The Big Question: Should the Orange Order end its annual marches?

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Why is the question being raised?

Because yesterday was the climax of the Orange marching season in Northern Ireland. As happens each year, the place came to a virtual standstill as hundreds of Protestant parades converged on Belfast and other locations.

Each year, tens of thousands of people, Protestant as well as Catholic, flock across the border or go abroad to avoid 12 July.

This has so far been the least eventful marching season for years, though everyone is nervously aware that trouble can alwaysflare up. Last year, the banning of an Orange march in Belfast led to days of rioting, with 60 injuries to police and millions of pounds of damage.

Who hopes to change things?

The authorities, who have just put up £100,000 so the Order can appoint a development officer. His job will be "to promote 'Orangefest' as a fully inclusive, family friendly event, improve community relations, promote Belfast in a positive light, and encourage visitors to watch the parade".

The government explained: "It is disappointing that during the marching season the city centre and some of the main arterial routes either close down or are abandoned by those who do not feel comfortable with the parades. The time is right to see whether the Orange Order can achieve a broader understanding and acceptance of Orange culture and tradition across the community."

Will the initiative achieve much?

Clearly a hundred grand is not going to overcome centuries-old problems. But it is part of a larger approach by the authorities to tackle the serious problem of alienation in working-class Protestant communities, particularly Belfast.

The aim is to improve the grim Protestant backstreets which suffer from deprivation, drug use, paramilitarism and low communal self-esteem. While many Catholic areas have noticeably improved in recent years, Protestant districts such as the Shankill are characterised by apathy and near-despair. This can detonate into violence, such as that seen last year. The authorities are aiming to improve housing, education and other services, sending the message that Orangemen and others should not resort to violence.

How have nationalists reacted?

With a mixture of incredulity and indignation. One letter-writer spluttered: "Does the clown who handed £100,000 to the bowler-hatted bigots honestly expect us nationalists to wave flags, whistle, sing and do cartwheels of joy as the sectarian mobs march by?"

Sinn Fein has condemned the funding, saying Orange marches "represent domination and sectarian violence". Even the more moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party condemned "the whole ugly atmosphere of intimidation and triumphalism", while one SDLP politician described the festooning of local streets with flags as "an atmosphere that is less carnival and more Ku Klux Klan".

What's Bonfire Night?

That's the 11th of July, when scores of bonfires are lit in working-class Protestant areas. Though not formally organised by the Orange Order, they are an intrinsic part of the marching season. Young loyalists gather "trophies" from Republican areas, such as portraits of IRA hunger strikers, to toss on to the fires. In Ballymena, Co Antrim, yesterday, the name of Michael McIlveen, a Catholic youth killed in a sectarian incident inMay, was reportedly written on flags which were burnt.

So is the Orange Order all bad?

No. It has many decent, God-fearing, law-abiding members, including ministers of religion, who value its spiritual and social dimensions and celebrate their Protestantism. Each year it holds thousands of marches, only a few of which lead to trouble.

But these elements have always co-existed with others who are forever spoiling for a fight. Within decades of its foundation in 1795, its marches often boiled over into melees: the Order's leaders may not set out to cause violence, but time after time it has followed their parades. In the past decade, its determination to march through former Protestant areas led to convulsive disorder.

Does the Order condemn violence?

Sometimes it does, sometimes not. Remarkably, even when loyalist gunmen open fire on police in post-parade disorders, the Order's leaders say it is the authorities and the security forces who are to blame, generally because its marches have been banned or re-routed.

Does it have many friends?

Very few, since hardly anyone in the outside world supported its metronomic determination to march through or past hostile Catholic areas, which so often produced serious disturbances.

Can this initiative work?

That is, to coin a phrase, a tall order. It will not work in the sense of bringing to an end the Orange propensity to produce violence and ill-feeling. The Order's image is so bad that even an army of spin doctors could not put it right; yet the Orange tradition is so long and so strong that it will remain an important element of the Northern Ireland scene.

The wistful hope that its marches may someday evolve into a harmless folk pageant will not be realised since its most contentious marches have a profoundly political purpose, and its activities reflect Belfast's deep divisions. Yet they not only reflect those divisions but also exacerbate them; and the character of the parades means they can trigger riots. In some ways, the £100,000 grant has a quixotic aspect, but in others it represents a tentative outreach to an isolated and alienated part of society.

Those who disapprove may reflect that, a decade and a half ago, the idea of reaching out to Sinn Fein and the IRA drew similar condemnation, yet today Republican violence is at an all-time low. It will take many years to see whether the Orange Order is susceptible to a similar approach: but then, the longest march begins with but a single step.

Can the Orange Order leave confrontation and forget past enmities?

Yes...

* The IRA seems to be disappearing from the scene, perhaps paving the way for a new and more peaceful era.

* Many in the Order may be open to persuasion that disruption and disturbance are bad for business, tourism and general progress.

*Orange leaders have opened tentative talks with moderate nationalists and indeed senior figures in the Catholic Church.

No...

* The Order has centuries of historical precedents for its members and supporters clashing with the authorities.

* Militant loyalists have poor relations with the police, and need little encouragement to come into open conflict with them.

* The peace process has reduced violence, but republicans seem to be prospering politically, keeping Protestant suspicions high.

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