Turning Orange marches into a tourist event

[This is taken from A Note from the Next Door Neighbours, the monthly e-bulletin of Andy Pollak, Director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh and Dublin]

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 Orangemen’s 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 North’s great untold stories), engage in children’s 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 leadership’s 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 they’re 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 we’re allowed to dream, aren’t we?

Andy Pollak

  • Seamus McGreevey

    This is by far the most bigoted post I have ever read on slugger. How can we ever expect peace between our peoples when such sectarian minds as Pollak’s exist?

  • slug

    Pollak seemed not so much bigoted as unimaginative when he says:

    “It may be an impossible dream – but we’re allowed to dream, aren’t we?”

    I don’t think it remotely impossible. I would say that the OO is moving in this direction and the publicity around the day is changing. The BBC have to catch up a bit – there should be more “build up” items on Newsline each day in the run up to the 12th etc., visiting people as they prepare for the big day. And there needs to be more work on all the fringe events and the variety of music. The day could be extended over a week of open air cultural events and performances. It is a very good time of year for that sort of development.

  • “…sample the ladies’ marvellous home baking (one of the North’s great untold stories)”

    I’ve eaten in a lot of restaurants in the Six Counties and what’s remarkable is the poor quality of the establishments and service. More remarkable is the limited menus and the bland taste of what is served as if they’ve tried to cook the good taste out of the food. As for my Presbyterian relatives and home baking …let me just say that I’d rather bring sandwichs when visiting. I usually load up with a big feed before crossing the border and comment that “they seem intent on proving the Britishness by serving bad food”.
    Please prove me wrong and maybe include your top ten list of places to eat (by county)

  • RepublicanStones

    ‘The day could be extended over a week of open air cultural events and performances.’

    Stretch a day out to last a week….some trick, but ummm, no thanks.

  • David

    Leaflets were handed out at 12th demonstrations across the country calling for the traditional 12th to be restored. Article about this on http://www.orangestandards.blogspot.com

  • Glencoppagagh

    “tens of thousands of Catholics and middle-class Protestants flee the province in order to avoid the ‘Twelfth’”

    Not this old cliche again. It couldn’t possibly be anything to do with the fact that it’s a lot cheaper to go on holiday than later in the summer and many small businesses are in the habit of closing for a week or two from the 12th.

  • 6countyprod

    ‘The Orange Order has a huge – and maybe endless – distance to travel’

    Ha! It’s abundantly clear that Andy Pollak is lagging away behind the OO! What a bitter diatribe. It’s evident Andy hasn’t even started his journey.

    PS Just a reminder, ‘the Catholic Garvaghy Road’ was actually a mixed area before it was ethnically cleansed in the early 70’s

  • Paul

    6

    ethnically cleansed? You really have to give up this fallacy and come into the light

  • 6countyprod

    You’re right, Paul, emotive language doesn’t really address the issue properly. Sorry.

    How about using plain and simple language like:’the Catholic Garvaghy Road’ was actually a mixed area before the Protestants/Unionists were intimidated from their homes by their Catholic/Nationalist/Republican neighbours who used a series of subtle and not-so-subtle means – breaking windows, damaging cars, shooting guns outside people’s homes, issuing threats in the local bar, etc – to force them to vacate the area.

    Fallacy, Paul? Facts are stubborn things. They don’t go away!

  • Paul

    OH so like the unionists did to the gypseys a couple of weeks ago, you should have just said!

  • Smellycat

    Why don’t they just do their ultra-religious thing and forget about the bending of the knee to england. Thats where the real embarrassment lies with the OO.

  • 6countyprod

    Red herring, Paul. Andy is the blind bigot that he castigates in his polemic.

  • SM

    OH so like the unionists did to the gypseys a couple of weeks ago, you should have just said!
    Posted by Paul on Jul 16, 2009 @ 12:30 AM

    I think you’ll find it was a few low-life scum from loyalist areas, not “unionists” who were involved in that series of crimes.

  • Paul

    13.OH so like the unionists did to the gypseys a couple of weeks ago, you should have just said!
    Posted by Paul on Jul 16, 2009 @ 12:30 AM

    I think you’ll find it was a few low-life scum from loyalist areas, not “unionists” who were involved in that series of crimes.

    Posted by SM on Jul 16, 2009 @ 12:25 PM

    you can split that hair if you want loyalist criminals are unionist scum but unionists none the less

  • RepublicanStones

    ‘I think you’ll find it was a few low-life scum from loyalist areas, not “unionists” who were involved in that series of crimes.’

    Thats a very Malone road/Brown Thomas attiude.

  • 6countyprod

    BBC: advocate of Travellers’ rights says anti-racists ‘fed NI Roma crisis’

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/low/northern_ireland/8153386.stm

  • oldruss

    I’m a Yank, and I’ve never had the pleasure of attending a July Twelfth celebration. Traveling across the pond with the Twelfth as the focus of such a trip has never occured to me. I may be the exception rather than the rule, but I doubt it. Going to Dublin for St. Patrick’s Day would probably occur to many more Yanks than would a trip to Belfast for the Twelfth.

    I have read news accounts about previous celebrations surrounding the Twelfth, and most of them left quite a negative impression. The first time the press here in the States seemed to pick up on the story, as I recall, was the Drumcree standoff and the death of the three Quinn brothers in a near-by village. The wide-spread rioting in Belfast and other areas that followed the Parades Commission’s decision one year not to allow the Orange Order to march down Garvaghy Road was also covered on this side of the pond.

    That sort of set the tone, and unless and until there’s a significant PR campaign, that’s the impression with which I’m left, fair or not.