Books: The last tango in parish

The Faithful Tribe by Ruth Dudley Edwards, HarperCollins pounds 17.99 Orangeism by Kevin Haddick-Flynn Wolfhound Press pounds 30
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F ollowing an idea propounded by the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu 600 years earlier, Jesus of Nazareth said: "Love thy neighbour as thyself." The Orange Order is not, one can only surmise, particularly schooled in ancient Chinese thinking, but it hangs - famously - on every word spoken by the Nazarene. According to Ruth Dudley Edwards, Orangemen indulge this affectionate reciprocity to excess, "exuding joy" and unrestrained Protestant hospitality, swapping bar jokes and cheerful banter and being unreservedly "jolly" and considerate to Catholics and only occasionally a bit "daft". Unaccountably, Catholics cannot see the innocent fun in these "chaps". They hear Christ's words embellished thus in Orange mouths: "Love thy neighbour provided he is as thyself." To them, accordingly, the Dudley Edwards book must be something of a Chinese puzzle.

One can sympathise with her apparent motive for writing this book. Orangemen are not well understood, if understood at all. Their rites and oaths suggest freemasonry. "Not a secret society, but a society with secrets," they explain. Their world is a tunnel dug by their forefathers, and the echoes in it are reassuringly loud and unvaried. For all the marches and parades and banners and bunting and annual cacophonies, their organisation has an air of such unyielding impenetrability about it as to invite the dismissive guffaw or incredulous murmur from strangers to the tunnel. By puffing a ventus odoratus through it Dudley Edwards, now an atheist, hopes to put them right.

She will have succeeded in the eyes of Orangemen. In her introduction, the author anticipates criticism by saying: "To anyone who believes that I am looking at Orangeism from too positive a perspective, I can say only that that is what I do in all my books." Consequently, what most independent observers might call Orange bigotry, she is content to call "pride and inflexibility". She then perseverates: "I love the parade. I love the music ... I love the banners - the pictures, the variety ... I love the eclecticism of a parade that includes lodges called Ark of Freedom, Rev W Maguire Memorial Total Abstinence, Prince Albert Temperance ... I love the taxis ... I loved the moment when a dogged aged marcher dropped out, still smiling bravely ... I love the lack of ageism ... signs of fraying tempers ... chatting with the crowd ... dogged varieties of stoicism ... " and so on in a stream of consciousness that strikes the reader with all the subtlety of a Lambeg drum played hard until the wrists bleed.

This is not quite the Orangeism I remember as a small Catholic boy growing up in Belfast. Nor can it be what Dudley Edwards remembers as a small Catholic girl, since her growing-up place was Dublin, a stranger to the Lambeg drum. In Belfast, I was not discouraged from joining in the fun on the eve of the Orange 12th of July celebration of the Protestant William's Boyne defeat of the Catholic James. Mixing with "the other side" was thought to be no bad thing in our household. So I watched without rancour as bonfires consumed effigies of the pope. But the flames did not warm my heart when a war-dancing crowd began to chant:

Slitter, slaughter, Holy Water

We'll kill the Papishes every one.

We'll tear them asunder

`Til they lie under

The Protestant boys who follow the


Haddick-Flynn's scholarly study is valuable for being as dispassionate as one might reasonably expect from one educated in Ireland, England and the United States. His historical narrative is totally absorbing, and quite often arresting. Orangeism in Ireland, which began after the battle of the Boyne in 1690, was so imbued with anti-Catholic bigotry that Parliament forced Orangemen to suspend their activities on occasion, most notably between 1813 and 1828. These earlier suspensions make today's government curtailment of Orange marches seem a great deal less unprecedented than the lodges claim.

The order officially enjoins upon its members toleration and good will towards Catholics. But although it is an all-Ireland institution, it is, as Haddick-Flynn reminds us, "governed as much from the bottom up as from the top down". Every new member must swear an oath "that I am not, nor never was, and never will be, a Roman Catholic, and that I am not married to one, nor will I marry one, or willingly permit any child of mine to marry one". Apart from that, individual lodges may tolerate tolerance much as they wish. A private lodge, Irish Heritage 1303, for example, proclaimed in 1974 that the Roman Catholic Church "must be declared an illegal organisation".

Possibly the most depressing thing about Orangeism is its bond with Ulster Unionism. This has ensured that a great many Northern Irish Catholics who favour the union with Britain rather than a reunited Irish republic, have been excluded as Unionism's potential political allies. Further, says Haddick-Flynn: "The Order, with its system of secret grips and codes, was the invisible hand which pulled strings in many areas of employment. It fingered not only Catholics, but also suspect lukewarm Protestants who showed liberal tendencies. The man whose Orange fervour was doubted walked in fear, lest his livelihood was taken away."

Consequently, to much of the world, Orangeism has been the Ulster Protestant's own worst enemy. While it sees itself as a force for preserving decent values among God-fearing men in the face of republican anarchy, it often betrays self-doubt and inarticulacy. Outsiders are more inclined to listen to the (often ridiculous) blarney from the Catholic Irish diaspora than to the dour sermons of sash-wearing oddities tramping through a tunnel. They watch with dismay as the Unionist leader and Orangeman David Trimble and the preposterous pope-hater Ian Paisley do an Orange hand-holding dance towards a church in Drumcree; possibly the last tango in the parish.

Ruth Dudley Edward's rush to its rescue is, it would seem, too late. The Order must have examined her credentials with something akin to despair (ex-Catholic atheists are supposed to be pariahs too). But individual Orangemen appear to have treated her warmly and have been rewarded with reportage which alternates between cloying and twittering. The organisation she so bafflingly gushes over is the one that had controlled the Stormont government ("the largest Orange Lodge in the World", Haddick-Flynn reminds us) until it was prorogued in 1972; that had a stranglehold on the Northern Irish civil service, and which, through local councils, decided which citizens worked or were housed. It even caused a Stormont gardener to be sacked because he was a Catholic, notwithstanding his British Army record and a reference from the Prince of Wales.

All repressive movements are based on fear or selfishness, or both - selfishness to gain or preserve power, and fear lest it be lost. These reasons motivated the Roman church's Inquisition. They have also motivated Orangeism, just as they are motivating militant Irish republicanism. The motives can be dressed up prettily enough - with orange sashes or green ribbons - but no one is fooled. Bigotry is hard to shift when it is a raison d'etre. The atheist Dudley Edwards came across a sectarian street gang's question to a professed unbeliever: "Aye, but are ye a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?"

From both these studies, however, one senses that Orangeism is on its last drumskin; that the aggressive self-delusions and other absurdities of the "brethren" are over-stretching the tolerance of the majority of Ulster's Protestants. Even though prospects of a sound political settlement in the province are as uncertain as ever, Orangemen themselves, finding little to be triumphalist about these days, may be coming to realise that their game is up.