Tom Kelly: The Twelfth is now over, so it's time to move along - The Irish News
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Tom Kelly: The Twelfth is now over, so it's time to move along

In many places, the Twelfth of July demonstrations are accompanied by a carnival atmosphere. To most Catholics, it is an alien and often surreal spectacle, says Tom Kelly. Picture by Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

WELL, it's not often we have good news in July but now that the Twelfth is over we should at least acknowledge that it was both peaceable and celebratory.

The mood music caused by the debacle over loyalist bonfires was not good and the Nolan Show fixation about it was anything but helpful. Things could have gone so horribly wrong but thankfully they didn't.

The Orange Order is what it is and it is pointless wishing it to be something else. How a deeply sectarian 17th century organisation survives into the 21st century beggars belief; but this is Northern Ireland and social change comes slowly.

If we could live up to the aspirations of the Glorious Revolution and bring true civil and religious liberty to all, our society would be enriched but we seem to be lumbered with an overdose of religious liberty and not so much of the civil kind.

That said, it is too easy to demonise the Orange Order.

Its membership base is shrinking but its reach goes deep into the unionist psyche and therefore it has a relevance.

Thankfully its political influence is also on the wane. The Order forbids its members from attending Catholic church services but as many of us can testify that's a rule many ordinary rank and file members ignore, especially when it comes to funerals and weddings.

The hierarchy of the organisation turns a blind eye to these breaches - after all, they would end up halving their membership if they did not.

Looking at photos of the Twelfth, most are of smiling, happy shared moments with friends and family. It also crosses generations and certain families take a pride in handing on this tradition to their children.

In some places it is a carnival atmosphere. To most Catholics, it is an alien and often surreal spectacle.

At its base there is a quasi-religious aspect which sometimes seems out of kilter against the backdrop drunken and intimidating followers of the bands which play at demonstrations.

The Pope seems to get an easier time these days and the anti-Catholic rhetoric seems to have all but disappeared - at least from the staged platforms.

The emphasis seems to be less political too, and the messaging seems to be more about asking followers to live good Christian lives.

The Orange Order, like many institutions in Ireland, has a troubling and less than benevolent history and it has contributed negatively to our past by concentrating on differences.

But the organisation has not been without its reformers, like the late Drew Nelson who did much to open up the organisation to the wider public.

The Orange museum is one such positive development, as are the attempts to involve the Order in displaying their regalia at shared events.

Anything which helps us understand the so-called other side better can only be for the good. It is challenging at times to see unionist politicians walking in demonstrations because it seems at odds with their public representative role which is about serving everyone equally.

It's all about perception, but Sinn Féin politicians also seem to eulogise weekly at events which to unionists seem like celebrations of terrorism.

There's a certain pageantry to the Twelfth of July, and while 'Orangefest' may have never really taken off there is at least some attempt to make what to some must seem like a bewildering celebration appealing to tourists.

The downside to last week had very little to do with the Orange Order and much to do with the malign influence of loyalist paramilitaries - they have never gone away, you know...

There's little doubt that feral youths did not invest their WKD money to buy pallets, hire cherry pickers and steal nationalist and Alliance election posters to burn as effigies on the bonfires.

Particularly stomach-turning was the picture of the late deputy first minister Martin McGuinness in a coffin on a pyre of hate and sectarian bile.

Just how anyone thinks that is acceptable behaviour is beyond me. It has to be said that there were unionist voices of condemnation, led by the DUP leader Arlene Foster, but there needs to be more stepping out of political comfort zones and calling some acts for what they are.

Unionist councillors who backed the Belfast City Council injunction against unsafe bonfires deserve credit. It was courageous.

Jamie Bryson's colourful description of the taking over of public car parks for bonfires as 'cultural expression zones' deserves put alongside the compost in those new brown bins.

The Twelfth is now over, trouble-free, so move along.

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