The recent Orange Order parade in Glasgow, which featured an estimated 4500 marchers and a similar number of spectators, resulted in the usual disruption and finger-pointing. Eighteen people were arrested for offences related to drinking, disorder and other minor offences, although Grand Lodge of Scotland representatives and Police Chief Superintendent Andy Bates noted it was those watching rather than those taking part who earned police attention. It was noted that many of those taking part carried pro-Union/anti-independence banners and the Grand Lodge has restated its intention to hold a major march in Edinburgh on 13th September under its ‘British Together’ campaign banner. Indeed, the Order’s campaign group has recently registered with the Electoral Commission as a permitted participant, a signal of intent as we move in on September.
The Order sustained severe criticism in the wake of the Glasgow parade after 12-year-old Kellsie Lynch was left with an injury to her head as a result of being hit by a bottle thrown as part of a fight on Glasgow Green involving other spectators. Family members understandably called for the marches to be banned, prompting the Daily Record to run a poll seeking readers’ views on the matter. Unsurprisingly, there were plenty of people who favoured such a course of action but this is the sort of knee-jerk reaction that can cause serious injury to a wider body of democratic rights. It has to be acknowledged that the marches have been disputed for almost two centuries and with each passing year it seems more unlikely that they will be received with the acceptance desired by those organising or taking part. Furthermore, they are undeniable disruptive: Taking our daughter to her swimming lesson recently we were stopped by a handful of lodges and loyalist bands marching along the Royal Mile. But the marches that go ahead are typically the product of agreements involving the police, local authorities and other stakeholders. In addition, as the current Grand Secretary highlighted following recent parades, the Order has trained 3000 stewards in a bid to improve the conduct of marches, particularly the much lamented ‘blue bag brigade’. This is hardly the action of a body happy to see ugly actions go unchallenged on the fringes of its own activities.
The planned march in September looms larger on the horizon, now looking like a key event on the pre-referendum calendar. As such, we ought to assess the motivations for staging a major march in such close proximity to the date of the referendum and also consider some of the likely consequences. First, it should be noted that organising such an event is consistent with responses to previous moments of political, cultural or religious significance. A march was held in 2007 to mark the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union and significant activity was planned to coincide with the Papal visit in 1982, although this failed to materialise on the scale imagined. Similarly, figures associated with the Order played a role in the creation of the Scottish Unionist Party in the late 1980s in response to what was perceived to be constitutional jiggery-pokery (the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985) on the part of the Thatcher Government.
Second, it is hard to believe there is not a strong urge within the ranks for a firm statement of position on the prospect of independence, even if we shouldn’t necessarily assume that all members will consider their religious and political outlooks to be naturally and harmoniously entwined. The leadership would surely be courting serious discontent, however, if it were to let the moment pass without some sort of intervention. Thus we read of the level-headed former Grand Master, Ian Wilson, now on the planning committee, restating the intention to hold the parade. It is also possible that a strategic eye has been turned to the two possible outcomes of the vote, with it being concluded that a march will serve a purpose either way. If there is a No vote, then there will be a boost to morale from the Order being seen, rightly or wrongly, to have played a role. A Yes vote, on the other hand, will be harder to recover from if there is a feeling it meekly succumbed. At least if things don’t go the way the majority of members probably hope, then the leadership can make some noise about fighting the good fight while the frantically try to work out where they stand in the new political landscape.
Whereas previously it was possible to detect a pragmatism about the Order’s ability to advance the pro-Union cause because of its poor public image, there is now a determination to press ahead with a high-profile display despite any opposition. Indeed, such opposition might just encourage entrenchment. Yes campaigners will almost certainly exploit the march and any associated bad behaviour or disruption in a bid to tarnish their No counterparts. Recent comment suggests the likely targets are well aware of this possibility. Figures associated with Better Together have strained to put some clear water between the official No campaign and what is ostensibly another pro-Union body made up of mainly working class members. Jim Murphy, for example, commented in the most unequivocal terms in an interview for with the Sunday Herald which was conducted before the latest parade controversy. He remarked: “Not for a moment would they be part of the Better Together campaign. They’d be unwelcome.” It is possible that the march might be underwhelming. Past examples indicate that the Order has sometimes struggled to muster the anticipated bodies on the streets, even though it is commonly held to be assertive – assertive to the point of provocative – in promoting its beliefs.
If anything, the demands of the independence campaign have only served to underline the Order’s estrangement from mainstream political unionism, despite the fantasies some independence supporters might entertain. Liam Clarke, writing recently in the Belfast Telegraph, examined how the Order in Northern Ireland was pulling the province’s unionist parties, including the UUP and DUP, into its orbit; a dynamic symbolised by a collective visit to Orange HQ at Holywood Arches. Clarke was left to conclude that the Order’s influence had grown to levels not seen since the period when Lord Brookeborough served at Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. If the Order across the water is wielding more clout in unionist circles than at any time since before start of the Troubles, most unionist politicians in Scotland are not inclined to get close enough to the Order to be able to determine whether or not it’s actually wielding anything at all.