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Hundreds of Orange Order July 12 parades take place in Northern Ireland

Thousands of Orange Order members have taken to the streets across Northern Ireland today to mark the ‘Glorious Twelfth’ of July amid continuing anger over post-Brexit trade arrangements in the province.

The Twelfth parades mark the victory of Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne, north of Dublin, in 1690 – a triumph that secured a Protestant line of succession to the British Crown. 

This year’s parades were smaller than usual and locally based due to public health concerns after organisers stuck to plans to have parades of no more than 500 people, even though the limit on public gatherings imposed due to Covid-19 has now been removed.

The normal 18 main events were replaced by more than 100 local parades which took place in a number of cities, towns and villages.

The Order said organising smaller parades was the best way to ensure the demonstrations went ahead. As well as the reduced size of the parades, there were fewer spectators lining the roads this year.

But there was a row overnight after several bonfires preceding today’s marches had Irish tricolour flags placed on top. 

Orange Order members take part in unionist Twelfth celebrations in Belfast, Northern Ireland, today

This year's marches come at a time of great tension over the Irish Sea border and the post-Brexit trade arrangements

This year’s marches come at a time of great tension over the Irish Sea border and the post-Brexit trade arrangements

The July 12 celebrations which marks the victory of King William of Orange over the catholic King James at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690

The July 12 celebrations which marks the victory of King William of Orange over the catholic King James at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690

The July 12 parades have often been the spark for violence, even after a 1998 peace deal largely ended three decades of conflict between Catholic nationalists aspiring to unification with Ireland and Protestant unionists seeking to retain the status quo

The July 12 parades have often been the spark for violence, even after a 1998 peace deal largely ended three decades of conflict between Catholic nationalists aspiring to unification with Ireland and Protestant unionists seeking to retain the status quo

. The 35,000-member Protestant organisation will hold 500 smaller, local parades rather than the usual 18 large gathering to take account of COVID-19 restrictions and its chief executive told Reuters on Friday that he does not sense any appetite to turn parades violent or into Brexit protests. The checks introduced by the Northern Ireland protocol on some goods moving from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland due to its open border with the EU via member state Ireland contributed to more than a week of riots earlier this year. The parades, which celebrate the 1690 victory at the Battle of the Boyne by Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James of England and Scotland, will mainly be held in the morning and afternoon and also finish earlier than usual. The lighting of bonfires on the eve of the July 12 holiday, some of which were draped in Irish flags, passed off peacefully over the weekend.

Orangemen march past a Parades Commission Detemination sign which prevents them from playing music in the Clifton Street area of Belfast

A child leads the marching band in Hillsborough, Co.Down

A child leads the marching band in Hillsborough, Co.Down

The 35,000-member Protestant organisation are holidng 500 smaller, local parades, many involving children, rather than the usual 18 large gathering to take account of COVID-19 restrictions

The 35,000-member Protestant organisation are holidng 500 smaller, local parades, many involving children, rather than the usual 18 large gathering to take account of COVID-19 restrictions

Bandsmen and Orange Order members of No 3 District Loyal Orange Lodge parade pass the nationalist area around Ardoyne shops in Belfas

Bandsmen and Orange Order members of No 3 District Loyal Orange Lodge parade pass the nationalist area around Ardoyne shops in Belfas

An effigy of deceased IRA man and hunger striker  Bobby Storey on an 'eleventh night' bonfire on waste ground close to Highpark Crescent in north Belfast

An effigy of deceased IRA man and hunger striker  Bobby Storey on an ‘eleventh night’ bonfire on waste ground close to Highpark Crescent in north Belfast

The national flag of Ireland, 'the tricolour' burning on the Tiger's Bay 'Eleventh Night' bonfire, causing anger in the province

The national flag of Ireland, ‘the tricolour’ burning on the Tiger’s Bay ‘Eleventh Night’ bonfire, causing anger in the province

The 11th night bonfire which marks the beginning of the annual protestant 12th of July celebrations is lit in the Craigyhill housing estate

The 11th night bonfire which marks the beginning of the annual protestant 12th of July celebrations is lit in the Craigyhill housing estate

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson marched with the Ballinran Orange Lodge in Kilkeel, Co Down.

