Kevin Meagher writes about the stunning new study on Orange Order attitudes in Northern Ireland
Nearly two thirds of Northern Ireland’s Orangemen believe “most Roman Catholics are IRA sympathisers” and just one in twenty would be happy to see their son or daughter marry a Catholic, according to a major new study.
‘Loyal to the core?: Orangeism and Britishness in Northern Ireland’ is the first major study of the attitudes of the Orange Order’s grassroots, with 1500 members of this secretive and insular organisation interviewed for the book. Many of the findings are grimly predictable, although, creditably, the Order fully co-operated with the researchers.
Despite a welter of evidence to the contrary, the survey reveals that nine out of ten Orangemen think Protestants in Northern Ireland are discriminated against while two-thirds do not accept that the republican armed campaign is over.
For the record, Catholic nationalist areas like West Belfast and Foyle (Derry) have the third and fourth highest unemployment rates in the whole of the UK; meanwhile most rational people can distinguish between the end of the Provisional IRA’s armed campaign and that which continues to be waged by small dissident factions – roundly criticized by leading republicans like Martin McGuinness.
Interestingly, a majority of Orangemen wish to see the Democratic Unionist and Ulster Unionist parties join forces. The UUP’s tie-up with the Conservatives at the last general election saw them fail to win a single Westminster seat, yet there are clearly fears about a divided unionist vote.
Last week, Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Peter Robinson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, conceded that he may be the last Protestant first minister, with Northern Ireland’s in-built Protestant unionist majority steadily whittling away.
Although 53 per cent of the population identified themselves as Protestant in the 2001 census, a recent study showed that when asked to state their religion, 54 per cent of boys and 55 per cent of girls in Northern Ireland described themselves as Catholic. Moreover, 49 per cent of Northern Irish students were Catholics, while only 35 per cent were Protestants.
It is this very loss of communal hegemony that the Orange Order was founded to prevent.
Established in 1795, the Order celebrates the victory of the Protestant William of Orange over Catholic King James at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The Order is said to exist for the “defence of Protestantism” but was chiefly employed as a bulwark against the growing threat of the United Irishmen movement in the late 1700s which brought together “Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter” behind the goal of an independent Irish republic.
Throughout the twentieth century the Order played a leading role in the sectarianism which scarred Northern Irish society following partition in 1921. Northern Ireland was memorably described by its unionist prime minister, Sir James Craig, as “a Protestant Parliament and Protestant State”.
He also described himself as an “Orangeman first and a politician and member of this parliament afterwards.”
The Order continues to exert a massive influence on unionist politics.
Back in September, a local Orange lodge in east Belfast made a complaint following the attendance of Tom Elliot, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and his colleague Danny Kennedy, regional development minister in the cross-party Northern Ireland executive, at the Catholic funeral mass of Police Service of Northern Ireland constable Ronan Kerr who was killed by dissident republicans back in April.
Order rules prohibit such fraternisation. The ‘charge’ was, thankfully, overturned.
In the modern era, the Order is synonymous with its contentious marches through mainly Catholic communities. Here, at least, the study shows signs of pragmatism.
Although 86 per cent of respondents support scrapping Northern Ireland’s Parades Commission and 58 per cent believe Orangemen should be allowed to march through nationalist communities with impunity, 20 per cent think they should negotiate with residents first. This, at least, offers a glimmer of pragmatism from the Order’s usually unflinching bowler-hatted ranks.
But it just a glimmer. Ultimately, it seems, asking the Orange Order not to hold extremist views on Catholics is a bit like expecting rain not to be wet.
• Osborne’s cuts having “damaging effect” on Northern Ireland peace process – Kevin Meagher, November 10th 2011
• WikiLeaks reveals secrets of Northern Ireland peace process – Ed Jacobs, June 2nd 2011
• Time for normal politics in Northern Ireland? – Ed Jacobs, May 10th 2011
• Northern Ireland unites as fears grow over dissidents – Ed Jacobs, April 11th 2011
• Northern Ireland: Are the sectarian divides beginning to crumble? – Ed Jacobs, March 15th 2011