Stern faces abound amid attempts to bring levity to Twelfth

Carnival atmosphere fails to materialise despite efforts of Orange Order


Spectators lined the streets of Belfast today to watch thousands of Orangemen and women marching in this year’s Twelfth of July celebrations.

For the past few years, the Orange Order has attempted to create a festival atmosphere around the annual Protestant event. In what must be another stab at modernisation, the Order has this year encouraged spectators to post selfies or, cringingly, “twelfies”, on social media.

In keeping with recent years, shops in the city centre opened after the parade passed through at noon, a once almost unimaginable prospect. “You wouldn’t even have been able to buy a pint of milk before,” said Roisín Robertson, standing outside City Hall as the parade marched past.

Originally from the nationalist Ardoyne area, Robertson never went into the city centre for the Twelfth before. But this year she has visitors from America so she decided to give them a look.

“They have kind of tried to turn it into a festival,” she said, adding that she was “a wee bit more comfortable with it now—it’s more relaxed”.

She was struck in particular by how many of the bands come from outside the country. “We’ve just been looking at the standards. It’s amazing how many of them are not from Ireland—North or South. Loads of them are from Scotland.”

Overall, she didn’t seem too taken by the whole thing. Pointing again to the band members stomping along in front of her, she remarked, “no one looks like they’re enjoying themselves”.

Despite the Order’s attempts to liven up the Twelfth (the term “mardi-gras” has been used in some quarters) this remains a very regimented affair, untroubled, you get the impression, by the burden of joie de vivre.

Stern-faced men—it’s mostly men—march in formation under banners as the bands thump and whistle their way through the streets. It’s difficult to get into the carnival atmosphere when you’re bearing a standard that reads: “St Simon’s Church – Total Abstinence”.

But for Alan and Lynda Carmody, it was all perfectly enjoyable. Visiting from Glasgow for “a wee break”, it was their first time in Belfast for the Twelfth too.

“We always wanted to come,” said Lynda, from her viewing perch atop a small wall on Dublin Road.

“We’ve always heard a lot about it, about the atmosphere,” added Alan, who said they was enjoying the day so far.

Further along the road, Billy and Kimberely Calman, also from Glasgow, were a bit more effusive. They enjoyed “everything” about the Twelfth,” said Billy. “The marching, the atmosphere, the colours - it’s just brilliant.”

They come over to Belfast for the Twelfth every year. Presumably not by accident, the date also happens to be their wedding anniversary, a point Billy makes by showing off the tattoo on his left arm that reads, in cursive script: “July 12th 1996”.

Asked about the controversy over the banning of a return parade through Ardoyne, Billy said it should be allowed to pass. “It’s only a few shops,” he said, but acknowledged the violence that has erupted on both sides in previous years. “It’s a no-win situation,” he said.

“It’s a shame,” Kimberely added. “That seems to grab all the headlines when there is so much positivity about the day.”

Fears of an outbreak of severe loyalist violence similar to that which occurred on the Woodvale Road near the Ardoyne shops last year were allayed somewhat yesterday when the Orange Order announced it would not engage in a standoff with the PSNI when the force halts the returning Ligoniel lodges parade in the north Belfast area.

More than 3,000 members of the PSNI have been mobilised as part of the policing operation for the Twelfth across the North.

Chief constable George Hamilton said this morning that we “are in as good a place as we can be right now. I’m optimistic but it’s a cautious optimism”.