Belfast's Twelfth celebrations get a radical overhaul

Troops saluting the hammer and sickle hoisted on flagpoles from Belgrade to Beijing might seem a world away from the Twelfth celebrations in Belfast but Orangefest organiser Mervyn Gibson can see similarities: ‘I was never a communist, but I always thought all the soldiers and the tanks in the May Day parades looked really impressive. You can enjoy the theatre of it all without buying into the politics.’

It’s a good job Gibson is so adept at separating the theatrical from the political. As a member of the organising committee for Belfast Orangefest he is charged with bringing a new sense of fun, frivolity and openness to the city’s traditionally contentious July celebrations.

As the Twelfth falls on a Sunday, this year’s event takes place on Monday 13 – but that’s not the only break from the norm. On the four mile march to ‘the Field’, the name given to the parade’s endpoint near Barnett’s Demesne in south Belfast, 10,000 Orangemen from as far afield as Ghana, Togo and Canada will be joined by colourful street entertainment, circus acts and, it is hoped, plenty of tourists.

Orangefest might sound like the name of a discontinued eastern European soft drink or a celebration in Copyright www.alaninbelfast.blogspot.comSeville but the brand, now in its third year, is fast gaining popular recognition. This year the Orangemen have mounted an extensive public relations campaign with bright, attractive banners erected across the city centre, promotional leaflets pushed through homes and shops and adverts in local newspapers and magazines.

In some people's minds the Twelfth of July will forever be associated with sectarian tensions and what is politely referred to as recreational rioting, but the Orange Order and its supporters are adamant that the rebranding of the parades is no gimmick.

‘We think the rebranding of the Twelfth is vital – we are saying we can be modern,’ explains William Mawhinny, development officer for Orangefest. ‘We thought to ourselves how can we brand ourselves without being perceived by people as just another Orange trick, another Orange con. We can’t call it Orangeman’s Day or anything like that, because it sounds too exclusionary, so we came up with Orangefest.

‘The festival means come and see us, come and see that we are not the quasi-fanatical Protestant organisation that hates everyone outside us,’ continues Mawhinny, a friendly, garrulous ex-serviceman who, somewhat inevitably, prefers the name Billy.

Historically publicity shy and resistant to change, in late 2005 the Belfast Grand Lodge realised that they could no longer sit still as Northern Ireland was transforming around them. Borrowing the German ‘fest’ – a word redolent of light-hearted, beer fuelled summertime joviality – Mawhinny and his colleagues set about redesigning a post-peace process Twelfth.

‘We wanted to move on, to try and leave behind the turmoil that the country had been in for more than 35 years and to spring the Orange into the modern city,’ he explains.

The time-honoured Twelfth route - congregating on Clifton Street in north Belfast early in the morning, marching to City Hall and then south to the Field – may have stayed the same but the city has not. Belfast today is a bright, busy city filled with voices and faces from all over the world – a fact Orangefest hopes to address in its new guise.

‘We’ve tried hard to make the Twelfth of July a more inclusive day of celebration. The city has changed, and we want to see everyone from all the different groups involved.’ While Mawhinny mentions with pride the attendance of Poles and Romanians at last year’s celebrations, he somewhat reluctantly admits the limits of the Orangefest’s drive for inclusivity.

A rainy day in Belfast‘We want to be inclusive but people have to understand that you can’t be a member of the Orange Order unless you are a member of the Protestant Reformed Church,’ he tells me after delivering an impromptu history lesson on the Battle of the Boyne, 1690 and ‘all that’. ‘[The Orange Order] are not the Roman Catholic haters, we are not the bigots we are perceived to be, but you have to be a member to join. That is our core belief and that is unshakeable.’

How this conviction squares with a diverse, multicultural Northern Ireland is open to debate, but less controversial is the Twelfth’s continued appeal with many Protestants and Unionists. Membership of the Orange Order has been in steep decline, down from a spike of 93.447 in 1968 to 35,758 in 2006, but the July celebrations remain the most popular event on the Northern Irish calendar. For Mervyn Gibson augmenting this strong local audience with foreign visitors is Orangefest’s primary aim.

‘It is all about trying to draw as many people as possible to the event.’ Orangefest may be only three years old but Gibson has already seen positive signs. ‘More and more people are travelling to the Twelfth. We want to make it so that if people are visiting Ireland, north or south, in July they will want to come and see it.’

Changing the Twelfth’s partisan image is not going to be quick or easy but in clamping down on drinking, encouraging shops to open and supplementing the steady diet of flutes and Lambeg drums with jugglers and clowns Orangefest is confident it is moving in the right direction.

‘We are not so naïve as to think it will be an overnight success but we are encouraged by what we have seen so far,’ Gibson says.

Many will balk at the very idea of rebranding the Twelfth as a family-friendly, inclusive festival but for Gibson acceptance of the Orange tradition is a fundamental part of Northern Ireland moving on. ‘People feel threatened by hunger strike marches, by GAA matches. We all feel threatened by something is this country, but we have to develop coping mechanisms to deal with that.’

Peter Geoghegan