The parades, which celebrate the 1690 victory at the Battle of the Boyne by Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James of England and Scotland

The parades, which celebrate the 1690 victory at the Battle of the Boyne by Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James of England and Scotland

The vast majority of Twelfth events are peaceful, although in some years there have been volatile flashpoints involving Orange lodges and nationalist residents.

The Parades Commission, which rules on contentious gatherings in Northern Ireland, had imposed conditions on a number of marches.

Up to 2,000 police officers were on duty throughout the day.

There was a significant police presence for parades in Belfast on Monday through the Ardyone area and past St Patrick’s Catholic Church on Donegall Street.

In the city, a number of small parades took place before the bands gathered at Carlisle Circus before the march through the city centre and onto Shaw’s Bridge.

Traditionally, parade participants congregate at fields where they hear speeches and prayers delivered by senior Orangemen before a return march, but that did not happen this year.

The Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland had called on everyone attending a parade to respect the Covid-19 guidelines.

Last year’s Twelfth of July parades were cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions on public gatherings.

The Twelfth parades were preceded by the traditional burning of Eleventh Night bonfires, which this year took place on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.

The Orange Order parade in the village of Hillsborough, Co.Down, as part of the July 12 celebrations which marks the victory of King William of Orange

The Orange Order parade in the village of Hillsborough, Co.Down, as part of the July 12 celebrations which marks the victory of King William of Orange

Orangemen march past Clifton Street Orange Hall in Belfast

Orangemen march past Clifton Street Orange Hall in Belfast

Bandsmen and Orange Order members of No 3 District Loyal Orange Lodge parade pass the nationalist area around Ardoyne shops in Belfast

Bandsmen and Orange Order members of No 3 District Loyal Orange Lodge parade pass the nationalist area around Ardoyne shops in Belfast

A child leads the Orange Order parade in the village of Hillsborough, Co.Down,

A child leads the Orange Order parade in the village of Hillsborough, Co.Down,

A Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) spokesman said: ‘Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service has dealt with a significant increase in emergency calls and mobilisations to bonfire related incidents over July 9, 10 and 11.

‘The service was exceptionally busy on each of the three nights, with direct intervention required by NIFRS to protect properties from radiated heat, embers, etc. from the bonfires.’

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson condemned the burning of Irish tricolour flags on some bonfires.

Sir Jeffrey told the BBC: ‘I don’t want to see election posters or flags burnt on bonfires, I think we can celebrate our culture and our tradition in a respectful way.

‘Respect is a two-way street – if you want to gain respect for your traditions and culture you’ve got to show respect for the traditions, culture and symbols of other communities.’

Sir Jeffrey said work needed to continue to address safety issues around the size of some of the bonfires.

‘I think we need to continue working with those who organise bonfires to look at safety issues and to look at the height of bonfires, where they are located.

‘In the end public safety is absolutely paramount when it comes to this.’

The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) has said it dealt with a ‘significant increase’ in emergency calls to bonfire-related incidents this year.

More than 230 Eleventh Night bonfires were lit across Northern Ireland between Friday and Sunday nights.

The bonfires precede the Twelfth of July parades, the main date in the Protestant loyal order parading season.

The huge bonfire in Craigyhill, Larne, is lit on the "Eleventh night" to usher in the Twelfth commemorations

The huge bonfire in Craigyhill, Larne, is lit on the “Eleventh night” to usher in the Twelfth commemorations

More than 230 such bonfires were lit in Loyalist areas across Northern Ireland between Friday and Sunday nights as part of a tradition to mark the anniversary of the Protestant King William's victory over the Catholic King James at the Battle of the Boyne in 169

More than 230 such bonfires were lit in Loyalist areas across Northern Ireland between Friday and Sunday nights as part of a tradition to mark the anniversary of the Protestant King William’s victory over the Catholic King James at the Battle of the Boyne in 169

While the NIFRS said it was ‘exceptionally busy’ over the weekend, it also confirmed there were no attacks on fire service personnel.

