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12 July 2003

OPINION: Lessons on the Twelfth

Either the silent majority of Orangemen decide to save the institution they love, or within a few years it will have crumbled into oblivion

Someone asked me the other day how I felt about the Orange Order these days, three years after the publication of The Faithful Tribe: An Intimate Portrait of the Loyal Institutions.

'Depressed', I said. 'And disappointed'.

I have a great deal of respect and affection for many many individual Orangemen in Northern Ireland, but ever since I first began to write about their institution, I have feared that their leadership were incapable of defending it against its enemies. And so it has proved to be. Indeed the Grand Lodge of Ireland is its own worst enemy.

I was one of many observers who wished the institution well in its struggle with bigoted republicanism. I knew that the formation of the residents' groups had been a deliberate strategy by the republican leadership to drive the loyal orders wild: there is on record a speech by Gerry Adams to party faithful praising the good work of activists in stirring up trouble in such locations as Bellaghy, Dunloy, Keady, Londonderry and, of course, the Garvaghy Road. 

The main republican objectives were to create major headaches for the Government, the Army and the police, to embarrass and divide unionist politicians, to set the loyal institutions against the state and to put them in the worst possible light at home and abroad.

And, of course, republicans wanted to undermine the Protestant sense of identity by ridiculing its culture. 

As we now know, they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. There were some wise heads who saw the baited traps and knew how they could be circumvented. 

To defeat a ruthless and determined enemy, the institutions had to box clever, show flexibility and make a positive and attractive case. 

The leadership of the Apprentice Boys sought and took advice, learned their lessons quickly and have now secured the Boys' future as a cultural attraction and a focal point for the Maiden City Festival. 

The leadership of the Orange Order chose instead the suicidal path of unremitting pig-headedness. 

Instead of disciplining its thugs, the Orange leadership turned on the very people who were giving the world a positive image of Orangeism. 

Criminals went undisciplined and louts belonging to the Spirit of Drumcree faction were appeased, while the thoughtful and intelligent members of the highly effective education committee were persecuted. And rather than concentrating on the cultural and religious aspects of the Order, the leadership chose to focus on politics. 

In the only one of the Channel 4 shorts on aspects of Orangeism that I've seen, a young man involved in re-enacting the Battle of the Diamond spoke eloquently about how important it was to him have his sense of his British/Ulster-Scots identity reinforced. 

It is heartbreaking to think how much the Orange Order could do for people like him if they were prepared to learn from the Apprentice Boys about to show pride in one's culture and share it with one's neighbours.

They could do a great deal too to give their members more pride in their religion: there is much to be learned from Orangemen abroad about how to be a force for good in evangelical Protestantism, while resolutely opposing any kind of religious bigotry. 

American Orangemen are among those horrified that the rules of the Grand Lodge of Ireland have still not been changed to make them pro-Protestantism rather than anti-Catholicism. 

But Orange HQ at home seems uninterested in learning even from its own brethren. 

It is far too busy meddling in politics ham-fistedly. 

The only sane course of action following the signing of the Belfast Agreement was for the leadership to say this was a matter of individual conscience. Instead, indefensibly - to the unconcealed delight of Sinn Féin - the leadership announced its opposition and split the membership. 

And they compounded their offence by playing a dishonourable role in party politics. 

To any fair-minded person, it is inexcusable that members sympathetic to other political parties should be voting on the internal affairs of the UUP: no wonder that Orangemen are widely portrayed as antediluvian wreckers and hypocrites. 

One of the reasons why the leadership has been allowed to do such damage to the institution is that the membership have let it do so unchallenged. 

Rather than standing and fighting for the soul of the Order, the average decent man has shrugged his shoulders in despair and has drifted away. 

Many of them will be out on the Twelfth, meeting their neighbours and deploring the idiocy of those who direct their affairs, but loathing confrontation, they will grumble and do nothing. 

Numbers are falling steadily, the Grand Lodge of Ireland is seen as anti-peace, it sets brother against brother and it offers no cultural or religious vision to the young. 

Either the silent majority of brethren decide to save the institution they love, or within a very few years it will have crumbled ingloriously into oblivion.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards