A Tale of Two Twelfths…

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

This opening paragraph from Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities sums up many people’s views on the Twelfth with the appropriate text deleted or highlighted depending on the individual’s perspective. The Twelfth itself and the wider Orange Institution can also be divided into two, with what some see as the more family-oriented rural Twelfths juxtaposed against the more unfriendly urban Twelfths, the Belfast Twelfth comes in for notable criticism annually.

It’s easy to make sweeping generalisations about the Twelfth, but there are notable differences between what happens in Belfast and what happens elsewhere, which is difficult to reconcile as they celebrate the same things and are organised by the same entity with the same rules applying to everyone. I read an article on Slugger titled “A Free Stater’s Guide to the Belfast Twelfth”, depicting a very sterile, almost post-apocalyptic version of the event, it sounded dreadful. The views of the individual are valid and should be of interest to those of us who want to improve the Twelfth overall; however, it would be unfair to depict them as an accurate view of the Twelfth in its totality. The Belfast Twelfth has obvious problems that need addressing from anti-social behaviour to paramilitary trappings.

Having attended several mini-Twelfths in Belfast that double as Battle of the Somme commemorations, the problems were brought into sharp focus. On one side, there is a celebration of religious identity and culture, and on the other, it’s about remembering those who fought and died at the Somme. This is an uneasy balancing act. Ironically, the event fails on both fronts, and a key problem is some of the wider trappings that have crept in and are now unwanted and extremely noisy fixtures. For several years, I have witnessed people watching the parade so intoxicated on alcohol and are drugs that they are both a danger to themselves and others: people vomiting, people relieving themselves against public and private property, drug taking, trash strewn on war memorials, church property desecrated and even within the parade, some were drunk. When the parade stopped for a ten-minute interval, many within the procession began drinking alcohol, usually provided by a “runner” who parallels the bands and lodges during the parade. None of this was befitting of an event aimed at commemorating those who fought at the Somme; if anything, it was extremely disrespectful, and none of this was appropriate for a Twelfth event aimed at celebrating religious and cultural identity.

In adherence to the rules of the Orange Institution, these are all disciplinary issues that the organisation in Belfast chooses to simply ignore. Having made a tweet on social media regarding this event, some loyalists sought to dismiss these observations, claiming them to be “untrue Ironically, while such dismissals are aimed at defending the event, in actuality, by ignoring a growing problem, these individuals are only exasperating the issues and causing untold damage to the Orange Institution and the wider parading and cultural scene.

Before the Twelfth begins, there will be the inevitable bad press from several bonfires due to the dangerous nature of some, the burning of effigies and emblems, anti-social behaviour, and drunkenness, some of which spill over into the Twelfth. Then, if there are problems within the Belfast Twelfth, which there were again this year, this is what gets the lion’s share of the coverage, and this causes huge annoyance to those participating in Twelfths elsewhere. It’s also unfair on many who participate/attend the Belfast Twelfth and want the many problems addressed but end up getting tarred with the same brush when it comes to criticism of the event. The Orange Institution only runs a handful of very small bonfires, it can still influence the wider bonfire scene; therefore, there should be a statement from the leadership of the organisation in conjunction with the leaders of the DUP and UUP to encourage better behaviour at the bonfires and, on the Twelfth, and clear condemnation when wrongdoing occurs.

The Orange Institution in Belfast has recognised there’s a problem with the city’s Twelfth, and proposals are being considered to vastly reduce the size of the parade, remove the Field, and end the event at around 2 pm. The proposals have several key problems. By cutting out the Field, the religious element is removed, and this is the underlying reason for the Twelfth. A second issue is that an early finish reduces the overall Twelfth experience, and the shorter parade will undoubtedly eliminate parts of the route that will disappoint many. The main issue for the Orange Institution in Belfast is that the plans were drawn up and leaked without a wider internal discussion (a huge problem within the organisation) with lodges across Belfast, highlighting a disconnect between the hierarchy and rank-and-file members. There is some validity to the proposals, such as purging areas that have become havens for anti-social behaviour and reducing the route, which is currently far too long and has resulted in many parading ten miles to the field and then having to repeat the journey for the return leg. Some detractors have slated the Orange Institution for so willingly changing a “traditional route” when it has frequently been against such moves; however, routes for Twelfths everywhere change frequently, including in Belfast, where the Field has only in recent years been at Barnett’s Demesne.

One of the reasons for the proposed shortening of the route in Belfast is due to the membership of the Orange Institution greying and declining. This is an issue that the organisation battles almost everywhere, and it’s something that there have been few attempts to seriously address. In places such as Fermanagh, which has a completely different Twelfth from Belfast, the story of decline is very much the same. At this year’s Twelfth, there were noticeably fewer lodges on parade than ever before; visiting lodges from the Republic were hit the hardest, many had no members walking after the banner and several bands were struggling. The news wasn’t much better for the Fermanagh contingency with at least a handful of lodges eroded, others relying on non-members to carry their banners and several bands noticeably smaller.

