In view of recurring cultural controversies could we turn to a cultural, commemorative and celebratory Accord

No matter how comfortable the pace and how stirring the music, it was a long walk on a very warm day for the Apprentice Boys of Derry who journeyed to the city with families and friends for the first time since the pandemic to attend the 2022 ‘shutting of the gates’ parade and pageant, enacted by a diverse range of performers.

This may go some way to explain the evident fatigue of bands and marchers with what resembled the drains of bottles of water in hand on the return route. Abandoning jackets and drinks placed at different intervals can only have offered limited respite.

For what was a larger number than usual of tourists and spectators lounging on foldaway chairs, the spectacle seemed more relaxed, if equally warm. On the East bank especially, with newly visiting dolphins swimming in the river, the air carried the aroma of burgers and salt and vinegar from mobile food catering vans which, like many cars, a Barista Bar and camper vans, remained stationary along the route.

Many arrived early to claim a vantage spot.

Not far away, vendors offered flags of appropriate colour, mugs, band sticks, toy drums and tea towels alongside the crisps, popcorn, chocolate and drinks.

The owner of the newly expanded post-Brexit Eurospar close by would probably have preferred that all of the trade rather than just some of it, would come his way but the ice-cream was selling well.

Social media was highlighting the availability of Parachute Regiment and UVF flags at a stall but they were harder to find than the many comments of the ‘twitterati.

The more frugal had picnic baskets and flasks of tea neatly laid out on grassy areas or in the gardens of homeowners who obligingly made space available. The numerous buggies on the route were laden with all that it is necessary to bring when on a day out with a young toddler, some of whom swayed in the arms of parents and grandparents in rhythm with the music.

Tradition and heritage are absorbed early in Northern Ireland.

The bands, mostly flute but also accordion, in an array of colour and music embellished the crimson of the banners, carried by individuals some of whom, it must be said, whilst tidy in their regalia and shirts, were not born to wear bowlers.

The jury is out on the baseball hats worn to ward off the effects of a hot sun on many thinly haired heads.

The portrayals on the banners reminded obervers of the defiance of the population within the walls and the breaking of the boom.  Colour parties at the head of some bands were pointers to more recent events etched into protestant and unionist folk memory.

Historical narratives for sure: culture …… of a type.

Well it is claimed, that culture is everything that humans do, that monkeys don’t!

More female drum-majors were leading flute bands. Not before time and no doubt, barely noteworthy for the American tourists familiar with High School Bands and cheerleaders.

Vivid red and deep blue shirts stood out against the more traditional shades of black, navy, maroon and green uniforms worn by bands from Bessbrook, Kilkeel, Belfast, Coleraine and other places.

Translink must have benefitted financially to say nothing of uniform suppliers and instrument companies.

The music was loud and always brisk.

As the bands paraded on the flag lined route, the melody of the hymns favoured by accordion bands re-kindled generational memories in an increasingly secular age.

‘Tell me the Old, Old Story’ could on this day resonate across a range of possibilities.

They contrasted with ‘Tipperary’, ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’ ‘Home on the Range’ and ‘A Life on the Ocean Way’.

There may be accompanying words of which I am not aware.

Some flute band stepped out to the marches of John Philip Sousa and ‘Killaloo, the regimental march of the Royal Irish regiment.

With many bands now engaging regularly in competitions, the standard of musicianship was generally high, with talented piccolo players in some bands enriching the overall sound.

As the parade reached its finale, the watching crowds were swollen by band members and Apprentice Boys, ice creams and drinks in hand, now that they had finished the march.They were re-joining relatives for the journey home and hope there is some tea left in the flasks. With luck there might be a spare sandwich in the cooler box.

Young children carrying purchases from the day ran towards their dads and grandads. Marshalls in their numbered blue bibs struggled to stop gaps developing in the parade. Theirs was an inglorious failure.

Spectators began to pack up and make last minute purchases from the vendors. You can always find use for another tea towel with King William or Sir Edward Carson decorating the cloth. They were slightly cheaper than earlier in the day.

After the last band had passed two evangelists walked on the road with a banner bearing the text: “After this the Judgement….”

The judgement of the BBC New Editor shortly afterwards presented as only ‘barely positive’ when the opening comments of Newsline noted that:

“The Annual Parade of the Apprentice Boys has passed off without major incident”

or words to that effect.

Within a few hours even that limited positivity had been allowed to drift away as bonfire combatants convened in the Bogside and the self-imposed web of cultural collision re-emerged in the form of poppy wreaths, flags and a mocking picture of an aging monarch. Unlike bonfires elsewhere in July, there were no effigies.

The ‘relief ‘of Derry was short-lived as social media launched into ‘whataboutery’, ‘angry condemnation’ and ‘political damage limitation.’

In the case of the latter the words of American broadcaster Edward R Murrow come to mind:

“Everyone is a prisoner of his or her own experiences. No one can eliminate prejudices; just recognise them.”

