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The 12th of July is being promoted as a tourist attraction - so we went to follow the parade

There’s an ongoing effort to re-brand the North’s marching season. But is it working?

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

A HARDLINE PRESBYTERIAN minister hit the headlines a few years ago for insisting that the Orange Order was “not for tourists”.

Decrying efforts by Peter Robinson and other unionist leaders to soften the image of the annual 12th of July commemorations, the Reverend Stephen Dickenson reckoned only a “clown” would consider that the parades made for appropriate tourist fodder.

Robinson, the then-First Minister, had been talking up the “cultural tourism” aspects of the annual Battle of the Boyne celebrations, as the unionist leadership attempted to rebrand the marching season as a family-friendly event.

The Belfast parade was even relaunched as ‘Orangefest’ in 2008 – and there have been a number of attempts to market ‘the 12th’ to overseas tourists in the last decade or so.

Last year, the Orange Order hired its first ever chief executive in an effort to modernise the organisation – and if you visit their website these days, you’ll find pages of information along the theme of ‘educational outreach’ (nestled alongside this picture of Bertie Ahern).

Of course, for many, the 12th of July will forever be associated with Troubles-era standoffs, rioting and sectarian violence – like the tragic events of Drumcree in 1998.

The placing of an effigy of Martin McGuinness on a bonfire in Belfast last night underscored the heightening of tensions that still happens at this time of year. By contrast, the Ardoyne parade – the scene of rioting and other violence in recent years – passed off peacefully this morning, thanks to a deal agreed by community leaders.

20170712_131553 Marchers make their way to the demonstration field in Annalong, Co Down. Source: Daragh Brophy/TheJournal.ie

Showcase event

The Mourne District parade, taking place along the foothills of the mountain range, just north of Carlingford Lough, has been touted as one of the showcase events of the 12th in the last few years.

And as they gathered outside the Kilkeel Orange Hall this morning to prepare for their five-mile parade along the coast to the tourist town of Annalong, marching band members insisted “you won’t find a more picturesque setting”.

They’re not wrong – it’s a lovely, scenic spot.

Small groups of spectators gathered in the sunshine as feeder bands made their way in from surrounding areas.

Outside the hall, drum-straps were tightened and collars straightened as the marchers regrouped, ahead of the day’s events. Members of the Lodge sat at tables inside the main hall – giving out information, selling books on the organisation’s local history, and collecting charity funds.

“Down here it’s very family orientated,” Denis McKee, Master of the Kilkeel True Blues Lodge, said. “It’s all about family connections – grandfather to father, father to son.”

There are fifteen lodges spread out across the district – with 1,069 members. And though the Mourne gathering draws thousands of spectators, it’s one of the smaller events taking place across the North – up the road in Richill, for instance, about 5,000 people will take part in the marches, watched by around 15,000 more.

The day plays out in a similar manner at 18 official venues across the six counties – feeder parades gather at an agreed location at around nine or ten in the morning, before marching five or six miles down the road to a gathering point – the ‘demonstration field’ – where a religious service takes place.

“Resolutions are read depending on what’s happening in the world – for people in dire need, [it] depends on what’s going on.

“We’re a Christian, fraternal organisation – it’s as simple as that,” according to McKee.

Sadly, that’s starting to go missing throughout the population – but we’re trying to hold on to what we can.

20170712_103905 Preparations in Kilkeel, ahead of the march to Annalong. Source: Daragh Brophy/TheJournal.ie

McKee stressed the community and charity work done by the organisation – “in spite of the negative press”.

“Hundreds of thousands are raised – and these are charities that affect everybody!”

In recent years, he said, immigrants to the area had begun to show an interest in marching season events.

“We’ve actually got a lot of Filipino fishermen and other nationalities - they’re quite bemused by it all. They’re accepted into this community, and they’re accepted into the local churches the Orange Order is connected to.

So you’ll see a lot a Filipinos and a lot of cultures and creeds today – it’s a fun day and very family orientated.

Elsewhere in the hall, Neil Cousins, the Mourne District Master, was also in full tourist board-mode. “You’ll find the best scenery of any Orange field in the entire country in Annalong,” he insisted.

Our parade is very family friendly. All the lodges have their own picnic.

In terms of attracting tourists – most have cultural links to the areas they visit, or are returning emigrants. “We have three guests from America marching with us today – Orangemen from America.”

Visitors also come from Scotland (of course), Canada and further afield.

And from the Republic?

Yes. They’re very welcome. We welcome everybody to come and enjoy the parade enjoy the music. It really is a good, colourful musical parade that anybody can enjoy.

The bad publicity can’t help, though. I ask about the effigies and other offensive slogans placed on the Belfast bonfire last night.

We wouldn’t condone effigies of any politicians being placed on bonfires in Mourne.
We don’t like to see it. It’s unsightly. We have our own bonfire on the 11th. It takes place in the Orange field, and it’s very well controlled – no problems.

Outside, band members talked through the practicalities of the day, before setting off. It’s a long day. The uniforms can be hot and scratchy. And those banners can get very heavy indeed, after hours of marching.

20170712_132606 Annalong lies at the foot of the Mourne Mountains in Co Down. Source: Daragh Brophy/TheJournal.ie

I ran to my car to make it down the road ahead of the procession. All along the route, though, were mini traffic-jams – as cars pulled over to make way for even more feeder parades.

Marching bands were followed by support cars – laden down with bottles of water, and often carrying elderly passengers, no longer able to walk the route.

Spectators I talked to all sang from a similar hymn-sheet, describing the day as a family-friendly day out – a chance to catch up with old friends or simply enjoy the pageantry.

They also agreed, however, that the local Catholic community never turned out to watch from the roadside. People got along, generally, they said – farmers from opposite traditions minded each other’s fields, for instance, on St Patrick’s Day or on the 12th.

“Back when I was a kid, Catholics turned out to watch – it was no problem,” said a man in his 60s, holidaying in the area from Lurgan. This was, he pointed out, “before Sinn Féin came along and started filling their heads with shite”.

A local Sinn Féin politician (as you might imagine) had a different perspective.

“Sure it was a unionist state back then – if you didn’t come out, maybe you’d be vilified,” said Willie Clarke – a councillor based in nearby Newcastle.

Progress had been made in improving the image of the marching season, he said, but problems remain – particularly with poorly-organised bonfires, which are traditionally lit on the night of the 11th.

I was at a bonfire at a mixed housing estate in Dundrum last night – and things got pretty bad at one stage. So we need an improvement there definitely.
Catholics still “take themselves away for the day” when the 12th rolls around each year, Clarke said, either booking holidays or taking trips away from areas where marches take place.

20170712_123829 Spectators await the marching bands in Annalong. Source: Daragh Brophy/TheJournal.ie

Driving home from Annalong, the evening’s news broadcasts announced that today had been “one of the most incident free” Twelfth of July commemorations in the North in recent memory.

The re-branding efforts and attempts to attract tourists can’t hurt – even if, according to the Sinn Féin councillor, there’s still “a long way to go” before everyone feels welcome.

Read: Two fire crews attacked while responding to bonfire incidents in the North

Read: Coffin with effigy of Martin McGuinness on loyalist bonfire in east Belfast

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