'Our grandparents signed the covenant'


The mood in unionist east Belfast was upbeat for the six-mile parade marking the centenary

THE QUOTE of the day had to go to Roberta Gray from Ballymena. “The Lord must be a Protestant,” she quipped as the sun broke through the clouds, bestowing a welcome blast of heat on the Orange bands on the last leg of their six-mile journey from the centre of Belfast to Stormont.

Like people from all over the North – and beyond – Mrs Gray had come to be part of history. “My great grandfather signed the covenant,” the retired primary teacher said. “It’s the history I’m interested in. That and listening to the bands.” And there was no shortage of bands. Hour after hour they came, 200 in all, the names on their banners reading like a mantra of place and belonging.

Tigers Bay Protestant Boys. Ballymacarrett McMordie Memorial. Whitewell Defenders. Warkworth Purple Star.

There were flute bands and accordion bands; marchers dressed in black and white, and marchers hopped up in a rainbow of colour. All were spruce and just so. Many bands included women and young girls, upping the glamour stakes.

Onlookers were, on the whole, not dressed up although there were flamboyant exceptions – two middle-aged women in Union Jack leggings and vest tops, a young fashionista in a T-shirt bearing the legend Made In Ulster: Edward Carson.

The incessant banging of the drums merged with the thrum of an overhead helicopter, a sobering reminder that the threat of violence was never far from people’s minds.

Still, the mood in unionist east Belfast was upbeat, with applause occasionally rippling through the onlookers, such as when the Ballymagroarty Accordion Band from Co Donegal filed by, or the handful of elderly gentlemen walking under the “Portadown District LOL No 1” banner – aka Drumcree.

Thousands turned out to line the route, though not so many as one might expect. For Andrea Martin (36) from Lisburn, there with her four-year-old son Jamie, it was a chance to cheer on husband Wayne.

“We’re here to have fun,” she said. “It’s a day out for families. I’d be disheartened if there was trouble.”

Victoria and Johnston Finlay from Newtownards, both in their early 60s, said it was a “very special day. Our grandparents signed the covenant. This is the culture we were brought up in.”

For east Belfast student Michael Shaw (21), who had signed up to the Orange Order’s newest lodge at the University of Ulster last week, it wasn’t so much a case of looking back as looking forward. “The Orange Order needs to modernise,” he said. “I’m an atheist, but I believe in civil liberties.”

For one elderly gentleman, dressed in an Apprentice Boys of Derry uniform but unwilling to give his name, the recent row

over parading past a Catholic church had been “blown up by the media”.

Up at Stormont estate, Orangeman Davy Stewart (33) from Co Monaghan said the day was “more of a remembrance than a celebration” owing to the fact that, upon its inception, Northern Ireland left unionists in the three remaining Ulster counties feeling “left out”.

Meanwhile, Orange Order deputy grand master Rev Alistair Smyth quoted the Old Testament to a dwindling gathering in front of the main stage. He might have been better off with the story of the feeding of the five thousand, as that’s where most of his brethren had gone – to queue for the food vans.

What genius bureaucrat had decided that a handful of burger vans was enough to feed thousands of men and women who had walked six miles? After such a protracted trek to reach Stormont, the event wrapped up surprisingly quickly – a few speeches and a sermon and that was that. As droves of people passed through the exits, the sense of disconnect between the old hellfire and brimstone unionism and a less ideological affair was accentuated by the sight of Orangemen urinating in the street, in broad daylight.

It was hard not to wonder what Rev Smyth – never mind Edward Carson – would have made of that.