Can COVID 19 influence a quieter twelfth moving forward?

The sectarian summer returned this year like the bane of our society that is the annual reopening of old wounds. Every summer Northern Ireland becomes a battlefield of sectarianism, discrimination and in some cases violence. From parades to flags there are many of those from across the divide who use this time as an opportunity to maintain the “us or them” culture that has plagued our society for many decades. However this year Covid 19 seemed to reduce the embarrassing scenes that engulfed us in the past prompting what could be quite influential moving forward.

The parade season should have been amongst us, which only adds fuel to the sectarian fire as it entices those who believe in the “us or them culture” into a rage of division. However Covid 19 created an obstacle prompting the Orange Order to call for the twelfth to be celebrated at home. However despite Covid 19 safety regulations this didn’t mean a thing to some who were more interesting in maintaining the sectarian divide than saving people’s lives. Cue PSNI inaction regarding street parties and large gatherings whereby no fines were issued regarding the breaking of Covid 19 regulations.

Personally I’ve had no problem with those who wish to parade to celebrate their culture however we need to understand moving forward that there are aspects of the parade season that does intimidate people. Flags for example have the power to instil pride in the hearts of those who love their country and show the romantic side of nationalism and the love of one’s country. However I believe that this only occurs with the flying of three flags, the tricolour for those who declare themselves as Irish, the Union Jack for those who declare themselves as British and possibly a flag for those who see themselves as Northern Irish. For me the buck stops there, In the past how can anyone find anything right about flying a Nazi flag or a confederate flag for example in Northern Ireland in recent years is beyond me. Don’t get me wrong we love a good flag here in Northern Ireland but we need to draw a line under that in some shape or form moving forward. Between Scottish flags, St George’s cross, Israel, Palestine etc it is enough to give someone a headache.

Bonfires were lit in parts of Northern Ireland on the Eleventh night this year although crowds have been smaller than previous years there was a reduced number of bonfires and crowds. The fire and rescue service said it responded to 24 bonfire-related incidents which represented a fall of 29.5% compared to 2019. If Covid 19 has taught us anything both Flags and Bonfires where significantly reduced this year prompting the question can we live with this reduction in future twelfth celebrations?

The bonfire issue is an interesting concept regarding culture however I heard once that bonfires actually do have a historical significance. They say when William of Orange was heading to Ireland his loyal supporters or loyalists would light bonfires as beacons along the coast for his ships to land safely…..not sure if people know that one to be honest but it certainly represents an argument to have these bonfires albeit in a safe and secure manner.

It was a welcome relief when the Orange Order called on its members not to attend bonfires and marches with large gatherings and to enjoy the Twelfth at home. Although the Orange Order does not organise marches it was a very welcome sight to see such an influential body within Loyalism show leadership and was willing to follow Government advice regarding Covid 19 and accept that changes this year must be made in order for pubic safety.

Again however the same cannot be said for those who have placed offensive sectarian messages on top of bonfires. How are we meant to move on as a society if the traditions of the past continue to haunt us every year and the failed parades commission are seemingly unable to make the tough decisions to work with the PSNI to penalise these people. In recent years bonfires in East Belfast have reduced the locals to a state of despair as they have been forced to move out of their homes due to being in close proximity to the bonfire itself. Every year there is an air of discontent from both sides of the divide in relation to this issue as no-one should be forced from their home at any time for any tradition. Although a quieter affair this year do we return to the usual “traditions” of previous years once Covid 19 has passed?

Those from the Unionist /Loyalist community who partake in these traditions have over the years condemned such weak excuses as they see their bonfire as a means to celebrate the Twelfth which in turn they value as a key aspect of their culture. Any criticism of this and they immediately go on the defensive without any compromise. We must ask ourselves where do we draw the line? A quiet twelfth in 2020 has given us the foresight to organise “quieter” less antagonising Twelfth celebrations that will hopefully continue for years to come. The continued sectarianism however will it ever stop? Is it time for the Orange Order to show similar leadership from 2020 regarding Twelfth celebrations in years to come?

Is there an air of real change and progress this year in regards to the Twelfth? or has Covid 19 postponed the annual traditions that are criticised every year and we will inevitably return to the “norm” next year? Perhaps leaders within Unionism should sit down once Covid 19 has passed and at the very least have a conversation regarding the lessons learned from 2020.

Orange Order Parade” by Shutterbug Fotos is licensed under CC BY-ND

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