Orange Order needs to accept challenge of change in Belfast
The Irish News view: Belfast is no longer a 'unionist city'. As its numbers continue to dwindle and its influence fade, the Orange Order won't be able to ignore changed realities for much longer
It was perhaps too good to be true. The faint glimmer of self-awareness that led the Orange Order to admit that events around its flagship parade in Belfast were, in its own words "abysmal and unacceptable", has been extinguished.
A proposal from the Order's leadership to overhaul future July 12 marches in the city, which would have been a positive development, has instead been firmly rejected by lodges.
It means the 2024 parade will follow the traditional route from north Belfast, through the city centre towards the 'field' at Shaw's Bridge in the south of the city. A shorter circular route, of around six miles instead of 10, with no field element had been proposed.
To even contemplate ditching the field was significant; it is there that the speeches, reading of resolutions and the religious dimension that are, we are told, central to the Orange Order and its traditions have their expression on the Twelfth. In practice, these are almost entirely ignored in Belfast – a sharp contrast to Twelfth demonstrations elsewhere.
The internal review which put forward the revised Belfast Twelfth was apparently prompted by the 2022 parade being regarded by the Orange Order itself as "probably the worst for decades". Episodes of antisocial behaviour and excessive alcohol consumption among spectators were also cited, with scenes at Shaftesbury Square singled out.
It is not entirely clear why the Order was so strung by criticism of the 2022 parade. The toxic blend of some bands playing offensive tunes, street drinking, urinating in public, knee-deep litter and fights in the city centre and along its main thoroughfares seemed much the same as most other years.
Still, it was encouraging that the Belfast leadership was wakening up to problems that many in the wider unionist community find just as anachronistically obnoxious as their nationalist and 'other' neighbours.
However, that same leadership has done a poor job in building support and consensus for the plans, given the evident strength of opposition from lodges and, it seems, bands.
There are echoes here of how poorly political unionism has prepared its followers for necessary change.
Just as Northern Ireland is no longer a 'unionist state', Belfast is no longer a 'unionist city'. As its numbers continue to dwindle and its influence fade, the Orange Order won't be able to ignore changed realities for much longer, especially when its activities are an excuse for appalling behaviour.