The Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland has called on Orangemen to play their part in re-energising Unionism.
Speaking to members of the Orange Order at the demonstration field following a march in Ballyronan, Co Derry, Edward Stevenson said that if there was to be a general election in the next year, the “challenge” for unionism would be to ensure that the Order “re-engage[s] with non-voters and to re-energise Unionist politics as an electoral force with a strong, attractive message.
“This institution has played an important role in the elections of past generations,” he said, “and we must be willing to go the extra mile to help political unionism in the challenges ahead.
We are a broad church in terms of political views. However, one thing all our members can agree on is that our interests are best served as citizens of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. "
The former Grand Master of Scotland, Henry Dunbar, told those present at the demonstration field in Coleraine, Co Derry, that nationalists were attempting to use Brexit to threaten the Union.
“Here in Northern Ireland you have Sinn Féin refusing to go back into government at Stormont, playing up Leo Varadkar’s reckless warnings about border controls and a return to violence,” he said. “In England there’s been an alarming growth in English nationalism, and a growing weariness and impatience with the other parts of the Union.
“In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon is in full cry for a second independence referendum. She heads up a minority administration, but she’d like you to think she speaks for all the people of Scotland.
“Don’t fall for it, brethren,” he said. “Her game is to try and wear us down. But let me assure you that Nicola Sturgeon will never wear down the unionist people of Scotland.”
Addressing the crowd in Rathfriland, Co Down, the Deputy Grand Master, Harold Henning, said that the Orange Order should not be frightened of change.
“We need to continually assess and react to the challenges placed in our path,” he said.
Thousands of Orangemen have been marching in 18 parades taking place across Northern Ireland to mark the 329th anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, when the Protestant King William III defeated the Catholic King James II.
The longest parade is in Belfast, where Orangemen and women representing nine districts and accompanied by approximately 60 bands marched from North Belfast through the city centre to the demonstration field at Barnett's Demesne in South Belfast.
As in recent years, bands played only a single drumbeat as they passed St Patrick’s Catholic church in Donegall Street, in accordance with a Parades Commission ruling.
The parade halted briefly for a wreath-laying ceremony at the Cenotaph at Belfast City Hall.
The Orange Order estimates that approximately 35,000 members of the Orange Order march on the Twelfth, watched by tens of thousands of spectators.
Tandragee, Co Armagh played host to the largest parade, which included almost 5,000 Orangemen as well as members of the Women's Association and Junior Boys and Junior Girls Lodges, accompanied by 65 pipe, accordion, silver and flute bands.
Return parades will take place later this afternoon once speeches and church services conclude at the demonstration fields.
Assistant Chief Constable Barbara Grey said that police would be out on patrol throughout the day and appealed to everyone involved to enjoy themselves “safely and within the law.”
Despite tensions around a controversial loyalist bonfire in the car park of Avoniel Leisure Centre in East Belfast, the Eleventh Night – when bonfires are traditionally lit in Protestant areas – passed off largely peacefully, with only three arrests.
The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service said it had attended 34 bonfire-related incidents, a 40 per cent decrease compared to last year.
Calls to the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service increased, with staff receiving 447 emergency calls overnight, a 21 per cent increase on 2018.
Three arrests were made. Police officers were attacked with petrol bombs while on patrol at an interface are near Lanark Way on the Springfield Road in west Belfast; a 16-year-old male was arrested on suspicion of unlawful assembly, and a 17-year-old male was arrested on suspicion of riotous behaviour. Both have been released on bail.
A 52-year old was arrested in connection with election material which had been placed on a bonfire in the Lisburn area. He has been charged with offences including criminal damage and will appear in court next month.
ACC Grey defended the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s (PSNI) handling of the Avoniel bonfire, and said that the police had “no legal framework” to remove bonfire builders from the site.
Plans by Belfast City Council to remove the bonfire were abandoned after the contractor due to remove the bonfire material pulled out after threats. The police is investigating a complaint by Belfast City Council of aggravated trespassing.
ACC Grey said she had “absolutely no doubt” that there had been “influence from the East Belfast UVF”.
When questioned by the media, she said she believed it was “highly unlikely” the names of the contactors had been leaked by someone within the PSNI, but if any such information did come to the police it would be a matter for the Police Ombudsman.