Their flags go marching on

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The Independent Culture
FOR ALL the fine silk that goes into its brilliant banners, the Orange Order has more than its fair share of rough-grained men and roaring priests. Despite its members' pledge of loyalty to Church and Monarch, it has long been associated with private armies and civil disobedience. On Wednesday, these apparent contradictions will be evident as Ulster is swamped, yet again, for the annual Twelfth of July Orange marches. This time, however, the Protestant celebration of the 1690 Battle of the Boyne (in which William, Prince of Orange, routed the Catholic King James) will be different, in that it is the first march of the "Billy Boys" since the Northern Ireland peace process began last September. Police will try to prevent Orangemen from exercising "our right" to parade through Catholic areas, thereby both disturbing the peace and threatening the process. Already this year there have been ugly fights as police blocked Orangemen flexing their muscles by marching through a Catholic neighbourhood.

Paradoxically, the banners they will carry are emblems of compelling beauty, wrought with love and devotion; hoisted with defiance and bigotry. Each of the 100 or more lodges has its own distinctive banner, commemorating historical events such as the Battle of the Boyne, where Protestants and Catholics died fighting one another, and the Battle of the Somme, where they died in a united cause. As the Orangemen tramp city streets and country roads, resolutely facing the past, the silken banners will ripple with further ironies. One is the fact that several commemorate a branch of the police (the now-disbanded Ulster Special Consta-bulary) - an honour the police are unlikely to reciprocate on Wednes-day. Another is that while many lodges will begin the march bearing temperance banners, few marchers will be sober at the end of the day.

The banners are the work of a small number of craftsmen, using standards set in the 19th century by George Tutill, a London banner-maker. And although a small number of images are "modern" (like the one of George VI doing a BBC broadcast), most hark back to past glories and martyrs, the very stuff to ensure that working-class Protestantism remains locked in the rhythms of ancient rhetoric. Unsurprisingly, many depict slaughter.

Nevertheless, the Protestant middle class and "nobility", which once played the "Orange card" either to frustrate Home Rule or to dissuade the loyal masses from socialism, seem to be outgrowing Orangeism, associating it with the sectarianism that prompted the Troubles and from which Britain and the Irish Republic are trying to rescue the Province. A great number of Catholics now join the spectators lining the marches' main routes, content to have their children witness a colourful anachronism before it fades. They, like many forward-looking Ulster Protestants, listen to the Orangemen banging on their huge Lambeg drums, suspecting that the noise, generated in times past to torment Catholics, is now an effort to drown out the voices of reason. The original oath of the Orange Order, inaugurated in 1795, enjoined members to "support the King and his heirs as long as he or they support the Protestant Ascendancy". When Wednesday's marchers fold their banners and pocket their sashes, and temperance lies inert in the the suburban field where Belfast's Orangemen will gather before the sinking sun, the chances are that the ascendancy in Ulster will continue to be that of reason. !