Parade season’s arrival prompts Catholics to head off on their holidays

Parade season’s arrival prompts Catholics to head off on their holidays

SUDDENLY it is easier to park a car in Belfast.

That’s the first indication you get of the July exodus.

Then the general thinning of traffic on the main road and after that the realisation that most of your neighbours have gone too.

You can only hope that burglars are also on holiday for now there’s no one to notice if a hoodlum is climbing through your rear bathroom window.

This is Twelfth Fortnight, the two-week period that includes July 12, the date on which Orange lodges around Northern Ireland parade through town centres.

The biggest of these parades will be in Belfast. Thousands of men, wearing Orange collarettes identifying their lodges, will march in formation behind bands; pipe bands, accordion bands, drum bands, all sorts of bands.

And each band will be led by a stout man hammering the guts out of a big bass drum or a more lithe figure twirling a baton, tossing it into the air and catching it behind his back.

This is carnival, colourful, rhythmic and loud and half the population of the city comes to take part or watch while the other half clears off.

That’s how things work in a divided society.

The Orange Order is a Protestant movement which celebrates the Battle of the Boyne of 1690, the victory of the Dutch Prince William of Orange over the Catholic King James and the establishment of a Protestant monarchy in Britain, which still governs a chunk of Ireland.

Marching with the lodges is a declaration of a commitment to a Protestant monarchy and the union of Northern Ireland with Britain.

Half the population of Northern Ireland is not Protestant, is mostly of Catholic ancestry and would rather leave the ‘prods’ to their day and take to the beaches of Donegal instead.

Many plan their holidays abroad at this time and the immediate effect is of a thinned-out city, quieter, easier to negotiate, shorter queues in the shops, pleasant bright evenings, a sense of having more of it to yourself.

In the run up to the big parade day there are several smaller parades.

The first of July marks the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, a memory still cherished here in Northern Ireland by the Orange Order.

On Sunday, June 30 a small parade passed down the Ormeau Road, where I live, just one band and the lodge master leading the way on his disability scooter which had Orange trimmings on the wheels.

The police cleared with way on bigger motorbikes with flashing blue lights.

On our road these parades were contentious years ago.

The mostly Catholic population of the lower part of the road, closer to town, protested against them and in time - saving everybody the headache - they were rerouted.

Back then protests against parades often culminated in rioting, arson and murder.

The Orangemen felt that their right to march the Queen’s highway along traditional routes was inviolate. Catholics felt that the parades were triumphal and insulting, as indeed some were.

During one stand-off in Portadown, I watched an Orange band play loudly outside a Catholic church during mass and march smartly away when the doors opened and the congregation spilled out.

Their only point had been sectarian, to disrupt worship, believing that the disruption by protest of their own reverential commemorations was equally sacrilegious.

There is a strange hybridity in the parades between the respectable men and women of the lodges - turned out in their Sunday best with their collarettes - and the bands that lead them.

It is often the bands that present the problems, with their thunderous drums and their antics.

Some bands actually celebrate loyalist terrorist groups that might reasonably have been called death squads, militias formed in pub back rooms where they plotted the murders of random Catholics, viewing that as legitimate retaliation against the even more murderous IRA.

But the peacefulness of the city streets in these days before the big parade feels like a reassurance of changed times.

In the past we would have been more anxious about the parades drawing closer and the violence and disruption that came with them and with the protests against them.

Now all that energy, on the Protestant side at least, seems redirected into the building of massive bonfire towers around Belfast.

These will be lit on the night before the Twelfth. Rivalry has developed between communities to produce the biggest tower.

Fears of confrontation with the bonfire makers meant that, at times, nearby homes were evacuated and hosed down by the fire service to protect them from the flames.

This was preferable to the violence that might follow if the hoses were turned on the fires themselves.

Expect appalled reports in the local press from bonfire sites as the towers grow.

Some will be decked with the election posters of nationalist and Sinn Féin politicians, and, as before, there will be outrage but also a general understanding that this is a release valve for anger that is better vented for a week than choked off and allowed to burst out randomly throughout the year.

Most of the people this stuff is intended to annoy will be away on holiday anyway.