Northern Ireland bids to make the future Orange for its visitors

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It is all at once a huge marketing challenge, an economic imperative and a political necessity for the new Northern Ireland: how to turn the negative aspects of Orangeism into a saleable commodity worldwide.

Orange marches and demonstrations, though largely peaceful, have sometimes been the occasion for violence on a large scale, doing much harm to Northern Ireland's image abroad and damaging tourism.

But now a determined push is on, within both the tourist industry and the Orange Order, to turn old negatives into new positives. Tourism Ireland, which has been working closely with the Order, yesterday signalled plans for a general re-branding of Irish tourism which would place a new emphasis on Orange and Protestant culture.

The Orange Order, currently re-vamping its image to appeal to the younger generation, is highly enthusiastic about this, and particularly keen to transform the 12th of July marches which it organises each year into a major tourist event. It has even created an orange cartoon superhero which will appear on Orange Order Christmas cards and other merchandise. A competition is under way for young people to name the caped character, the current favourite being "Sash Gordon".

There are already many visitors who go to the marches, but other potential tourists tend to stay away, in part because in the past widespread disturbances.

These once caused a British Government minister to suggest that visitors should avoid that month and come instead at other times of the year. At that time a police chief warned: "Northern Ireland cannot withstand another summer like this. We were on the brink of all-out civil war."

In addition to the street disturbances there was also a steady stream of bombings and shootings. But now it is a measure of how far things have improved that the focus is no longer on terrorism, but on tourism.

A tourist industry source said: "One outcome of the review is an assertion that the island of Ireland brand should better reflect the diversity of the island. In the past it would have been a struggle to present some aspects in a positive light, but things are utterly different."

While the new approach has yet to be worked up into a detailed blueprint, its general theme has been endorsed by First Minister the Rev Ian Paisley, who has already undergone a personal re-branding.

Earlier this year he visited the scene of the Battle of the Boyne along with Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, sending the message that events of history need not generate conflict. Tourist chiefs and the Orange Order are hoping to increase visits from the many millions of Americans who are of Ulster Protestant descent but have yet to come to their ancestral homeland.

According to David Hume, the Order's director of services: "There is tremendous potential in distinct geographical areas of North America where the Scots-Irish or Ulster-Scots tradition is strong. It is largely untapped from a tourism point of view. We feel the July celebrations are a positive and highly attractive potential marketing tool. One of the primary appeals for Americans visiting the island of Ireland is culture and history. There is a terrific opportunity to build up a tourist package which would include the Twelfth."

Potential Orange attractions

Battle of the Boyne

The Irish government is spending millions of euros on a 500-acre site commemorating the victory of the Protestant William III over the Catholic James II.

The walls of Londonderry

The still well-preserved defences around the city where Williamites held off James's forces during a momentous siege.

Birthplaces of Ulster-Scots US presidents

At least 15 of them (including George Bush) come from Ulster Protestant stock, as did the American frontiersmen such as Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone.

Birthplace of the Titanic

The Belfast shipyard where the ill-fated liner, which sank in 1912, was built by Protestant workers.