Moves by David Trimble to reduce the Orange Order's influence within the Ulster Unionist Party were yesterday seen as having the potential to develop into a struggle for the soul of Unionism.
The historic closeness between Unionism and Orangeism puts the Ulster Unionist leader's initiative on a par with Tony Blair's removal of Clause 4, the cornerstone demand for nationalisation, from the constitution of the Labour Party.
It is likely to stir the deepest of emotions among the Unionist and Orange rank and file, as well as developing into a new battleground for party factions for and against the Good Friday Agreement.
Mr Trimble confirmed atthe weekend that discussions about the Orange Order's 120-strong representation on his party's 800-member ruling council had been going on for months. One of his supporters, Dermot Nesbitt, said: "To survive, the party has to be seen to be pluralist but it must also be mindful of its roots. What we want to do is strike a balance between knowing where our roots lie and reflecting a Unionism for the 21st century."
Members of the anti-Good Friday Agreement faction immediately made it clear that they would oppose such moves. Jeffrey Donaldson, MP for Lagan Valley, said the linkshould not be broken because it was politically expedient, suggesting the move had sprung not from a desire to modernise but because much of the Order was against the Agreement.
Another Trimble opponent, David Brewster, said: "This is an attempt to reduce the influence of those who oppose him in the party. The party has always been regarded as a broad church but I'm afraid he may be trying to turn it into a Trimble cult."
Last month Mr Trimble survived a leadership challenge, from a former head of the Order, by the not particularly comfortable margin of 57 per cent to 43. The widespread assumption is that the Trimble camp hopes to build up his support in the council by reducing the seats reserved for the Order and other anti-Agreement elements such as the Young Unionists.
Mr Trimble said, however, that the move was "not something dreamt up in response to last month's result".
Proposals are to be put tothe party's rules revision committee in June, though any changes could not be completed before next year. The Unionist-Orange link goes back to the party's earliest days. Northern Ireland's first prime minister, James Craig, once told Stormont: "I have always said I am an Orangeman first and a politician and member of this parliament afterwards."
Between 1921 and 1969 only three out of of 54 Unionist cabinet ministers were not members of the Orange Order, while 87 of the 95 Unionist backbenchers in Stormont during that same period were members of the Order. Many Unionist party meetings are held in Orange halls.
The complexities mean that Mr Trimble's campaign may be a difficult and messy one. In addition to the 120 Orange delegates, the Unionist Council contains several hundred more Orange members.
The two Loyalist organisations are thus bound together by an intricate network of informal, as well as formal, ties.
A complete break between the party and the Order is not therefore seen as conceivable, though a reduction in Orange representation might send the message that Catholics might not be unwelcome within Unionist ranks.
At the moment the party has only a tiny number of Catholic members.Reuse content