The Twelfth: ‘it ain’t all burger vans and bouncy castles’

Lyra McKee, Justin Cartwright, Ted Leddy, Barton Creeth, Colin McCusker, Brian John Spencer
Lyra McKee, Justin Cartwright, Ted Leddy, Barton Creeth, Colin McCusker, Brian John Spencer

On Saturday I attended one of the flagship Twelfth demonstrations in Markethill, County Armagh, at the invitation of Orangeman and Ulster Unionist mayor of Craigavon, Colin McCusker. The day was arranged through a friend of mine who comes from a Catholic background in North Belfast. Our intention was no greater than to enjoy a day out with friends and to learn a bit more about Orange culture. I joined commentator and cartoonist, Brian John Spencer; investigative journalist, Lyra McKee; the Fine Gael deputy mayor of Fingal, Ted Leddy; and Australian-born SDLP activist and recent council candidate, Justin Cartwright. While all of us are outsiders to the Orange institutions in some form or another, we were all made to feel incredibly welcomed and included in the day’s events.

If you’ve never attended a country parade, I’ll describe the atmosphere. The streets are lined with people relaxing in lawn chairs, drinking tea and tins of beer, and eating sarnies and crisps. Kids run about and give parents a chance to chat and catch up. Guitarists play pop songs, stands sell coffee and tray bakes. The only explicitly political stand I saw was Willie Frazer and FAIR set up under a banner that read, “OTR: Only Terrorists Run.” Then, of course, the town is bedecked in red, white and blue. Union flags, bunting and Northern Ireland flags cover every corner of every street. It’s not a beacon of inclusiveness—if by inclusiveness you mean culturally neutral. But by no means is it the “hate fest” some would like to mischaracterise the Twelfth as.

The feeling in town is pleasant, celebratory and family-oriented. Bands from all over Northern Ireland and Scotland join with different Orange lodges and parade down the high street towards a field where bouncy castles, burger vans, a stage and a podium await them. As they march, the lodges carry banners that are intricately painted and tell different stories of history and religious events. The men wear immaculate suits beneath their orange collarettes. Each collarette is then decorated in personalised pins which tell the story of each Orange member’s life and beliefs, making each collarette remarkably personal: RAF, Bible, regional lodge, etc.

The music is markedly different than in Belfast Twelfth demonstrations. Belfast parades usually never contain brass, pipe or accordion bands. Rather, Belfast bands are almost entirely flute bands. The tune selection is different too. Without trying to stereotype, there are some Belfast bands that don’t ever seem to learn more than “The Sash,” “Billy Boys,” and “God Save the Queen.” Country bands, on the other hand, play a collection of sacred and traditional tunes, of which I heard “It’s a long way to Tipperary” and “Tell me Ma.” My experience of Blood and Thunder bands is that the music is secondary to the experience of marching. The bands at Markethill, however, took pride in their collective discipline and trained musicianship. The pipe bands play with a solemn dignity and precision I would almost associate with high liturgy. Then there are the Lambeg players. These traditionally-crafted drums are loud and heavy, and some of the older players were assisted by friends who carried the drums from the front to share the burden of the weight.

I didn’t catch what was said at the podium because I was being treated to lunch and tea by Colin’s family, and didn’t pay much attention, which, to be fair, seems to be the norm. While sitting and chatting, UUP DRD Minister Danny Kennedy came by for a chat. He met our Fine Gael and SDLP friends then hurried off to catch up with his lodge. The short chats and brief reunions of people meeting in the field are an important part of the day.

The Twelfth means something different to each participant. Some enjoy the camaraderie experienced by playing music with others. Some enjoy the connection the day gives them to history and their family heritage. For some, marching is a sacred rite. Some want to assert their Britishness and, sadly, antagonise their neighbours. But most seem to simply enjoy the day as a family event. Not all of what happens on the Twelfth is nice. Some engage in heavy drinking. And in some parts of Northern Ireland recently, there were instances that indicate there are deep problems with sectarianism, racism, and a fear-based hatred within loyalist communities. This must be condemned outright. That said, Justin Cartwright had his SDLP election poster burned on a Sandy Row bonfire. That did not prevent him from feeling welcomed and comfortable in Markethill.

It’s unfair, I believe, to characterise the entirety of a culture based on the deviant and hateful behaviour of a minority within that culture. Indeed, this form of reductivism is sectarian. Yet there are serious issues that need to be addressed. “It ain’t all burger vans and bouncy castles!” as one respondent cautioned on Twitter in response to tweets Justin put out about his experience. It is important for those who love the traditions and culture associated with the Twelfth to interrogate why in some parades, some bands do seem intent on stoking sectarian tensions; and why some people put racist and hateful paraphernalia onto the bonfires. But I believe that the “nicer bits” of the Twelfth aren’t just gloss over the “nasty bits”—the history of domination, triumphalism, sectarianism, and bigotry that many commentators point to. What I witnessed was an open, gracious, and welcoming culture proud of its unique traditions, if not somewhat wary of the future of its survival.

Religious diversity remains a cause of tension and violence not just here in Northern Ireland, but all across the world. The solution isn’t to eradicate religion from public life. In the case of the Twelfth, I would like, as the catholic priest Fr. Magill recently said in the Irish News, to see more Protestantism demonstrated on the Twelfth. What’s needed is more religious humility.

The Calvinist theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, says the solution to religious diversity

requires a very high form of religious commitment. It demands that each religion, or each version of a single faith, seek to proclaim its highest insights while yet preserving an humble and contrite recognition of the fact that all actual expressions of religious faith are subject to historical contingency and relativity. Such a recognition creates a spirit of tolerance and makes any religious or cultural movement hesitant to claim official validity for its form of religion or to demand an official monopoly for its cult.

A pluralist, multi-cultural society in Northern Ireland must include a protected place for Orange traditions. Without trying to deny the history of violence, harm, intimidation and fear caused to many Catholics and Nationalists by those that participate in the Twelfth, I would also say that many people need to reevaluate their attitudes towards Orange culture. While there is more than burger vans and bouncy castles, there is likewise more than the instances of bigotry and triumphalism.

At the same time, as the Orange Order seeks to find a place for itself in the new Northern Ireland, I would advocate it show more religious humility. “Religious humility,” Niebuhr says, “is in perfect accord with the presuppositions of a democratic society… Faith ought to be a constant fount of humility; for it ought to encourage men to moderate their natural pride and to achieve some decent consciousness of the relativity of their own statement of even the most ultimate truth.” For the rest of us, instead of judging a religious and cultural tradition by its worst elements, we should seek to see those traditions live into and promote the highest form of its ideals. In the case of Orangism, this is the promotion of religious and civil liberties for all.