THE Loyal Ulster team for the next anti-Protocol fixture has been announced, and there’s sensational news about the star striker, Jeff.

Team news first, and no-nonsense centre-half Jim Allister captains the side after getting the all-clear in the wake of a blood pressure scare. He’ll be partnered in defence for the testing trip to Dromore by left winger turned rock-hard right back Kate Hoey, handed a lifeline by Loyal Ulster after she was let go by Vauxhall Rovers in acrimonious circumstances.

Elegant but unpredictable playmaker Ben Habib – who's won a host of Northern Ireland caps under the controversial granny rule – gets another chance following a series of disappointing recent performances. He’s been hurt by claims that his heart’s no longer in the club after he recently agreed terms with Reform UK, so he’ll be keen to sign off with a long-awaited first win in the Orange and Blue.

Another granny international, new signing Ann Widdecombe, has been brought in to add steel to a lacklustre midfield, but she has a lot of work to do to win over hearts and minds given that she spent most of her career with Loyal Ulster’s bitter rivals, Rome FC. The devout left-footer may have a cabinet full of trophies and miraculous medals, but how the fans will react when the smell of fried onions mingles with the heavy smell of Mass is anyone’s guess.

But it’s the decision to drop prolific frontman and fans’ favourite Jamie Bryson that has grabbed the headlines. The diminutive striker is currently in the longest barren spell of his glittering career. He received pelters after missing a series of chances in the key Easter fixture against DUP Rangers, reduced to 10 men after captain Jeffrey Donaldson's straight red. Nevertheless, leaving out the Loyal Ulster talisman is a massive gamble because while Bryson has undoubtedly lost a yard of pace and is hauling more timber under that thinning thatch, he hasn’t forgotten where the goal is and the decision to blue-bin him for such a crucial fixture is a gamble that will define Loyal Ulster’s season one way or another.

But only a fool would dare write him off and while he’ll be devastated to be relegated to the bench he’ll also be desperate to prove a point if this new-look side fails to spark and he's called to produce the goods late-on. In the twilight of his career, Loyal Ulster's one-time Supercub finds himself relegated to Supersub. Forget the doubters, in Dromore he'll be representing himself in the court of public opinion. And his record there speaks for itself.

Fighting another losing battle

JIM Rodgers wants the Orange Order to be allowed to walk the Lower Ormeau again. The veteran East Belfast UUP Councillor has a long and rich history of public service but is perhaps best known for the time when, as Lord Mayor, he attempted to leapfrog a woman dressed as a tomato in Botanic Gardens and smashed into the back of her head. A slipped disc and a few rounds of energetic High Court sparring between m’learned friends later, the squashed tomato woman walked away with 24k to compensate her for getting her stalk bent.

Jim’s been in and out of the public eye since, but without attracting the same degree of public attention. His latest attempt to shape the zeitgeist seems to Squinter to be even more ill-judged than his decision to try and hurdle a large edible berry. Quite simply, Jim wants the question of Orange feet on the Lower Ormeau put back on the Belfast agenda.

It’s a quarter of a century, give or take, since certain of the brethren charmed the residents of the historic South Belfast district by marching past the Sean Graham bookie shop and raising five fingers to local people – a hilarious reference to  the 1992 UDA massacre of five punters. So impressed were the people of the Ormeau Road that they resolved to give that gesture the reply it deserved, and after a few years of angry to-ing, some bitter fro-ing and not a little enthusiastic rioting, the last of the Orangemen sashayed through the area in 1998.

LEAP IN THE DARK: Jim Rodgers had an eventful year as Lord Mayor

LEAP IN THE DARK: Jim Rodgers had an eventful year as Lord Mayor

The 1999 decision to ban them was received with customary sang-froid by the Orange leadership – they resolved to move the Twelfth field that same year to the Ormeau Park, bringing the seething entirety of Loyal Ulster to within yards of the massacre site. Sadly for the Grand Imperial Wizards calling the shots at Schomberg House, the Parades Commission told them to go and catch themselves on.

And that’s the way things have stayed in the years since and the matter has largely been forgotten about, save for a few white-gloved Japanese soldiers hiding in the undergrowth of Ballynafeigh Orange Hall, to which news of their loss at the Battle of Ormeau has not yet percolated. And with no discernible difference to their enjoyment of the day, the Ormeau brethren for 25 years have been making their way to the main Twelth parade without a stop-off to remind the Kafflicks who’s the Daddy – because when it comes to walking the queen’s highway in South Belfast, the brethren are no longer the head of household.

Squinter’s not sure why Eastie Jim has suddenly developed a passionate interest in the affairs of the Ballynafeigh brethren. True, a few weeks ago the Apprentice Boys were told they couldn’t walk down the Lower Ormeau at Easter, but they apply to do that every year – just as the Orange apply to march Drumcree every year – with no more expectation of success than if they applied to march around Croker with the Artane Boys’ Band on All-Ireland day. It’s time to break the “stalemate”, Jim told the News Letter. “But there’s an element who are determined to prevent it – whether it is the Orange Order, Royal Black Institution or the Apprentice Boys of Derry/Londonderry. Republicans have openly said it on TV, radio, and in the press.”

Let’s put aside for a second the fact that Jim thinks the Apprentice Boys’ name can be bent to the taste of the utra-loyal who prefer ‘Londonderry’ (not even the Boys go along with that), and let’s instead consider the compelling truth that there is no “stalemate” in the Lower Ormeau. To advance his thesis, Squinter consults his online dictionary to find:  “Stalemate: A drawing position in chess; more widely, a dispute, contest, competition etc. in which neither side can win.” It gives Squinter no pleasure to tell Jim that there is no Lower Ormeau dispute any more because the residents there won and the Orangemen lost and to that extent Jim is arguing with himself. And there can only be one winner there. And one loser.

The Apprentice Boys last year bemoaned the fact that the residents of the Lower Ormeau won’t talk to them  about an issue the residents have no interest in talking to them about. They seem to have forgotten that one of the main reasons the Parades Commission gave for banning the march in 1999 was that the loyal orders steadfastly refused to talk to the residents. So here’s where Loyal Ulster finds itself à propos the Lower Ormeau:

• Summer 1999: Refuse to talk to the people of the Lower Ormeau because they had what they wanted.
• Spring 2024: Desperate to talk to the people of the Lower Ormeau because they haven’t got what they want.

Squinter’s not what you might call a skilled negotiator; he’s not sure he could talk a desperate man down off a bridge and he’s not the first person you’d hand the megaphone to in a kidnap situation. But he knows the first rule of negotiating, and that first rule is that if you want something you gotta have something to give.

And quite simply, there is no longer anything the brethren have that Catholics want.
The good news is that there are some people willing to talk to the Orange. Those people charge 150 quid an hour,  they have appointments available and they’ve got lovely, comfy couches.