The colour Orange

On the eve of the Orange Order's main anniversary, David McKittrick charts its long, bloody history and its paradoxical status as supporter of, and threat to, the establishment
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The Independent Online
One of the many extraordinary things about the Orange Order is its capacity to maintain its self-image of respectability in the face of a torrent of criticism. It contains, for example, a great many clergymen and devout Protestants who genuinely regard it as the essence of law-abiding Christianity and good order.

The Order takes it name from William of Orange, whose defeat of the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne is celebrated every 12th July. One of its most hallowed texts sets out the ideal Orangeman: "He should cultivate truth and justice, brotherly kindness and charity, devotion and piety, concord and unity and obedience to the laws; his deportment should be gentle and compassionate." It has sometimes been difficult to discern such high-minded sentiments, for example when Orangemen triumphantly hold up five fingers as they parade past a spot where five Catholics were shot dead.

The last three marching seasons produced widespread disorder, a momentary breakdown of law and order and what a Presbyterian minister has described as "Northern Ireland's Chernobyl, with almost a meltdown in community relations". While other elements bear some responsibility, it is the Order's metronomic determination to march through hostile Catholic areas that has time and again occasioned serious disturbance. It was ever thus, for throughout its two-century history the Order has left behind a trail of troubles.

In 1864, after Belfast was racked with riots that over 18 days left 12 dead and 100 injured, an official inquiry reported: "Belfast is liable to periodic disturbances on occasions well known as the Orange anniversaries. If the celebration of these anniversaries be attended with such risk, we might well ask why any party should obstinately adhere to it.

"Can neither the discouragement of the powerful and influential nor the adverse opinion of the wise and good induce those who indulge in such vain and mischievous displays to remember the claims of citizenship, or charity, or of civilisation?"

One of the factors in helping the Order sustainitself through the recurring bouts of criticism is the fact that those in authority have traditionally alternated between criticising it and co-opting it into the system. There is an extraordinary historical pattern of the Order sometimes undermining the stability of the north of Ireland and sometimes acting as one of its most fundamental props. This was the case right from the Order's foundation in the last years of the 18th century, not far from Drumcree in County Armagh, then as now one of the bitterest of places. It was forged in the crucible of sectarian conflict there from precursors such as the Peep O'Day boys.

Set up after a gang of Protestants had bested a gang of Catholics in a clash fuelled by land hunger and sectarianism, the Order helped drive 7,000 Catholics out of the county in just two months. Catholics were threatened: "Now Teak this for Warnig, For if you Bee in this Contry Wednesday Night I will Blow your Soul to the Low hils of hell And Burn the House you are in."

Such methods, coupled with its rapid growth, initially alarmed the government, but with republican rebellion in the air the authorities swiftly moved to co-opt the Order as a counter-revolutionary force. A magistrate spelt out the official calculation: "As for the Orangemen, we have a difficult card to play; they must not be entirely discountenanced - on the contrary, we must in a certain degree uphold them for, with all their licentiousness, on them we must rely for the preservation of our lives and properties, should critical times occur."

So it proved. The landed gentry moved quickly to assume leadership of the Order, instilling discipline and deference into what had originally been denounced as "lawless banditti". In Napoleonic times 25,000 regular troops were augmented by 20,000 yeomen, almost all of them Orangemen, who played an important part in putting down the United Irishmen's rebellion of 1798. The brutality employed was legendary, a British officer noting: "Hundreds and thousands of wretches were butchered while unarmed on their knees begging mercy; and it is difficult to say whether soldiers, yeomen or militia men took most delight in their bloody work."

The subsequent history of Orangeism continues the pattern of paradoxical duality, alternately undermining authority and upholding it. At one stage its Grand Master was the Duke of Cumberland, but then it was banned in 1825 because of worries about the extent of its penetration of the army, which was found to contain many Orange lodges. In the north of Ireland it remained in existence despite the ban, though for much of the 19th century it was deserted by the upper classes and had little prestige. Freed from its deferential posture, the century experienced what might be called the golden age of the Orange riot.

