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By Jason Michael
Well it’s the 12th of July and I am in Ireland. Where else would a Scottish nationalist with a name from the wrong side of the Northern Irish divide be but in Portadown and Belfast talking to the leadership of the Orange Order?
It was a glorious summer day and a public holiday in Northern Ireland, but the coach to Belfast was empty. It’s the 12th of July and the traffic was moving in a steady flow out of the city, with thousands of the city’s residents aiming to be anywhere else but Belfast during the often tense annual loyalist commemoration of the 1690 Battle of the Boyne. While certain segments of the unionist and loyalist community were displaying a sense of buoyancy and triumphalism not witnessed in quite some time – a likely product of the DUP’s arrangement with the Westminster government – I felt it important to go and talk with members of the Orange Order on their own turf during their big day.
Social media has been awash with images of the bonfires, prepared for the eleventh night celebrations, decorated with symbols of Catholicism; statues of the Virgin Mary, the flags of Vatican City and the tricolour of the Irish Republic, and a host of other flags and symbols representing the forces loyalism in the north of Ireland imagines itself to be at odds with. There was no attempt to obfuscate the sectarian bigotry and the anti-immigrant racism at these events. Yet most of the online commentary was, and understandably so, hostile to this much maligned community. I wanted to hear what they had to say for themselves and see with my own eyes what an Orange parade was like in the heartland of loyalist culture in Northern Ireland.
Alan Burns, the Chairman of the Portadown Committee of the Loyalist Orange Order, was the first person I spoke to about visiting. I contacted him by email and had a couple of phone conversations with him. He was gregarious and friendly, saying that he would be delighted to meet with me and put me in contact with a number of his “brethren” who’d be on the parade on the day. He put me in touch with his “Worshipful Brother,” Darryl Hewitt, the District Master of Portadown LOL number one lodge. It all felt a little like an encounter with the leadership of the Ku Klux Klan, but I was prepared to admit that this perception was coloured by the prejudice I was bringing to the situation, and, besides, it was difficult not to like these guys. They didn’t come across as aggressive or antagonistic, and they knew my name was McCann – a local County Armagh Catholic name.
An hour or so before the parade set off from the Brownstown Road for its procession through a Portadown decked in red, white, and blue bunting – complete with a statue of Edward Saunderson MP draped in a massive orange sash – I sauntered up the Garvaghy Road and out to the Drumcree parish church; sites of serious and often violent standoffs between the loyalist and nationalist communities in the past. There are few places as breathtakingly beautiful as this on the whole island of Ireland, or even in Scotland for that matter. Gravelled little roads winding over low hills and cutting through luscious barley and wheat, all green and brown and yellow as far as the eye can see; a scene that cries out the contradiction of the conflict – terrible ugliness and heavenly beauty.
Up in the graveyard of the Drumcree church my attention was drawn to a number of graves bearing my own – “Irish Catholic” – family name, an indication that the human story in this corner of Ireland wasn’t always a tale of divisiveness and enmity. One of my relatives would appear to have “turned” – a love story perhaps, crossing the gulf of ancient hatred. Up on this hill; at a church that has become itself a symbol of Protestantism with an Ulster capital pee, there were people with Catholic and Protestant names resting in peace together.
Later, at the start of the parade on the Brownstown Road, I met with Darryl Hewitt, the District Master. He is exactly what I didn’t expect. He couldn’t have been more welcoming. He openly admitted that there would be things we’d never agree on, and I couldn’t fault him on that conclusion, but he was willing to answer my questions without the least hint of antagonism. We had a few things in common, we both had friends in common, and he sounded sincere when he spoke of moving the Orange Order beyond the old and “outdated” anti-Catholic rules.
Yeah, there were a few things that stuck in my craw. On a lamppost at the top of the street there were loyalist and Apartheid South African flags flying together. According to Jim – an Orangeman who had travelled over from Kilwinning – this was only a hangover from a time of conflict that shaped the community. Yes, there was an answer for everything, and some traditions are best jettisoned, but none of it came across as practiced. These guys were relaxed and seemed, to me at least, to be telling their story – and that is, after all, what I came to hear. I didn’t find a single fan of a united Ireland, Scottish or Welsh independence, and the mention of Nicola Sturgeon was met with a few choice words. This was not easy to listen to, but this wasn’t my story.
Portadown’s Orangemen now no longer march from the Drumcree church and so the insistence on parading down the nationalist Garvaghy Road has ended. This parade made its way down “Protestant streets” – a reminder of the social segregation of Northern Ireland today – where unionist and loyalist flags were waving in the breeze. The music was tempered and the whole parade was free of the loud and openly sectarian lyrics of the recent Orange parade in Glasgow. All of this gave the impression of it being a community event for the community it belonged to, and leaving Portadown for Belfast I have to admit to being confused. I knew it would be disingenuous to report on this entirely in a negative light, because it simply wasn’t all negative.
On reaching Belfast, however, things were different. The main march had come to an end, bystanders draped in British flags had been drinking all day, and things were getting tense. One teenage girl – who couldn’t have been born when the Good Friday Agreement was signed – was staggering off with her boyfriend singing: “No, no Pope of Rome, no chapels to sadden my eyes, no nuns and no priests, no rosary beads, every day is the 12th of July.” The memory and the want for ethnic cleansing were still there. The parade had liberated her to sing these nasty lyrics, but there was no counter protest and no sectarian violence. One lad did break a bottle and threaten another teen with it, but they were both drunken loyalists. All told, it was a day of contradictions and not all exactly what I had expected.
Standoff at Drumcree