Marching the ancient Orange road to nowhere

Ulster's traditions are the problem not the solution, says Eamonn McCann
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When the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, David Trimble, offered the opinion yesterday that the Orange Order is no more sectarian in its outlook and social role than other Protestant organisations such as the Guides, my mind was suddenly suffused with a disturbingly congenial image of shiny-faced little girls in berets and ankle socks storming up Rossville Street waving light cudgels and squeaking at the top of tiny voices, "Kill the Fenian bastards!"

This was the slogan shouted, more gruffly, by ominous members of the Orange Order and the Apprentice Boys as they erupted into the Bogside on 12 August 1969 with a view to putting manners on uppity "Fenians" who had dared to oppose the annual "Boys" parade along the edge of the overwhelmingly Catholic areas in Derry.

In truth, while there was scarcely anyone in the Bogside who wasn't thoroughly opposed to the Apprentice Boys' march, only a minority had gone down to the bottom of Rossville Street to proclaim their hostility. But the incursion into the area of a force of men with sashes around their necks and mayhem on their minds changed that in a twinkling.

The Bogside erupted. Two days and nights of fighting followed. Efforts by the RUC to reimpose order on the area ended with members of the force literally falling down from exhaustion. On the afternoon of 14 August, men of the Prince of Wales Own Regiment, ordered in by the Home Secretary, James Callaghan, threw a barricade of barbed wire across the main exit/entrance between the Bogside and the city centre.

Thus did an Orange march trigger the events that led to Unionism's loss of local control over law and order.

Unionist leaders have been striving without success to regain this ground ever since. They are determined at least not to have to give away any more.

Their problem is that the ground has changed, not just in terms of sectarian demography - the Garvaghy Road in Portsdown (where David Trimble's massed forces demand to march) was "mixed" in 1969 but is now overwhelmingly Catholic - but also in terms of political balance and context.

The relative numerical growth in the Catholic population, the more remarkable growth in the size and self-confidence of the Catholic middle class, the economic shifts that have made southern Ireland a junior partner rather than a poor neighbour of Britain in Europe, the impoverishment of sections of the Protestant working class that could once look to the Orange lodge for marginal advantage over Catholics, the internationalisation of the northern conflict generally, all this had made the chances of the "Orange State" being reconstituted so remote as scarcely to be worth thinking about.

Except that there is little in the philosophy of Orangeism for its leaders to think about. David Trimble and Ian Paisley are, of course, right when they say that their marches - all 2,500-plus of them annually - are "traditional". The marches have been the main means whereby Unionist leaders have symbolised and celebrated the second-class-citizenship not just of Catholics but of all who have dissented from the notion of "Protestant Ulster".

The Orange Order is not just a Protestant organisation. It is certainly not - despite the presumably well-meaning promotional efforts of the "cultural traditions" lobby - a harmless expression of "Protestant communal culture".

It is not Protestant but specifically and explicitly anti-Catholic.

Catholics cannot join, of course. A member who marries a Catholic or attends a Catholic religious service is liable to expulsion. In 1959, Phelim O'Neill, a Unionist MP, was expelled for attending a Catholic mass in his constituency.

The function of the Order, and the significance of its penchant for parading, was well expressed by its own historian, the Rev John Brown, in the Sixties: "On 12 July and other occasions the Orangeman marched with his lodge behind its flags and drums

The tradition that the Orange marches represents is akin, then, to the tradition that persisted until the late Sixties in the southern states of the US that black people should ride at the back of the bus, or the tradition still "honoured" in parts of the world today that husbands have a right to beat wives. It's all about walking over others.

In this perspective, the authenticity of the Orange tradition, far from providing a defence of the practices associated with it, rather testifies to the deep-rootedness of a social evil.

This is by no means a new insight. As far back as 1857, two barristers appointed by the Lord Lieutenant to investigate a horrendous outbreak of sectarian violence in Belfast on the previous 12 July, reported:

"The Orange system seems to us to have no other practical result than as a means of keeping up the Orange festivals, and celebrating them, leading as they do to violence, outrage, religious animosities, hatred between classes (sic) and, too often, bloodshed and loss of life ... We think it is well to consider whether there is any controlling necessity to keep it alive, notwithstanding the evils that, unfortunately, attend its existence."

Noting that it was "the lower orders" which seemed to do most of the fighting, suffering and even dying, they commented: "With them the war is a real one, personal suffering attends it with them, they are maimed in limb and rendered homeless by it. On them falls the misery of what brings advancement to the more exalted."

Not that, despite their best, or worst, efforts, there is real prospect of advancement for the leaders of Orangeism today. Or that any of them might properly be described as exalted.

Eamonn McCann is a journalist living in the Bogside district of Derry.