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

Have been a journalist in Northern Ireland since 1978. Worked in past for BBC Radio Ulster. Former Education Correspondent at News Letter. Served as local weekly newspaper deputy editor in Larne and editor in Carrickfergus as well as PR director in private health sector. Have been in journalist and media training since 1993 while freelancing with various print, broadcast and online outlets. Have co-written books on media and politics as well as being sole author of ebook on Irish republicanism. Am on Facebook and Twitter @JohnAHCoulter