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Twelfth of July: an expression of culture or an excuse for hatred?

Caoimhe Mahon

Traditionally, the Twelfth of July - also known as Orangemen’s Day - is celebrated by Ulster Protestants in the North of Ireland to mark the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne of 1690, now part of the Irish Republic. 

However, the Twelfth of July has become a divisive event which stirs up an array of emotions in the North of Ireland, evoking varied responses and outlooks across communities. 

Despite the fact that the celebrations are supposed to unfold in the form of parades to the soundtrack of bands, the holiday is often engulfed by a cloud of violence and sectarian divides. 

Union Jack flags, alongside red, white and blue bunting, line the streets with Loyalist/Royalist murals covering the gable walls of various communities in the North from early summer. Passing through the different towns and communities in the North of Ireland and witnessing the paraphernalia on display means it is often easy to tell the religious and/or political alignment of many within that area. 

Some of the ‘decorations’ will boldly display the slogan ‘No Surrender’ whilst others are blatantly sectarian. This creates a tone of hostility, with certain bunting and posters producing an air of intimidation for those who do not agree with said beliefs or fall within these communities. 

There is, of course, the argument that such celebrations and trappings to mark said celebrations are merely a display of identity and represent a community's culture. However, the sectarian violence that unfolds around the ‘holiday’ would raise the question: does celebrating one’s identity give permission for one to attack another’s identity, and can something be described as culture if it involves the rejection, disrespect and threat of another’s culture?

The Orange Order, often at the head of the Twelfth events, could be condemned as being sectarian whilst adopting a tone of supremacy through its policies, which state that non-Protestant members are not allowed to join the Orange Order. 

This in itself is very black and white in an area where little is black and white in reality. To understand the history of the North is to understand that religion, politics and identity do not necessarily always go hand in hand. Protestant and Unionist/Loyalist are not solely interlinked, and neither are Catholic and Nationalist/Republican. Therefore, the Orange Order is adopting a very outdated, exclusive and sectarian approach to its policies. The exclusive nature of the Twelfth and the Orange Order itself dilutes the argument (formerly mentioned) and the potential for the ‘holiday’ to be an inclusive, cross community event (unlike St. Patrick’s Day). 

As per Jude Collins website, the issue is clearly pinpointed: 

“The celebration is big on symbolism and ritual. It has become a celebration of Orange/Unionist/Protestant culture. Nothing wrong with that except when it takes on supremacist overtones – as when Orange bands play offensive tunes while passing Catholic churches and when bonfires are used to show hatred and when flegs are put up to provoke and annoy and show who is boss. Then, the Orangefest becomes a corruption of culture. Then, it becomes deliberate provocation and there’s everything wrong with that.” 

The history of the North of Ireland is bloody, it is painful and it is personal. Each person is entitled to their opinion, to hold their beliefs and to display pride for their identity. Respecting one’s self and others across communities in the North is crucial if we are to peacefully coexist and to heal. 

Sadly, on both sides there is a percentage of the population who are not willing to carry themselves with dignity and who, instead, taint their own culture by using it as an excuse to intimidate and display hatred. 

This is evident, each year, during the Twelfth celebrations. Given the complex history of this battle (Battle of the Boyne) and its further European connections, those showing their ignorance without even a scintilla of the facts appear to be responsible for the, sadly, loutish behaviour on this day of celebration as indicated via the violence throughout the province, i.e., injuries to front line staff. 

During the most recent Twelfth events, the violence and sectarianism was once more rife in certain areas carried out by some attendees. 

In the Carrickfergus area, five front line workers were punched and bitten in a violent attack on the eleventh night. During hours of extended violence circulating the bonfires of the eleventh, paramedics were subject to violence with some stating that threats were made against their lives. 

The NHS and services are already under strain alongside vulnerable people in urgent need of paramedic/ambulance services. Paramedics and front line workers directed attention to call outs associated with the 11th night bonfires, but their help and professionalism was only met with hatred and disrespect.

How can this be condoned and accepted as people celebrating their culture and identity? 

Once again bonfires peered over towns and cities, not only a health and safety issue but a climate issue too. The bonfires were adorned in Irish tricolours accompanied by images of political figures. In previous years GAA jerseys, religious imagery and effigies were also visible on the bonfires.

This is clearly an act of intimidation, with bonfires embodying sectarian divides. 

The complexity of the North, its history and the events that surround the Twelfth aid in posing the question: Is this a time for expressing culture and celebrating identity or is it simply an excuse for loutish, bigoted and hateful behaviour?

Image: Pacemaker

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