A WEEKEND trip to the city centre with the first grandchild as the mercury crept up towards the 30 mark. As ever with a trip into Belfast, Squinter elects to take the bus, mostly because four hours parking in CastleCourt would pay for Christmas, but also because – and without being too Greta about it – Squinter’s more and more inclined to use public transport as the pursuit of carbon-neutral grows every more urgent.
9.30am and there’s a pleasant early autumn crispness in the misty air, but by the time granda and baby disembark near City Hall Barra Best’s forecast of barbecue weather is starting to seem on the money. Onwards to the City Hall grounds, St George’s Market, lunch, a loughside stroll and a bit of baby book shopping and around the 4pm mark it's time to head out of the steaming city, and so Squinter boards a Translink 10k bound for the Glen Road. As the bus idles in Queen Street, Squinter’s aware that the sun’s beating mercilessly down through the window at the side near the front of the bus with the space for a pram to be moored. And as he takes his pull-down seat, he lowers the hood on the pram to cast the baby’s face into a welcome shade.
By the time the bus is pulling away from the first stop at Castle Street, downstairs on the double decker is virtually full after a second influx of passengers and Squinter’s aware that there’s sweat trickling down his forehead and temple and tracing a path to his waist from his armpits via the ribs.
More importantly, a peek underneath the pram hood reveals that the baby’s cheeks are turning red and her fine dark hair is starting to stick to her head. And so he reaches into the tray beneath the pram where the shopping is located, rips a piece of cardboard from a purchase and begins to fan her face. By this time the incessant sun is starting to sting the sweat on his head and so it’s back into the tray to retrieve a light shirt which Squinter had pulled on in the morning over a t-shirt and removed on arrival in town. He mops his face and brow with the cotton garment then drapes it over his head so that it acts like a loose hat. As he continues to fan the baby with loose cloth draping his napper, it occurs to him that he resembles nothing so much as a slave in a pharoah’s summer palace.
Squinter and baby aren’t the only ones finding the going tough. All around them all kinds of items have been pressed into service as makeshift fans by passengers of differing ethnicities – hats, hands, books, newspapers – and it’s clear that every single person is having a problem with the heat. That problem being:
1. There is zero air circulating through the bus.
2. While the tiny, elongated letterbox windows are open, slow, heavy traffic between Divis and Falls stops isn’t allowing sufficient speed to create a breeze.
3. The bus either doesn’t have air conditioning or it isn’t being deployed, odd given that the outside temperature is in the late-20s and the temperature on the bus is Japanese prisoner-of-war camp level.
On up the Falls the bus wends its snail-like way, the baby’s hair getting stickier, her cheeks getting redder, Squinter blinking the sweat from his eyes as he wields his cardboard fan ever-faster in her face. By the time the bus is idling at the lights at the bottom of the Whiterock the thought occurs to him that if it was carrying dogs a concerned passing pedestrian would probably kick the windows in and call the USPCA and the police, such are the levels of discomfort and distress manifesting themselves inside.
Thankfully, the worst by then is past as the bus picks up pace for the first time in the stretch passing St Louise’s and as it continues up the Glen Road the increased speed forces a life-saving breeze through the windows and the passengers turn their faces to it, eyes closed, like a Jack Russell with its head out the window of a car.
15 minutes later Squinter’s sitting in the garden under a parasol, his shoes and socks off, the baby being fussed over amidst questions about what happened her hair. And he wonders why it is that in the year 2023, Translink’s modern fleet of buses is incapable of keeping its passengers cool and comfortable.
He put the question in so many words in a tweet to Translink, who responded by asking him if he’d contacted the driver during the journey, which he hadn’t. It’s entirely possible that had Squinter left the baby to make his way to the driver’s station relief might have been provided at the flick of a switch, but to be perfectly honest, it wouldn’t take someone with a degree in thermodynamics to work out that in high temperatures, the bus filled with passengers and flooded with sunshine, a little relief might be just the ticket.
Who wants to join this culture club?
SQUINTER’S never been big on flegs. Sorry, flags. He’d fly a Palestine flag to make a political point quicker than he would an Irish one. And he’s not hung up on songs or anthems either. He could have a stab at the Irish national anthem, but he doesn’t know every word.
And so as the conversation about a New Ireland gathers pace he doesn’t lose any sleep about the prospect of the tricolour being replaced; it’s not that he’s for it being done away with, it’s more that he just can’t bring himself to care. And if Amhrán na bhFiann was scrubbed in favour of a new national tune, Squinter’s got to be honest and say he wouldn’t go to the mattresses over it. Unless it was replaced by Ireland’s Call, needless to say.
