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9 November 2015

Orange reaction to KKK painting hurts free speech

Joe McWilliams

I'm relieved that the Orange Order has stopped short of demanding that Joseph McWilliams' painting, Christian Flautists Outside St Patrick's, be removed from an Ulster Museum exhibition because it includes five figures in white hoods and Orange collarettes.

Still, I'm unhappy with the headline they gave their press statement on the Grand Orange Lodge website: "Order slams painting as 'deliberate demonisation'" (a phrase I can't find in the body of the statement).

What's more, I regret the tone of this sentence in their first paragraph: "Members of the Orange Institution are entitled to feel outraged that a major publicly funded facility should display such artwork, which is deeply offensive to their traditions and the ethos of one of the largest community organisations on this island."

It's not that I don't understand why they're upset. The Orange Order has a proud anti-racist record. In addition to black Africans, its brethren have included Aborigines, Native Americans, Solomon Islanders and Maoris. It offends them deeply to be represented as white supremacists.

When I was researching my book on the loyal institutions and attending the Orange triennial imperial council, I spent a coach trip sitting beside the Ghanaian grand master singing with him songs like It's a Long Way to Tipperary. In their world, the only colour that matters is orange.

I am also well aware that, during anti-parade protests of the 1990s - which the IRA army council deliberately organised to foment community violence - republican propagandists ruthlessly demonised Orangemen, depicting them in words and images as the Klan with Orange sashes - a message Joe McWilliams clearly swallowed uncritically.

From that period, to his often very attractive impressionistic paintings of parades that showed their vigour and colour, he added in KKK figures.

This was unfair, ill-informed and, indeed, prejudiced, but he was an artist - and artists should be free to express themselves freely and, indeed, to give offence.

It would have been wrong for the Ulster Museum to act as censors. Let's just remember the Mohammed cartoons, the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo office and the importance of standing up for the free speech and free expression, which are under increasing attack in our democracy.

If, as has been reported, the TUV called for the work to be withdrawn from the exhibition, Jim Allister should be ashamed.

The Orange Order Press release adds that: "This inaccurate and negative portrayal of the institution comes only months after the Ulster Museum was accused of republican bias due to the lack of Ulster-Scots and Orange-related literature in its bookshop."

Well, guys, that's because republicans are much better at marketing themselves than are unionists. The answer is to get better at it.

It was at least encouraging that senior members of Grand Lodge want to talk to representatives of the museum and its board. I hope they do so in a positive, rather than a carping, spirit, as their community education officer, David Scott, does so successfully.

The PUP councillor, John Kyle, responded in an exemplary way when McWilliams died last month by describing him as a "challenge to loyalism" whom the party "valued as a person who could represent working-class urban life".

"He was not like other artists, who withdrew from the conflict, or considered the passions of the people in troubled times to be beneath his notice," he said.

"We recognise that he would not always have agreed with us, but we would like, at this time of his passing, to record that his artistic endeavours were appreciated and that the people of Belfast should be proud to have had such an artist among them."

That seems to me to be absolutely the right spirit.

What the Grand Lodge should also face is that the Young Conway Volunteers were found guilty of provocatively playing a sectarian tune - The Famine Song - outside St Patrick's church during a 2012 Twelfth parade, and they deserve all the bad publicity they got, in words, or art.

It's about time that all lodges stopped embarrassing tens of thousands of decent brethren by hiring bands that behave like ill-mannered, sectarian boors.

Ruth Dudley Edwards is the author of The Faithful Tribe: An Intimate Portrait of the Loyal Institutions (HarperCollins)


Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards