Ah July, a wonderful time of the year to live in are wee country wouldn't you agree?

As I write this blog I am aware that most of you are glad that the Twelfth is over for another year and are probably sick of hearing about it. Im also aware that there are some of you that will be counting down the days and months till next year so that you can do it all over again. Its a funny old holiday isn't it? Such a divisive time of year where those deep divisions that exist beneath the surface of our society all too often rise up and threaten to destabilise the fragile peace process. 

In the week's leading up to this years twelfth celebrations, lack of a compromise over the parade past Ardoyne shops and talk of a graduated response by the Orange Order and their Unionist p̶u̶p̶p̶e̶t̶s̶ ̶ politician supporters meant that things did not look good and there could possibly be a another year of violence surrounding the Twelfth. Of course those same leaders all appeared to suffer from a collective amnesia, conveniently forgetting the days of rioting which took place in 2013, preferring to concentrate on the republican violence of 2012. Very much a case of we cant get our own way and its themmuns fault. 

The situation in Ardoyne is not as complex as everyone would have you believe, the Orange Order want to march twice past the shops, the residents who live behind those shops don't want them to march at all, so the parades commission have ruled that only one parade shall take place which is to me a compromise, but this being Northern Ireland nobody likes to compromise. The reason for the morning parade going ahead is be because its less likely that supporters on either side will be drunk and this reduces the chance of disorder. In my opinion a common sense approach which could work quite well in common sense was applied by all involved. Unfortunately this is not the case. 

Anyway I digress, Ardoye is such a small part of what the Twelfth is about. For thousands of families its a holiday. Some of which plan their annual escape from the madness and head for Donegal. I'm sure that the uncertainty surrounding the graduated response caused by political grandstanding caused a few extra families to look for last minute deals and leave Belfast behind. 

My family were staying put, we had plans to visit Markethill, Co Armagh so that I could experience one of the flagship events organised by the Orange Order, I had heard good things about country parades and was excited to be going. You see you cant spend countless hours immersed in the running of LAD without becoming curious and over the lifetime of my involvement in the page, I have always, were possible, indulged my curiosity. 

 The Loyalist Last Supper

July 10th saw the esteemed leaders of the union gather a stone's throw from the LAD bunker to sign a pledge in front of the gathered media, a kind of low rent homage to the signing of the Ulster Covenant, although nobody was bothered enough to have ironed the fleg on which the signing took place and this added to the tackiness of the event.   

There would be no violence they said, the trouble was that nobody believed them. 

Now as it turns out there was little in the way of violence and the Twelfth was a peaceful affair, but the weather could have also played a part in that or the significant police presence. You see I don't believe that those politicians have any real power in those communities and often just do as they are told by the gate keepers.

Anyway whatever the reason we should all be happy that Belfast's reputation was spared any further damage this year. 

"So just sign on the line and its all yours for a fiver" 

July 11th or as its also known here Bonfire night, saw the alarming introduction of Irish flegs and effigies to the bonfires which youths had spend the previous months constructing in loyalist communities. I spent the morning driving around doing messages before everything shut down for the weekend, and on my way photographed a few bonfires that I happened upon. It was quite sad to see that posters of political parties had been placed along side the Irish flegs and that some even contained what can only be described as racist comments scrawled across make shift banners. For me the most depressing thing I saw were the signs hung on a railing adjacent to the bonfire at Cluan Place on the bottom of the Albertbridge Road which read, "We Stand with Israel" and "Fuck the Gaza Strip". 

For the last number of years I have heard many residents from this little street complain that they continually suffer at the hands of their bigger neighbours from the nearby short strand, I found there dismissal of the current situation in Gaza to be a little ironic. 

It should be noted that these banners were eventually removed after they began to appear on social media. 

In the LAD bunker the eleventh night was a hectic affair, the inbox was jam packed with correspondence from followers documenting the events of the night, it was rather depressing actually as images flooded in showing the worst examples of loyalist culture, leaderless loyalists burning anything that represented those that they perceived to be attacking their culture. Again the irony of attacking somebody's culture, while complaining that your own was under attack appeared to be lost on the many people responsible. 

No need for it really, is there? 

I would however like to take the time to congratulate Ian Shanks and the community at Braniel who celebrated bonfire night without burning anything that could be considered offensive, Im sure that there were other fires across are wee country where this was the case, I don't know Im presuming hoping that they were not hate filled occasions. 

The Braniel Bonfire, East Belfast - Fleg free and still fun

The bonfire at Braniel is an example of what the eleventh night could be for other communities if only they had the same leadership to teach them right from wrong. 

Another alarming thing which happened on the eleventh night were the attempts by  certain republicans (not content with the damage loyalists were doing to there own reputation), to stir things up further and fabricate stories about materials being burned on bonfires which were obviously false. LAD received a couple of images that were clearly photoshopped. It was hard to believe that people would sink so low. It would be unfair for us to be anymore specific and you will all know what I'm referring to, but we hope that the family concerned were not badly affected by these malicious lies.  

I awoke the next morning the twelfth to the sound of a blood and thunder band passing the bottom of my street and to the news I had been been dreading, the planned road trip to Markethill was called off, due to the family becoming struck down with illness. Its FAIR to say I was devastated as I'd been looking forward to enjoying William Frazer's bigoted barbecue since receiving the invitation from him some days earlier. 

