The Twelfth of July is cancelled. This year it goes 10th, 11th, 13th of July. There will be no 12th. The Orange Order have officially made the decision which was all but inevitable in light of the public health crisis, and the decision is a commendable one on their behalf. The news of cancellation reverberated around my body, not in celebration or indeed horror, but in sheer awe. I am of no staunch persuasion, Unionist or Nationalist, and I certainly feel no fidelity towards the Twelfth or indeed any celebration which requires me to march three abreast down a public highway. But even still, I felt the news of the Twelfth’s cancellation strike me differently and I know why.
Growing up in the North, the Twelfth is, whether you love it or loathe it, a stalwart constituent within your calendar. It means different things to different people, for those who love it, it means a time of celebration, friends, family and brethren together to celebrate cultural heritage. A time to breathe Orange fire and beat bass drums down your traditional route. A time to sit at the roadside, enjoy the weather, the Sash and the overstretched police service. And for those who fall in this category, it is clear why the news of cancellation may be met with shock, sadness and possibly even a tear or two rolling down a cheek adorned with a painted-on Union Jack. But my awe is not justified within this category.
Nor do I fall within the other category, the antithesis of the prior. Those who loathe the Twelfth and everything they interpret it as; an annual march of superiority guised in the rubric of a centuries old battle, aimed to reinforce territorial domination and proverbially put the others in their place by slinging band poles and traipsing flute bands round every corner of the province. And for those who fall within this category, one can understand why the news of cancellation was met possibly with delight. But again, I do not succumb to this interpretation of the twelfth.
I fall somewhat in a grey zone, the passionless middle ground. Those who lack an interest, positive or negative, for the Twelfth of July. Those who don’t attend the parades or the riots. Those who fall slap bang in the middle of the spectrum, the majority. And yet, even still despite a lack of interest in the Twelfth, there was a floundering of awe at its cancellation. An unwavering feature of our Northern Irish calendar, cancelled. What will adorn our Summer news? What will there be to discuss on the Nolan show? For the love of God who is going to scorch council property with the ash of a thousand pallets and Ivory Coast flags? The Ardoyne shop front will be met with an eerie silence. Global oil prices may crumble as West Belfast fails to account for its share of petroleum sales.
I’m of course gesturing at the unique fervor which typically characterizes the Six counties around the Twelfth. A fervor which pummels the marginal extremes of our society, stoking the unpopular flames that continue to burn the bridges between communities in the North. It is these marginal extremes that mar the North with stereotypes of petrol bombs and balaclavas. However, thankfully it’s these extremes that are, in recent years, being consistently pushed aside from mainstream politics in the North. This is why now we only see them flare up around contentious times of the year such as the Twelfth, or the Anti-Internment marches. And it is with optimism that I contest that in the very near future, these marginal extremes will also begin to be cast aside even around these contentious times.
It may be cancelled this year, but the Twelfth will never go away. It will always be celebrated year after year – providing of course that there isn’t another pandemic (it was also cancelled in 1918 in light of the Spanish flu pandemic.) Indeed, I imagine this year people will find a way to celebrate it. Whether that be marching round the kitchen table dreaming of Drumcree or chasing one’s siblings with a shower head to simulate a water cannon, the spirit of the Twelfth will no doubt continue to smolder. The Orange Order deserve some degree of commendation for taking a decision which shows leadership as well as the severity of the current Coronavirus crisis, for if anyone was in any doubt as to how serious this pandemic was, the Orange Order cancelling the Twelfth, surely knocks any doubt well out of the park. The only thing in doubt is the lingering concern of tradesmen and civil servants who want to know, do we still get the Twelfth fortnight off?