Unionism needs to play the Loyal Order card again

An Orange Forum is needed to cement the Loyal Orders and the unionist parties together again. The Loyal Orders – the Orange, Black and Apprentice Boys – must begin formal negotiations, not just with nationalist residents groups, but also with the leaderships of the various unionist parties to discover precisely where they stand in relation to the Loyal Orders bloc vote.

   The precise problem is that the Loyal Orders no longer enjoy the same support in the unionist parties as they did in the 1970s, especially during the Sunningdale era. The perception is that the Loyal Orders lack trust in the unionist parties as the traditional marching season reaches its peak.

   The clear solution is for the unionist parties – of whatever shade of pro-Union thinking – to re-engage with the Orders.

   The root cause of this crisis is that unionism as an ideology seems to be moving away from the Loyal Orders. Over the generations, the traditional voter base of the unionist parties was the Loyal Orders.

   For years, it was taken as granted that the leaders of unionism had to wear sashes. The Loyal Orders provided the cement which held the unionist family together. Working class and aristocracy, even ‘Big House Unionism’, could sit side by side in a lodge, preceptory and branch meeting and call each other brother and sister.

   But the emergence of republican-dominated nationalist residents groups ‘created’ parade controversies which effectively split middle class unionism from the Orders. Middle class unionists enjoyed the image of the Loyal Orders, not the confrontations.

   That gulf really came to the fore in 1997 and 1998 during the Drumcree standoffs, which witnessed violent rioting against the police by loyalists, and the brutal murder of the three Catholic Quinn brothers in a loyalist arson attack in 1998. Orange Order chaplains – including my own father – who called for the Order to leave Drumcree Hill as a mark of respect to the Quinn family were threatened by the so-called Loyalist Volunteer Force.

   But the cause of the split between the Loyal Orders and middle class unionism cannot lie solely with residents groups. Unlike republicanism, the Loyal Orders – when they called Protestants onto the streets to protest – could not turn the tap of violence on and off.

   During the 1981 hunger strikes, the republican leadership had the discipline within its ranks to control the level of street rioting. The Loyal Orders leadership possessed no such control.

   This was clearly demonstrated in 1986 during the Day of Action to protest against the previous year’s Anglo-Irish Agreement. The Loyal Orders, and Orangeism in particular, lost control of the street protests as blockades and rallies descended into serious rioting – resulting in the unionist middle class walking away from the Loyal Orders.

   The unionist middle class slowly but surely wanted to distance itself from the Loyal Orders because of the perceived inability of the Orders to control Protestantism’s violent fringes. Middle class unionism preferred the dignity of the Loyal Orders’ annual divine services and church parades to the violent confrontations between working class loyalists at police lines.

   The Loyal Orders have tried to rebrand themselves as representing unionist culture with ceremonies such as Orangefest and the cartoon Diamond Dan. The Loyal Orders have even gone on a ‘charm offensive’ within Catholic schools to try and convince the nationalist community the Orders are not the Irish equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan.

   The Loyal Orders and the unionists parties must recognise that long gone are the days when Jim Molyneaux of the UUP and Ian Paisley senior of the DUP would address 12 July demonstrations wearing their Loyal Order collarettes.

   Solution time? The unionist parties must do an about-turn politically and instead of chasing an ever shrinking liberal vote, pursue the Loyal Order vote instead, and the Loyal Orders’ ‘charm offensive’ should be aimed at courting the unionist parties.

   The post Good Friday Agreement unionist society also needs to recognise the difference between Loyal Order parades and the host of marching band parades which have sprung up across Northern Ireland.

   Middle class unionism needs to equally recognise, too, that while there is the stereotype of the Loyal Orders of older men in suits and bowler hats, there are thousands of younger Protestants in the musical bands – and that the marching band scene is not exclusive to the so-called blood and thunder flute bands, often dubbed the ‘Kick The Pope’ bands. What about the dozens of accordion, silver and pipe bands on parade?

   The bitter political perception is that the Loyal Orders do not trust the unionist parties. Both sides need an urgent back to basics approach. A unionist/Loyal Orders movement must be rebuilt from the grassroots up rather than the leadership down with the Protestant Churches at the core of this process.

  Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter  @JohnAHCoulter

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  • Old Mortality

    More and more Protestants and Unionists no longer see any point in belonging to the ‘loyal orders’ as you describe them. Like me, they wonder what the point of them is apart from holding colourful parades every summer. The Apprentice Boys might be seen as an exception as they commemorate a specific event. What, for example, is the difference between the Black and Orange as membership of both appears to be virtually identical?
    We know the Orange Order is hostile towards the Roman Catholic church but that is seen as a rather quixotic preoccupation in this day and age with the latter in full retreat, in Ireland at least. Does it stand for anything else? Devotion to the monarchy, of course, but even that is conditional to it remaining a non-Catholic institution. The Orange Order is not even very effective at nurturing Protestant faith either; it has always been the case that for many of its members, even in rural areas, only visit to church outside weddings and funerals is the annual Orange service. At the same time, there is a risk that religious fundamentalists will gain greater influence in the Orange and Black to the point where members who are quite happy to have been born only once will be made to feel uncomfortable.
    The truth that the all the orders must face up to is that there is no pressing need for Unionist parties to embrace them because their memberships are Unionist almost by definition. And if they sense that the orders are alienating middle-class voters, they are even less likely to do so.
    They first need to sit down and ask themselves what they’re for.

  • Ernekid

    Why?

    Members of Loyal Orders organisation represent less than 2% of the population of Northern Ireland. It’s a minority pursuit. Why not seek the support of those active in other minority interests like Badminton Players, Battlestar Galactica fans or Banjo players?
    Why be tied politically to deeply sectarian organisations that entrench communal divisions that grind our towns and cites to a halt with their displays. Yesterday, I tried to drive into Belfast City Centre to get to Victoria Square. I was trapped in a massive traffic jam thanks to some parade that created at total gridlock in and out of the city centre. This was on a Saturday Afternoon, the peak of retail activity and the police had shut the entire city down. Its ridiculous.
    Orange Parades are often accompanied by thuggery, street binge drinking to rampant littering, sectarian and racial abuse to passerbys and violence. There’s little wonder that middle class people want nothing to do with them.

    “The unionist parties must do an about-turn politically and instead of chasing an ever shrinking liberal vote”

    Any evidence for this shrinking Liberal vote? The Green Party increased its vote in the Assembly election, the Alliance party held steady. If anything its increased.

  • Jollyraj

    Indeed yes. But the Orange Order is of the community generally – an awful lot more than 2% of the community enjoy the music and the church parades. Most Orangemen are accompanied on the major parades by wives, children and spectators generally.

    Really, your 2% figure doesn’t actually mean anything. And if you’re seriously suggesting that ending parades would make traffic jams a thing of the past, well….

  • aquifer

    For the Union to survive Unionist political parties must drop the Orange Order. Its sectarianism makes it impossible for pro-British Catholics to support Unionist parties, and the public disorder it engenders flatters the Irish Republican narrative.

    Racists and bigots within Loyalism ensure that the Unionist cause has ceased recruiting new supporters, and with increased mobility of populations, this leads directly to political defeat.

    A valued and colourful cultural and religious society maybe, but forget the politics.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Gay Pride attracts a good crowd: families, kids, shoppers, all and any category if you like. If Ernekid’s “2% figure doesn’t actually mean anything” then what meaning do you attach to Pride’s healthy spectator figures? Please explain.

  • chrisjones2

    ” The Loyal Orders provided the cement which held the unionist family together.”

    Sorry but that is naiive nonsense. In rural arears I can accept the social glue role of the Orders was once true but not in the cities. There the Orders were always a handy device for the Unionist Hierarchy to gather in the vote of the working class with minimal effort and keep them away from sins like popery and socialism which might push up employment costs

    And just because that applied in the very different circumstances of the 1950s doesn’t meant that its a model for the future. Time and we have all moved on. Collectively the reality is that we dont go to church any more and most of us dont believe in the God of the churches. Parishes are on their knees. People have a broader outlook and many more diversions are open to them while the OO is often led by Dinosaurs.

    As for “The unionist parties must do an about-turn politically and instead of chasing an ever shrinking liberal vote, pursue the Loyal Order vote”. Just what do you mean by that? Where is the evidence of the shrinking liberal vote. That’s just utterly untrue. They may not be voting Unionist now but the parties need to ask themselves why.

    Does the Order plan to move to be even more reactionary and right wing? More sectarian in its denunciation of popery? Even more prepared to ban members for even attending the funeral of a friend in chapel? Do you seriously think that is a road ahead for anyone or something that young potential Unionist voters will go for? What do you see that adding to our society in the 21st Century

    You suggest that “The bitter political perception is that the Loyal Orders do not trust the unionist parties” . Given the way the DUP have repeatedly pulled the OOs strings for advantage and then walked away leaving them out on a limb this should be true among those OO members with more than 2 brain cells to rub together. But, frankly, to hell with that.

    Lets be clear that Unionist parties and the majority of voters dont trust the Orders – or rather dont trust the Belfast Districts and Portadown. Collectively we see the havoc they have wrought and the damage they have done. We have seen that they are out of touch and out of date and we want to dissociate ourselves from what they do. Their time has gone. The DUP will milk you for votes for another 10 years until even that isn’t worthwhile. The rest of us will just ignore you and get on with our lives

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    And haven’t they needed to do that since their inception? Formed over 100 years after the Glorious Revolution, commemorating King William III (the most unpopular monarch on the English throne) as if he had achieved anything, overlooking his wife as joint & co-equal regnant, ignoring the recent overthrow in France of an autocratic Catholic monarch (the thing they opposed the most) etc. It appears that OO has always been out of step with the times. I guess the obvious danger of dressing up bigotry as pageantry was why it was infiltrated so quickly by local gentry in order to contain potential unrest in the ranks. Now that those days are over, the OO’s lack of influence makes the institution look like some sorry and hollow pastiche of what it once was. The OP is yet another plea by Ulster Unionism that one of its archaic institutions retains some power in the 21st Century … as if by right?

  • wild turkey

    Dr Coulter

    with the highest esteem and respect, a question. you write;

    “Solution time? The unionist parties must do an about-turn politically and instead of chasing an ever shrinking liberal vote, pursue the Loyal Order vote instead, and the Loyal Orders’ ‘charm offensive’ should be aimed at courting the unionist parties.”

    Is that the bottom line of your astute analysis? it reads like a discredited and discarded line from the Trump play book. and you know what?

    people deserve better.

    ask yourself this. when was the last time, and in what actions, did senior members of the orange order in espousing their outlook pledge their lives, their fortunes, and sacred honor ?

  • Jollyraj

    Not quite sure what you want from me with this Gay Pride angle. If a fair few people are interested in staging/watching participating in it, good for them.

    What is you’d like me to comment on regarding Gay Pride?

  • Jarl Ulfreksfjordr

    I speak as a unionist, a nominal Protestant, and with no connections to the ‘Loyal Orders’ whatsoever. Whilst I wish them no harm I’ve only ever watched a parade when I’ve inadvertently arrived at the edge of one in my car and be stopped by the police to await the marchers passing by.

    Whatever the Loyal Orders may have been to the unionist community in the past they don’t mean that now. There is a kaleidoscope of reasons why that should be. One of them is surely the organisations’ own hamfisted management of the challenges they have encountered.

    They have shot themselves in the foot so often it’s a wonder they can still march at all.

    They are a minority within unionism, even dwarfed ‘on parade’ by the humongous bands they follow. I’m right in thinking that the bands are not part of the Orders?

    Generally I think that the sort of fraternal organisations that the Orange, Black et al resemble are a thing of the past that dying away in most every place. It’s probable that politicos recognise this and locally only occasionally ‘toot the flute’ when needs must. But going out to court them as a special interest group: why bother!

  • baldutere

    I’m a progressive, open-minded, non-religious unionist with absolutely no interest in the ‘loyal orders’ or parades or the Twelfth or flags or whatever else. I already don’t vote for any unionist party because I don’t feel that they represent me in any way, and to be honest I’d rather the Orange Order went away. There are many others like me, a lot of untapped unionist votes. The last thing unionism should do is what you suggest – unionist parties should open up and become more progressive and try to appeal to a wider audience in order to secure the union rather than pander to organisations that many people consider poisonous and regressive.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Sorry Dr Coulter but this is to my mind one of the worst ideas I’ve heard in a long time.

    Consider the political situation from a neutral outsider’s point of view who is skimming through some of the main dynamics of NI’s political set up;
    He/she would see that there is a rule of thumb political & religious correlation.

    Next would be the observation that the Protestant (or ‘formerly Protestant’) community is on the decline.

    “Hmmmm, not looking good for these chaps then is it?” Thinks he/she.

    But wait, when the outsider reads on they find that the religious correlation has a bit of an Achilles’ heel on the nationalist side in that a significant (but generally undefinable) number of them appear to be perhaps not unionist per se but more ‘pro-status quo’, as in they would ideally prefer a united Ireland but at present they kind of have the best of both worlds and don’t want to invite the unknown.

    “Interesting!” would be the outsider’s response, “here is a group that could be courted and worked on and perhaps even brought on board?”.

