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Orange men parade through Belfast today. PA
Orange Order

The Twelfth of July: Belfast Orange lodge says Protocol debate driving influx of new members

12th of July celebrations made a full return to Northern Ireland today.

AS THE 12th of July Orange Order marches cast off Covid restrictions and returned to full celebrations today the message from the loyalist institution was that it will do everything it can to oppose the Northern Ireland Protocol.

To mark the 332nd anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne around 60 bands paraded through the heart of Belfast today for the largest annual unionist celebration. Thousands of people lined the streets along the parade route, with many partaking in a few beverages to toast William of Orange’s 1690 victory.

Today’s event came with political tensions in Northern Ireland again in a heightened state as unionists are angered that the Protocol has created an economic border between Northern Ireland and Britain.

There hasn’t been a functioning government since the May elections as the DUP has refused to agree to its formation until its concerns over the UK’s Brexit withdrawal agreement are dealt with.

Speaking at today’s march, Orange Order members were clear that they believe the Protocol poses a grave threat to the future of the six county state.

Hugh Hamilton, lodge secretary at Star of the North Lodge in East Belfast, said the political tension is driving more people to join the Orange Order.

“Obviously, people’s culture and identity is important to them. So, we’re seeing a big influx right now. My own lodge, we took in an influx of 25 new members. We’re the biggest lodge in Belfast county with 764 members,” Hamilton told The Journal.

“As the membership grows, that’s probably an indication of what way people are thinking. They’re thinking that by being out in the streets in numbers it sends a message.”

And the message is:

We’re here and we’re not going away.

At a small gathering of Orange Order leaders in a corner of Barnett Demesne, after a six mile march from the city centre, opposition to the Protocol was announced as one of the order’s 12th of July resolutions.

twelfth-of-july-parades Today's marking of 12 July came after two years of restricted celebrations. PA PA

“From the outset of this current crisis, Orangeism has stood firm and has worked tirelessly to encourage Unionist co-operation on this crucial issue. The economic and political future of Northern Ireland hinges on the removal of the Protocol which continues to see Northern Ireland treated as a place apart,” a speaker told the gathering.

Other aspects of the resolutions included continued “support for the right to life of the unborn”, a reaffirmation of the order’s devotion to the UK’s Queen Elizabeth II and continued opposition to Irish language legislation in Northern Ireland.

At the same gathering, James McHarg, the Grand Master of the Orange Order in Scotland, described the Protocol as the most significant threat to Northern Ireland since 1921.

“That’s how serious the situation is regarding the Northern Ireland Protocol. I can’t understand how a British Prime Minister has allowed for such a situation to happen.

“You all saw through Boris and his false promises and not for the first time. But Boris is gone now and I hope and trust that the next Prime Minister understands the name of their party: the ‘Conservative and Unionist Party’, with the emphasis being on the word ‘unionist’,” McHarg said.

However, the protocol wasn’t a burning issue for all attendees. Thomas, a member of the Govan Protestant Boys band from Glasgow, said the day is more about cultural expression than politics.

“For us it’s more the band scene in the lodge. Obviously, the Protocol and everything that’s more to do with Northern Ireland,” he said.

“Obviously we want Northern Ireland to be a part of the British empire. And it’s the same for us coming from Glasgow. The SNP [Scottish National Party] is trying to split the union up as well. And certainly, for us, I would like to stay part of the Union. That’s got a lot to do with it as well.”

The loyalist band travel around Scotland and Northern Ireland participating in parades and also travel to the North America Glasgow Rangers Football Club convention every year.

It was involved in controversy in 2019 after it was filmed parading around Belfast City Hall.

What’s the day like for the on-lookers and residents?

The first thing that is noticeable about Belfast on 12 July is that, away from the parade route, it appears to be absolutely deserted.

“When the Prods come out to play everyone runs away,” a taxi driver jokes, before adding that he believes the annual unionist celebration is a financial boost to Northern Ireland and making it clear that he supports the marches.

The event causes significant disruption in the city every year and many, from across the community divide, take advantage of the fact that it’s a designated bank holiday to get away.

When you do meet the crowds they’re tightly packed along the lengthy parade route. Flags and symbols are in abundance with crowns, red hands and poppies emblazoned on everything from t-shirts and ties to bowler hats and aprons.

Glasgow Rangers jerseys are also everywhere, with the Scottish outfit’s away orange strip particularly popular.

Like many cultural holidays, alcohol is ubiquitous with bottles and cans seen throughout the crowd and empties littered around the streets.

A PSNI officer told The Journal that the basic itinerary of the day is that the bands march out to Barnett Demesne, which is colloquially known as The Field, while “everyone else stays around [the city] and gets hammered.”

The party was in full flow in the city centre at around midday and groups lustily joined in as the bands banged out The Sash and other loyalist ballads. Amid the din one reveller managed to fall asleep outside a mortgage broker’s office. An impressive feat.

twelfth-of-july-parades Members of a Protestant loyalist order take part in a Twelfth of July parade in Belfast today. PA PA

The crowd mellowed out again as the parade passed through the leafier suburbs around the Malone and Lisburn roads.

When the march culminates at The Field many of the marchers look physically exhausted after lugging drums and flags for around 10 kilometres.

They can be seen sprawled out on the grass or resting under marquees while teenagers drink suspiciously pale Coca-Cola and young children get their faces painted.

“It’s too much, it’s tiring” says Thomas from Govan, “it’s definitely too long if you ask my legs.”

Tucked away in a corner of the field, Orange Order leaders held a sparsely attended religious service and announced their resolutions for the year.

Meanwhile, Guns N’ Roses’ Sweet Child of Mine and other incongruous songs could be heard playing out over a big speaker nearby.

After a couple of hours the bands then turn around and do it all again, marching back into the city centre and then back to their lodges, where they began their day. Hugh from Star of the North said their round trip from East Belfast takes longer than 12 hours.

The main route in Belfast is now well-established and residents have become familiar with what to expect. Certain fashpoints still remain in the capital with particular issues cropping up in Ardoyne in north Belfast and the Short Strand area of the inner city in recent years.

SDLP councillor for Belfast’s Balmoral district Donal Lyons says the parades were significantly more controversial in years past and the Parades Commission – which is responsible for placing restrictions on parades deemed offensive – has done an effective job at reducing the number of contentious issues.

“There’s still local issues, I live on a parade route myself and there are still issues with regards to residents and due respect but a lot of the time, in a lot of places in Belfast, they are worked through by communities engaging with each other in the run up to it.”

Sinn Féin Councillor Ciaran Beattie agreed with this assessment saying there are now less contentious parades than ever as a result of regulation by the Parades Commission.

While the parades largely passed off without any major incidents today (though a man was arrested for disorderly behaviour after getting into an altercation with one of the bands) the PSNI are investigating the burning of election posters, flags and effigies on bonfires across Northern Ireland.

Representatives from Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Alliance and People Before Profit all condemned the actions with some calling for unionist politicians to take action to try and stamp out the practice.

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