My trip to the Orange Museum

I paid a visit to the new Museum of Orange Heritage in Belfast’s Schomberg House on Thursday. I was given a guided tour by David Scott, a very articulate and clearly passionate advocate of the Order. The tour featured in a BBC Good Morning Ulster story on Friday (1hr 16 mins in.)

The tour took in the key historical junctures of Orangeism, including the Williamite Wars and Dolly’s Brae. The role of the Orangemen in British military regiments and in British forces in Ireland featured prominently. A stained glass window and interactive display paid tribute in different ways to Orangemen killed during the post-1969 conflict, whilst an education centre will allow for presentations to be made and discussions to take place in the venue.

A list of famous Orangemen from the past and present was notable in reminding the visitor that the Order once played a significant role in shaping northern Irish society.

All in all, I thought it was an interesting experience, with the artefacts gathered from the Williamite Wars era- as well as an invaluable source of primary evidence in the form of the Paymasters General’s Book of Accounts– proving to be the most captivating part of the experience.

This museum will represent the realisation of a dream for many Orangemen and women, and there is a lot of information of interest to observers of our troubled history making it a worthwhile destination, regardless of political or religious background.

As an Irish republican, I found nothing to fear from the existence of this museum in my city.

Indeed, by its clear efforts through museum exhibits to emphasise the Order’s close affiliation and connection with British Forces in Ireland- including the B Specials, RUC and UDR- the Order will find common ground with republicans.

The stained glass memorial window paying tribute to Orangemen and women killed during the conflict is accompanied by an interactive display allowing visitors to read about how each of the Orangemen and women were killed. Allowing for individuals and groups to find ways of remembering loved ones is an important part of the healing process in a divided society.

I did not get a chance to explore this on the day, but I’ve no reason to believe that loyalist paramilitary members of the Order are excluded- including UVF man Brian Robinson, who is remembered on the banner of Old Boyne Heroes LOL, and who was killed by British soldiers only minutes after he killed a Catholic civilian, Paddy McKenna, in Ardoyne in 1989.

The museum did present a loaded interpretation of many of the pivotal events in Irish history, and the Order’s place within it. That is not surprising, given the contested nature of our past, present and future in this part of Ireland.

The Orange Order has a story to tell, and in a divided society, it is of the utmost importance that all voices are heard, and providing the Order with a facility like this museum to articulate its cause will in reality do no harm to those who fundamentally disagree with its interpretations of historical events.

The Order would like to believe that it is engaged in ‘mythbusting’ through the opening of the museum and associated outreach work to Catholics. According to this logic, the museum will allow the Order to explain itself more clearly to those outside of its membership and broader Orange Order community.

But the Orange Order’s difficulties have never been a product of their voice not being heard in Northern Irish society- almost every single unionist politician of note or influence since and before the foundation of the State belonged to the Order, and many members of unionist civic society were Orangemen.

Its voice has always been present.

Rather, it has been- and continues to be- the Order’s difficulty with accepting that there exists other voices in this society which are of equal worth and value that is the root of the problem, and that these must not just be heard but listened to by Orangemen if they are to make peace with the reality of the shared society that is unfolding in the north of Ireland.

An insight into this mentality was provided by DUP Minister and Orangeman, Mervyn Storey, who said of the museum’s opening that, “In order to have a shared future we need to have an accurate knowledge of the past and this new facility provides a space for that to begin to happen.” (my emphasis)

A mistaken assumption that has and will be oft-repeated with regard to the Orange Museum is that it provides an opportunity to challenge nationalist perceptions of the Orange Order, an assumption which suggests that nationalists have somehow reached an opinion of the largest of the Loyal Orders as a result of some great big misunderstanding.

This is quite obviously not the case.

The problem is not, and never has been, one of nationalists not understanding the Order.

We understand and know the Order only too well.

The recognition and acceptance elements within the Order crave will result only if and when the Orange, to pardon the pun, get their house in order.

If the Orange Order is serious about changing perceptions of the organization, then it must begin by addressing and altering the reality of how it conducts itself in a divided society.

Opening up a museum will not achieve that, but taking decisive and practical action to show that the Order respects the Nationalist tradition by ending the aspects of its practices which cause resentment and fuel division will do so.

So long as the Orange Order continues to fight its war in places like Twaddell and Drumcree, stubbornly persisting with contentious parade routes, continuing to give cover to a destructive bonfire tradition and to those claiming territory and dividing communities through the erection of flags ahead of the banner day for Orangeism, the 12th of July, it will rightly be regarded with suspicion by many in society- and not just nationalists.

And while it continues to stand against the Good Friday Agreement and in favour of crude sectarian unity as demonstrated through its PUL rallying cries, it will remain the case that Nationalist attitudes towards the Order will remain, to say the very least, unfavourable and indeed hostile.

On that note, the debacle regarding the presence of the flags of Togo and Ghana but omission of the flag of Ireland from the front of the Museum neatly illustrates the dilemma fac`ing the institution. The absence of the Irish National flag is an unfortunate but telling reminder to any visitors that the Order continues to struggle to legitimize the voice of its neighbours in the 6 Counties and throughout the rest of Ireland.

I did see hope in the idea of the new museum, a chance to present a positive and affirming vision of a tradition which could one day become comfortable with defining itself on its own two feet, as opposed to by what it stands against: An Orange Order at ease with sharing its country of Northern Ireland with those whose country is Ireland.

Orangeism will be a part of our future; it is up to those within the Order to determine what its role will be, and ultimately if it can find peace in a new shared political dispensation which has consigned the Orange State, and the mentality that defined it, to the exhibits on display in its museum.