A Fresh Role For Orangeism In The Loyalist Community: Dr. John Coulter


The Orange Order must use the 2013 Marching Season to re-launch its role in the Loyalist community. Former Blanket columnist and Radical Unionist commentator, DR JOHN COULTER, maintains that the Order is at a new crossroads in its history. In this exclusive article for Long Kesh Inside Out, Dr Coulter outlines his way forward for the Loyal Orders.

This year’s Marching Season will be absolutely vital in dictating which direction, and how much influence, the Loyal Orders – and Orangeism in particular – have among the Loyalist working class community.

While there can be no doubt republicanism has embarked upon a campaign of political ethnic cleansing against British culture in Ireland, north and south, the Orange Order must return to its Home Rule roots of a century ago and play a key role in mobilising the pro-Union community in Northern Ireland.

In similar mobilisation campaigns of the current conflict – in 1974 against the Sunningdale Agreement and 1985 against the Anglo-Irish Agreement – the Orange Order played an important role in organising Unionist resistance.

But what the Orders (Mainstream Orange, Independent Orange, Black and Apprentice Boys) could not accomplish in 1974 was to provide a political alternative to the Sunningdale Executive when it collapsed after the Ulster Workers’ Council strike.

What Orangeism failed to do in 1974 was the ‘Devo Max’ alternative which Scottish National Party leader and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has planned should Scots vote to remain in the Union next year.

By ‘Devo Max’ I mean increased legislative powers for the Scottish Parliament, which ironically would be as near Home Rule for Scotland as makes no difference. In the original Home Rule crisis for Ireland a century ago, many Scottish Unionists volunteered to help defend the Irish Unionist position in 1913.

‘Devo Max’ would be, in political practicalities, Maximum Devolution. A ‘Devo Max’ solution to the Scottish situation would have clear ‘knock-on’ benefits for the Stormont and Welsh Assemblies. It would mean more powers for the people of Northern Ireland; a greater say in the running of our communities, which was a trait of democracy we were denied during the dark days of Direct Rule.

Had Orangeism’s Grand Lodge of Ireland and the ruling bodies of the other Loyal Orders produced a grassroots ‘Devo Max’ solution for the then Unionist Coalition (United Ulster Unionist Council, or Treble UC), it would be highly unlikely the Unionist community would have to eventually deal with a Provisional Sinn Fein partnership government at Stormont.

Had Unionists offered a workable alternative to the Sunningdale Executive, Direct Rule would not have been imposed on Northern Ireland, and the British administration would have allowed the Northern Ireland Parliament to eradicate the Provisional IRA in the same way as the Northern Ireland Parliament smashed the IRA Border campaign from 1956-62.

People may point to the role which the Loyalist paramilitaries had in 1974 in de-stabilising the Sunningdale Executive. There was also the influence of switching off the electric and the fact the British Army did not want to face down the Loyalists.

Clearly the memories of the famous Curragh Mutiny of March 1914 lingered long in the mind of the British establishment. Would the British Army be prepared to supress a Loyalist Rebellion in 1974 as it had done years earlier in Kenya against the Mau Mau?

At the height of the Home Rule crisis in Ireland in 1914, almost 60 officers of the 3rd Cavalry Brigade stationed at the Curragh Army camp in County Kildare, near Dublin, informed their commander-in-chief that they would prefer dismissal rather than impose Irish Home Rule on the Unionists of Ulster. The British establishment backed down, but was really saved by the outbreak of the Great War later that year.

In 1974, the Orange Order in particular acted as a conduit between the middle class Unionist parties’ leadership and the working class Loyalist leadership of the paramilitaries. But Orangeism’s problem has been, and always will be, that whilst it can mobilise, it cannot control.

The Provisional IRA and INLA leaderships always possessed a power to be able to turn the tap of violence – especially republican rioting – on and off at will. Orangeism possesses no such discipline.

For example, in 1986, Unionism organised a Day of Action against the Anglo-Irish Agreement of the previous November. The Orange Order played a major role in bringing people onto the streets, just as it had done in the Ulster Says No rallies at Belfast City Hall and across Northern Ireland.

