Rebranding the Twelfth won't ease tensions on either side
The Twelfth Fortnight – July 12th – is, of course, a significant date and period in the North. Depending on which side of the great sectarian divide you come from, it means a lot of flags, parades, the sonorous beating of the lambeg drum to commemorate the Battle of the Boyne or a quick exit to Donegal until it's all over.
In an attempt to defuse the routine conflicts, brawls and general ill-feeling around the date – which also results in a significant economic hit as people take unnecessary holidays and are disinclined to shop – the unionists have had a go at rebranding the glorious Twelfth. It's been about as easy as proposing Alan Shatter for a cabinet post in the reshuffle. In 2012, 'Orangefest' offered "a family friendly pageant open to all, especially tourists and indeed anyone in multi-cultured Belfast on this day. This year's festivities include: Street theatre; a food festival within the grounds of Belfast City Hall with a Titanic menu demonstration and a hog roast. Entertainment including shows, walkabout performances and balloon modelling".
Has it worked? What do you think? As I sit in my study off the Ormeau Road, within sight of an historic Orange Lodge, married to a (non-practising) Catholic, I sense the unpleasantness.
I am not alone because this year, following the recent dramatic breakdown of the regrouped Haas negotiations, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness observed: "We're in for a fraught couple of weeks, let's face the reality." As if to prove the point, an acrimonious regrouping of the Haas deliberations ended when First Minister Peter Robinson walked out with the other loyalist political parties. He justified the walkout after the banning of a parade from going past a republican road in Ardoyne by saying the democratic process could not continue if violence is seen to pay.
Two sides, two views, not really a unifying festival. Branding experts Julia and Peter Hitchens note that once you have established a brand, you have to maintain it by adding "repeated and favourable associations" which hasn't exactly happened with Orangefest.
As an Englishwoman, I remain slightly shocked after eight years in the Province at the way everything, including football, has a sectarian gloss. I was astonished that a mixed marriage meant a Catholic and Protestant mix rather than a mixed ethnic coupling. Apart from the World Cup and the obvious "anybody but England" shout from the Fenians in our local, there are other divides. Colours, of course, indicate allegiance. I have shown solidarity with my husband's family on St Patrick's Day by buying a Spanish-grown clump of shamrock to wear subversively up Royal Avenue. I have also felt the need to apologise with an aside about making a fashion, not a political statement, when wearing this season's orange.
Seeing Queen Victoria's unamused statue in front of City Hall, I have sometimes felt that the North might belong to me, the colonial ruler. Only joking. But the old gag about a Northern Irishman meeting a Jewish guy and telling his friend, who responds: But was he a Catholic or a Protestant Jew? sadly remains relevant.
The Troubles has left a troubled residue. It's difficult to see, with the fissiparous unionist parties having refused to discuss this year's Twelfth parades and related matters, how you move on. Down South, it seems to be ignored and a noted Protestant journalist, having spent time in a Dublin pub, decided a few years back to parade up O'Connell Street in his sash. Nobody noticed, or if they did they didn't comment.
Whether you can reach neutrality has partly to do with distance of time. In my home country, historical re-enacters are able to dress up and act out the bloodiest of Civil War conflicts because the bloodshed really is in the past. It's a long time ago and the fields which were once bloody battlefields remain peaceful.
That is not the case in the North. Although the atrocities may be passing into history, a lot of ill-will remains. Already this year, there has been trouble. A friend who lives in the unionist heartland of east Belfast told me she'd witnessed the building of an enormous bonfire near her with trepidation and said it marked the start of the usual sectarian snarlfest. She isn't wrong.
Near us in the Ormeau Road, hard by the Ballynafeigh Orange Lodge, there's a proud display of Union Flags, St George's Flags and St Andrew's blue and white, which might have to come down depending on the result of the September independence vote. I see these British flags but they don't feel like my flags.
There is, of course, another side to all this. I have to admit I find some of the parades quite moving and enjoy the hymns. I have raced to watch them from my office in the past and enjoyed the innocent twirling five-year-olds at the front and acknowledged progress with the presence of women marching. But it is adversarial, it is, of course, about war and when I first saw the unionist arch at Magherafelt, I was astonished by its aggression with crude portraits of the Protestant elite from King William of Orange himself down to Ian Paisley Senior and local musician and politician the Rev Willie McCrea, who some say bore an uncanny resemblance to Cliff Barnes in Dallas. And it looks as if the Orange Order is growing in power and political influence which in a modern, elected democracy is frankly worrying.
So although Orangefest sounds attractive, this particular piece of rebranding isn't likely to help soften the Twelfth fortnight and attendant grievances any time soon. As Kyril Bonfiglioli put it in his novel, 'All the Tea in China': "The Britishers have no sense of history, apart from the Irish and with them it's a disease."