Whilst Derry lauds its recent and relatively positive record in addressing the ‘parades issue’, in addition to the bonfire, closed businesses and community based diversionary events for young people, elsewhere in the city, suggest there is still progress to be made.

A parade tolerated, patronised or accommodated cannot compensate for deeper resolution and reconciliation. It is merely indicative of the extent to which we need to embrace underlying challenges in regard to meaningful acceptance of and respect for the diverse and pluralist culture, traditions and heritage of our shared space.

In respect to the limited progress relating to traditional parades by the Apprentice Boys of Derry and the Orange Order, it was the former which gave a lead, albeit focused on one issue to do with parading by the members of the organisation on the Cityside of the river Foyle and in particular on the historic walls.

 The leadership in the face of internal misgivings, locally and elsewhere, came to the view that if the organisation was to regain the right to parade its historic route, particularly on the walls, then a new push towards fresh thinking must be put in place.

This centred on the opening of communication and shared explanation as to the purpose of the organisation and, to some extent, a re-branding as to its culture and history. Tentative steps were taken to engage with opponents of the parade. This was a significant departure which challenged lazy stereotyping that fed into and from communal bigotry and sectarian attitudes in the city and took place in a challenging political environment wherein parades and the expression of unionist culture were presented as contentious and a cause of conflict.  It laid a foundation on which to build as limited outcomes showed what could be achieved where local leadership, thinking and acting strategically could bring its own constituency towards working with a wide spectrum of opinion and stakeholders in a wider shared city context.

With the situational context shaped by tensions over parades and robust positions being adopted on all sides, it was in retrospect a risk-laden yet far-sighted strategy by the leadership of the Apprentice Boys of Derry. The timing was opportune in that other influences in the city were looking for resolution.

A mixture of politics, pragmatism, self-interest and courting, however tentatively, with reconciliation produced a solution primarily shaped by local people in a local context.

However, it is fair to note, on the basis of evidence available, that no ‘inclusive central driver or coherent and shared rationale ‘was established and the different organisations involved in the process continued to exist independently with each responding periodically to narrower communal interests, priorities and pressures. The cohesive, reconciliatory and inclusive model that might have been identified as worthy of more expansive development over time, did not materialise.

Arguably the politics relating to the Good Friday Agreement rest in the same place.

With no inbuilt accountability each to the other or to a shared ethos, this rendered parading vulnerable to forces and strains better managed collectively to allow moving beyond crisis-driven surface aims of damage limitation and a lingering sense of ‘what has been given up.’ The issues which had caused the difficulties could and do re-emerge especially where negotiation, accommodation and pragmatism were the main factors which shaped the process.

Whilst acknowledging that you cannot force complex change, with boundaries and readiness for change remaining blurred and needing time, capacity was not built and there was no long-term commitment to pursue restructuring and re-culturing. A sense of false certainty resulted and when the immediate pressure was relieved participants reverted into old attitudinal silos.

It is in these circumstances where an organisation, acting on its own and solely to its own purpose, without due cognizance of how and why agreement was reached and the need for the process to be sustained, can disturb a fragile status quo and undermine its own best interests.

It can also, by seeming to assume responsibility on its own, inadvertently allow itself to become the sole agent accountable for anything that might go awry. However, blame or responsibility rarely, if ever, lies only with one side. When allowed to do so, it can skew or load a narrative.

It is important therefore, when in a contentious situation, to ‘capture’ the commitment to clear aims and objectives of all participants so that any departure from them for cynical or partisan political reasons can be addressed collaboratively.

The whole community should take ownership.

This requires going beyond negotiation on to the higher moral ground of leadership for sustainable peace-building and reconciliation and elimination of the underlying prejudicial issues which have produced the ‘crisis’ in the first place. It does not require the abandonment of long-held and valued practices but it does necessitate reflection and connection with the wider environment in which these are expressed and how misconception and perspectives may promote challenges or afford the opportunity for opposition. This renders cultural issues once again rutted into the context of conflict management; as the catalyst for community tension or disorder when it arises.

Does this in turn encourage the excesses we witness over bonfires and festivals?

In Derry, there is reference to a ‘Derry Model’ in respect of ‘the handling of the parades issue’, the implication being that the city has developed a model of community cohesion and ‘dealing with difference’ over contentious parades that sets it apart from other places. The Maiden City Accord developed by bands, the Loyal Orders and associated bodies has acted as a pivotal element.

Community and political leaders, with some justification, have not been slow to promote the positivity and acknowledge the contribution made by individuals and organisations within the community.

Less apparent however is the element of ‘pragmatic societal arbitration ‘and ‘political calculation’ at the core of the model as ‘trees bend in the wind.’

The positivity of the 2022 parade would not have been possible without this.

However, in view of recurring cultural controversies which are clearly unwelcome to a growing majority of the wider community could we turn usefully to a cultural, commemorative and celebratory Accord to which all organisations can commit.?

If couched in the ethos of promoting reconciliation the strength and potential turbulence of any winds that blow may be diminished.

What should it look like and should it act as guide for funders?

Without such questions being tabled, we will not produce answers.

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