Portrush’s Orange parade not a good look for British Open
These displays are about as far from an epitome of social inclusion as you could find
A view of Royal Portrush Golf Club for the 2012 Irish Open. Photograph: Inpho
When the Portrush Sons of Ulster’s Facebook page becomes essential reading, you realise this year’s Open is no ordinary championship.
As the third round of the final major of the year concludes, spectators will exit Royal Portrush to the sound of flutes and drums. The R&A wants us to cast our minds dreamily back to 1951, when Max Faulkner triumphed on Antrim’s north coast; Saturday evening will instead catapult us back to 1690 and the Battle of the Boyne.
In what has been billed as a “celebration of marching bands”, a three-hour concert will take place from 6.30pm in the centre of the town. The performers are listed on social media as if it were as natural as Glastonbury (which, in respect of Northern Ireland, you can make the reasonable case it is).
The William King Memorial band start proceedings, followed in half hour slots by the Derryloran Boyne Defenders, Dunloy Accordion, Ballykeel Loyal Sons of Ulster and Moneyslane Flute Band. The Drumderg Loyalists will round things off from 9pm. The Sons of Ulster will then march to an Orange hall. There is naturally a comedic, ludicrous undertone to this in 2019 but when placed on the Open’s doorstep, it is a horrendously embarrassing look.
American guests will probably look on with intrigue. What, though, of the thousands of Open fans from the predominantly Catholic Republic of Ireland?
To suggest Orange parades are intrinsically linked to paramilitary behaviour or directly incite violence would be hugely unfair but shows such as this represent a depressing throwback to a Northern Ireland beset by sectarian division.
Twenty one years on from the Good Friday agreement, loyalists still mark William of Orange’s Boyne victory with anthems and bonfires, many of the latter featuring tricolour flags or effigies of the pope. This is about as far from an epitome of social inclusion as you could find.
It is the Northern Ireland that will not feature on advertising campaigns for one of the world’s biggest sporting events. It does not, either, on the Causeway Coast & Glens borough council’s what’s on guide for July alongside the Open, a maritime festival and food tours. Middle-aged men belting out The Sash does not tend to have a wider resonance. Sky Sports Golf will not deliver a special outside broadcast.
The perception has been allowed to linger that the concert’s organisers are doing the Open and its organisers something of a favour. In 2018, 48 bands took part with YouTube footage showing marchers being applauded through Portrush streets.
“This is a decision that has taken us several months to come to, as there were many factors to take into consideration,” said the Sons of Ulster. “The main reason being is that all car parks in the town are occupied because of the Open.
“It was important we came to some sort of compromise and had something happening in the town on the date of our parade. It was only after months of talks with the Causeway Coast and Glens Council, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, R&A and Translink that we were able to come to this decision. We would like to take this opportunity to thank all of the parties listed above, as they all wanted to work with the band to allow us to have something on the night.”
Taking this at face value, availability of parking spaces was the biggest barrier to a festival of Orange and, more controversially, the R&A was anxious the show went on. If that raises an eyebrow, the same applies to the R&A’s claim that it “doesn’t have a position” on the concert. For context: a year ago, when premises adjacent to the Open at Carnoustie erected a branded golf simulator in its garden, the R&A took to sending snippy edicts asking that it was removed owing to what it perceived as negative imagery. Celebrations of a 17th century battle, as linked to more recent decades of bigotry and tragic civil unrest? Shrug.
In fairness to the R&A, this invidious position is not at all of its doing. History tells us when third parties try to block Orange walks in Northern Ireland, the backlash is not pretty. A spokesman for Northern Ireland’s parades commission highlighted the 4,000 that took place last year with “the majority” causing no concern.
He added: “The commission has not received objections nor complaints about this notified parade, nor has it received any information regarding sensitivities about it. The commission has, therefore, not considered it. By way of context, there are around 30 parades in Portrush each year, none of which are deemed ‘sensitive’ and, therefore, none of which are considered by the Commission.”
The police are similarly relaxed, albeit their response to questions focused solely on logistics. Wider perception and the dreadful look in respect of the Open is not their domain.
“Organisers of the parade worked closely with representatives of Causeway Coast and Glens council and PSNI to tailor the parade this year to facilitate the large amount of visitors and traffic expected in Portrush on this date,” said Supt John Magill. “PSNI and organisers have devised a traffic management solution for bands attending to take part in the concert and parade. PSNI have an extensive operation planned to facilitate the Open in its entirety which includes arrangements for the concert and parade.”
In continuing with what they have always done on this particular Saturday, the Portrush Sons of Ulster are seeking to “use this opportunity to show all those who will be visiting for the Open what our culture is all about.” The sporting world waits with bated breath.