The NIFRS said firefighters had been required to take direct action to protect properties from heat caused by bonfires.

A spokesman said: ‘Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service has dealt with a significant increase in emergency calls and mobilisations to bonfire related incidents over July 9, 10 and 11 July.’

Between 6pm on Friday night and 2am on Saturday morning the service received 54 calls and was sent to 40 incidents, including seven bonfire-related incidents.

Between 6pm on Saturday night and 2am on Sunday morning it received 171 calls and was sent to 99 incidents, including 34 bonfire-related incidents.

The same figures for 6pm on Sunday to 2am on Monday were 153 calls, 150 mobilisations of which 40 were bonfire-related.

This means that over the weekend there were a total of 378 calls and 244 mobilisations, 81 dealing with bonfire incidents.

A NIFRS spokesperson said: ‘Over the three nights this represents a significant increase in bonfire related incidents compared to 2020 when 24 bonfire related incidents occurred from 6pm to 1am on the night of July 11/12.

‘The service was exceptionally busy on each of the three nights, with direct intervention required by NIFRS to protect properties from radiated heat, embers, etc. from the bonfires.

‘Despite the increased demand of bonfire related incidents, NIFRS maintained emergency response cover across Northern Ireland through the use of contingency planning measures, enabling attendance to a range of operational incidents including property fires and other emergency incidents.

‘NIFRS can confirm there were no attacks on fire service personnel or appliances at any bonfire related incidents.’

There were more than 160 bonfires lit across Northern Ireland on Sunday night alone.

These included the contentious bonfire at Adam Street in the loyalist Tiger’s Bay area of north Belfast, which is adjacent to the nationalist New Lodge area.

The bonfire had attracted controversy as nationalist and republican politicians had claimed that the homes of New Lodge residents had come under attack from bonfire builders.

But unionist politicians rejected this, stating the bonfire was a legitimate expression of their culture, and accused nationalist political leaders of raising tensions.

The bonfire was ignited with an Irish tricolour flag on top.

What is the Twelfth of July, why is it celebrated in Northern Ireland and why is it so controversial? 

Huge bonfires will burn in loyalist areas across Northern Ireland late on Sunday night to usher in the main date in the Protestant loyal order parading season – the Twelfth of July.

– What is the Twelfth?

It is a day of commemorations, organised by loyal orders, marking the victory of Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne, north of Dublin, in 1690 – a triumph that secured a Protestant line of succession to the British Crown.

The Orange Order, which was founded in 1795, continues to champion William’s legacy by espousing loyalty to the Crown and the Reformed faith. While the Orange Order is strongest in Northern Ireland, it does have a presence in Great Britain, the Irish Republic and many former British colonies.

Thousands of Orange lodge members parade through the summer months to celebrate William’s victory and other key dates in Protestant/unionist/loyalist culture. Those commemorations culminate on the Twelfth – the anniversary of the Boyne encounter.

– Why are bonfires lit the night before?

Hundreds of Orange Order July 12 parades take place in Northern Ireland

It has long been tradition to burn bonfires in loyalist neighbourhoods across Northern Ireland on the night of July 11 as a way of celebrating the upcoming Twelfth.

Most ‘Eleventh Night’ fires pass off without incident, with organisers promoting them as family-friendly community celebrations, but a number have become the source of controversy in recent years.

This year, because July 11 falls on a Sunday, several bonfires were lit early on Friday and Saturday night, but the majority will be ignited just after midnight on Sunday.

– What are the issues?

The problems are often centred on safety and environmental concerns within loyalist communities over the prospect of the towering pyres causing damage to homes and businesses.

Bonfire builders, most of whom are teenagers and young adults, have found themselves at loggerheads with the statutory authorities and, sometimes, older members of their own communities.