However, the March ’86 Day of Action marked a significant turning point in the Ulster Says No campaign. Orangeism failed to prevent the activities of that day descending into mob violence. The media coverage of Loyalists attacking the police turned many middle class Unionists off the Ulster Says No campaign.

As with 1974, the Loyal Order leaderships failed to read the political situation correctly in 1985/86. The protest Westminster by-elections of 1986 merely resulted in the loss of the Newry and Armagh seat to the SDLP, as around 2,000 Sinn Fein voters merely switched tactically to give Seamus Mallon victory.

Unlike the Sunningdale Agreement, the Anglo-Irish Agreement signed at Hillsborough gave the Irish Republic its first say in the running of Northern Ireland’s affairs since partition in the 1920s. The Dublin government was able to establish the Maryfield Secretariat near Belfast.

But what Unionists failed to grasp was the ability to return the serve and demand a say in the running of the Republic. Although the IRA pogroms against the Southern Protestant community had driven many families into the new Ulster state or to Scotland, a strong Protestant community remained intact in the border counties of Donegal, Monaghan, Leitrim and Cavan. Orangeism also maintained a fairly strong showing in these counties, as demonstrated at the annual traditional Rossnowlagh Orange parade on the Donegal coast.

Orangeism should have demanded and established a Unionist Embassy in the heart of the Dail at Leinster House to champion the civil rights of Southern Protestants. Ironically, we should not make the assumption that all Southern Protestants are Unionists.

Many Southern Protestant families who remained in the 26 Counties integrated themselves into the Southern political system, especially Fine Gael. Even the thought of a Southern Irish Unionist Party to represent Protestants in the republic became a political non-starter.

Perhaps to survive, many Southern Protestant churches adopted an ecumenical approach with the Irish Catholic Church. Religiously, this took place in an era when the Irish Catholic Bishops dominated the Southern political agenda – especially during the de Valera period – before the clerical sexual abuse scandals became common public knowledge.

The Southern republicans’ Achilles’ Heel is that it cannot tolerate – and fears – Unionist involvement in the affairs of the 26 Counties. Dail parties are quite content to moan about matters affecting nationalists in Northern Ireland, but they get exceptionally nervous about Britain – or Unionists – returning this serve and demanding an equal say in the running of the republic.

In 1986, instead of tramping the streets of Northern Ireland with the Ulster Says No campaign, helping to form the Ulster Clubs network and the red-bereted Ulster Resistance paramilitary group, the Orange leadership should have used its Border county Grand Lodges to set up the Unionist Embassy in Dublin.

The 1974 Dublin and Monaghan Loyalist bombings, which killed more than 30 people, demonstrated the fear of the Southern nationalist regime in Leinster House to any militant Loyalist activity in the republic.

While Britain has the economic clout to ‘soak up’ even the most sustained of republican bombing campaigns, the republic – conversely – could be brought to its knees financially within a fortnight if Loyalists embarked on a similar campaign across the 26 Counties.

The UVF was always blamed for the Dublin and Monaghan bombing, although republicans have always equally claimed British security forces’ collusion given the sophistication of the no-warning devices.

The current Dublin government needs to use its influence to ‘rein in’ the demands of Provisional Sinn Fein in the Northern Ireland Assembly to ensure a dissident Loyalist movement does not emerge within the Protestant community, as has developed within the republican community.

With Provisional Sinn Fein now a significant voice in the Dail under former West Belfast MP Gerry Adams, Southern nationalists can no longer dismiss the ‘Sinn Fein issue’ as a solely Northern Ireland problem.

The Orange Order and the other Loyal Orders have a similar role to play in channelling Protestant frustration over a lack of benefits, the Union flag debacle, the parades controversies, and the Maze shrine debate, away from street or paramilitary violence.

For years, traditional Loyal Order parades through nationalist areas took place unhindered. But ever since the notorious Obins Street confrontation in Portadown in the mid-1980s, nationalists suddenly saw the benefits of forming so-called residents’ groups to oppose the Loyal Orders.