Some of the decline was inevitable; in Tamlaght, where the Pipe Band folded in recent years, the accompanying lodge was always going to follow suit. Trory lodge had been in trouble for years, unable to attract a solitary new member.

The scene isn’t particularly rosy across other districts, with Tempo, Maguiresbridge, Enniskillen, Ballinamallard, and Lisnaskea all looking very fragile on parade. The biggest concern for Orangeism in Fermanagh is that not just lodges but districts are disappearing. Church Hill is an example of this, an area that had four lodges and a large band but now only has the manpower for one banner to come out with around 20 members, mostly elderly, and a much-reduced band. This is a district teetering on the brink of extinction and could follow a Belfast trend whereby districts are amalgamated. The decline in Orangeism is to a large degree self-inflicted; there is a leadership void at the top of the organisation with a Grand and Deputy Master, along with the Chief Executive, who are all relatively invisible and seem to be addressing none of the issues the organisation faces such as outdated rule, communication problems, image problems, disciplinary issues, recruitment, purpose, etc etc.

It may seem harsh to be critical of the leadership team, who, except for the Chief Executive, are unpaid and oversee positions that carry huge responsibilities and accompanying headaches, but this is why the roles should be remunerated and people appointed who can properly run the organisation.

Presently, the only communication most members get from the leadership team is by listening to the annual interview on Radio Ulster between Mervyn Gibson (the Grand Secretary) and William Crawley. The lack of a PR department for an entity that runs into a multitude of problems is an issue, and fighting unwinnable battles publicly, such as the Drumcree dispute, only serves to further tarnish the Orange Institution. Other difficulties are at the grassroots level: lodges and districts with the same leadership team for the past forty years, members who are unable to articulate what the Institution is about, and very senior members failing to attract recruits, including more often than not immediate family members; it’s no longer a case of loving to wear the “Sash my Father wore”.

The main issue with the organisation is that, despite its reduced membership, it remains remarkably fractured, which explains very different perceptions of the same organisation. There are noticeable divergences between rural and urban entities, but also between regular members and the hierarchy; friction between lodges, districts, and counties often results in disconnect, all driven by a leadership vacuum right at the very top. Many lodges act autonomously, which only increases fragmentation throughout the organisation, and this causes further internal problems with communication, discipline, and connectivity.

Districts can also operate with autonomy, which in recent times brought the organisation into further disrepute when a District Master was appointed in Cookstown unbeknownst to most members within the district, only for it to be broadcast in the media that the new District Master had been convicted of killing his wife. The individual was forced to resign, and an apology was made. This scenario highlighted four problems that cripple the Orange Institution everywhere:

  1. The suitability or unsuitability of some of those in leadership roles
  2. Poor decision-making
  3. The autonomous nature of internal sections of the organisation
  4. Public Relations disaster

The disconnect within Orangeism can be felt particularly hard for lodges that are struggling, as there is no natural outlet that they can avail of for support. In Fermanagh, where membership has been decreasing, the previous leadership team, with their infinite wisdom, dissolved the “Recruitment and Retention” committee, which offered a central point of support to all lodges, although it was notoriously difficult to connect with. There is little analysis done on why members leave the organisation or what current members would like to see change, and whatever analysis is done is ignored. Small lodges are left to quietly fold; there is no formal connection with the bands, who are similarly left to fold if they’re struggling; and lodges across counties and associated bands generally lack a joined-up approach.

The Orange Institution has been searching for a raison d’être, latching onto things like the Protocol, Irish Language Act and old disputes such as Drumcree in a way to appear relevant, but these ventures usually damage the organisation. The Orange Institution doesn’t always take feedback well; supporters complaining about ill-discipline or sloppy appearances while on parade, which can include Orangemen and women as well as bandmembers wearing tracksuits and trainers, are generally dismissed.

If the organisation is struggling to sell itself to its supporters, then that is a sure sign of trouble. When receiving feedback from the public on the Fermanagh Twelfth, one of the key points made every year is the lack of toileting facilities, which makes the day family-unfriendly. This feedback, like everything else that is received, is dismissed, and that is why people are dismissing the Orange Institution.

The lack of any structured attempt to recruit on the Twelfth or even explain the event is a huge anomaly. I know of people who have tried to join the Orange and have approached a member on the Twelfth only to be shocked to discover the next meeting for the lodge they wish to join is not until the 11th of July the following year, or the member approached promises to get back to the person but doesn’t, or in some instances, the member approached doesn’t know what to do.

The very empty Demonstration Fields during the religious service result in complaints from the leadership, but nothing is done to address the problem, and during this period many people leave and go home. There are better ways to structure the day so that people don’t lose interest after the inward parade, but the leadership is tin-eared to all suggestions.

The Orange Institution needs more operational uniformity across different regions; the pick-and-mix style of Orangeism serves only to dilute and tarnish the organisation. Where flexibility is needed, the Orange should be more accommodating. Reviewing the annual number of parades is essential; there are too many. For example, on two Sundays in succession there was an Orange parade in Maguiresbridge; one was a church parade and one was an anniversary parade (which included a church service); both parades were poorly attended, and on both occasions the church had a very small congregation.

