Chris Donnelly: The Orange Order can learn from Féile an Phobail

Chris Donnelly

Chris Donnelly

Chris is a political commentator with a keen eye for sport. He is principal of a Belfast primary school.

The Drumcree dispute led to violence, murder and mayhem 25 years ago; the Orange Order DUP-backed efforts to revive the parade this year failed to gain traction
The Drumcree dispute led to violence, murder and mayhem 25 years ago; the Orange Order DUP-backed efforts to revive the parade this year failed to gain traction The Drumcree dispute led to violence, murder and mayhem 25 years ago; the Orange Order DUP-backed efforts to revive the parade this year failed to gain traction

Even in the land of the dreary steeples, time does not stand still. For some, that lesson remains to be learnt in this society, and foremost amongst the slowest of learners in that regard are to be found the leaders of the Orange Order.

This year, the loyal brethren decided it would be a good idea to make a big deal about Drumcree once again. A special parade and protest event was organised to mark 25 years since Orange lodges were refused permission to parade through the overwhelmingly nationalist Garvaghy Road area of Portadown.

The Order even took out full page advertisements to try and portray themselves as victims of an injustice. Something inside so strong, eh?

Those of us of a certain age heard the once familiar arguments trotted out in defence of the loyal orders' cause. Human rights. Civil and religious liberties. The king's highway. Main arterial routes.

In spite of the best efforts of the firebrand DUP MP, Carla Lockhart, to give oxygen to the Orange cause by raising it at Westminster and in local television studios, the issue failed to gather any momentum.

What was most striking about this summer's attempt to revive the Drumcree dispute is how little traction it gained within broader unionism. Even loyal Ulster has grown weary, and for good reason.

Many lives were lost as a consequence of Drumcree, including Michael McGoldrick, a young father who graduated from Queen's University only to be murdered by Mid-Ulster loyalists days later whilst working as a taxi driver.

Read more:Jake O'Kane: Can the madness around bonfires and the Twelfth really be called 'culture'?

Read more:Why is the Orange Order not demanding the DUP returns to Stormont?

Read more:Patrick Murphy: What exactly is the Orange Order celebrating?

An RUC man, Frank O'Reilly, was also killed after a blast bomb attack in September 1998 only weeks after the Quinn children had been so brutally killed by loyalists in their family home.

The truth is that, for vast swathes of people across Northern Ireland, both pro-Union and pro-Unity, the loyal orders are viewed as an arcane, outdated and sectarian institution. That must sting the many for whom membership of the orders is a family affair or communal rite of passage, and it is to their leadership whom ordinary members should look for the blame of where they find themselves today.

Whilst the orders may be given a wide berth by many, it remains the case that these institutions are provided a remarkable degree of coverage – and allowance – by broadcasters and daily newspapers in the north of Ireland.

Many loyalist paramilitary-aligned bands continue to play songs both sectarian and in praise of loyalist paramilitaries whilst marching in the very parades which are faithfully the subject of extensive television highlight programmes by the BBC and UTV, with daily newspapers still producing bumper editions filled with photographs of these bands.

In a similar vein, the ugly reality of how paramilitarism and sectarianism is woven into a dangerous bonfire culture that led to one death in Larne last year and a near miss in Newtownards this year sits uneasily beside stories praising the engineering traits of builders and referencing unofficial world records. Those pesky elephants must not be allowed to take the shine off the big occasion...

Yet amidst it all, an unexpected glimmer of hope could be detected this year with news that the Orange Order is considering making changes to its flagship Belfast parade in response to the scenes of drunkenness that have become a defining feature of the event.

Their proposal to alter the traditional route to curtail the duration of the parade makes eminent sense from an Orange perspective whilst also ironically undercutting the brethren's argument for the preservation of contentious parades on the very grounds of tradition. There was even a suggestion that a register of bands could be devised to help regulate conduct.

The most important aspect of the Orange Order's proposal is how it implicitly concedes the necessity of regulation. The reality is that, since inception, the Parades Commission has rescued the loyal orders from themselves. Many parades that continue to annually take place through overwhelmingly nationalist and republican communities would long ago have been lost to the loyal orders were it not for regulation calming communal waters, for the betterment of us all.

There will always be a place for the acquired tastes of summer in Belfast, and that applies to August as well as July.

Perish the thought, but the Belfast Orange leadership could do worse than look to the west of the city for a model of how to proceed after 2023. Féile an Phobail has led to the eradication of the wholly destructive and sectarian bonfire culture in working class nationalist areas of Belfast, whilst continuing to produce an expansive series of talks and events giving voice to diverse opinions and communities.

Yet it continues to acknowledge its core republican constituency every year, including through regulated concerts in a park before an audience paying to hear a repertoire of songs equally contentious to many as those heard along our streets every Twelfth of July.