Who won the battle of Portadown, 1995?

Yesterday the Orangemen marched down Garvaghy Road with the reluctant acceptance of local Catholics. Just how significant was this compromise in the struggle for peace?
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The "marching season" lays painfully bare the old hostilities which have shaped Ulster political life. The celebrations of the battle of the Boyne and the resistance of besieged Derry (then known to loyalists as Londonderry) carry the vital symbols of royalism spectacularly into the public arena. They form a fierce passion play of sacrifice and deliverance.

The fear of betrayal which can still energise the "siege mentality" is symbolised in burning an effigy of "the traitor Lundy", the governor of Londonderry who ordered the city gates to be opened to King James's army only to see them closed at the last moment by the "apprentice boys". The final, precarious triumph of William of Orange's Protestant army is celebrated with a nervous intensity which reveals the fear that it might one day be reversed.

The pseudo-military form of the processions, the banners of the Orange Lodges and uniforms of the marching bands, the sizzling Hanoverian whistle of flutes, above all the ferocious numbing beat of Lambeg drums, give a powerful impression of historical continuity. It is as if King Billy's army is reborn each July. That, at least, is the message that the Orange Order sets out to transmit.

In fact, the order was not set up until over a century after the battle of the Boyne, but even taking account of this large hiatus, its claim to historic status - never more important than now - is a weighty one. If the peace process is to lead to a political settlement, the marches will have to become, and be accepted as, a cultural rather than a political tradition. This will not be easy.

The Orange Order has always represented a potential threat to the governability of Ulster. The original organisation was, despite its decorous adoption of the Lodge structure - symbolism and initiation rites borrowed from freemasonry - frankly a coalition of local rural and urban street-fighting gangs, established for the purpose of engaging in combat with Catholic "Defenders". Its fights were for control of territory, for occupancy of farms. Yet they were infused with the millenarian hopes and fears of an age which expected the final triumph or destruction of Protestantism. The mystical apparatus of Orangeism was not bogus.

The intensity of sectarian conflict led the government to suppress the Orange Order in the 1830s, but it quietly reappeared within a generation. Likewise the government's efforts to prohibit marching by a series of Party Processions Acts foundered on the sheer persistence of the marchers.

By the middle of the century, the head of the Irish police had convinced himself that the triumphalism of the marches was giving way to a harmless folksiness. But a Belfast newspaper was nearer the mark in 1857 in recognising the assertive, triumphal function of the Orange parades: "They have a greater spirit of independence than their Romanist antagonists, are more accustomed to the use of firearms, stand firmer together, and always have the confidence and superiority inspired by victory about them.'

Clearly, the assertiveness was needed because the victory was always under threat. The decisive mobilisation of the Orangemen was triggered by Gladstone's adoption of the policy of Irish Home Rule in 1886. Against that imminent threat of Catholic majority rule, the Orange Order grew to embrace Protestants of all classes, including the gentry who before had stood aloof from it.

By the time of the Third Home Rule Bill, which brought on the great "Ulster crisis" of 1911-1914, the order was the backbone of Unionist local organisation. Two Home Rule Bills had been defeated by the built-in Conservative majority in the House of Lords; the third was opposed by paramilitary methods, in the form of the Ulster Volunteer Force. It was at the time of the mass signing of the Ulster Covenant that the formal regalia of the marchers became fixed - bowler hats, umbrellas, and sombre Edwardian suits almost shockingly enlivened with a vivid orange sash ("the sash my father wore" of the great loyalist song confirms the idea of continuity).

The UVF failed to achieve its real objective, the defeat of Home Rule, but it managed to keep Northern Ireland within the union - another triumph under perpetual threat. Even after 30 years of Unionist control, the Orange marches remained a central focus of Protestant communal identity. A London anthropologist who studied a small border town in the last years when peace seemed normal, the late Fifties, found that the denominational partition of the communities, though quiet, was almost complete.

The long and elaborate preparations for the 12 July celebrations bonded the Protestant inhabitants with an intensity rare in modern societies. The Orange Order developed into an all-purpose social body acting as a pressure group to preserve Protestant education and employment - a uniquely effective one before 1972 since so many members of the Northern Ireland government and business community were members of it. At its root, though, its commitment to Protestantism as a "way of life" meant a rejection of concession or compromise, expressed in the enduring Orange slogans "not an inch" and "no surrender".

Charles Townshend

The author is professor of international history at Keele University.