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Sunday 7 May 2006

A rebel reverend who bracely calls the Orangemen to order

''MOTHER," begins a typical email from the Reverend Brian Kennaway, the Presbyterian minister and Orangeman who has just blown the whistle on senior brethren in  The Orange Order: a Tradition Betrayed * , "Have you seen what that clampet has said about the Parades Commission? I'm writing to the Telegraph to put him right.

Love, Father"

We've been addressing each other as "Mother" and "Father" since 1997, when militant Orange bigots - who took a dim view of his opposition to sectarianism and violence - festooned lampposts near his house with "Father Kennaway".

Since I was then affectionately known in some Orange circles as "Mother Superior", we became "Father" and "Mother" to each other.

Unfortunately, owing to my publicly having taken his side in various controversies, I am now, he says in his book, more commonly known to some of the Orange leadership as "Fenian bitch".

If you've seen or heard this combative cleric squaring up to his critics on television or radio, you would not forget him.

Although he can look as grave as befits a convinced Calvinist, and he often affects a meek expression, his mischievous sense of humour is rarely far from the surface, and his chosen verbal weapon - the stiletto - is wielded skilfully and ruthlessly.

Even more importantly, he is clear and forceful in argument, precisely because he believes passionately that, "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."

You would not find Brian Kennaway concelebrating a Mass with Father Iggy O'Donovan. Indeed, he can cause consternation in liberal circles by explaining that he is not ecumenical; as an evangelist, he believes ecumenism is an attempt to dilute religion by searching for the lowest common denominator.

Yet he has proved himself a doughty fighter for religious tolerance - most notably when he organised an Orange demonstration in favour of freedom of worship outside Harryville chapel, at a time when Catholics were being intimidated.

In his parish, Crumlin, in north Antrim, he and the local Catholic priest worked in close partnership to hold the two communities together, despite trouble-making "Kick-the-Pope" bands, Sinn Fein provocation, the burning of the Catholic church and a sectarian murder.

Among the throng at the launch of his book last week, at a Belfast Presbyterian theological college, was a priest representing Archbishop Brady, an SDLP Assembly member, a senior official of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Anthony McIntyre, a free-thinking republican who spent 18 years in jail for his contribution to IRA terrorism. There were also dissident Orangemen, friends, colleagues and members of Brian's congregation, a motley collection of academics and journalists, and David Trimble, who lauded Brian for putting on the record the duplicity, hypocrisy and ineptness of the present Orange leadership, that used the Order as an anti-Good Friday Agreement "battering-ram".

Everyone there was aware of Brian's moral and physical courage: it is unprecedented for Orange linen to be washed in public, especially by someone who has been in the order's senior ranks.

Brian's combativeness, and his penchant for telling it like it is, owes much to his working-class north Belfast childhood.

His family saw themselves as both British and Irish, he remembers traditional (though not nationalist) Irish songs being sung at family get-togethers, and he feels great regret that IRA violence "knocked the Irish heart out of Ulster Protestants".

Having left school with no qualifications, he became a trainee chef, then a baker and then a milkman, so he could have afternoons free to study for university entrance.

Magee University College was followed by Trinity, from which he graduated in 1972.

"I enjoyed Trinity, but Dublin was a dump in those days," he says. "What a pity. I rejoice that it is now alive."

These days, the staunch unionist Brian loves the south and speeds up and down, attending a conference here, an Orange lodge there, a dinner party in Dublin or a party at Aras an Uachtarain. To Brian, the Orange tradition is "an authentic expression of the civil and religious liberty won in the Glorious Revolution".

The order itself, he believes, has strayed a long way from its core Christian principles. That this heritage has been lost, "not as the result of losing a battle with the opposition, but through the lack of leadership and vision of its chief officers, must surely be a tragedy tinged by farce".

It is probably too late to put the Orange Order back together again, but one positive consequence of Brian's persistent goading has been a recent lurch into cross-community consultation that last week saw the Grand Master and Grand Secretary visit the McAleeses at the Aras.

They have denounced Brian's book, but they've learned something from it.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards