This is the Orange marching season. It is a traditionally a time of heightened inter-community tensions in Northern Ireland, when tens of thousands of Catholics and middle-class Protestants flee the province in order to avoid the Twelfth and its accompanying displays of sectarian triumphalism. In the late-1990s the Portadown Orangemens insistence on marching from Drumcree church through the Catholic Garvaghy Road area brought the North to the edge of widespread communal conflict. The political scientist Dr Duncan Morrow, now the head of the Community Relations Council, writing at the height of the Drumcree crisis, reported Catholics in Armagh talking about civil relationships which were terminated for the month of July, during which there was no contact except public exchange of insults.
We can only hope that Drumcree is a scar that will heal with time. The Orange Order has certainly been scarred by it. Some longstanding Orangemen, such as Rev Brian Kennaway, chairman of the cross-border Irish Association, believe the Order is now facing irreversible decline in urban areas like Belfast and Portadown, as many traditional members become disillusioned because of its connections with loyalist paramilitarism. The elderly besuited gentlemen marching in their lodges in the main Belfast parade on 12th July are now invariably followed by Kick the Pope loyalist bands, made up of shaven-headed young men who make little secret of their bloodcurdling anti-Catholic attitudes and paramilitary affiliations.
This is reflected in a sharply falling membership. The unionist News Letter recently reported a decline in Orange Order membership during the years of the Northern Troubles from over 93,000 in 1968 to less than 36,000 in 2006. Orange leaders like Grand Secretary Drew Nelson blame this on the general decrease in traditional religious observance and the new ethos of the state in Northern Ireland, so that, for example, policemen now have to notify their superiors if they are members. But the bigotry and violence of so many of its manifestations must also be playing its part. One senior Orangeman estimates that there are now a mere 2,500 Orangemen on the books in the Belfast area.
In rural areas the picture is somewhat different. There the anti-Catholic bigotry may still be under the surface, but it is more controlled and less obvious. The Order is seen as a unifying force that brings all elements of the Protestant community together for peaceful religious and social gatherings every summer. Ironically, one of the regions where this is most true is in the Southern border counties of Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan, where there may be only around 700 Orangemen, but they manage to bring the community together for five enormous picnics every summer. At these events crowds of up to 2,000 people gather to hear bands, visit stalls, sample the ladies marvellous home baking (one of the Norths great untold stories), engage in childrens activities like face-painting and bouncing castles, and generally have an enjoyable day out.
Now yet another face of the Orange Order is beginning to emerge: the Orange marching season as cultural festival and tourist attraction. The leaderships attempts to rebrand the 12th July parade as an Orangefest may be derided by some who believe the old anti-Catholic leopard will never change its spots, but unusual alliances are being forged to try to build on these faltering first steps.
In July 2005 a senior official of the all-island tourism marketing body, Tourism Ireland, boarded an empty northbound train on the morning of the Twelfth to watch the Belfast parade and begin talking to Orange leaders about how they might begin to sell their flagship event. He and his colleagues argued that economic development as well as heritage were involved here. Whereas July in most European countries is one of the two biggest months for tourism, hotel occupancy in Northern Ireland in that month was deeply depressed. And the sine qua non of bringing in tourists was guaranteeing their safety and security.
In 2006 it was decided to focus efforts on four flagship festival parades, and Orangefest was initiated at the largest of these in Belfast. Stewards were trained to welcome visitors. The Grand Orange Lodge visited Dublin and last month New York to see how the parades could be marketed in places like the Southern states of the US and Canada where there are strong Ulster-Scots connections. Tourist chiefs point to shops now staying open and more people booking into hotels in Belfast around the Twelfth as evidence that their efforts are starting slowly to have an effect.
There are many who will continue to scoff at this initiative. They will say that the Orange Order has a huge and maybe endless distance to travel before its ancient triumphalism and bigotry can be transformed into the kind of feel good atmosphere that makes for a successful cultural, religious or folk festival.
Maybe theyre right. But as long ago as 1983, in the midst of the Troubles, the editor of the Irish Times, Douglas Gageby, himself a Belfast Protestant (although of a nationalist persuasion), argued : In what we now call a pluralist Ireland, the Orange Order would become purely a celebratory social organisation making a strong contribution to the life of the whole country. It may be an impossible dream but were allowed to dream, arent we?