As a starting point, I am fully aware of the irony, I’m an Orangeman, penning an article outlining my opposition to any type of parade or bonfire over the Twelfth weekend this year. Like Unionism, Orangeism (bands, lodges, and supporters) doesn’t do long term planning, so when the leadership of the Loyal Orange Institution (LOI) decided to cancel this year’s Twelfth celebrations back in March, it was an unexpected and decisive move. The Institution made a long terms decision (well 3.5 months into the future) and it was entirely the correct determination. The decision was welcomed by those both inside and outside of the Orange family, so what could possibly go wrong? Time has been an issue; lockdown measures are easing and this is coupled with uniquely problematic issues that continually arise in Northern Ireland have compounded the problems. I have been inundated with messages, some from journalists asking what on earth is happening this Twelfth of July? So, I thought I would answer these questions via this article and add in some wider considerations. A small caveat, I am not the official spokesperson for the LOI and nor do I hold a leadership position.
What is the Loyal Orange Institution’s Position on the Twelfth?
The Twelfth of July is an Orange event, where orange lodges invite bands to lead them on parade. The LOI will not be participating within this year’s Twelfth, therefore there is no Twelfth.
The Message is Distorted
In recent weeks the clear leadership from the LOI has typically become fragmented, the message is still that the LOI won’t be parading, but they are supporting bands who want to parade in their own areas with the caveat that supporters of these bands should not follow them on parade and that the bands will come to the supporters. Everyone within Orangesim knows this will not happen and the LOI also knows that this caveat will not save them if things go wrong. Whilst everyone within the LOI is disappointed that the Twelfth has been cancelled, due to the pandemic there is little appetite to do anything – especially with an aging membership. However, the LOI has been put under some external pressure with the word “Lundy” inevitably bandied about and this is why they are supporting bands parading within their areas.
What are the bands’ sayings?
With over 550 bands connected to the Protestant parading scene throughout Northern Ireland, the ongoing issue is that there is no overarching body to speak on their behalf, that is why unelected activists have taken the role. Some bands feel under pressure to do a parade on the Twelfth, although many, particularly in rural areas have opted out altogether. Those bands who have applied to parade have committed to ensuring that they will adhere to social distancing and that marshalls will be out in force to manage the crowds. However, it’s obvious from talking to some bandmembers that aside from stating adherence to COVID-19 guidelines to the parade’s commission nothing else has been done. One bandmaster actually indicated to me that he wasn’t even sure if they would “bother doing anything differently as it’s impossible”.
What’s the issue then?
This is a recipe for disaster, at the Somme commemorations on the 1st of July there were innumerable examples of social distancing not being adhered to, even though it was very apparent that the organisers went to great trouble to implement the guidelines. There were several examples posted online in which not only were the guidelines ignored but there was ample evidence of the excessive consumption of alcohol (mainly from “supporters”), which is antithetical to what a Somme commemoration is about. The risks with random bands parading in various parts of Northern Ireland are huge and despite the best intentions’ crowds will gather and others will follow the bands. Social distancing at a parade is a fallacy, for example in Fermanagh bands are trained to parade on narrow roads so members are grouped quite closely together, to believe that they or any other band will be able to parade with 1m gaps between members is a complete fantasy. Also, marshals are not trained to deal with this type of situation and like the Twelfth in days of yore, onlookers will do their own thing anyway.
Parades and bonfires could go ahead with no impact on the virus
This is a huge risk and not one that anyone within Orangeism should be contemplating. If there are any outbreaks of the virus, the LOI and bands will be held to account.
Why the change in Message from the LOI?
There are three reasons, with Covid-19 restrictions lifting, an opportunity has arisen for something to happen, however, as the virus is still within the community and with social distancing in force, having any band on the roads is a risk. The second reason is due to the Republican funeral in West Belfast where senior members of Sinn Fein were in attendance and where there were clear examples of social distancing and guideline breaches. Thirdly, as mentioned previously, there is some external pressure to mark the Twelfth in some way and by supporting bands, the LOI sees this as an easy way out.
Well, Republicans have flouted the rules at a funeral, let’s parade!
Unfortunately, this zero-sum game has been doing the rounds and is hugely counterproductive. This is not about getting one over on Republicans, this is about showing responsible leadership and preventing the spread of the virus. With bands parading randomly on the Twelfth there is a huge risk that the virus will spread and if this happens both the LOI and the bands will be held to account. Also, when things inevitably go wrong on the Twelfth in terms of guideline breaches, Sinn Fein will consider themselves absolved of guideline breaches at the funeral. Ironically Republicans are longing for the Twelfth to come around as they know it will take the heat off Michelle O’Neill whilst showing up Unionist hypocrisy in the process. Furthermore, the wider community will feel that the LOI and bands are irresponsible and a danger to society and this will damage relations going forward. It is hugely infuriating that Orangeism is walking into a trap that it has created.
