Why are the Orange Marches so controversial? Er…Politics?…the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland?…Religion…Events in Northern Ireland? Where do you think I could have put this opinion? Actually, probably in all of them but I opted for the latter. I am an English atheist, christened as a Methodist: my friend in Northern Ireland is Protestant and just wants a quiet life: her sister is part of the Orange Women’s Order and either wants Catholics to shut up or move back “to their part of Ireland”: She's a firm loyalist. Now you know. I was in Northern Ireland recently for the 12 July marches. Anyone living outside Northern Ireland knows about the Orange Marching season: stand-offs at Drumcree; Orange parades not being able to march down the Garvaghy Road; sporadic fighting in Belfast…sometimes worse than that. That is a ‘foreigner’s’ view of it. I went over and I saw for myself… I wanted to find out why there is so much controversy surrounding a religious event. To find that out I wanted to attend an Orange March and I also wanted to know why Orange Marches existed, so I did my research… THE HISTORY The Orange Order was founded in 1795. It was formed because Anglican Protestant farmers wanted farming land over Catholic farmers. The organisation was named as such after William of Orange who overthrew James II (if you know your history then you’ll be aware that James II was Catholic) in 1689. A tenuous link, but the Anglican farmers seemed to like it. The marching season, according to many historical textbooks, celebrates Protestant victories over Catholics. So, on the face of it, the Orange marches appear to rub the noses of Catholics into the proverbial excrement, as it were. But, couldn’t we also say that the days marked in diaries for Victory in Europe and Victory in Japan, are also celebrator y of victories in war? There is a number of marches around Northern Ireland and other countries around the world, including one that is held in Donegal in the Republic of Ireland. So, somewhat nervously I went with my friend to the Ballycastle Orange March. THE MARCH On walking from the carpark, the presence of two heavily armoured RUC vans, complete with heavily bulletproofed RUC Officers, didn’t really ease my nervousness. But being the open-minded and daring Englishwoman that I am, I approached the main street along the seafront with eagle-eyed scrutiny and caution. We found a perfect position to stand underneath a bus shelter, which we agreed was ideal if the weather was to turn bad (inevitably!). But I also reckoned that it might offer some protection from a 100lb-semtex bomb – to be sure, to be sure. On waiting for the distant sounding drums, whistles and bagpipes to approach we bought some standing-around fodder (consisting of crisps, chocolate and hot coffee) which gave me chance to people watch. People. Just people. Large people, small people: tall/short, young/old, people on their own and families. Not a balaclava or machinegun in sight. Normal people waiting for the start of the parade. Lined up on the edge of the pavement I don’t think I stood out too much from the rest of the spectators: a woman with an English accent, wearing a Celtic cross and a Claddagh ring. They either thought I was confused: staying neutral or being typically English and doing both of the above. If that sounds bad then you should have seen the Spanish group standing next to us. I suspect that they had been conned, and thought that they’d booked a holiday to the ‘nice’ part of Ireland complete with green rolling hills, Guinness, Leprechauns and the Blarney Stone. If they’d stood in front of me by just one more inch though, I wouldn’t have cared whom the machine gun had belonged to. In a nutshell though, the march was musical, loud at times, colourful, organised, ceremonial and interesting. In each of the marches that are held in Northern Ireland numerous Orange Lodges march under their appropriate districts. The march in Ballycastle contained Lodges from six districts with approximately fifty Lodges in attendance. That was a lot of music to listen to and banners to read. Each lodge had its own banner and most have a band or even just a solitary Lambeg drum (which incidentally, was my reference to the loud noise at times). The banners of each Lodge were extraordinary. We’re not talking handpainted scrawled or even printed banners, but handmade, crafted, embroidered banners, each depicting either a scene from the bible, the sovereign crown or William of Orange. Again, the tunes played by the varying bands were mainly hymns or Orange Order songs. The ages of the participants ranged from 5 to 95! Most wore uniforms and sashes and the more traditional men amongst them wore black bowler hats. By the time the first few lodges had walked sombrely past, I had forgotten the controversy that I had often associated with Orange Marches and was more interested in admiring the banners, appreciating the skill of the band members and watching the stream of marches progress with regimental pride. SO WHAT? I wrote at the beginning of this opinion that according to tradition the 12 July Orange Marches are a celebration of Protestant victories over Catholics. I can’t wholeheartedly say that, that is incorrect, but from talking to my friends in Northern Ireland, the marches are today a tradition, and if anything is being celebrated it is the Protestant faith. Ok, I am not naïve enough to just take one point of view and take it to be gospel, but from my experience of attending the march in Ballycastle I didn’t feel that I was part of a mob who wanted to intimidate or vindicate Catholics. I was glad that I had attended a controversial event and had made my own mind up about it and that any fears I had of being labelled or feeling part of an anti-Catholic group were unfounded. Just as I would attend any festival or parade, I didn’t think about its meaning but appreciated the entertainment value and respected the beliefs of others. And the re-routing of the Orange Parade from the Garvaghy Road? I used to think that it was ridiculous for the Orange Order to insist on going on their traditional route. Was it worth all of the aggravation, just for the sake of tradition? My mind has been altered by my experience in Ballycastle but not to the extent of thinking that tradition is tradition, so it should be adhered to. It’s more a matter that I respect other beliefs and traditions more now, but still feel that respect is needed on both sides. Whether it’s religion, race, sex, sexuality - understanding, acceptance and respect are needed.