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An Orange march in Northern Ireland

Kinder, gentler or same old Orange?

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An Orange march in Northern Ireland

The annual Orange marches have passed relatively peacefully in Northern Ireland this year, and it seems a good faith effort is underway to try and reorient the day from one of triumphalism to one of community outreach and a potential tourist attraction.

Good luck with that. The modernizers want to call the day “Orangefest” and try and bring tourists around to watch as the 50,000 or so marchers make their way across every major town and country site in Northern Ireland.

It is a praiseworthy effort, and Orange leaders were recently in New York explaining the new attempts. There may well come the day when the venom has been extracted from the July 12th celebrations, but that is still some way off.

The latest attempt, while brave, is an effort that flies in the face of recent history, however.

Memories don’t fade away quite as fast. The 12th has long been an occasion for bigotry, from the “Kick the Pope” bands to sectarian attacks on Nationalist areas.

During the height of The Troubles the Orange marching day was the culmination of the marching season, which led to huge standoffs between both sides in the North.

Many horrific killings resulted from those tensions, and it is very premature to assume the communal memory has faded of those events quite so fast.

The 12th may well have been a celebration of a long ago battle at the Boyne in 1690, but it came to symbolize for generations of Catholics the “croppie lie down” mentality on the Orange side.

The thunderous beat of the huge drums was just a small way of instilling fear into the Nationalist communities, while the insistence on marching wherever they liked through Nationalist neighborhoods was also a statement of supremacy and contempt for the feelings of the other community.

As the demographics of Northern Ireland shifted and many parade routes were now going through Nationalist areas, the stand offs often reached crisis proportions.

Even still the echoes of the infamous Drumcree standoff continue. 

Local Nationalist residents near the town of Portadown there have essentially won the battle to keep the Orange march off their territory on its way back from its march into the nearby town.

In 1998, the first year the march was rerouted, huge Protestant protests erupted. Orangemen supporters set fire to a Catholic house in Ballymoney, County Antrim. Three little boys, Richard, Mark and Jason Quinn, were burned alive.

Little wonder that the kinder, gentler Orange image takes some getting used to for many Nationalists, but even in terms of Drumcree there has been positive progress in the past few weeks.

First Minister Peter Robinson met with both sides in that dispute, a huge step forward in what has been a running sore for far too long in Northern Ireland.

There are many such flashpoints still around, however. Recently a Catholic was kicked to death by a Loyalist mob after the Glasgow Rangers soccer club won the Scottish League. Several Orange halls were attacked by extreme Republicans in the run up to the Orange marches.

Certainly the marching season has simmered down and is no longer the focus of huge tension and fears for public safety.

Getting it to the next phase, where it can be celebrated as a part of history with no present day overtones of triumphalism, is a much bigger step.

Orangefest organizers deserve credit for trying, but it remains to be seen if it can be successful.

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