Republicans had clearly recognised the role of Orangeism within the Protestant political community. Orangeism was the cement which bound the various strands of the pro-Union community together. Break those ties, and republicanism could severely – perhaps fatally – weaken Unionism.

The Orange lodge was the place where the middle class Protestant businessman could sit side by side with the Protestant working class labourer and call each other ‘brother’ as equals. If republicanism could drive a wedge between the Unionist middle class and the Loyalist working class, it would make strides in weakening the Union.

Drumcree was republicanism’s master stroke. The violence of 1997 and 1998 succeeded in driving that wedge between the two Protestant classes. The Union flag protests has seen the British security forces confront Loyalists on the streets of Northern Ireland in a manner which would have been unthinkable in 1974.

Orangeism has been effectively backed into a political corner because of the parades disputes. Part of this has been due to the domination of so-called nationalist residents’ groups by hardline republican spokesmen. The nationalist residents’ groups knew such people would be a ‘red flag to the Orange bull’ and the outcome was predictable – the Loyal Orders would not hold face to face talks with residents’ groups for an agreed solution.

Had the Loyal Orders entered negotiations with the residents’ groups and called the republicans’ bluff over parades, many so-called contentious parades routes may never have existed.

This situation has forced the Orange Order in particular to re-invent itself as a cultural organisation rather than as a Salvationist religious movement. The emphasis has been on a ‘family day out’ experience rather than spreading the evangelical Gospel of ‘Jesus Saves’ to a wide audience.

Orangeism is now at the crossroads. Religiously, it must return to its roots as an evangelical Christian outreach movement akin to the Qualifications of an Orangeman oath. Politically, it must act as a Protestant civil rights movement to ensure that as many Unionists as possible are not only registered to vote, but come out to vote on polling day.

In a Northern Ireland population of around 1.8 million, a few thousand first preference votes could see Provisional Sinn Fein returned as the largest party in the Stormont Assembly at the next expected poll in 2016 – the centenary of the failed Easter Rising.

All four of the Loyal Orders must rekindle and develop their links with religious Protestantism’s two dozen-plus separate and independent denominations, all claiming to be the inheritors of the Reformed Faith.

While many Loyalist young people are joining the growing marching band fraternity in Northern Ireland and the Southern Border counties, how many of these young people are also joining the Loyal Orders?

The Loyal Orders must also step up to the mark in working for the Protestant working class. There is the real danger the Orders will become viewed as nothing more than middle class Unionist rural outfits who don’t care about the austerity cuts facing many urban working class Loyalist communities.

In 1998, the year of the Good Friday Agreement, I completed my Masters in politics at Queen’s University, Belfast. The title of the thesis was: “The contribution of the Orange Order to the development of Pan Loyalism during the period 1968 to the present day.”

Having witnessed the splits, rows and fragmentation within Unionism since completing that thesis, my conclusion is that the Orange Order still has to make that much-needed contribution to Pan Loyalism.

If the IRA, SDLP and the Dublin government can form the so-called Pan Nationalist Front, what is stopping the Orange Order from becoming once again the cement which formed a Pan Loyalist Front? Time is not on Orangeism’s side.

As frustration grows within the Protestant community, at some time Loyalism may return to Orangeism’s real roots – in the violent Peep O’Day Boys who carried out raids on Catholics. US President Barack Obama laid great emphasis during his G8 speeches on the type of society which would be inherited by Ulster’s youth.

Does Orangeism and the rest of the Loyal Orders want that legacy to be that it actually – unlike in 2013 – it abandoned the Loyalist community in its time of need? I was a member of the Orange Order for over two decades and literally donned the sash my father wore.

I only left the Orders because of the pressures of writing. I want to be able to tell future generations that I was proud to be an Orangeman, as I remember the many religious events which I attended where the Gospel of Jesus Christ was preached. I especially love to hear my father, a senior Orange and Black chaplain and Presbyterian minister, preach these Gospel sermons to the assembled brethren, Sir Knights, band members and members of the public.

Ideally, I want the Loyal Orders to follow Christ’s example as set out on His Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel. The Loyal Orders are at their crossroads – religiously, socially and politically. Let’s hope and pray they make the correct decision for the good of the Loyalist community.


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