Peter Geoghegan

Journalist, author, broadcaster

Orangefest aims to bridge the gap

Feature on the Orange Order’s attempts to turn 12th of July weekend into an Orangefest appeared in The Sunday Business Post.

orangefestMore than 100,000 people will gather in downtown Belfast tomorrow to watch the annual Twelfth of July celebrations. The customary flute bands, Lambeg drums and Orange standards will all be there, but so will local businesses as, for the first time, city centre traders open on the day.

Many of the city’s largest retailers and shopping centres will open their doors between 12.30pm and 4.30pm, after the parade leaves the town. The new initiative is part of a pilot scheme jointly coordinated by business leaders and representatives from the Orange Order.

It is the latest development in the ambitious rebranding of the controversial date as Orangefest, an inclusive, family-oriented event featuring on-street entertainment, circus acts and the traditional marching bands.

Now in its third year, Orangefest aims to create a festive atmosphere around one of the most contentious and divisive days in the Northern political calendar. But the age-old custom of retailers shutting their doors for the day did not help the organisers in the first two years.

‘‘Town was just completely dead once the parade passed,” said Billy Mawhinney, the festival development officer. ‘‘All the shops were boarded up and blocked. For tourists coming over, they couldn’t get a drink, something to eat or even a cup of tea.”

Funded by the Department for Social Development, Mawhinney’s post was created in 2006 – though not without controversy. Nationalists decried Orangefest as a sop to disgruntled unionists, while there was opposition from conservative factions within the Orange Order itself.

The event has also struggled to shake off the parade’s associations with sectarian violence and recreational rioting at interface areas, particularly in Belfast and Derry.
It is also hard to get away from the fact that it was traditionally a day when people from those cities left the North to go across the border. Now, the organisers are trying to get tourists to visit for the day.

Sitting in his office, a spacious wood-panelled room adorned with sabres and Union Jacks in an Orange Lodge on Belfast’s Shankill Road, Mawhinney acknowledged these points. But he was hopeful that Orangefest could broaden the Twelfth’s appeal beyond the North’s unionist population – and tap into the event’s unrealised economic potential.

‘‘We are convinced that the Twelfth can be a great economic driver, and that tourists are coming,” he said.

Andrew Irvine, head of the publicprivate partnership company Belfast City Centre Management, agrees. Since the turn of the year, Irvine has been working with Belfast Chamber of Commerce, Belfast City Council and the Orangefest organising committee to develop a dedicated business strategy around the day.

The Twelfth is a two-day public holiday in the North, and businesses have long pushed for Sunday trading to be extended to cover it – a particularly pressing concern, given the current economic climate.

‘‘From the retailers’ point of view, it makes perfect sense,” Irvine said of Monday’s half-day opening. ‘‘We are feeling the downturn, and it’s really important to keep shops open as much as possible.

‘‘What we are doing is making sure people have the opportunity to enjoy themselves and spend a few pound before they go away – it’s a no-brainer, really.”
A stg£23,000 grant from the European Union’s Peace III fund is being used by Belfast City Centre Management for a range of including hiring dedicated street cleaners to follow the parade, ensuring that shops will open on time.

For the first time, Orangefest has a small marketing budget, and the notoriously publicity-shy Orange Order has launched a major PR offensive, with colourful banners erected across the city centre and promotional material distributed to homes and businesses.

City centre retailers have broadly supported the new Twelfth opening hours. James Rider, manager of HMV in Belfast’s Donegall Arcade, said that the impact could be comparable with St Patrick’s Day in the chain’s southern stores.

‘‘It’s a fantastic opportunity, and we are expecting to get a lot of footfall into the store,” he said. ‘‘It’s basically a festival, so it should be a great day for us to sell.”

Rider said traders would benefit most if opening hours were extended to cover the times when the marchers were in the city, but the PSNI felt was still not viable. However, he welcomed the ‘‘normalisation of trading in the city centre’’.

‘‘This represents the reestablishment of a traditional holiday period, with lots of people coming into the city to enjoy the festivities,” he said. Whether or not tourists are actually travelling to Orangefest remains questionable.

According to Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau, one of the event’s partners, the traditional dip in visitor numbers experienced in July – largely due to fears around personal safety during the marching season – has been reversed in the last five years.

In fact, Belfast’s hotel market records bed-night occupancies in excess of 80 per cent in the middle of July. However, a spokesman for the bureau said it remained too early to tell if tourists were coming to see the new Twelfth.

Irvine disagreed. ‘‘The Twelfth is the largest visitor number event in the calendar by a long shot,” he said. Last year, 7.1 million people visited Belfast, up from just half a million a decade ago. The organisers of Orangefest are keen to tap into this rapidly-expanding tourist market.

‘‘If people are here, wherever they are, we want them to come see it,” said Mawhinney. ‘‘We think we have a tourist product to be proud of.”

Since 2007, Orangefest has been working with Tourism Ireland and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB), and a spokesman for NITB highlighted of the importance of ‘‘developing the positive aspects of this event’’. Members of the Grand Orange Lodge have even participated in welcome host training, with two achieving NITB-registered trainer status.

The Twelfth of July is still a fraught time for many across the North, but realising the full economic potential for the event could have real benefits for all, according to the organisers.

‘‘This is just the start of the journey,” said Irvine. ‘‘We are not going to transform the Twelfth overnight, and there is still some resistance to the changes, but in the long run, there is tremendous scope to make this work for everyone.”

Orangefest aims to bridge the gap
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