Dissidents Or Dissenters?-The Future Of The Orange Order: Dr. John Coulter


To survive, the Orange Order must go political and stop pussy footing at being an Ulster Scots cultural fan club. That’s the view of former Orangeman and Radical Unionist commentator, Dr John Coulter. The former Blanket columnist outlines this contentious political route in his latest exclusive article for Long Kesh Inside Out.

The Orange Order must return to politics as a pressure group and stop messing around trying to be a cultural movement.

With daft suggestions such as Diamond Dan the cartoon character and flagship parades, a faction in the Order’s leadership has tried to convert the movement into an organisation which puts culture before the Christian faith and Unionist politics.

All this has done is back the Order into a cul de sac with republicans, nationalists, liberal Protestants, as well as the British and Irish governments all laughing at what was once the most influential political movement on the island of Ireland.

The Ardoyne Shops saga has pushed the Order into another Drumcree-style parade debacle. If the Order is not careful, it will play into the hands of those in the London and Dublin administrations who want all Orange and Loyal Order parades banned – even traditional annual divine services in overwhelmingly Protestant areas.

Will the Order find itself in the same scenario at the start of the Troubles when parades were banned and it was reduced to so-called pavement parades – walking along the pavements to get to churches, or meeting in church carparks and walking into churches.

If this becomes a reality, the Orange Order will be nothing more than an exclusively Protestant version of Irish Freemasonry, limited only to church services and charity fund-raising. Worse still, the inevitable outcome of the present parades crisis is that all the Loyal Orders are declared proscribed organisations.

The problem is not with the direction of Orangeism as an ideology, but with the direction of the Orange Order as an organisation. Mobilisation is the way forward for Orangeism. It must mobilise the Protestant people to return to their churches, and it must mobilise as many Protestants as possible to both register to vote and come out to vote on polling days.

The biggest mistake the Order made in the present conflict was to sever its connections with the Ulster Unionist Party. The Order urgently needs to develop a political direction – in this case Unionist unity.

The political value of the Order over the generations was that it acted as an effective communications vehicle between the various classes and factions within the pro-Union community. In practice, the worker and business manager could sit in the same Orange hall on lodge night and refer equally to each other as ‘brother’.

Cynics might say that the one-time ruling Unionist aristocracy used the Order as a controlling mechanism to keep the Protestant working class in check. But in many circumstances, the lodge room functions as a centre of communication where the thoughts and policies of the Unionist ruling classes were passed discreetly to the working movement.

Following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Unionism became more divided over the agreement than republicanism. The Unionist No camp was more vocal within the Unionist community than dissident republicanism against Sinn Fein in the nationalist community.

Dissenting Protestant movements, such as the Spirit of Drumcree group within the Order, became highly organised and publicly challenged many pro-Agreement Orange leaders at Twelfth demonstrations in 1998.

Rather than a tool of smooth-running communication, the lodge room became an ideological battle ground as the Yes and No camps of Unionism locked horns. As the DUP became the increasingly dominant political voice within Unionism at the expense of the UUP, so too, came the calls for the Order to formally split from the UUP.

On the UUP’s ruling body, the Ulster Unionist Council, the Order had specified delegates. This resulted in the ironic situation of DUP-supporting Orange delegates having an influence over UUP policy at UUC meetings!

It could also be suggested that those within the Order who campaigned for a formal split from the UUP recognised that the UUP was eventually going to be overtaken as the leading party in Unionism as the rival DUP steadily stole the UUP’s political clothes, policies, votes and ultimately, seats.

Essentially, the DUP was doing to the UUP what Sinn Fein was doing within the republican community. To become the leading nationalist party, Sinn Fein had to eat into the electorally lucrative Catholic middle class which was the traditional polling hunting ground of the more moderate SDLP. Sinn Fein took over the Catholic middle class while at the same time holding onto its own traditional working class republican heartlands.

But what has happened in Unionism is the opposite for the DUP. Yes, it had become the leading Unionist party and has substantially eaten into the UUP’s traditional middle class Protestant heartlands.

But slowly, but surely, to maintain its position within the Unionist middle class, the DUP since becoming the leading Unionist party in the 2003 Assembly poll has left the loyalist working class behind. The DUP was unable to use the fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church and much-smaller Independent Orange Order as effective communication tools with the Protestant working class.

Both the Free Church and Independents had been crucial in developing the DUP as a well-oiled working class Unionist movement. They also acted as a good springboard into the UUP’s middle class strongholds.

The political value of the Orange Order had been best demonstrated in 1974 during the two Westminster General Elections of that year. The United Ulster Unionist Council – also known as the Unionist Coalition – comprised several strands of political opinion, including the UUP, DUP, UUUP and Vanguard Unionists.

In the smooth running of the UUUC, the Order played a significant role. The collapse of the UUUC by the 1979 Westminster General Election could be in large part blamed on the inability of Grand Lodge to hold Unionist unity intact.