You can read an excellent blog by Barton Creeth here about his adventures in Markethill although it appears he skipped the BBQ.  

Undeterred and keen to watch some bands I made my way by foot into Belfast city centre and up towards Clifton Street Orange Hall, from which the Belfast demonstration departs. Security was tight which I guess was to be expected, hundreds of PSNI officers standing around, just in case, but on a wet saturday morning at 9.30am, I reckoned there was little chance of any trouble. 

As I walked along Royal Avenue, I tweeted that the crowds were smaller than I had seen in previous years, a response from the political commentator and alleged doctor David McCann informed me that there were decent sized crowds gathered further up the route. 

Turning left on to Donegal Street, I was stopped by a rather pleasant and chirpy female constable and her male colleague who informed me that I could not proceed past the Irish News offices and would have to take a longer alternative route to arrive at my destination. For a brief second I understood how the Orange Order must feel regarding the parades commission decision at Ardoyne. Those extra meters that I was being asked to walk were after all a massive inconvenience. 

Thou shalt not pass 

I am of course being sarcastic, I respect the law and decisions made by parading bodies and after a friendly conversation with the constables I continued on my way via union street and carrick hill.

PSNI on Union Street 

As I walked past the junction of Trinity Street, I noticed a small group of residents had gathered for what is now their annual protest. I wondered if these people mostly women and children had set their alarm clocks in order to rise early on a saturday morning to register their dismay at what was about to pass the end of the street. 

"Down with that sort of thing" 

At this stage I had lost count of the numbers of police landrovers, they were everywhere and with them vast numbers of police officers, I did think to myself that it was bound to be an expensive morning for the tax payer. Still who needs hospitals and schools and all the other stuff that taxes pay for when you can live in a city where the inhabitants cant learn to get along. 

I saw Paul Clarke off the telly as he and his camera man attempted to capture the atmosphere for that evenings news. He gave me a nod, but I think he mistook me for somebody else. I always find it strange meeting TV people in real life. He looked taller than I had expected. 

The parade started and the assembled press photographers jostled for position in order to grab that picture for the next days newspapers, their cameras were fancier than mine but I was tweeting what I was taking straight away to LAD followers so in effect beating them to an audience. 

 last warning, but is it big enough for all to see?

I skipped the passing of St. Patricks Church by the parade, leaving that to the proper journalists, I had no interest in which band would break the determination set out by the parades commission, although suspected one would. I'm not a big fan of religion and was more interested in people watching. I walked to the bottom of St. Peter's hill and joined the steady stream of spectators who were not trusted to walk past a place of worship and had come into the city centre from the Shankill area. 

By this time the crowds on Royal Avenue had swelled and the street was awash with red, white and blue. There was a real party atmosphere as the spectators awaited the first glimpse of the bands. There was a lot of drinking taking place which many people have commented on, the police seemed to be ignoring it, really what could they do, that hadn't the potential to start a riot.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy a drink and have been to a number of festivals around the world and have seen similar sights at those, but the one thing that did shock me was the number of young people who were clearly underage who were pissed at 10am in the morning. The rowdy behaviour that was being exhibited by these drunk kids meant I was glad I had left my own kids at home. 

Orangefest 2014 - Fun for all families? 

Continuing on my towards city hall, I stopped to take the obligatory Twelfie 

Does my head look big in this?

The parade stopped at city hall, and a small group at the front consisting mostly of DUP MLA's made their way to the cenotaph for the religious service, William Crawley was there with a documentary crew as the main body of the parade waited patiently for the others to return. At the head of the parade was a group holding a banner which read "LET THEM HOME" which they had most likely carried from their house that morning. 

   The poor displaced sons of Ligoniel - refugees in their own city

While at city hall, I bumped into Alex Kane who was out and about following the procession for an article he was writing for the Belfast Telegraph. We had a chat about LAD, the events of the previous weeks in the build up to the Twelfth and the difference between the city parades and those held in rural towns. You can read his article here

Leaving Alex I continued on past the Ulster Hall towards Shaftesbury Square, the crowds were taking up all of the footpaths which made the journey difficult, already there was quite a lot of litter on the floor and I spotted at least one paramilitary fleg on display. The mood changed too, it felt more aggressive, a little volatile. I imagine most of these people had little sleep the night before having been in attendance at the bonfires which had illuminated the night sky.   I did spot a couple of tourists in the middle of it all who looked rather bemused by what was going on. 

The twelfth is one of those things which will Im afraid always divide no matter what attempts are made to rebrand it by the Orange Order and while I accept that for some people it is the highlight of their cultural year, for others it is not so its important that those leaders who met off the Newtownards Road to sign a pledge, to bring down the parades commission learn to compromise.  

Personally I enjoy the noise and the colour of the bands although the sash tends to be over played throughout the day, I imagine I'd have a difference of opinion with the average Orange man on most subjects but I would urge them to get a handle of the amount of alcohol consumed as it takes away from the spectacle and gives their opponents a big stick with which to beat them. There is also the issue of the mess that is left behind when the parade has passed. These are important issues which need tackled. 

I have to admit that having battled my way along the footpath to the bottom of the Lisburn road, (I must have said excuse me a couple of hundred times) I gave up and headed for home. Next year perhaps I will make it to the field.