Well, I suppose you have to salute the indefatigability of the Orange Order in trying to rebrand the Twelfth of July as the more friendly and cuddly “OrangeFest”. The OO has been adding on lots of folklorish bells and whistles to its flagship parades; local councils are giving grants to loyalist community groups to help them make their Eleventh Night bonfires eco-friendly; there’s a concerted effort to puff up the Twelfth as a tourist attraction. The Lord loves a trier, and there can be little less challenging than trying to promote a tourist event that annually inspires half the population of Belfast to get the hell out of town.
The point being, fifteen-plus years of peace processing notwithstanding, that Orange parades still have too much baggage. The couple of positive examples you might think of prove the point. The pre-Twelfth parade in Rossnowlagh, Donegal, is basically a harmless family day out, but I draw your attention to the fact that political Orangeism has had no traction in the south since the 1920s; the OO south of the border, not being an instrument of political power, has come to be something like the cultural-religious group it would like to be seen as. That’s not the case in the north, as we’ll see shortly. Another example might be the flagship parade at Hillsborough, which seems from reports to have been quite a slick showcase for New Orangeism. But then, Hillsborough is one of those areas where there have been no Catholics since the Plantation, so a big Orange event is not likely to provoke any objections. Stick an Orange parade next to an actual interface and you have a different situation.
There are the other aspects of the marching season, too. In certain areas, you have parades – if not Orange parades, then band parades – on a weekly basis for six months of the year. This involves marches through residential areas, which are basically shut down by police until the parade passes. You have blatant non-enforcement of alcohol laws, and residential streets being used as open urinals. (For a huge event like the Twelfth, is it beyond the wit of the OO to organise portaloos?) And yes, sectarianism is a very long way from being banished. Ask yourself why dozens of loyalist bands, many with paramilitary associations, would periodically descend on a tiny nationalist village like Rasharkin, and it’s hard not to espy an exercise in intimidation.
So the recreational rioting at Ardoyne is as unsurprising this year as it is every year. Ardoyne is, as anyone familiar with north Belfast will know, a smallish enclave that’s suffered a lot in terms of sectarian violence down the years, and is home to a very strong independent community spirit that’s determined not to put up with sectarian provocation – note that the primary school kids who suffered the Holy Cross debacle in 2001-02 would be in their teens now. The area also has a lot of unemployed youth who might well be up for a fight with the cops. I know there’s an effort to heap responsibility on the dissidents, but the area is combustible enough without the dissidents.
Not that the politics of the thing is not worth remarking on, as the Provos have seen some slippage in their support locally. Now, Gerry Kelly’s complaint that dissidents were arriving from outside the area may be a little cheeky from a Ballymurphy native, but it’s not untrue – I recognised a few RSF members taking part in the sit-down, and there were also éirígí, RNU and IRSP people milling about north Belfast, but the combined forces of dissidence in Belfast have trouble enough organising themselves – as well as inter-group rivalries – for it to be rather unlikely that they could stage a large-scale riot all on their ownsome. There were, on the other hand, plenty of local people holding signs marked “We’re residents, not dissidents”, but the local media seemed remarkably reluctant to interview any of them. What complicates things is that there are two residents’ groups in Ardoyne, one very tightly controlled by the Provos and one composed of the people not allowed into the Provo-led group. I suggest that this has something to do with Kelly’s reaction.
Anyway, back to the Orange. As I’ve remarked, there may be fewer of these problems if the Orange really was just the unassuming religio-cultural movement that it claims to be. But for a very long time it was the major power in the land, and it still wields a lot of clout politically, clout that it’s extremely reluctant to give up. I cite this analysis from the invaluable Open Unionism blog:
According to its own figures, the Orange Order presently has 35,000 members in Northern Ireland; that’s approximately 3% of the current Northern Irish electorate, 5.2% of the electorate who voted last May, 11% of the total who voted for the pro-Union parties. With those kind of figures, the Order is then merely a medium-sized lobby group in the context of the wider Northern Irish politics? No.
A total of 37 Northern Ireland’s MLAs belong to an Orange Order Lodge, that’s over 33% of the total membership of the Assembly, a staggering 66% of the combined total of pro-Union representatives. Those figures don’t represent the strength of a lobby group, more of the all-pervasive influence the Trade Unions imposed on pre-Blairite Labour. And as over time that Trade Union link proved to be a liability rather than an asset in the modern age to the Labour Party, I believe the same is true with the continuing Orange Link with political Unionism.
There’s a lot of truth in that. Even if we allow that the gap is exaggerated by not counting in the extended resonance of Orangeism – the families of OO members, the flute band subculture, those who attend parades – we’re talking about an awfully big weight of influence there. It’s worth noting that the Orange element is much stronger in the UUP than the DUP – the DUP was historically weak in the Orange, and those of its leading members who are senior Orangemen (Jeffrey Donaldson being the canonical example) are often UUP defectors, while top DUP men like Peter Robinson or Sammy Wilson are not Orangemen. Indeed, if you want one reason for the failure of the UCUNF project, it may be worth considering that, if you’re trying to build non-sectarian civic unionism, a party with virtually all of its leadership belonging to the Orange Order is not a roadworthy vehicle.
Now, factor in the OO’s inveterate politicking, which you may not find much of at local level, but certainly Grand Lodge is intensely political. The Order’s leadership, with Grand Wizard Bobby Saulters setting the lead, has been banging the drum for Unionist Unity, and indeed the Orange was heavily involved in brokering Rodney Connor’s pan-Prod candidacy in the Dreary Steeples. Within the UUP we find David McNarry, Grand Lodge’s representative on Earth, banging the same drum. This has reached such a pitch that the leading candidate for the UUP leadership, Fermanagh MLA Tom Elliott, a senior Orangeman himself, has been grumbling publicly about Grand Lodge following a DUP agenda, and his likely rival Basil McCrea is bluntly telling the Orange to butt out.
But are we talking simply about a DUP-OO lash-up? Not quite. The key point here is the Public Assemblies Bill cooked up by the dominant DUP-SF axis in Stormont, which is supposed to replace the hated (by the Orange) Parades Commission. The Bill has come in for some stick from trade unions, campaigning groups and the left because of the ridiculous 37-day notice period for any sort of public manifestation expected to have an attendance of more than 50, with a prison sentence for non-compliance – and remember that the remit of the old Parades Commission included not only Orange marches but such diverse events as Gay Pride and vintage car rallies. It may be that Peter and Martin could ignore the small voices of ICTU officials, Trots and gays, not to mention vintage car enthusiasts, but what’s really put the Bill in the dunny is its rejection by the Orange Order. Grand Lodge, it appears, has carefully considered the proposals to set up Son of Parades Commission and has decided the old system isn’t so intolerable that it’s willing to go along with the new one.
This puts Peter Robinson in some diffs, as he sold the devolution of policing and justice on the grounds that parades would be sorted out. Well, he’s got devolved P&J but he hasn’t got a solution on parades, and he’ll have to explain that to the base. Meanwhile, it reminds us that the Orangemen are not anybody’s proxies, but are a political force in their own right. And that is why the Twelfth is what it is. It’s not simply a display of religious devotion or a cultural celebration. It’s a very powerful political movement putting on a show of strength, and short of the Orange becoming something radically different from what it is, we’re still going to have tensions for every marching season in the foreseeable future.