Police believe loyalist paramilitary elements also exert a malevolent influence in resisting efforts to relocate bonfires and restrict their size. Bonfire builders portray efforts to curtail the tradition as a veiled attack on their culture. Disorder has erupted in Belfast in the past when authorities moved in to remove material from bonfires constructed close to properties.

This year, the most contentious bonfire was erected in the loyalist Tiger’s Bay area, which is adjacent to the nationalist New Lodge area. Nationalist and republican politicians said that bonfires should not be situated near interface areas and claimed that residents had been subject to attacks on their homes by bonfire builders.

Two nationalist Stormont ministers, Nichola Mallon and Deirdre Hargey, secured the assistance of Belfast City Council to remove the pyre. But in order for BCC contractors to carry out the operation, they needed protection from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). The police refused to do so, having made the assessment that an intervention would risk disorder, placing people congregating at the bonfire, including several children, at risk.

The ministers then launched a legal bid to try and force the police to assist in removing the bonfire, which was rejected in emergency High Court proceedings. Unionist politicians have said the Tiger’s Bay bonfire is smaller than in previous years and is a legitimate expression of their culture, and accused nationalist political leaders of raising tensions.

Hundreds of Orange Order July 12 parades take place in Northern Ireland

– Have the bonfires always been so big?

No. Eleventh Night fires were traditionally much smaller. There were also many more than there are today, with more numerous modest fires constructed on street corners across loyalist communities.

Over the years there has been a move towards consolidating the smaller fires into one central bonfire at the heart of each neighbourhood. This has partly been driven by a dwindling number of derelict sites for fires, but also by competitive rivalry among loyalist areas as to which can build the biggest bonfire.

– What is the problem around tyres?

While the bonfires are mainly constructed from wooden pallets, old tyres are often placed in the centre of the pyres as another fuel source. This is an ongoing source of controversy, with widespread concern, including within loyalist communities, on the health and environmental damage caused by torching noxious rubber.

Convincing young bonfire builders not to use tyres has often proved difficult. The problem has been exacerbated by suspicions that unscrupulous tyre dealers use the fires as a way to dump old tyres, avoiding the fees associated with conventional disposal methods.

– Why is the Twelfth so contentious?

Politics in Northern Ireland has long divided along traditional green and orange lines. Not surprisingly, the celebration of a historic battle fought on religious grounds is viewed very differently by the Protestant/unionist/loyalist and the Catholic/nationalist/republican communities in the region.

Older generations would contend the Twelfth was a non-contentious community event attended by Protestants and Catholics alike in the years before the Troubles. That changed markedly during the 30-year sectarian conflict that blighted Northern Ireland during the latter half of the 20th century.

The routes of certain Orange parades became a key friction point, often leading to widespread rioting and violence. While Orangemen insisted they had the right to parade on public roads following long-established traditional routes, residents in many nationalist neighbourhoods protested at what they characterised as displays of sectarian triumphalism passing through their areas.

– Are there other tensions?

The Northern Ireland Protocol, part of the Brexit deal, has aroused anger within unionist and loyalist communities. The Protocol introduced a new trading border to avoid the need for a hard border on the island of Ireland. This means that products being moved from Great Britain to Northern Ireland have to undergo EU import procedures at ports in Larne and Belfast.

Unionists say this damages trade and threatens Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. Earlier this year nearly 90 police officers were hurt after sporadic rioting linked to opposition to the Protocol broke out in several towns and cities in Northern Ireland.

There have been fears that heightened tensions around Eleventh Night bonfires could see a repeat of such scenes, although both unionist and nationalist politicians have called for the events to pass off peacefully.

– Why is the Twelfth different this year?

Covid restrictions mean that the normal July 12 mass parades have been replaced by numerous smaller, local demonstrations. Parades will be held at 100 locations across Northern Ireland on Monday, rather than the traditional 18 main parades.

The Orange Order said organising smaller parades was the best way to ensure the demonstrations went ahead. Last year’s parades were cancelled entirely due to the Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions on public gatherings.

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