    The next logical thing to do would be to read a bit about psychology, marketing and find out what this group likes and dislikes.

    A small amount of research would show that they don’t like flags being flown all over the place, the religious associations/demarcations of political topics and being forced to be some sort of model ‘loyal’ citizen and in general they’re not enthused at the idea of being a ‘loyal subject’ of Her Majesty.

    And what do the OO offer? All of the above!

    Now is the time to completely cut the chord between the loyal orders and unionism; for unionism to survive (or even thrive) in this century it has to be completely unaffiliated in religious terms.

    Courting the OI et al will have the opposite effect.

    Let the OO go on their charm offensive but the most effective thing they could do is reign-in some of the accompanying bands during the big parades and condemn the behaviour that blackens the image of some of the 11th night bonfires.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    I’m strugggling to understand the meaning of your statement: “your 2% figure doesn’t actually mean anything.”

  • Msiegnaro

    Please provide evidence that “Orange Parades are often accompanied by thuggery, street binge drinking to rampant littering, sectarian and racial abuse to passerbys and violence”.
    This type of misinformation needs to be stamped out – Mick take action.

  • Msiegnaro

    Ben – Jolly has handed you your backside.

  • Jollyraj

    What part don’t you understand? Ernekid is fond of saying that less than 2% of the population are members of an Orange Lodge – as if that makes it somehow an illegitimate body. Like saying that less than 2% of the population play golf. What I’m saying is that the statistic he is so proud of is meaningless in the context he seeks to use it. Would he be happier if 4% of the population were members?

  • Reader

    John Coulter: The clear solution is for the unionist parties – of whatever shade of pro-Union thinking – to re-engage with the Orders.
    It is clearly not in the interests of the unionist parties to keep links to the loyal Orders. That has been true for a long time, but it took the parties too long to realise it.
    I suggest that you go back to the loyal orders; and ask not what the parties can do for you, but what you can do for the parties.
    But I’ll be quite surprised if you can come up with anything.

  • Neil

    It’s a cast iron fact. Take a trip through Belfast on the 12th sometime.

  • Big Yellow Crane

    “Middle class unionism needs to equally recognise, too, that while there is the stereotype of the Loyal Orders of older men in suits and bowler hats, there are thousands of younger Protestants in the musical bands – and that the marching band scene is not exclusive to the so-called blood and thunder flute bands, often dubbed the ‘Kick The Pope’ bands. What about the dozens of accordion, silver and pipe bands on parade?”

    What about them? What are the “middle class” being asked to do exactly?

    Bangor had pipe band championships in May and will host the Ulster Fleadh in July. Every year it has a cross-community folk festival. There are all sorts of opportunities for musicians of any persuasion to play in various formats for their own and everyone else’s entertainment. If you want a flute band competition fire ahead. But there are twelve separate days of parades lodged with the parades commission for Bangor in just June and July this year. Do we need to close the roads that much to let people practice playing music while walking up and down?

  • Ernekid
  • Msiegnaro

    You mean there is a small amount of trouble at a tiny minority of parades? You yourself have already said what a great event the Fermanagh Twelfth is.

    As for littering, it’s hard to contain at such events and GAA socials are no exception.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Is this your way or responding to a request for clarification?

  • ted hagan

    Twelfth of July, and the Apprentice Boys parade. Two days of parading should be enough for anyone. And make the Orange Order pay the policing costs.

  • ted hagan

    I suppose it’s the same with all these things. Bit like the Masons. Some see it as a chance to get favourable treatment and a leg up. It’s the only thing that can explain the dumber of dunderheads in positions of power..

  • Alan N/Ards

    Well said. I would find it very difficult to give my vote to any politician who is a member of the OO. That was one of the reasons that I gave my vote to the SDLP candidate ( Joe Boyle) over a number of elections. elections. I knew Mike Nesbitt was not a member so I gave him my first preference, at the last election. As soon as I see the unionist candidate is a member of the”loyal orders” he loses my vote. I know other unionists who do the same. Let’s keep the OO out of politics. Unionism doesn’t need them.

  • eireanne3

    The Orange Order piggy-backing its way into politics in Stormont and Westminster on the back of Unionist parties should have been stopped a long, long time ago.

    The Orange Order should be clearly separated from Unionist parties so that people who want to vote Unionist know exactly what they are voting for.

    If the Loyal Orders want to be involved in politics, let them found the Orange Party,get out canvassing and let the electorate make up their minds about its manifesto – just as they do with all other candidates and all other parties.

  • eireanne3

    and the clean-up costs