Posted By: April 03, 2013

 ON AN unseasonably cold Easter Monday morning with a light dusting of snow falling I stood by the side of the road as what is somewhat misleadingly known as the ‘marching season’ kicked off for another year.

The Apprentice Boys marched all over Northern Ireland, including past the interface at Ardoyne as residents gathered by the side of the road to protest.

Accompanied by a loyalist band they abided by the Parades Commission ruling banning music from the contested section of the route and apart from snow in April it was a fairly uneventful.

 We’re all well aware of the sensitivities still surrounding the loyalist marching season.

 Most of those who can afford to leave do so in an annual mass exodus with all roads leading to Donegal gridlocked.

 By virtue of my job I’ve been to more Orange marches than is normal for a native of west Belfast and observed both the best and the worst of what the tradition has to offer.

 At its best the Orange encourage a sense of belonging that does a lot of work within local communities, raises money for charity with its halls providing a service for those living in otherwise isolated rural areas.

 At its worst the parades are drunken sectarian hatefests, marching through areas where they are plainly not wanted, costing millions to police, damaging community relations and calling for religious tolerance while its supporters urinate at chapel gates and subject Catholic clergy to the vilest of abuse.

 Several months ago I also took part in a panel discussion with young members of the Orange Order – yes surprisingly they are not all grey haired men in bowler hats.

 I was impressed by their ambition to help modernise and improve what many would consider an outdated antiquated tradition.

 And so maybe the influence of younger members is where the answer lies.

The older men of the order lived through different times when unionists ruled supreme and members of the Catholic community were treated contemptibly and were expected to know their place as second-class citizens.

 The organisation, despite having a reputation as being backward looking and trapped in the past, took a progressive step forward in March last year when it voted in favour of lifting the ban on talks with residents at a meeting in Bessbrook.

 What the organisation didn’t do was build on this straight away, instead waiting until plans for the Ulster Covenant centenary parade looked in jeopardy after disgraceful displays of sectarianism outside St Patrick’s Church in Belfast to make the announcement.

 With the order accepting it needed to talk to the clergy of St Patrick’s and the outstanding diplomacy and quiet and dignified leadership shown by parish priest Fr Michael Sheehan tensions were defused.

 A similar approach was taken in Crumlin where the demographics of the area have changed dramatically over the past 20 years transforming it from a mainly Protestant hamlet to an 80 per cent Catholic village.

 There, the village lodge was able to arrange a large Twelfth of July march through the main street by reaching a compromise with residents only achievable through face-to-face talk. Talks that were made possible because of a vote taken by its own members.

 The Orange Order despite being an organisation you would think would be prone to act defensively to any perceived attack on its Britishness also had the good sense to officially stay out of the flags dispute.

 While individual members did attend protests the Orange Order, which has the ability to mobilise thousands of members and supporters should it want to, had the foresight to see the protests were destined to be hijacked by lawless publicity seekers.

 So there have been positive moves, rumblings of change.

The order has cleared the way for dialogue and nationalist residents have made it clear that they’re willing to talk.

 There is no point in waiting until the PSNI water cannon are on standby to try and ease tensions, the time to talk is now while it is still possible to implement change and head off what has the potential to be a volatile summer with the real danger of loss of life.

 All that is required now is for members to show it can be an organisation with an eye on the future and not just stuck with two feet in the past.