The Orange Order will mark the centenary of Northern Ireland with “a massive number of events”, the centrepiece of which will be a huge parade from Stormont, one of the institution’s most senior figures has revealed.
In an interview with the News Letter to be published in full on Monday, Orange Grand Secretary Mervyn Gibson said the order has been planning the events “for many years”.
But the Presbyterian minister pledged that the order’s activities will be “sensible”, “sensitive” and “where possible, inclusive”.
He said that the order would partake in academic events and public conversations about the history of Northern Ireland but it was important not to allow all events to become “so bland that it’s nothing”.
The Rev Gibson said: ”We will do traditional things, but we see it as a year-long series of events.”
He said that the order plans to open the year with “some sort of celebration” on the night of January 1 – perhaps a fireworks display, but all the events will depend on the pandemic situation.
”Then we would intend to have a big parade, not surprisingly, on May 28 – the last Saturday in May,” he said.
That date has been selected not because of any historical significance – the order hopes the government will organise events on those dates – but is timed for the second bank holiday in May.
The event will largely replicate the parade in 2012 to mark the centenary of the Ulster Covenant. But this time the route will begin at Stormont, which has already been booked for the occasion, and end in Belfast city centre – a reversal of what happened in 2012.
“We would see this as one of the big significant events for the whole of Northern Ireland within the Orange family with people coming to watch that,” the Rev Gibson said.
The order will also host an “Orange family picnic” at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in September, and then end the year in Enniskillen with a beating the retreat ceremony “as we march into the next 100 years”.
However, he said that while those plans are being organised by Grand Lodge, “we would hope and expect that every lodge, every band, every community will do something to mark 2021”.
He said that those events do not necessarily involve marching or traditional Orange commemorations, and could take the form of planting a centennial garden, planting a tree, street parties, or educational events.
He added: “I can understand some people don’t want to get involved in celebrating – I fully get that” but added that he wanted the events to be open to “people either from other faiths, or from sections of the community who wouldn’t be eligible for membership of the institution…I want them to celebrate their sense of belonging to Northern Ireland”.
When asked if he understood how some nationalists and others may be concerned that it will be a triumphalist occasion, he said: “We had these same arguments in 2012…we have been involved in centenaries since 2012 and they’ve all passed off peacefully. This should be no different.
“And if people are hostile to what we’re doing, just tolerate it – because we tolerate things…there needs to be toleration here if we are going to move forward and build a better Northern Ireland for everyone”.
He accepted that for some southern Orangemen, 1921 is not a date to celebrate, representing as it did their abandonment by their northern compatriots.”It wasn’t that they thought they were betrayed; they were betrayed – maybe for the right reasons, for survival – but they were betrayed. As the son of a Donegal Orangeman, I can understand that.”
Disappointment at NIO delay
The Rev Gibson said the order had been lobbying the NIO for two years to plan ahead for the centenary and that a committee to advise on that was meant to be established more than a year ago, but only began its work a few weeks ago.
Although he accepted that the pandemic partially explains the delay, the Rev Gibson said there had been other delays but “we are where we are” although “there is limited time to do certain things now”.
He said that plans to use the centenary to promote Northern Ireland globally as a place to do business were important, and noted that “the 2016 celebrations in Dublin in many ways announced the new Ireland – I think we’ve the opportunity in 2021 to announce that Northern Ireland’s here, it’s open for business”.
However, he said it was a disappointment that the government had said it was unlikely there would be a stamp for the occasion, something he said “needs addressed urgently” and “the coin hadn’t been finally settled – that needs addressed”.
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