceedings to one of desiring to view events up close.

From the other side, suggesting it is inclusive is disingenuous. Take yesterday’s rather successful Twelfth as reported by our own Slugger reporters. Some banners commemorated loyalist paramilitaries, many bands were named after or carried the labels of loyalist organisations like the UDA/ UFF/ UVF, bonfires burned the Irish tricolours/ nationalist election posters/ and glorified the killing of catholics, some bandsmen marched with AFAB (All Fenians are Bastards) badges, bands march past catholic churches chanting the Billy Boys and the Sash. As one contributor put succinctly to Nelson McCausland on the Nolan Show this morning: “they want to kill us one day and they want us to join them the next.”

The Orange Order deserve their day in the sun, and it ill behoves nationalists and republicans, who ultimately desire these celebrations to be an expression of the minority culture in a united Ireland, to be dismissive of the importance of the Day for many unionists. Gerry Adams struck a right chord this morning when he prefaced his comments about the Twelfth on Radio Ulster by expressing condolences to the loyalist bandswoman tragically killed in Killyleagh, before pointing out that, whilst the Orange tradition needs and deserves to be respected, it must deal with the contentious parades which number but a few of its three thousand in total.

The Order and Unionist political leaders need to provide the type of enlightened leadership for the Orangemen that would see them deal convincingly with the unacceptable face of the annual weekend’s celebrations and remove the source of the antagonism and, as importantly, the platform for dissident republicans (Newt Emerson’s poser to the Loyal Orders some months ago remains as valid today as then.)

Ironically, progressive-minded unionists and nationalists should be united in wanting to resolve the aged problems associated with Loyal Order celebrations; for unionists, the type of long-term political accommodation in the Union they desire will require a level of support from within the Irish nationalist/ catholic community, and eradicating the explicitly sectarian aspect of Orange culture which seeks to provoke their neighbours annually can only be a positive development towards that over-arching political goal.

Similarly for nationalists and republicans, demonstrating a tolerance of the Orange culture is an important element of a political project aiming to promote a united Ireland, contrasting this tolerance with the lack of reciprocal tolerance of their own culture by Unionist leaders if needs dictate.

Of course, there is an alternative course of action, which requires everybody having the freedom to express and exercise their culture without boundaries. Many unionist- and Loyal Order- spokespersons often quote these rights as the basis for their demands for unfettered access to the Queen’s Highway, regardless of the sentiments of local residents.

But the actions of unionists clearly suggest that they are not ready- nor willing- to accept the reciprocal rights they demand being afforded to nationalists, and the fact that a man lies dead in Coleraine due to the appearance of an Irish National flag in the predominantly unionist town starkly emphasises the point. Imagine the furore were loyalist towns to play host to not just flags but Green arches, resplendent with republican flags and slogans, all of this the night after unionist posters and stolen loyalist flags adorned ratepayer-funded bonfires….

Consider also the response of political and paramilitary figures within unionism and loyalism the last time a republican parade was organised for a ‘unionist town-’ Ballymena. On that occasion, DUP MLA’s called on the parade to be banned on the basis that it was a ‘protestant‘ town (an interesting proposition which if applied consistently would see the end to Loyalist parading in Derry, Newry and many other towns and villages which hosted such parades yesterday.)

More seriously, the run up to the parade on that occasion witnessed an orchestrated loyalist campaign attacking catholic homes and properties across north Antrim, all of which points pretty decisively to a firm conclusion that loyalist communities would not entertain the notion of hosting the type of parades the Loyal Orders seek to annually impose on their neighbours.

This is an important point worth thrashing out because the most contentious parade yesterday, along the Crumlin Road in Belfast, has been justified by a number of Order spokesmen and Unionist politicians because they claim it is a main road which should be regarded as a ‘shared space.’ Gerry Kelly was quick to counter this claim by pointing out that unionists would simply not tolerate a republican parade from Legoniel to Ardoyne along the very same ‘shared’ road, and the fact that Nelson McCausland avoided replying to the challenge would indicate he agrees with the assertion.

Yet perhaps there is something in that very proposition which could potentially provide a new way of addressing this thorny problem by developing trust through affording mutual respect. What if loyalists facilitated a republican parade at Easter from Legoniel to Ardoyne in return for an Orange parade unhindered along the Crumlin Road in July?