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St Patrick's parade remains inoffensive

(Newton Emerson, Irish News)

I'll admit I've never been to a St Patrick's Day parade before.

That's not because I begrudge anyone a parade (how could a unionist begrudge anyone a parade?) but because I always found former Belfast parade organiser Caitriona Ruane's television appearances offensive. See? Now I'm doing it.

Something has changed this year though, beginning with Alex Maskey's decision not to ruin a flawless term in office by marching a colour party around Belfast's City Hall and reaching its logical conclusion here in Downpatrick where the council has decommissioned the green bunting and hung up red 'Comic Relief' bunting instead – which is of course both comic and a relief.

The bunting decision has offended local Sinn Féin councillor Eamonn McConvey who described it as 'political correctness' – isn't it refreshing, if strangely unsurprising, to hear a member of Sinn Féin sounding like the string-'em-up brigade of the Conservative Party? So with this new cross-community spirit to the fore, I'm sure there'll be something here in Downpatrick to offend me as well.

Are tricolours offensive, for example?

I suppose the objective answer is that they're exactly as offensive as Union flags and as I couldn't care less who the Union flag offends then I can't really complain about tricolours, not that there are many on display anyway – three of the four I can see amid the huge throng lining the road are being waved by a single, no-doubt delightful family.

By far the most visible flags are the hundreds of St Patrick's crosses handed out by Downpatrick Council, each bearing the words 'St Patrick's Cross' just to be on the safe side, although the resemblance to England's St George's Cross remains striking.

Turn those red crosses around 45 degrees and this crowd wouldn't look out of place at the gates of Windsor Castle.

Are Celtic tops offensive?

Well yes they are, but only to the extent that anyone in a football top looks like a complete moron.

I must say those Celtic tops look especially stylish on overweight teenage girls – long may this cult of athleticism continue.

The parade itself begins with two PSNI motorcyclists flanking, of all things, a restored Ford Anglia – somebody at Downpatrick Borough Council has a superb sense of humour.

But how are they going to fill an hour-long public celebration of Irishness without getting my orange hackles up?

Several strategies seem to have been adopted.

First of all, there are lots of Vikings. This is a part of Downpatrick's history that's entirely uncontentious – Viking violence didn't discriminate between Protestant and Catholic, largely because there weren't any Protestants back then but you know what I mean, and of course the passage of time has given the Vikings a sheen of illicit glamour (a bit like Fianna Fail).

Interestingly there aren't any Normans on parade, but then that was only 800 years ago and I suppose Norman costumes would require chain-mail which is difficult to make out of cardboard.

The next strategy is disguise.

"Oi ya queer!" shouts a youth beside me as one band passes by in a fetching blue-and-white ensemble.

It is true that, shorn of their usual militaristic uniforms, marching bands look outrageously gay – something the Parades Commission might bear in mind this summer. Red and black seem to be the event's official inoffensive colours and it seems to work.

An entire Irish dancing troupe passes by in red-and-black medieval costumes without upsetting me at all, while another club has dressed its younger members up as ladybirds.

"Awwww!" says everyone as they jig past erratically.

Then there's the reassuring multiculturalism, which includes Chinese dragons, African musicians, a salsa band, a Rio carnival float and a delegation from Downpatrick's French twin town.

This takes the edge off what would otherwise be a jarringly two-tone event, smoothing over such sudden interruptions of Protestantism as the Cleland Memorial Flute Band, the Gospel choir-on-a-truck and the attack of the leafleting Baptists.

Finally there are the surreal distractions: Batman on a quad, a float full of enormous toy windmills, the entire cast of Grease standing silent and motionless on a tractor-trailer and a Dr Who and the Daleks float immediately followed by the Chernobyl children – hats off to the organisers for putting the science fiction alongside the science fact.

Throughout it all the crowds lining the route remain oddly passive.

A few greetings are exchanged with the parade's participants, but nobody around me cheers or even applauds and I'm honestly not sure why.

Perhaps it's because we don't do that sort of thing in Northern Ireland, that a good gawk is entertainment enough, or simply that most of the adults present are dealing with very young children. Perhaps a cross-community parade is something we're still not quite sure how to enjoy.

But as I leave Downpatrick one thing is certain – I don't feel even remotely offended by any of it.

Damn. Perhaps I should have gone to Londonderry.

March 21, 2003

Newton Emerson is editor of the Portadown News. This article appeared first in the March 20, 2003 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News