Twelfth of July can be friend or foe of Northern Ireland business
Belfast Briefing: parades contribute £55 million to local economy but tensions can escalate quickly into unrest
In recent years, the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland has been keen to promote the Twelfth as a family- and business-friendly event. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill.
There are many traditions associated with the Twelfth of July in Northern Ireland. The vibrant beat of east African music is not one of them. But this Friday the sounds of the continent will mingle with those more commonly heard every Twelfth – courtesy of the Afrikan Warriors.
The dance and acrobatics group is just one of the many acts taking part in the “Festival in an Afternoon” event, which will run alongside the more traditional activities in the city.
This year’s “Belfast Orangefest” aims to showcase “Orange Lodges, marching bands, fife and drums, flute music”, and will also feature a large parade through the city.
Open for business
Friday is a public holiday in Northern Ireland but according to local industry leaders it will be business as usual for many in the city, particularly larger outlets owned by multinationals.
Belfast City Centre Management and Belfast Chamber of Trade & Commerce have said they are determined to “take advantage of every opportunity to benefit the business community” on the day.
Andrew Irvine, city centre manager, said retailers in the city will be open for business from noon until 5pm.
“We’ve supported the shops open initiative in Belfast on the Twelfth of July since 2009 and, while it has been a slow build, it is heading in the right direction.
“What we want to see is people coming into Belfast from a cross-section of the community and enjoying a nice summer’s day in a shared space. We want to build community cohesion.”
Colin Neill, chief executive of Pubs of Ulster, the professional body for the retail licensed trade, says it is also viewed simply as “another day of trade” for local pubs and restaurants.
It may be just one day but the significance the Twelfth has on the local economy cannot be overstated, particularly if it does not pass off quietly and peacefully. In the past, civil unrest contributed to a less than positive image as Northern Ireland was desperately trying to encourage new inward investment.
In recent years, the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland has been keen to promote the Twelfth as a family-friendly and business-friendly event. It says it has become a major tourist attraction and that the “protestant parading sector” in general contributes in the region of £55 million to the local economy every year.
Critics of the argument have highlighted the cost of policing parades, which last year was about £7 million.
History has shown that unresolved tension at this time of year can escalate quickly into a major headache for the local economy. Earlier this year, violent civil unrest – sparked by a row over when the union flag should fly at Belfast city hall – cost Belfast an estimated £15 million in lost revenue.
The local economy cannot afford a repeat performance. That is why, this July, against the backdrop of a very vulnerable local economic recovery, there is a sustained hope that it will be an unremarkable month.
According to four of the key business organisations – the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Institute of Directors and the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce – the North is still basking in the light of a highly successful G8 summit in Fermanagh. Business leaders say it is vital that it continues to build a positive image and reputation.
Today these organisations will take the rather unusual step of appealing to those involved in what they have described as the “parading season” to “provide the necessary leadership on contentious parades and related protests”.
It’s a plea that will no doubt be welcomed by everyone who has a stake in the North’s economic future.