Orange Order vows to ‘re-energise’ unionist politics in event of general election

Unionist politics should be “re-energised” if a general election is called, the leader of the Orange Order said.

Political influence must be maximised to meet the challenges ahead, grand master Edward Stevenson added.

Thousands of Orange Order members have taken to the streets of Northern Ireland to celebrate the main date in the Protestant loyal order parading season.

The “Twelfth of July” events mark the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, when Protestant King William defeated Catholic King James II in Co Meath, in what is now the Republic of Ireland.

Marching bands and loyal order lodges paraded through streets across the region before congregating at fields to hear speeches and prayers delivered by senior Orangemen.

Twelfth of July parade
Twelfth of July parade

Mr Stevenson said: “If we are to indeed see a general election in the next year – there is a real challenge for unionism as a whole in ensuring that we re-engage with non-voters and to re-energise unionist politics as an electoral force with a strong, attractive message.

“This institution has played an important role in the elections of past generations and we must be willing to go the extra mile to help political unionism in the challenges ahead.

“We are a broad church in terms of political views – however, one thing all our members can agree on is that our interests are best served as citizens of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”

The longest parade was in Belfast, where hundreds of Orange lodge members, accompanied by about 60 bands, made their way through the city towards the demonstration field on the southern outskirts.

Union flag-waving supporters lined sections of the route to cheer them on.

The vast majority of Twelfth events are peaceful.

Twelfth of July celebrations
Twelfth of July celebrations

Over the years there have been many volatile flashpoints involving Orange lodges and nationalist residents.

The best-known include the Garvaghy Road/Drumcree dispute in Portadown, the Ormeau Road in south Belfast and the Ardoyne/Woodvale interface in north Belfast.

Irish Senator Neale Richmond watched the parades as a representative of his Government.

He said: “The prospect of someone like me going up 20 or 30 years ago just would have been a non-runner.

“It would not have been appreciated.

The #Belfast12th parade passed outside @MovieHouseNI with two Irish Senators @nealerichmond and @IanMarshall_ looking on

— Belfast Orangefest (@belforangefest) July 12, 2019

“The atmosphere was quite unique, it was very lively.”

While tensions around Drumcree and the Ormeau Road largely dissipated as the peace process developed, the Ardoyne stand-off remained an annual source of intense community discord until relatively recently.

A locally negotiated temporary deal brought a measure of resolution to that impasse in 2016, resulting in largely incident-free Twelfths over the last number of years.

Stormont leaders have previously agreed to eventually take on the responsibility for parading issues from the Government, potentially replacing the Parades Commission adjudication body with a new model.

That plan was subsequently consumed by the wider political fallout at Stormont and is now well and truly on ice amid the ongoing absence of powersharing.

A Stormont-established working group set up to examine ways to deal with the thorny issues of flags, identity, culture and tradition has made little progress.

A lack of devolved government means there is little prospect of any emerging recommendations being implemented in the short term.