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My Old Man said 'follow the band...'

An interview with Iain McAfee of the Ulster Bands Association.

IN recent years, Ulster’s marching bands have received a lot of bad publicity.  They have been accused of trouble-making, trampling over people’s rights, and various forms of anti-social behaviour.  Some criticism has been deserved, but much of it has been very unfair – if not maliciously and politically motivated.  Clearly, something needs to be done to set things straight.

This is the thinking of the Ulster Bands Association, an umbrella group for marching bands.  The Association held a conference late last year in Broughshane to examine the future of such bands in the twenty-first century in the face of many challenges. Speakers at the conference came from the Ulster-Scots Agency, the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, the PSNI Parade Liaison Officer and Diversity Challenge.

The Ulster Bands Association is not going to allow marching bands and their culture and traditions to be put down any longer.  They are not resigned to hiding in cultural ghettoes or to moan to one-another about not being understood, nor will they bury their heads in the sand and pretend that everything is all right and any problems are always someone else’s fault. 

The effects of this conference will have favourable repercussions for the future of the marching band culture in Ulster for years to come.  As a start, the Association has drawn up a strict Code of Conduct for affiliated bands. A full report and commentary on the conference can be found here

In this fascinating interview,  Iain McAfee— the chairman of the Association— talks to The Twelfth.

The Twelfth.  When and why was the Ulster Bands Association formed?

 Ulster Bands Association.  After a failed attempt the previous year, the Ulster Bands Association, as we are presently constituted, first met in March 1998 in a North Antrim Orange Hall.

The Association initially adopted the motto ‘Unity Is Strength’, as its original function was chiefly to unite all marching bands under one umbrella group, irrespective of political preferences, so that they may be better equipped to counter the growing number of attacks, especially through the media, on bands and the organisation of parades.

Although in theory this seems sensible, such a strategy was and continues to be difficult to implement.

Bands in the most part are autonomous and retain an insular viewpoint.  As long as their band has sufficient finances, members and faces no problems with hosting their parade, most are unlikely to feel the need to become members of our Association.  The thought of any outside influence can also cause problems, even if that outside influence is striving to improve the overall band situation.

Although it is clear that bands face numerous problems and the only way to counter these is by strength in numbers most continue to make the effort.

The bigger picture such as negative perceptions of bands and its effect on falling audiences at parades were also issues that the Association initially aimed to address.

 Since then the number of matters, which the Ulster Bands Association has addressed, debated or confronted, has grown enormously.  The many aspects that encompass the unique culture of the Marching Bands have surprised even long-standing band members who now serve on our Central Committee.

The Twelfth.  You allude to the negative perception of band parades.  How do you hope to change this perception?

Ulster Bands Association.  Since 1999 the Ulster Bands Association has had a Code of Conduct for its members.  The code is in no way draconian but aims to deal with the problems that we have (and we do admit we have some problems) in a common sense way.  Ultimately, and mainly because of the autonomous nature of Marching Bands, it is for each band alone to make the effort to enhance its public image.

Because of the strong social aspect of the culture of the Marching Bands, it has sometimes been difficult for band masters/captains to deal with certain issues, without alienating its membership.

Contrary to popular opinion, the majority of bands who regular parade week in, week out, have an internal code of conduct and plenty of bands have proved that they can still attract the younger generation whilst retaining discipline.  Others however regrettably do not have such a code.  There has to be a realisation amongst certain bands that their actions have affected the publics perception and unfortunately it is the entire band community that has suffered.

Much of the damage that has been done to our reputation stems from the wild days of the troubles in the 70’s and 80’s, when there was not the same spotlight on parades.  Especially with the political changes of the past decade and the concerted campaign by Republicans against our culture, there is now more focus on parades and the behaviour of participants. Although since those days the behaviour of band members has improved enormously, there is still a stigma attached to us.

In recent times we have especially encouraged our members to ignore the deliberate goading of Republican anti-parades protests.  We feel that bands are singled out with the specific design to provoke a reaction that will be used to further discredit parades through a somewhat biased media, which seems to conveniently ignore the provocation of protestors.

From an Association viewpoint, we have a responsibility to take our message to everyone possible and promote the positive aspects that make up the unique cultural identity of the Marching Bands.

Never before has anyone, especially outside the Marching Band community, taken the time to treat bands as equals and try to talk to us about the difficulties we have.  People have always been quick to criticise bands.  Although many of the criticisms may be true, it is wrong to treat us all as criminals.

The Ulster Bands Association believe that once there is a greater appreciation of the positive aspects of bands, by both the general public and band members themselves, many of the negative perceptions that plague us will be dispelled.

 The Twelfth.  Could you tell us about your magazine and website?

Ulster Bands Association.  The Ulster Bands Association’s magazine To The Beat Of The Drum was first produced in March 1999.  That first volume had five issues however each volume since has been reduced to three issues (April/May, June/July and August/September).

The magazine is the Association’s most powerful and productive propaganda instrument and has won us many friends.  It gives the Marching Band community a voice which they do not have through a biased media or other productions.

The editorial has always attempted to make the magazines contents easy to read and understand so that our message gets across.

Up-to-date Association news, cultural articles and basic information on the cultural identity and ethos of the Ulster Marching Bands supplement regular features such as parade dates and member band histories.

Approximately 1,500 copies are sold of each issue, the majority of which are available through and sold by member bands.  It is the Association’s only serious form of income.

To The Beat Of The Drum has undoubtedly been the success story of the Association since its formation and something that we fully intend to develop further.

While the magazine has been very successful in explaining why bands and our parades are so important to us, it has its limitations.  This does not however apply to our official web site. The web site is a vital tool in influencing the views of millions of people both home and abroad.

First launched in 1999, it has seen many changes.  Since then it has had a number of webmasters which has unfortunately not helped with its development.  At present a lot of work is required to give the site more depth and information.

This will take time, as like most things we must rely on the efforts of a few, of whom free time is limited. A very common problem throughout the Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist community.

It is fortunate though that many Marching Bands, in particular members bands of the Association have produced excellent sites which promote our culture in a positive light, however it remains important for the Association to take the lead and develop and maintain a web site that is effective in explaining, educating and countering the many misconceptions that exist about bands.


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