In 1813 Belfast experienced its first religious riot when an Orange procession marched into a Catholic street. Two were killed and four injured, but this turned out to be a minor affray: 1829 brought major disorder in 11 different locations, with at least 16 deaths. Back in County Armagh the first service at Drumcree had taken place in 1807; the first arrests were in 1833, while the first Catholic death, in 1835, was followed in 1869 by the first Protestant fatality.

But it was Belfast which saw the worst of the violence with repeated riots during the marching season, most of them following Orange demonstrations, 12 major disturbances taking place between 1813 and 1886. One report said: "The celebration of that [Orange July] festival is plainly and unmistakably the originating cause of these riots," adding that the occasion was used "to remind one party of the triumph of their ancestors over those of the other, and to inculcate the feelings of Protestant superiority over their Roman Catholic neighbours".

In the 1880s, contact with the upper classes was re-established when the threat of home rule appeared on the horizon. The Tory Lord Randolph Churchill famously said that if Gladstone "went for home rule, the Orange card would be the one to play. Please God it may turn out the ace of trumps and not the two."

This was the beginning of an alliance between Tories, the Unionist business classes and the Order. As in the late 18th century, Orangemen were co- opted as part of a wider game. Orange lodges provided the framework for a citizen's army, the Ulster Volunteer Force, whose threat of force played a large part in persuading London that the largely Protestant north should be exempted from home rule. The UVF drilled in the Orange halls; then tens of thousands, at the urging of their new leaders, joined the British army to fight in the First World War. Thousands lost their lives. Many were cut down at Thiepval wood, on the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, one witness recounting: "As they scrambled over the parapet they shouted the old battle cries, `No surrender' and `Remember 1690'. Many wore Orange ribbons and one sergeant of the Inniskillings had on his Orange sash."

From the outset, the new state of Northern Ireland took on a distinctly Orange coloration. An Orange lodge was established within the new police force, the RUC, while Orangemen made up the bulk of a new militia, the B Specials. In some areas the B Specials were based in Orange halls.

Politically too Orangeism became an integral part of the state, James Craig, Northern Ireland's first prime minister, declaring: "I have always said I am an Orangeman first and a politician afterwards." A majority of Unionist cabinet ministers and MPs between then and 1972 were members of the Order; most Unionist party meetings were held in Orange halls, while ministers used Orange platforms for important speeches. The power of the Order during those years has been described by two senior Methodists: "Membership was an indispensable condition of political advancement. It protected the employment of Protestants by its influence over employers, which is a polite way of saying that it contrived systematic discrimination against Catholics. Local authorities were dominated by members of the local lodges."

While nationalist marches were severely restricted, Orange marches became part of the fabric of Unionist rule, with the 12th of July effectively becoming what has been described as a ritual of state. More than once, though, the Unionist government banned marches on public order grounds, only to back down under Orange pressure. The most notable example came in 1935 when it banned all processions. Faced with angry Orange opposition it relented and exempted Orange marches from the ban. In the subsequent rioting 11 people were killed, hundreds injured, more than 500 families driven from their homes and more than 2,000 Catholics expelled from their workplaces.

In modern times, even as the authorities grapple with the marching problem, they continue to rely on the Order for manpower. No figures are available for the numbers of security force personnel who are Orangemen, but the Order has made it known that around 13 per cent of RUC officers killed in the Troubles and around a quarter of Ulster Defence Regiment victims were members.

Today, as the shadow of the 12th of July looms once again, the Government would dearly love the Order to call off or re-route its more contentious marches. If it does not then the authorities can opt for bans or re-routing, yet they are all too painfully aware that these can lead to major trouble.

At worst, as at Drumcree last year, a show of Orange determination can succeed in forcing the authorities to give way and reverse their decision, thus undermining law and order once again. This Government, like all the others down through the centuries, knows that taking on the Orange Order means confronting one of Northern Ireland's most powerful pressure groups, and touching the deepest and most sensitive nerve of the Protestants of Ulster.