One of the leading members of the Apprentice Boys of Derry has said that once the Covid crisis finally recedes, he expects to see something of a membership boom.
Billy Moore was speaking to the News Letter exactly one month before the order’s traditional bonfires and band parades to mark the relief of the city.
Echoing comments from the Orange Grand Master Edward Stevenson a day earlier, he said that despite what detractors may be hoping for, his movement is a growing one.
He also said that, amid a clamour of criticism from Sinn Fein about the building of bonfires, that is one tradition which he can never see ceasing.
With the countdown to the August 14 relief commemorations now on, general secretary Mr Moore said: “People keep asking are young people not joining the loyal orders anymore
“My answer is the Apprentice Boys seems to attract quite a number of young men, who are all eager, enthusiastic, and wanting to be part of celebrating our history and our culture – our organisation continues to expand, that’s the important thing.”
He said that despite being the smallest of the three main loyal orders, “we’re close to 10,000 membership now”.
That is up from roughly 8,500 or so about a decade ago.
The inability to host meetings over the last 18 months has essentially frozen the influx of new members.
But as restrictions ease, he said: “I predict a mass influx of members [from the] end of 2021, and certainly into 2022.
“Despite all the doom and gloom and people that say loyal orders are a thing of the past, we can argue that that’s not the case.”
He said that the incident which saw a 17-year-old boy catch fire at a Ballysillan bonfire on the Eleventh Night was a source of “sorrow and despair” and that “our sympathies go out to his family – and to him himself obviously”.
He also stressed the need to be responsible, adding: “I don’t think we need to build bonfires that are 50 or 60 ft tall.”
But he said that Sinn Fein’s expression of concerns about the safety of loyalist bonfires stems from the party’s wish “to prevent and demonise the culture that’s celebrated by the Protestant – unionist – loyalist community”.
He said: “Loyalist housing estates will have a bonfire. We’ve all done it. During our school holidays, we all collected for bonfires.
“It’s a tradition that’s been handed down from generation to generation. I don’t see it stopping and being prevented by Sinn Fein or anyone else who condemn it.
“Loyalists will continue with our bonfires, our parades, erecting our flags and bunting irrespective of what Sinn Fein may say.”
On August 14, the Parades Commission lists 15 Apprentice Boys parades spread over Portadown, Banbridge, Gilford, Broomhedge, Clintyfinnan, Kilrea, Dungannon, Cloughmills, Moneymore, Belfast, Ahoghill, Newtownards.
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