Marchers sweat in the sweltering Belfast heat

Participants and spectators from as far away as Toronto attend ‘Glorious Twelfth’ parades

 

Francis Melligan wiped the sweat from his brow as his band took a quick break outside City Hospital on the Lisburn Road. It’s no easy task, marching through Belfast in sweltering 26 degree heat. “It’s unbearable,” Melligan, a flute player with the Saracens Truth Defenders Flute Band, said.

The “truth defenders” is a Glasgow outfit. Its members got the ferry yesterday and are staying for one night only; after the Glorious Twelfth it’s back on the boat. Scottish bands usually travel to the North for marching season but, “this year I think there are more than usual,” Melligan said.

He, like many of the spectators, believes unionist traditions are under threat. “The flags protest was quite a big thing in Glasgow,” he said, referring to the ructions which occurred after Belfast City Council voted to restrict the number of days the Union Flag flew above City Hall.

In the past week unionists have also bristled at a decision by the Parades Commission to ban three north Belfast Orange Lodges returning from the main parade past the flashpoint Ardoyne shops.

“No matter how much we give in, we always get kicked in the teeth,” said Barry Wilson, who was watching the parade pass through the city centre. He predicted unionists are going to keep getting kicked “until we kick back.” And that, he reckons, will happen eventually -“it has to happen”.

Two east Belfast grandmothers (who refused to be referred to as anything else) also believed the unionists have had a hard time of late. “That’s why we’re here, because of the way things are going,” one of them said. “I haven’t been [AT THE PARADE]in the past 20 years,” her friend added.

They both pined for the “old days”. Asked whether the Twelfth parade has changed over the few years they replied: “Of course it has changed.”

Opinion was split on whether recent grievances have lead to a greater turn out this year. A PSNI officer said the crowds appeared to be about the same size as normal, but Wilson said “numbers are up, you can tell the numbers are up.”

Despite the apparent frustration, the atmosphere in the city centre remained congenial and, indeed, quite British. Folded copies of the Newsletter sat on canvas picnic chairs as families tucked into packed lunches along the parade route. Children and their grandparents enjoyed ice-creams, while teens and 20-somethings swigged alco-pops and lager in the midday sun.

“It’s just a wee day out for us,” said Louise Beggs, who was watching the parade with her friends, “like St Patrick’s day in the South”.

But for Gordon Frew, who travelled all the way from Canada, it was a bit more serious than that. Originally from Scotland, Frew now lives just north of Toronto and, like Francis Melligan, remains bitter about the flags issue.

“It’s the flag of Britain and it should be allowed to fly every day,” he said. He last travelled to Northern Ireland for the Twelfth three years ago and comes over “when I can afford it”. For him it’s a way of celebrating a centuries-old battle while still drawing attention to what he described as unionist “civil rights issues”.

As he spoke the various bands filed past him, holding aloft their banners bearing arcane references to loyalist lore. All the while, the concussive thump of bass drums rumbled through the streets. Does Frew think those of a nationalist persuasion might find all the triumphalism a bit intimidating? “If they don’t want to see it, they can stay in their houses.”

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