Having a Swiss journalist staying with us this week has been perhaps a timely excuse to discover a bit more about the history, culture and diversity of this bit of the world. The kind of stuff you normally leave to books and newspapers.
It’s easy for some to live in Belfast and never drive up the Falls or the Shankhill. You can even live in East Belfast and drive up and down the Upper Newtownards Road without ever managing to park the car and get out on the lower bit, the actual Newtownards Road. I’ve also lived in East Belfast for three years and never had an excuse to go into the Park Avenue Hotel!
So on Tuesday night, it was a trip to the Ballymac centre for their Somme evening. Our guests had spent yesterday talking to all kinds of people in all kinds of areas of Belfast. But last night we all headed across to the Park Avenue Hotel.
Orangefest is normally launched in Belfast City Hall. But due to the refurbishments, they’d had to skip their traditional venue and reroute to East Belfast. Picture about eighty well dressed men and women, mostly over 55, sitting drinking soft drinks (there was a lot of orange squash).
“We didn’t particularly invite the Lord Mayor this evening ...”
I wasn’t too sure how true the statement was, though last year’s SDLP Deputy Lord Mayor was in attendance.
- Displays of Lambeg drumming – outside this time which made it easier on the ear!
- Solo drumming – to rocky backing tracks – courtesy of the fast fingered Craig McAllister from Mourne Young Defenders band
- Highland dancing with very enthusiastic and talented children from Ballysillan Highland Dancers
- Ulster-Scots music from a couple of accordions and a drummer (didn’t catch their name)
- Burns recital by Andrew Matheson – looking to link Burns and Scots with Ulster-Scots culture
- A speech by the First Minister Peter Robinson – who isn’t actually a member of the Orange order, and managed to keep his “few words” to something shorter than his 7 hours 31 minutes filibustering record from Stormont.
The speech didn’t seem to cover any new ground. And despite reporters walking away with advance copies of the text, nothing’s made it as far as the BBC NI news site this morning. (Nor is there any mention that Northern Ireland’s supply of wooden palettes took a hit last night with wide spread
There was praise for the Orange Order opening up to make the Orange culture more accessible and mention of “celebrating religious freedom for all”. The line that got the largest cheer in the room talked about
“... the curtailment of the right to parade ... I do not believe the Parades Commission is a part of the solution to this problem. It must go ...”
In an interview secured after the words, music and sandwiches were over, the First Minister claimed that the Orange Order had “been a stable force in Northern Ireland” and shown “responsible leadership”.
Asked about the longevity of the current power-sharing arrangements, he suggested that the current model of four parties (sorry, Alliance) securing four different electoral mandates and then coming together to deliver the lowest common denominator was not sustainable. Over time there would have to be a gradual shift to “normal democratic means of government”.
An interesting evening, with the Orange Order desperately seeking to change image through the soft, fluffy Orangefest (though no obvious mention of their super hero), yet maintaining their (at times) masonic-like titles and arcane vocabulary.