THEY say it was a peaceful Twelfth. That children’s faces painted with offensive slogans, marchers breaking the law, verbal and gestured insults were fewer than usual is nearer the truth.
People can live with that – if you have been through a hurricane you don’t complain about a wind that blows your cap off. But even one insult is too many. We can hardly expect Orange celebration days or the three or four thousand Orange marches a year to change into something like the Féile, although with inventiveness and imagination and a real zest for life they could.
During the past few months, though, something has happened which nobody has fully explained. It had seemed certain this Twelfth would be more than usually troubled and then suddenly all was comparative peace, with incidents offensive, but for a people so woefully tried, tolerable. It seems the intervention of the most prominent of our unionist friends was the reason. We can understand their situation. They want to widen their electoral base and cannot do this while pushing Catholics further away from them and making Protestants turn away, while the general public choose to have something better than streets filled with noise and empty shops.
If we look at those who publicly supported the Orange Order years ago until now we find that the Lieutentant Colonels and Barts and so forth have slipped away and “more ordinary folk” have taken their place. Also there is a tendency, even in the higher reaches of British society, to recognise that they now need and can appreciate friends, including among the Irish, their nearest and perhaps most patient neighbours.
So things have to change. Putting it crudely, the choice seems to be either to stir up resentment and let it rip or stir up resentment and manage it. For some years the first of these choices was in fashion, now a graduated response to what other people think, say and do is the chosen route to whatever outcome that our unionist friends want.
How can you reach your political, religious or cultural goal if you drive away people who one day, whether Protestant, Catholic or whatever, you hope might vote for the union? No doubt, rather than negotiate for a political settlement to give maximum freedom and dignity to all people in Ireland some still imagine a Northern Ireland in which forcefully-maintained majority rule will survive or, at worst, a new partition will make part of the island into a new Gibraltar, to everybody’s disadvantage.
It is not many years ago that there were sad and sour thoughts about a territory consisting of a half circle drawn around the port town of Larne. So there has been a quiet and effective shift in leadership among our unionist friends. The good old days of public support by the mighty have faded and the emerging leaderships created by a deliberately fragmented unionism have led to broken windows and shattered dreams. What has happened to unionists during the past few months, then, must be one of the quietest contests for power we have ever seen.
Some of our unionist friends realise that what they need is not just a re-arrangement of the things they always did, but a set of new things to do. And the question arises, is a new visionary leadership of unionism possible? Could it be that some are realising their only real friends are those who in the whole island, while not having the same religion or politics, do have more regard for them than those who exploited them in the past?