Turning a new shade of orange

It's now called Orangefest, but are changes to the traditional Twelfth of July celebrations just skin deep, asks Fionola Meredith…

It's now called Orangefest, but are changes to the traditional Twelfth of July celebrations just skin deep, asks Fionola Meredith

As makeovers go, this was always going to be an ambitious one. Last summer, it was announced that the traditional Twelfth of July parades in Belfast were to be transformed into "Orangefest", an inclusive "family-friendly pageant open to all, especially tourists", complete with jaunty new slogan - "education through celebration" - fun and games for the kids and "cultural displays of dancing and drumming".

It was a clear attempt to rehabilitate the order in the eyes of a world that had come to regard it as an intransigent, blindly self-righteous and vaguely sinister anachronism. Out would go public disorder and paramilitary flags, and in would come street entertainers and bouncy castles at "The Field" in south Belfast. Less blood and thunder, less siege mentality and much more face painting.

Drew Nelson, grand secretary of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, and one of the prime architects of Orangefest, even claimed that "only the Notting Hill carnival can beat it in the British Isles".


Some reacted to the idea with sniggering incredulity, struggling to reconcile the image of dour bowler-hatted marchers with the carnivalesque high-jinks promised by the zingy new name. Others responded with outright hostility: dubbing the initiative as "Bigotfest", Sinn Féin MLA John O'Dowd accused the British government - which allocated more than £100,000 (€148,000) of public money to the project - of funding anti-Catholic prejudice and sectarianism.

But one year on, with a power-sharing administration in place at Stormont that would have seemed almost unimaginable last summer, are there any signs that the new, all-inclusive Orangefest is blossoming with similar fervour? And, more vitally, have the changes made by the loyal orders turned out to be anything more than surface deep?

It's true that the massive exodus of people (both Catholic and Protestant) from the North during the July fortnight doesn't have quite the same sense of urgency as it did during the Drumcree years. In fact, the trickledown effect of the bonhomie at Stormont seems to be working: the Parades Commission believes that Orangemen and residents involved in the Drumcree dispute are now closer to meaningful mediation than at any time during the past 10 years. And there have been local attempts to curb anti-social behaviour around parades and bonfire sites: an east Belfast Orange lodge has, in conjunction with Belfast City Council, produced an information leaflet for young participants - "Remember the Reason" - encouraging them to show more respect for the Twelfth's festivities.

ONE MARK OF increased credibility is that the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) is promoting Orangefest on its website (www.discovernorthernireland.com), complete with pictures of laughing children and dignified-looking Orangemen relaxing at the Field. Sue Ward, director of marketing with NITB, believes the order is moving in the right direction. "I know and they know that it is a big, big challenge. But I take the attitude that if they make it easy for us - making sure they have a welcome for visitors - we'll make it easy for them. They are trying to work to overcome this idea that they are a bit scary."

New-found consumer-consciousness means that these days most on-message Orangemen speak of "celebrations" rather than "demonstrations". It's all about showcasing Protestant cultural heritage, says Drew Nelson, speaking from the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington - this year featuring a Northern Ireland expo - where the order launched its new logo: it features Martin Luther's rose, the orange lily and the purple star which is the traditional symbol of the Orange Order.

"During the Troubles, the 'demonstration' aspect assumed greater importance," says Nelson, "but it's a natural progression that as the demonstration side decreases, the festival element will increase."

NOT EVERYONE IS impressed with the new Mardi Gras flavour of the Twelfth, however. Brian Kennaway, former education convenor with the Orange Order and author of The Orange Order: A Tradition Betrayed, reckons Orangefest isn't the way forward.

Kennaway fears fakery and inauthenticity in the approach, and a movement away from the defining Biblical principles of Orangeism "There is a foundation within Protestant culture beyond which we cannot go; otherwise we lose our raison d'être: the authority of scripture."

The makeover isn't working, as far as Kennaway is concerned. "It's all a total veneer, it really is. If there's to be any kind of change, it must be honest. Having a bouncy castle at the Field won't make any difference."

But Orange historian Clifford Smyth, also a former member of the Orange Order, thinks that Orangefest means more than just a name. "It's a distinct attempt to change, and there's been a definite attempt to improve the presentation of the parades."

Smyth, a key contributor to the BBC's coverage of the Twelfth, draws a distinction between rural parades with high-quality bands - "that's where the Orange heartbeat is" - and their big city counterparts. "There's a feeling that Belfast Orangemen are not as disciplined as their country brethren. Part of the problem is the people who accompany the procession with lager cans in hand."

Kennaway accuses the Orange Order's leadership of a lack of courage in standing up to paramilitary elements, urging it to withdraw the warrant of any band with paramilitary connections. "It would empower local lodges, so that when the band leader knocked on the door they would have something to say."

Nelson insists the order is reducing the displays and influence of these factions, claiming that: "It's declining naturally, and we are facilitating that." Nelson stresses that "paramilitary activity is incompatible with membership of the Orange Order". But in the past he has acknowledged that "we can't always tell who are [ paramilitary] members. There's moral ambiguity in all these things throughout Northern Ireland."

The big question is whether the Orange Order's clean-up operation is having the desired effect on visitors to the North. Fionn Davenport, author of the Lonely Planet Guide to Ireland, remains to be convinced. "A young Australian woman who attended the parade last year told me she found the whole thing cold and unfriendly. The thing is, the Orange Order is an exclusive organisation, but the whole idea of a festival is to be inclusive. It's saying yes, have a burger, we want you here - but you can't be near us for any other day of the year."

Despite its extension of a "hearty Ulster welcome", it seems that the Orange Order still has some way to go before a sceptical public feels ready to embrace its new cuddly side.