But a Court Ruling has given the green light for the Twelfth
This is a myth that has been doing the rounds in recent days, there was no need to go to the courts on this as bands and lodges knew they could parade, they just self-imposed the ban to stop the spread of the virus and save lives. There was a ruling by the parade’s commission in terms of a band’s application that forbid it from parading citing COVID-19 guidelines, however, this was always an easy workaround – it’s just that band and lodges have by and large decided not to. It’s really important to point out that the parade’s commission has done nothing wrong (heaven help me for saying that), Orangeism has applied the restrictions – there is again no such thing as getting one over on the parade’s commission on this issue.
It sounds like you’re a Lundy who should leave the Orange Institution
Lundy was a pragmatist who could see the bigger picture and his “treachery” is at best questionable, so I am happy to assume this mantle. However, lodges and bands have made the right decision in March to cancel all parades over the Twelfth and during the interim period they have played a huge role in supporting the community with food parcels, medical equipment and, PPE – this social responsibility is a central plank of what Orangeism is about. We also have a duty of care to protect our communities and the wider public, even one band out on the road can cause a huge risk to the virus spreading. There is an application for a parade in Enniskillen town centre, few to nobody lives within the town centre, so crowds will have to come to the town to watch the parade. In addition to this, many members of lodges and bands as well as the supporters are of a more senior age and more vulnerable to the virus – we have an additional duty of care to protect them. With over 100 bands across Northern Ireland applying to parade, imagine if outbreaks happen in these areas, it could cause a huge loss of life. In years to come the potential to parade in these areas will certainly have been lost and rightly so.
Great, there is nothing to do on the Twelfth
On the contrary, the is a good opportunity to return to our roots, we can use the bank holiday weekend to better understand our heritage, our history, and why after so many years, many people still want to celebrate their Orange heritage. The BBC is running a Twelfth documentary and the day itself can be used to spend important time with family members which are another key aspect of any Twelfth celebration. The Twelfth both the Fermanagh and the Donegal versions are for me two of the best days of the year, however, curbing the virus trumps everything this year.
Surely no Twelfth Presents a risk to Orangeism
It certainly does, particularly for those bands and lodges that rely on the Twelfth to keep going, this may be one of their few meeting points in the year. There is also a huge risk that many lodges will fold that were barely surviving, with no meetings during the year and no Twelfth, recruitment will not happen and with elderly members passing away, these lodges could cease to exist. However, even with the Twelfth and monthly meetings before the pandemic, bands and lodges across Northern Ireland and particularly in Fermanagh were declining and the same is true of the crowds coming to watch. There is a need for a huge rethink on how we operate and on how we’re perceived by outsiders. A self-imposed ban on parades this Twelfth could show the wider population that the LOI is a serious organisation that can act in a socially responsible manner. This could prompt a flurry of interest in terms of people showing up for future parades which can have the knock-on effect of swelling the numbers within bands and lodges.
Who will be held to account if things go wrong?
The LOI will be held to account as they have backed bands parading in their areas, the individual bands will also be held to account as well as those who attend and support bonfires. Unionism’s image along with the image of the LOI and bands will be further diminished. One thing is certain, some high-profile activists who are calling for parades and bonfires to go ahead will accept no responsibility if things go wrong.
Orangeism like Unionism has become corrupted with poor leadership and a natural intinction to react negatively to everything Sinn Fein does, regardless of the consequences. Orangeism like Unionism continually fails to see the bigger picture and is all too often a self-destructing entity that is driven by a tiny unrepresentative minority. By showing leadership this year and by self-imposing bans on all parades and bonfires, Orangeism can show that it can act responsibly, that it is putting the health of the community above its own interests and it will also show that one wrong turn from Sinn Fein doesn’t mean it should be mirrored by Orangeism. Make no mistake, if a band parades in an area and it results in an outbreak of COVID-19 cases, any attempts by bands and lodges to wash their hands off their responsibility will be fruitless. Unionism and Orangesim need to be clear that no parades should occur over the Twelfth weekend as guidelines cannot and will not be adhered to. This is the time to show real leadership and if we’re serious about Northern Ireland working and working for all of its citizens, now is the time to begin this process.
Choyaa is a Fermanagh Orangeman