Ulster marching band numbers at record high…

As featured in today’s Belfast Newsletter, Irish News and Belfast Telegraph; tonight a new report is being launched by the Northern Ireland Youth Forum. The report has interviewed a cross section of bands people across Northern Ireland, looking at views and highlighting the levels of marginalisation felt.

The responses to reports like this are close to predictable. Are the predictable (also read stereotypical) responses to this and other reports in any way useful? Of course not.

For ALL areas of Northern Irish society where expressions of identity manifest themselves and perceptions of ‘controversiality’(sic) exist, we all should make much more effort to understand the intrinsic reasoning and functions of the activity. When anyone, of whatever political or cultural hue, makes blanket broad judgements and statements about a specific activity, they are simply propagating divisions and misunderstanding.

As a marching band activist for want of a better word, I contributed a foreword to the report, included below. Slugger is a useful resource for discussion. Can we try for once and keep a topic free from ‘whataboutery’, instead asking and answering questions? Exploring and trying to understand? Doesn’t mean there will be agreement, but just maybe that understanding can create a modicum of empathy that can contribute to establishing solutions to certain issues.

Many different images evoke memories of Northern Ireland’s recent troubled history; however one of the most familiar and striking is that of the ‘parade’. Usually only covered by the media when there was some sort of controversial aspect, these parades had one common feature – the Ulster Band, consequently the Ulster marching band has for many a negative image. They are associated with violence, with sectarianism and paramilitaries. In turn they get automatically tarred with many negative characteristics within modern society such as alcohol abuse and vandalism.

These assumptions cannot be further from the truth. Many are constructed purely from the sensationalist media coverage, others from ill informed anecdotal evidence; while some are founded in direct political motivation against the culture and community from whence bands come. In truth bands are about expressing identity, about celebrating heritage. They educate their members and instil discipline. They perform a role uniting small communities, providing entertainment, opportunities to socialise, and most of all give something to motivate and to be proud of.

The Ulster Band movement has been on this island for a long time. For two centuries the Protestant, Unionist, Loyalist people of Ireland have expressed themselves musically through the marching band, a legacy of that community’s historical ties and connections with the British military. In fact, its foundation in Ireland and its continual development here arguably gives it the right to call itself Irish Traditional music more-so than any other musical genre!

Many outside the ranks of bands continually proclaim that they need to explain themselves. And they should, but more collective responsibility needs to be taken on these issues. Today this movement has almost 30,000 members. It is growing and there are now more bands within the six counties of Northern Ireland than have ever existed within their borders before. This body is not going away anywhere soon. Like all aspects of our society that have controversial elements, it is incumbent on us all to make efforts to educate and understand as opposed to give uninformed blanket condemnation. For the detractors of bands- it is not enough just to ask for explanation. You have to listen.

Unashamed Ulster Loyalist. Marching band activist and band member for over 25 years. Contributor for the Belfast Newsletter and currently studying History at QUB.