The Twelfth of July

John Gray investigates the history of the annual climax to the Ulster Protestant marching season, now rebranded 'Orangefest'

It was worn at Derry, Aughrim, Enniskillen and the Boyne.

A line from The Sash, the tune that will ring out most at Orange Order marches on ‘The Twelfth’ celebrating King William’s victory over King James II at the Battle of the Boyne on July 1, 1690 (subsequent calendar change giving us 'The Twelfth').

William’s Irish war was the final outworking of the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688 for ‘civil and religious liberty’. It was a revolution of European significance, yet has passed into history except in Northern Ireland where it became central to massive demonstrations by the Orange Order.

This year’s Twelfth will see major parades at 18 locations. The largest in Belfast will see upwards of 10,000 Orangemen and their bands marching.

Which William will they celebrate? William as a thoroughly modern man who fought in alliance with the Pope, and who, in the Treaty of Limerick (1691), offered generous terms to the vanquished? No, rather the William of the eventual settlement in which a protestant Irish parliament insisted that penal terms were imposed.

The Orange Order was founded more than a century later on September 21, 1795 in Loughgall, County Armagh, the epicentre of virulent localised sectarian conflict. Its birth came following the Battle of the Diamond between the predominately catholic Defenders and the protestant Peep O’ Day Boys alongside ‘orange boys’.

The first Twelfth was held at the Diamond in 1796 when 5,000 paraded with banners showing ‘King George on one side, King William on the other’. The new order soon assumed much greater significance in the struggle between government and the United Irishmen who rebelled in 1798.

By 1797 General Lake attended a Twelfth demonstration of 3,000 Orangemen at Lisburn and another of 12,000 at Lurgan. Orangemen joined the Irish Yeomanry and it is to their marching practices that present day parades owe their greatest debt.

Orange commitment was to an unchanged protestant settlement, and hence many Orangemen opposed the Act of Union in 1801, and Catholic Emancipation (1829), the Reform Act (1832), the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland (1869), and the Ballot Act (1872).

Marches, and demonstrations on the Twelfth assumed particular significance. The 1995 pamphlet 'The Order on Parade' compared this with English parish practice of ‘walking the boundaries’.

In Ulster boundaries were contested, and in England marking the parish never required thousands!
Marches were regularly the focal point of serious conflict. Belfast’s first riots in 1829 were linked with an Orange demonstration, as were the more serious ones in 1857. Perhaps most notoriously around 30 catholics were killed at Dolly’s Brae near Castlewellan on the ‘Twelfth’ in 1849.

Orangemen proclaimed an inalienable right to march, and blamed their opponents for conflict. Government often disagreed and for much of the mid-nineteenth century the organisation was deemed illegal and its processions were banned.

Popular grassroots enthusiasm ensured that some demonstrations still occured. Famously William Johnston of Ballykilbeg was jailed for leading an illegal Twelfth demonstration from Newtownards to Bangor in 1867. Subsequently he was elected MP for South Belfast and the Party Procession Act was repealed in 1872.

Crucially, the Order became a central element in pan-protestant mobilisation against the Irish Home Rule Bill of 1886. In that year very serious riots in Belfast flared up on The Twelfth. During the continued struggle over Home Rule the Order played a central role in creating the Ulster Unionist Party (1905) and was key to the organisation of the Ulster Volunteer Force (1912) to resist Home Rule by force if necessary.

The Orange Order became a mainstay of the new Northern Ireland state in 1922. All prime ministers, and nearly all cabinet ministers were members of the Order or related bodies. Bans on Orange demonstrations were rare, and were usually reversed, notably in Belfast in 1935.

This was an era which tends to be idealised by Orangemen. Their right to walk the ‘Queen's highway’ was largely unfettered. The communities ‘agreed to differ’ on one day in the year: it could hardly be otherwise when one was dominant. Fractures only appeared when Captain Terence O’Neill set about tentative change in the 1960s. Government ministers were heckled when they appeared on Twelfth platforms.

It was the harbinger of much worse. From 1968 onwards the Civil Rights movement claimed the right to march. The Order resisted most reforms during ‘The Troubles’ and supported the local security services, only to see them abolished or reformed out of recognition.

With the fall of Stormont (1972), the Order lost its patronage link with government. It gave up some marching routes voluntarily, while others close to Nationalist areas were resisted. It lost authority with its working class supporters who increasingly turned to the paramilitaries.

Peace resolved little. It opposed the Good Friday agreement (1998). Cultural issues including parades were increasingly contentious. Nowhere more so than at Drumcree near Portadown, where there had been a long history of conflict over the Twelfth. The crisis and serious violence of 1996-1998 arose over a church parade marking the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.

The Twelfth cannot be isolated from other events during the year of which it is the climax. The chances of difficulties which can colour perceptions of the Twelfth have grown exponentially as the number of parades has risen from 2,120 in 1985 to 3,801 in 2008/9. Clearly many of these are not traditional though Twelfth routes are more likely to be.

The Order refused to engage with the Parades Commission or with residents’ groups opposed to marches. Fresh parade proposals are out for public consultation. Meanwhile the Drumcree impasse remains unresolved.

The old slogans of ‘No surrender’ reflecting a siege mentality from Derry, and of ‘Remember 1690’ implying the possibility of a new victory like the Boyne should no longer suffice. King William’s concept of ‘civil and religious liberty’ was a revolutionary development. Can new ideas as to its meaning emerge in 21st century Northern Ireland?

For full details of this year's celebrations marking the 325th anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, see our festivals listing for Orangefest.