Decades later, there is much talk about Unionist unity and Unionist co-operation. Initiatives such as the People’s Forum and Unionist Forum have tried to address this unity problem as well as how the loyalist working class can again be mobilised as it was in 1974 to defeat the Sunningdale Executive and in 1985 to combat the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

In both 1974 and 1985, the Orange Order played a central role. But since severing its UUP links and developing its cultural initiative, the Order has effectively side-lined itself in political Unionism.

Essentially, the challenge facing the Order is how it re-captures the spirit of ’74? In terms of the cultural battle, the Order lags far behind the republican movement which has had centuries of organisations such as the GAA and Gaelic League developing nationalism’s cultural identity.

Put bluntly, Orangeism cannot compete competently with republicanism on the cultural front. Even in terms of the Irish language, republicans have largely claimed that tongue as their own, seemingly airbrushing out of history that it was Irish Presbyterianism who kept the language alive.

While the Ulster Scots heritage and culture has been a significant return of the serve from the pro-Union community to the republican movement’s cultural roller coaster, the marketing of the Ulster Scots language as a Unionist rival to the Gaelic language has been a laughable disaster.

It has been suggested that Ulster Scots is nothing more than a North Antrim accent written phonetically. While it would largely take a Northerner around five years to become a fluent speaker in Irish, a Southerner could take about five minutes to become a fluent speaker in Ulster Scots!

As someone who grew up in North Antrim and spoke virtually fluent Ulster Scots from primary school age, what killed off the ‘language’ for me was not the terror campaign by the IRA, but a few years of elocution lessons.

Just as the Orange Order is valiantly making a significant attempt to reclaim St Patrick from nationalism, if the Order urged its members to learn Irish, it would be interesting to see what the reaction from republicans would be?

The cultural drive by the Order has seen an even greater fragmentation of the Unionist political family with 2013 already witnessing a rejuvenation of the Progressive Unionist Party in urban loyalist working class areas, the launch of two new parties – the moderate and pluralist NI21 under the leadership of former UUP men Basil McCrea and John McCallister, as well as the hardline loyalist movement, the Protestant Coalition – and a surge in interest in the staunchly euroskeptic party, the United Kingdom Independence Party.

Could the Orange Order act in its traditional role as a political conduit and help not only to get Protestants into the polling booths, but also act as a forum to decide which parties run in which constituencies as was successfully achieved in February 1974 when UUUC candidates won all but one of Northern Ireland’s Commons seats?

With such fragmentation in Unionist parties coupled with voter apathy in the Protestant community, there is the real danger traditionally safe seats in Unionist areas could fall to nationalist or centre parties by default.

The best way to maximise the Unionist vote is for the Orange Order to act as a political forum to negotiate agreed candidates for each constituency. The real first test will be next year’s European poll. Sinn Fein seems certain to hold its seat, so the big battle will be for who takes the two remaining Northern Ireland seats.

With the increasing collapse in the UUP vote and the breakdown of the UUP/Tory pact, is veteran MEP Jim Nicholson’s seat in jeopardy? Likewise, with the DUP now suffering the same backlash as the UUP suffered under David Trimble, could DUP MEP Diane Dodds’ seat be the one at risk?

During a recent visit to Northern Ireland by Nigel Farage MEP, the leader of UKIP, a meeting at the Stormont Hotel in Belfast heard how the main target seat was Mrs Dodds’, not Mr Nicholson’s. Could UKIP be the dark horse in Northern Ireland as it is expected to be in mainland Britain?

The Orange Order has some bitter medicine to swallow. If it continues on its present course, it will become the parades whipping boy and will see either all parades banned, or the organisation prescribed itself. The Order has only one choice – it must go political to have a relevance in Northern Ireland.

All it will take will be another few Drumcrees or Ardoyne Shops debacles and the Unionist middle class will abandon the Order in much bigger numbers than at present. It will deteriorate into nothing more than a Protestant version of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. The AOH has virtually no influence within republicanism and is little more than an ‘old man’s club’ for retired nationalists.

Structurally, the Order must become a political pressure group like the old Vanguard Movement or the UUP’s former influential Right-wing Ulster Monday Club. But what the Orange Order must not do is to launch its own political party. That move spelled the eventual death knell for Vanguard.

The People’s Forum and Unionist Forum have both largely run out of political steam. Let’s hope the Orange Order Forum fairs better at achieving Unionist unity as a first step to the eventual creation once again of a single Unionist Party.

In urging the Order to go political, water down its cultural-seeking initiatives and focus on building an Orange Forum, I speak from the experience of almost two decades in the Order. I covered many events as a reporter, and only decided to leave the Order to care for my severely autistic son. I still maintain that the Qualifications of an Orangeman represent an exceptionally challenging evangelical ‘born again’ Christian way of life.

There is a niche in the Unionist family for an umbrella pressure group to mobilise the pro-Union vote. Let’s hope the Order’s leadership has the courage to take the political bull by the horns and occupy this gap.


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