How the Orange card was turned into a trump

Those who claim to be religious often mistake the expression of their faith for its essence. No one can now say that of the Orange Order, argues Paul Vallely.
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The Independent Online
The Troubles in Northern Ireland, it is often said, are not about religion. This last week you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. True, there has been the usual talk about tribalism and identity, triumphalism and discrimination. But the religious dimension was unavoidable. It was a church service which was the starting-point for the Orangemen's controversial progress down the Garvaghy Road in Portadown. It was an outdoor Mass held in full vestments before the armoured Land-rovers of the security forces which was perhaps the most striking nationalist response, touching raw folk memories of the days during the Protestant supremacy when many Catholics could only hear Mass said on a rock in the open air.

Cynics might say that yesterday's decision by four Orange lodges to re- route similar marches in Belfast, Newry, Armagh and Londonderry was prompted by the Byzantine calculation of partisan advantage which characterises the political process in the province. Perhaps they were warned by the RUC that there were quite simply not enough police in the province to prevent loss of life in the nationalist protests which were planned. But we should be more charitable.

History is about change. Yet those who profess themselves to be concerned with the spiritual often blind themselves to the fact when they talk of absolute values. Universal truths are expressed in different ways and apostolates in different eras. The problem is that many who hold themselves to be religious confuse the essence with the expression. The result is then cultural ossification rather than spiritual vitality.

This is, of course, not a peculiarly Protestant trait. Indeed it might more generally be held of Roman Catholics, who historically have demonstrated a tendency to ritualise and then attach meaning to the ritual which properly belongs to a truth which the ritual was meant to honour.

The most evident example of this is the Catholic traditionalist veneration of the Tridentine Latin Mass which was abolished by the reforming Second Vatican Council by which Catholicism sought to evangelise the modern world more effectively.

More widespread, if more covert, is the influence of reactionary groups like Opus Dei, which are attacked by the Pope's representative in England and Wales, Archbishop Luigi Barbarito, in an interview in the Tablet next week to mark the end of his 11 years as papal nuncio. He identifies such groups as Catholics "who clearly identify the Church with their own piety and the vision which nurtured them in an earlier period of history". His words might, until yesterday, have applied equally aptly to the Orange Order.

Behind the expression of Orangeism is an essential Protestantism which fosters and celebrates freedom of conscience, personal liberty, tolerance and self-determination. All this followed from the reformed faith's sola scriptura insistence on the primacy of revelation and of the right of each Christian to interpret that for him or herself.

It is a powerful legacy which has much to offer to the whole of Ireland. Once it was seen to speak across the political divide: the great 18th- century Irish nationalist leader Wolf Tone was, after all, a Protestant. But it is now evident again in the preference for conciliation over confrontation in yesterday's decision. It was there in the dispersed authority by which the re-routing was the decision of autonomous individual Orange lodges. It was there when the Leader of the Orange Order, Robert Saulters, turned up to support Catholic worshippers who were being picketed by angry loyalists each week as they entered their church in Ballymena.

The shifting demographic patterns of the province mean that traditionally routed church parades to celebrate that Protestant identity have become something else. The Orangemen's new recognition of that is a demonstration of moral courage. Their right to parade remains, but the decision not to exercise it on this occasion shows a willingness to look beyond the expression to the essence.

Now it is up to the Catholics to reciprocate. It is not enough for Gerry Adams to announce that the many nationalist mobilisations which were planned in response to the parades have now been cancelled.

Nor would it be enough to suggest that there will be no protest at the rest of the 2,000 parades which the Orange Order stages each July to mark the anniversary of the 1690 victory of Protestant King William over the dethroned Catholic monarch, James II.

The Catholics of Northern Ireland too must now look to what distinguishes expression from essence. Only when they do in sufficient numbers will the IRA feel the need to announce an unequivocal ceasefire.