Sectarian Marches or Musicians Under Siege?

03/09/2012 16:48 BST | Updated 03/11/2012 09:12 GMT

Jason Burke is the captain of his music band which practices on the Newtownards Road in east Belfast. He's been involved with the band for almost seven years, and is something he is both passionate and proud about. This isn't the type of music band, however, that plays the odd rock song in his parent's garage. He is in charge of a flute band, which regularly partakes in Orange Order marches in Northern Ireland.

The Orange Order's parades are a constant topic of controversy in Northern Ireland, and are widely perceived as exclusive to the Protestant and Unionist community. The most popular day for these marches is the twelfth of July, a public holiday in Northern Ireland when the Orange Order commemorates the victory of the Protestant Prince William of Orange over England's Catholic King James at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The marches are usually a bone of contention to the nationalist community, who see the marches as triumphalist and orchestrated to intimidate. This July, the tradition of the Orange parades came under fire once more as a YouTube video showed members of the Orange Order intimidating and attacking the man recording the footage, while they had stopped outside a Catholic church during a march.

Since then, the marching band in question has been banned against future participation by the Parades Commission of Northern Ireland. Regardless of the Commission's reaction, the video sparked debate throughout Northern Ireland between both communities, and it was during a recent discussion on BBC Radio Ulster that Burke sent a tweet to the station. In it, he disputed the "perceived sectarianism" when fights broke out last Saturday outside St. Patrick's Catholic church in Belfast, but instead described it as a defiance by a small group of people, most of which are not involved with marching bands at all.

The media's portrayal of the Loyalist (i.e. Unionist) marches has a strong role to play in how they are perceived by the public, according to Burke. "Bands have historically been perceived as being a breeding ground for loyalist paramilitaries," he acknowledges, "but from being involved with such bands, I can see that that's definitely not true. It's only when you get involved with a band and become active in their day-to-day runnings will you appreciate that fact." The flute music band on the Newtownards Road is hired by their local Orange Order lodge only three times a year during the marching season. Jason explained that they "do as they please" during the rest of the season and perform up to sixty times a year, showing that the band is not only independent from the Orange Order and their members, but that the bands service is bought by the Order - much like how a music group is hired for a festival. It's because of the bands' level of independence from the Orange Order is he finds it "hard to stomach" when the musicians become involved in the debate.

Jason's belief that these bands aren't sectarian is supported by the recent donation of £5,000 by Sinn Féin MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly; a representative in Northern Ireland's devolved government), Pat Doherty to a local Loyalist band in order to buy new instruments. Despite that, however, it would be still be difficult for a member of the predominantly Catholic nationalist community to attempt to join a marching band. "A couple of years ago, I tried to conduct a sort of questionnaire to see... could we ever have a Catholic in our band.

Interestingly, some people said that if they were musically gifted enough, they would take them in, because for them it's not about religion. I would say none of our band attend church, so to say that [the band] is about religion is untrue."

Not everyone views the situation like this, however. Ed Simpson, of the Green Party claimed that the Orange Order and marching bands associated with them are "full of hate" for the nationalist community. He also believed that any claims by the bands movement regarding integration of the two communities is a "façade," pretending not to be sectarian. "Their entire culture is founded on exclusion. If someone wishes to be religious, let them be religious - but this is an attempt to force their culture down the necks of nationalists."

But Jason did not see it that way, and has consciously made an effort to include traditional Irish Gaelic music - music generally monopolised by the nationalist community - to be used in his band's performances. He noted that some bands aren't always aware that a lot of the music they perform on these marches are Irish by nature, but the mixture of identities doesn't seem to be a problem for the Belfast native. "I've no problem calling myself Irish, and a lot of my band's members have no problem calling themselves Irish - [they are] Irish citizens of the United Kingdom."