The 12th of July: Orangefest or Triumphalism?

Updated on July 15, 2019
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The author is a QUB Political Science honors graduate and has written on a variety of related issues.

A Loyalist band marches in a circle outside St Patrick's Catholic church in Belfast on the 12th of July.
A Loyalist band marches in a circle outside St Patrick's Catholic church in Belfast on the 12th of July.

Despite attempts by the loyal orders, Unionist politicians, and even the local BBC and ITV channels to normalize the Orange Order's annual '12th of July' spectacle, reality does not match this projected image. When placed under any serious political scrutiny, it is revealed to be no quaint folk festival, not least due to its non-inclusive, sectarian makeup. The political ideology enshrined within the Orange Order is ultra-right-wing, exclusionary nationalism similar in outlook to the former Afrikaner Broederbond, the Klan or the Flemish Vlaams Belang.

A Traditional Benevolent Movement?

During many of the violent crises in Ireland's history, the loyal orders have been either the cause of, or heavily involved in, serious sectarian disorder. In fact, their actions in Derry in 1969 could arguably have been cited as a key starting point in the recent 35-years conflict in the north of Ireland. Furthermore, at significant times of heightened civil tension, such as the various Drumcree crises, the loyal orders were given carte blanche by the British security services to act as a right-wing, locally raised irregular militia.

During the loyalist civil unrest surrounding the Garvaghy and Lower Ormeau road contentious parades, the loyal orders and their loyalist paramilitary co-members took part in the erection of barricades, the manning of illegal vehicle checkpoints and intimidation of large sections of the public from their places of work and homes. The Orange Order was arguably responsible for the heightening of sectarian tensions that later made possible the tragic murders of the 3 Quinn children in 1998 in the Carnany Estate, Ballymoney, and the 1996 sectarian murder of the newly graduated QUB student, Michael McGoldrick, outside Portadown.

At best, the loyal orders traditionalism is an anti-modernistic, nativist and reactionary one. If, as the loyal orders would have us believe, the 12th of July is a harmless festival of culture, then they would have major difficulties explaining the well-documented exodus of a significant section of the population during this annual bank holiday period to escape the ever-looming prospect of the inter-communal disorder.

11th Night Bonfires

The issue of 11th-night bonfires continues to create tensions, not only between the interfacing republican and loyalist communities but also between the loyalists who build these structures, the various municipal authorities, the fire brigade and residents of those areas who suffer from the anti-social behavior associated with them.

11th-night bonfires are huge structures over 100 feet high consisting of car tire, wooden pallets and just about anything that can burn. In many cases, they are constructed on local council, civic or health board property, causing many thousands of pounds in damages and depriving many of much-needed services. For the local fire brigade, the 11th night is by far their busiest time of the year due to bonfires burning out of control or setting fire to nearby homes, businesses, and services. With over 30 major 11th-night bonfires in the Belfast area constructed with car tires and other hazardous materials, there is a massive spike in air pollution during that time period.

The Loyal Orders' Modus Operandi

For many residents living in majority Loyalist areas or in interface zones during the 12th of July and other loyal orders' parades, life can be very difficult. No Irish Republican organization has ever sought to march through Protestant/Loyalist areas yet the loyal orders see it as a kind of divine right to march through areas whose host community are diametrically opposed to such parades. On the few occasions so far, when they have been prevented by the Parades Commission from marching through the Ardoyne area in north Belfast, on their return journey the loyal orders' followers have caused serious violence costing hundreds of thousands of pounds in damage to local homes, businesses, and community property.

The primary function of these contentious parading and the raison d'etre of the loyal orders is to stop any easing of the sectarian divide between working-class people and permanently drive a wedge between the proletariat in the northeast of Ireland. One need not look too far to see who are the beneficiaries from these divisions and the damage it does to any nascent class solidarity in the north.

The extract below from a traditional loyalist song succinctly demonstrates the sad tragedy of sectarianism in the northern six counties of Ireland pursued by the deferential conservatives of the loyal orders and its cohorts in political Unionism:

"Let not the poor man hate the rich,
Nor rich on poor look down,
But each joins each true Protestant
For God and for the Crown."

With the reunification of Ireland becoming a very real prospect, not least due to the reality of major demographic shifts since the inception of the Northern Ireland statelet in 1921, and the loyal orders' dwindling membership, it is arguably in those organizations best interests to re-evaluate its future in a 21st century, pluralist Ireland.

11th night bonfires are huge structures built out of car tires, wooden pallets and junk.
11th night bonfires are huge structures built out of car tires, wooden pallets and junk.

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    © 2019 Liam A Ryan

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