There needs to be more reason for members to join and remain, rather than being used as cash cows to bolster revenue, and having meetings each month on a day that doesn’t suit most members but won’t be changed is a case of being thran just for the sake of it. The structure of the Twelfth needs adjusting too; having the religious service before the main parade, a large cultural experience within the Field at the interval, and then the traditional return parade in the evening is worth considering. Also, in recent years, the leadership teams across different counties and certainly in Fermanagh have spent considerable time attending various church parades. While this is a commendable action that is appreciated by the host lodge or district, their time would be better spent visiting lodges under their jurisdiction, particularly those that are facing extinction, to ascertain what can be done to help them.

I have said before that in Fermanagh the right people are within the leadership team but they’re following old failed practices. One of the few positives for Orangeism within Fermanagh is the growth of the women’s lodges, some doubling in size, while several new lodges have been formed. Admittedly, the growth is coming from an extremely low baseline, and the overall figure remains relatively small; however, it does present a small bright spot in an overall bleak picture.

With so many problems, why would anyone want to be associated with the Orange Institution? The organisation has sections that work, and this is frequently due to effective individuals driving projects along. For example, large sums of money are raised annually for charity; this year, 24 Orangemen from Banbridge climbed Kilimanjaro, raising over £257,000 for children’s charities.

The Institution provides members with opportunities to advance their education, and with the leadership roles within the organisation, some people who have never had this type of experience before can grow and blossom. The organisation as a whole has a much more interesting membership mix, well beyond the usual stereotypes that are depicted, and it’s much larger and more diverse than all the Unionist parties combined and quadrupled.

Many members like that the organisation is Unionist but above party politics, with lodges often consisting of UUP, DUP, and TUV members and many who are non-political, something the leadership would do well to remember. The religious, cultural, and historical aspects of the organisation are also key to why many people become and remain members.

In addition to this, there are accompanying bands that provide opportunities for so many people to learn instruments for free, with individuals volunteering their time to tutor new members. In Fermanagh, many of the bands are not from towns or even villages but townlands, and while the Protestant community in Fermanagh is relatively small, to be able to produce and maintain approximately 55 bands is very impressive. Within Fermanagh, there have been at least three occasions in recent times in which church parades have been attacked with people (usually grown men) shouting IRA slogans and directing extremely vile abusive, and sexual comments at those on parade with younger girls often of primary school age singled out.

It does make me proud to be a member of the Orange in Fermanagh when, under such duress, there has been no reaction from anyone on parade, with the official policy always being to “hold the position”. It’s valid for people to have criticisms of the parades, but there are better ways to voice opposition, and frankly, anyone shouting vile sexual comments at girls of primary school age should be dealt with by the police. This brought into focus the altercation in Ballycastle, in which, after mild provocation from one member of the public who was seeking a reaction, an entire band lost their discipline and responded in range, thus putting a negative focus on the parade. It’s the same organisation; the only difference was that the three accounts in Fermanagh were much more toxic and consisted of much younger members on parade, but the reaction was entirely different.

The coverage the Twelfth receives can also be divided into two categories: positive and negative, good coverage and less good coverage. Few within Orangeism would publicly admit this, but the BBC Highlight’s programme is the gold standard; it remains the only coverage of the Twelfth that depicts something that is relatable and feels authentic. The programme does have some weaknesses, including interviewing members and supporters who are unable to articulate what the Twelfth is about and frequently just utter references to the weather and “culture”.

Another problem is some of the bland commentaries over the parades, with David Hume reading out the names of lodges nobody has heard of celebrating anniversaries few are interested in, the commentary needs to more vibrant and interesting, otherwise it would be better just to listen to the bands on parade. Also, some of the information that is read out is inaccurate and was probably supplied by the local lodges, etc., without being proof-checked.

For example, it was claimed Fermanagh had 92 lodges on parade; this is incorrect as some of those lodges have folded, while many others are unable to parade on their own and have to fall behind various other lodges. Outside the BBC, the overall coverage wasn’t great; UTV has broadcast the same programme for the last 30 years; GB News was ambitious, but at over two hours in length, it’s too long, and it ends long before most Twelfths have begun; there were also several awkward moments caught on camera that didn’t advertise the day in a positive light. The most disappointing coverage overall was within many of the newspapers; much of the coverage was written long before the Twelfth occurred, with a few photographs of the day added to make it look relevant. A big issue here is that most media outlets will run with whatever Orange Intuition provides them; therefore, if it’s bland and generic, it’s largely the fault of Orange Intuition.

The Twelfth and the Orange Institution are difficult concepts to articulate; whether you love, hate, or are indifferent to both will depend on your perspective. Few have done a worse job at articulating what both of these are about than the Orange Institution itself. The decline that is currently ongoing won’t be reversed until there are fundamental changes within the organisation at both a leadership and operational level. An organisation that continually steps on rakes needs very few opponents, and two things are certain regardless of how you view the Twelfth experience: for the 2024 Twelfth, the Orange Institution will continue to walk on rakes, and membership will have dwindled even further, with the wise elders of the Institution scratching their heads in bewilderment as to how this could have happened.

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