So Squinter’s match-fit as the unity endgame approaches and he’s up for talking about anything that would help unionists come to terms with new constitutional arrangements. Heck, he’s happy to talk about new constitutional arrangements that leave the North with a sufficient degree of autonomy to give those who value the union wriggle room to call it whatever they like.
But much as he’s keen to create a space in which we can all move comfortably around, Squinter has to say he’s tried and tried and failed and failed to convince himself that perhaps the biggest single aspect of unionist identity will be granted the same measure of facilitation as it is accorded in these six counties at present. In short, he’s got a massive problem with the Orange Order.
Squinter’s no Matt Talbot, but despite his estrangement from the Church of Rome some time ago, he retains an affection for the iconography and rituals of Catholicism. That’s down to a mixture of vivid childhood memories and loyalty to his oul’ ma, to whom religion and the Church meant so much. So when stories of clerical abuse emerge he feels personally disappointed, even though they’ve got precisely nothing to do with him. And if the Pope draws a crowd of a million in Brazil he’s happy because he knows how much his late mother would have enjoyed the pictures and reports. And when people get stuck into the Catholic Church for no other reason than it’s the Catholic Church, he tends to get annoyed. Which is where the Orange Order comes in.
It’s an article of Loyal Ulster faith that the Orange Order lies at the heart of unionist culture. And it does. But the question is never asked: Why should it? Even if it stopped being at the heart of grubby annual sectarian dogfights, what reason is there for a centuries-old fraternal association consisting overwhelmingly of older white Rome-obsessives to hold such a place in society. Let’s see now…
An organisation which exists to oppose the “fatal errors and doctrines of the Church of Rome” – ie the biggest religion by far in the North – is annually given page after page of delighted full-colour coverage in the unionist media. Journalists – many of them shanghaied Catholics – are sent all over the six counties to interview people in union jack hats eating ice-cream and film kids twirling batons and beating little drums for an hour-long evening TV special. (The BBC only knocked its hours-long live coverage on the head two years ago.) The assumption here – or perhaps it’s not assumption but indifference – is that Catholics don’t mind; that they see the celebrations as a bit of harmless pageantry. The assumption is that because the summer marching season is embraced by such large numbers of the unionist/loyalist community to oppose it is to prove you have no real interest in a New Ireland. But if we continue to lie to ourselves, if we continue to insist in the face of the facts that Catholics are fine really with the Orange Order, we’re storing up more of the kind of trouble that will have proved in the end to be the death of partition.
There’s a reason that ‘Official Northern Ireland’ pretends that the deeply weird mix of arcane religiosity and sub-Masonic ritual which lies at the very heart of Orangeism doesn’t exist – and that reason is that the raison d’etre of the Order sits very uncomfortably alongside the Twelfth ice-cream and union jack hats.
And then we come to the children, who are presented as a central part of the Orange carnival. In a place that is struggling and failing to come to terms with a century and more of institutionalised sectarianism, should anybody be celebrating the fact that children are paraded alongside adults who are marching because they don’t have much time for Catholics? Is it any surprise that we find our feet glued to the ground by religious enmity when children who march at the age of eight because they love the excitement find out two or three years later that the real reason for the flags and the music and the costumes is an antipathy towards Rome?
Various commentators took a pop at Taoiseach Leo Varadkar for saying at the end of last week he believed there would be a united Ireland in his lifetime. (Turned out his words were part of a carefully choreographed series of events ahead of this week’s billon-euro package from the UK, the EU and Ireland. Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris chided Varadkar as he announced the funding in a none-too-subtle attempt to persuade Jeffrey Donaldson that he’s back on their side with both words and cash.) They laid out suggestions of what the Taoiseach could more profitably have been doing and included in that list was the idea that it would be welcome if he announced that in this New Ireland the Twelfth would be a public holiday alongside St Paddy’s, May Day and Christmas.
The Twelfth is a public holiday here, of course – a state of affairs that is reluctantly accepted by the now majority community, who have grumbled every summer about it since Squinter was able to understand speech. In fact, the maintenance of the Twelfth as a public holiday in the six counties after the last Eton alumnus has cleared his desk at Stormont Castle should be up for discussion – not the spreading of 17th century Reformation dogma to the towns and villages of Cork and Kerry. In the wake of that discussion the public holiday will almost certainly remain in the North, but if there’s a debate about it down South for the first time then the side of the Orange Order that’s annually hidden from them – the vile sectarianism, the drunkenness and the conflict-addiction – will quickly become apparent. Just as the great British public only became aware of the real nature of the DUP when the media finally did a bit of tyre-kicking after Theresa May bunged them a billion to keep the ventilator pumping on her Commons majority.