A tale of two universes in Derry and Belfast

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It was “a tale of two cities” said the local media. Peace in Derry and conflict in Belfast was the story of the Twelfth. More fundamentally, it was a tale of two universes. There was the real universe and the parallel universe where Orange ‘leaders’ in Belfast live.

A few years ago there were glimmerings of recognition by some of the organisation’s leaders that things needed to change. There were a few who could see that they had an image problem. They needed to appear less belligerent. They needed to be less threatening to those outside their own gene pool. The “Twelfth” needed to be a more inclusive and friendly festival. “Orangefest” with its generous funding, cartoon characters and nods at cross-community involvement was born. Unfortunately, in Belfast, the infant clearly hasn’t thrived.

Even in Derry and elsewhere, where the Twelfth passed off peacefully, the essential character of parades has changed only slightly.

Marchers have retained their swagger and their grandiose airs. Processions have retained their jingoistic overtones. Bandsmen dress in military uniforms and banners celebrate recent military victories as well as the Battle of the Boyne. Real swords are carried. As it turns out they’re not entirely ceremonial.

They can still be used as weapons. The whole spectacle has an air of triumphant tribalism. It’s intended to show who’s boss and a big part of that is being able to march where they want when they want.

Particularly in Belfast, the atavistic old men in the Order’s hierarchy subscribe to the head-in-the-sand school of ‘leadership’. Ostrich like, they don’t want to know how much the city has changed so they try not to notice. Their only tactic is intransigence. Blaming the Parades’ Commission for all their troubles and fighting an endless rearguard action against the world is their major preoccupation. For their own organisation, it’s utterly disastrous.

It’s not just the Orange Order’s ‘leadership’ that has failed its own people in this way over many decades but rather it’s the whole political ‘leadership’ of unionism. Instead of recognising the reality of a deeply divided society with its need to make timely accommodations with neighbours, unionist leaders encouraged their followers to feel they were special and different. The normal rules of life didn’t apply to them. “What we have we hold,” was their leaders’ unique selling point. The need for change was never recognised until it was too late.

A long line of unionist leaders from O’Neill to Paisley were undermined from within as soon as they were brave enough, realistic enough or self interested enough to acknowledge that change had to happen.

It’s been the same process, over and over again, within the Orange Order. The need for change is never recognised until its too late. It’s this consistent failure of leadership that has left the loyal Order and huge swathes of loyalism as rudderless and angry as it is today.

Parading where they will, dancing on top of Land Rovers or attacking police officers with swords can’t solve their problem. It’s only by coming to respectful terms with neighbours who hold different political allegiances that they can do that.