In Northern Ireland, the ‘Twelfth fortnight’ is as renowned for people going away for their holidays as it is for people participating in its events. I’ve only recently returned from my holidays (which explains why I haven’t posted on this blog for more than two weeks) – just in time for the Irish School of Ecumenics’ annual summer school on Understanding Protestantism, Unionism and Loyalism (PUL).
The school traditionally runs from 9-12 July. The past few years we have employed local historian and dramatist Philip Orr to provide lectures and tours. He also arranges visits and seminars with guest speakers, which this year have included DUP politician and Ulster Scots enthusiast Nelson McCausland, the Ulster Scots Agency’s Mark Anderson (who provides an excellent demonstration about the lambeg drum and fife), the Ulster Museum’s Jason Burke, and a visit to Ballymacarrett Orange Lodge. Tonight we’ll attend a bonfire and tomorrow we’ll watch the Belfast Parade.
When I was a doctoral student in Politics at University College Dublin, one of my formative experiences was attending a similar summer school in 2002, then organised by Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (now the Centre for Contemporary Christianity).
A lot has changed since then. For example, the first bonfire I attended in Sandy Row included a paramilitary show of force, something that is rare to non-existent these days. A new book by sociologist Lee Smithey, Unionists, Loyalists and Conflict Transformation in Northern Ireland, outlines some of those changes.
Smithey shows, rather convincingly, that in the broad sweep of history, changes within the Orange Order (and other traditions within unionism and loyalism) are actually quite significant. The pundits who criticise PULs for being unable to change should examine the evidence in Smithey’s book.
The speakers that we bring in to our summer school demonstrate some of these changes as they describe their own work. I think it’s important that our students recognise those changes. But even so, each year I remain somewhat personally frustrated at the slow rate of change and the lack of understanding (on all sides), which could help the 12th develop into a more wholesome or positive experience.
Each year the Twelfth continues to bring with it tensions about possible violence, disputes about where the parades can or should go, and debates about what the events around the 12th of July really say about PUL culture.
During the 1990s, ECONI wrote an ‘open letter to the loyal institutions,’ challenging their use of Christianity in events such as the bonfires and parades. ECONI’s main concern was that in the cause ‘for God and Ulster,’ Ulster had taken precedence over God. In 1997, an entire issue of their magazine, Lion and Lamb, was devoted to this concern. It remains a concern for many Christians in Northern Ireland.
But rather than engaging with the 12th, many Christians have simply taken a holiday from the 12th – literally and symbolically.
I think that the lack of critical engagement of the Christian churches with the 12th remains a problem. What is being communicated through the links that still exist between churches and the Orange Order? And what is being communicated through the disengagement of other Protestant churches with the Orange Order and with the 12th altogether? Protestantism has not had a full and honest debate about that.
Today my eye fell on a book on my shelf published by the Ulster Society in 1997, The Twelfth: What it Means to Me (edited by Gordon Lucy and Elaine McClure). Conceived in the wake of the Drumcree crisis, and explicitly modelled after an ECONI publication, Faith in Ulster, it asked contributors from a variety of backgrounds to explain what the Twelfth means to them.
Re-reading the contributions, most but not all of which are from people of a PUL background, I’m convinced that most would say the same today as they did in 1997.
Perhaps some might mention how the 12th is a celebration of Ulster Scots culture, a term that is noticeably absent from the book but which has become more prominent since its incorporation into the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and the establishment of the Ulster Scots Agency. Certainly the Irish School of Ecumenics’ summer school has much more of a focus on the development of contemporary Ulster Scots identity than did the ECONI summer school I attended in 2002.
But apart from the increased prominence of Ulster Scots, the unrealised ideals of the 12th, and the various critiques of it, remain depressingly similar.
For example, historian David Hume, now Director of Services of the Orange Order, described an idyllic rural Twelfth before writing (p. 69):
‘… there are many things about the Twelfth I personally would like to see changed. There are unruly camp followers. There are unsuitable bands. If the Twelfth is ever going to return to a dignified and non-threatening display of culture such problems have to be addressed. The Twelfth should be for everyone to enjoy, and it is always important to me personally to see Roman Catholics watching the parade pass by in our home town, because I believe it says something about our community as a whole and the way things should be elsewhere too. For me it is a day when culturally, Protestants are underlining part of their traditions, a day more for communal bonding than anything else. It is, and should be, a peaceful pageant of colour and heritage.’
While Rev Johnston McMaster, a colleague of mine at the Irish School of Ecumenics, wrote (p. 112-113):
The Orange hermeneutics of scripture depicted on banners creates enormous difficulty for me. The particular reading or interpretation of certain Bible stories suggest a religious and cultural superiority, they legitimise exclusiveness, dominance and a political arrangement of power that I cannot connect with the mind of Christ. The image of God that emerges is an image of God on our “Protestant” side.
… The Twelfth and the longer “marching season” raise difficulties in some areas with parades and marches. There is nothing new in this as a critical awareness of history reveals. There are traditional difficulties as old as traditional routes! Rights for any section of a community become unethical when divorced from responsibilities. A Protestantism which is Christ centred takes ethics seriously. The hardline element in Orangeism in its approach to the controversy and involvement in destroying local agreements has abandoned the ethical dimension in public life and relationships. From a biblical perspective that is a lack of righteousness which is destructive of the moral and ethical basis of any society.
What the Twelfth means to me is an opportunity to keep on asking questions, and to keep on raising the issues highlighted by Hume and McMaster 15 years ago – even if answers remain elusive.