The South needs to be Creative in how it might Recognise the Twelfth…

The Green Party TD, Patrick Costello – a member of the Oireachtas Good Friday Agreement Committee – recently suggested that the 12th of July should become a public holiday in the South as a way of uniting “all the peoples of this island”. There is no significant political or civil society grouping in the Irish Republic who disagree with uniting all the peoples of this island.

But there are significant implications for such a proposal given the nature of the Southern state. It is a republic, shunning special treatment for any grouping that promotes a religious agenda. The British government calls the 12th of July public holiday “The Battle of the Boyne / Orangemen’s Day”. The Orange Order professes civil and religious liberty for all, yet it forbids members from attending the funerals of Catholics. The victory of William over James at the Boyne paved the way for the Treaty of Limerick which led to the introduction of Penal Laws against both Catholics and Presbyterians. The Orange Order is loyal to the King precisely because a Catholic cannot become monarch.

How can the Irish Republic countenance having a state-sanctioned public holiday celebrating an event that led to the impoverishment and oppression of the ancestors of the vast majority of people on both sides of the border on the basis of religion? A public holiday that celebrates one gender is also unimaginable in a republic.

I went to an Orange parade this Twelfth in Templepatrick. There were about forty marchers departing from the village’s Orange lodge, split evenly between lodge members and band members. A similar number watched from the footpath, either walking their dog or waving at their friends and neighbours. There were no profane words or banners, rather a huge sense of pride among those participating was evident. I recognised some of the tunes as ones you might hear at a traditional music session. Yes, some marches are a hatefest of sectarianism, but many, if not most, aren’t.

In the event of a united Ireland, will the 12th of July cease to be a public holiday? Surely not, yet leaving such a decision until after reunification makes a referendum vote in Northern Ireland in favour of reunification less likely. The question for the South, then, is: how do we inaugurate a public holiday on the Twelfth without irrevocably sectarianizing our state?

Are there secular aspects of Orangeism that resonate with all the peoples of this island? The Orange Order sees the Protestant Reformation and the accession of William of Orange to the throne as the victory of parliament over divine rule by a monarch and the guarantee of civil and religious liberty for all. Practically everyone on this island supports parliamentary democracy and civil and religious liberty. So let’s create a new public holiday in the South on the 12th of July that celebrates liberty: a Twelfth against Tyranny or a Twelfth for Tolerance. Democracy is precious and should be celebrated. We could call it Democracy Day.

We should count ourselves incredibly fortunate that, excluding Westminster elections, both parts of Ireland have the proportional representation electoral system. PR-STV is a celebration of the diversity of the peoples of this island. You have to be nice to your opponents to gain transfers. Perhaps this is why Southern politics is not as toxic as in many other democracies. PR has helped to make a coalition possible between Civil-War antagonists in the South. PR has facilitated the growth of centre-ground politics in Northern Ireland. Let’s celebrate those who campaigned for both the introduction of PR in 1920 (such as Arthur Griffith) and for its reintroduction in the North (NICRA and others). And others, such as the Orange Order, would be free to interpret and celebrate Democracy Day in their own way.

Let’s not forget that William of Orange was also Head of State (Stadtholder) of the Dutch Republic. He – and our past – is more complex than our tribal simplicities would wish. He was not bigoted against Catholics: many of his Dutch subjects were Catholics. It was the Anglican establishment that instituted the Penal Laws through the Dublin parliament, not William in the Treaty of Limerick. There is a way for both monarchists and republicans to give him, if not effusive, perhaps a grudging respect.

In his poem The Settle Bed, Seamus Heaney wrote “whatever is given can be reimagined”. So let’s reimagine the Twelfth in the South. Let not great hatred and little room maim us for the future. A new public holiday to celebrate democracy and tolerance can only help salve our raw wounds of fear and distrust.


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