Bowler hats, sashes and and a ritual of state

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The Order was founded in 1795 following a major sectarian affray in County Armagh. This clash, known now as "the Battle of the Diamond," is one of the major events in Orange folk-history, together with two incidents in the 17th century when Protestants prevailed over Catholics, the battle of the Boyne and the siege of Derry.

The Order has gone through many phases in its history - some more respectable than others - but for more than a century it has functioned in essence as a pan-Protestant front, helping to unify various strands within Unionism. Its leaders deny any suggestion that it is anti-Catholic, but the movement has been consistently anti-ecumenical and opposed to religious integration.

While its regulations tell members to abstain from uncharitable words, actions, or sentiments against Catholics, they are pledged to "resist the ascendancy of that church" by lawful means. They are also warned not to attend "any act or ceremony of Popish worship". A number have been disciplined for doing so.

During the half-century of Unionist rule in Northern Ireland, between the 1920s and 1970s, most Unionist ministers and MPs were members of the Order. Unionist administrations facilitated Orange marches and Unionist politicians routinely addressed gatherings.

This close identification of Unionist governments with the Order tended to fortify the deep belief that Orange marches had a special status. During this period, Orange marches were rarely re-routed while nationalist or republican parades, in any event much less frequent, were often subject to restrictions or bans.

Major Orange occasions thus became what one commentator described as "effectively a ritual of state". The Orange Order is considered by many to be a powerful and exclusive body in the Province, with its members wearing the traditional bowler hats, orange sashes and carrying rolled umbrellas during marches.

The Order originates from the Dutch royal House of Orange and symbolises the Protestant king William III - William of Orange - who defeated the Catholic James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Marching banners boast the victory of their King Billy - and ever since the battle has been the symbol of Protestant sympathies in Northern Ireland.