Fairness and Fear in the alternate universe of the Orange Order…

I’ve heard some bizarre things on the Nolan show but the recent interview with Drew Nelson, Grand Secretary of the Orange Order, has got to be in the top five. The discussion centered round a recent Orange Order report, ‘Fairness and Fear’ that outlined the horrors Protestants face in the workplace. As an atheist I object to being called a Protestant’ but I suppose I could be termed part of the wider PUL community the Orange Order frequently claims to speak for. Workplace harassment undoubtedly exists and I have no doubt people from both main communities are subjected to it along with those from other races and backgrounds, sexuality, etc. but what I heard on Nolan didn’t sound like harassment or discrimination to me.

I work in what could be broadly termed the civil service and yes, I have heard people discuss a GAA game at the weekend but so what? Why on earth should I feel offended? It is perfectly normal for people to talk about what they did at the weekend or what they watched on TV. It is a long time since I have seen someone at work with ash on their forehead and I have never seen a mass card on someone’s desk, but even if these were regular events, why should they seem remotely threatening?

The Orange Order’s raison d’être is to perpetuate the religious wars of the Reformation where the Roman Catholic Church was seen as a satanic organisation, Hell-bent on world domination. Father Ted, a show that’s seems more like a documentary than comedy with each passing year, has taught us there’s nothing to fear about the Catholic Church, which joking aside, has imploded in Ireland. Decades of abuse scandals and cover-ups has destroyed the Church’s authority and it will never get it back. In 2016 the idea of a global Catholic conspiracy is the type of absurd nonsense only believed in normal societies by people who wear tin foil hats.

I understand the attraction of the Orange Order to some. It provides continuity with previous generations and it has a central place in holding remote and sometimes isolated Protestant communities together. Most rural Orange parades are dignified affairs but, (unfortunately there is a ‘but’ albeit an important one) an organisation that demands its members avoid taking part in Catholic services or marrying a Catholic automatically defines Catholics as the ‘other’ – an eternal enemy whose adherents are either willing agents of nefarious Papal forces or at best, easily led dupes.

I try to be open minded and have attended open air Papal audiences in Rome where non-Catholics were welcomed in a friendly, family atmosphere and I enjoyed pleasant afternoons. Strangely I did not fall under the influence of the anti-Christ, the Whore of Babylon or whatever else the Pope is supposed to be to the lunatic fringe of Protestantism, and felt no urge to take instruction in the mysteries of Catholicism. Compare that to the last Orange parade I was at which was attended to by a display of drunkenness and public urination. The air was blue with foul language, easily audible to any child present, and peppered with sectarian chanting and songs aimed at insulting and denigrating Catholics. In fairness, it was the parade followers not the marchers responsible, but before the Orange Order starts complaining about people taking about Gaelic Football, maybe it should come up with an action plan to ensure the loutish element that follows it behaves itself.

The complaints aired by Drew Nelson do not constitute harassment or discrimination but rather voice bewilderment from Jurassic-era Protestants who find it difficult to accept Catholics are no longer seen and not heard. Talking about a GAA match or a daughter’s first communion is not assertive or aggressive nationalism but rather people being themselves and talking about everyday life. The Orange Order could transform its 12th celebrations into an inclusive folk festival that would be a major tourist attraction but that would entail it taking a long hard look at itself and undergoing radical change. Maybe its leaders should go to Irish Fest in Milwaukee and see how and people of many backgrounds and races enjoy themselves at an event that celebrates Irishness. Alternately it can just keep on doing what it does and become increasing viewed as an ugly relic of the past, associated only with intolerance. Personally I don’t think the institution is capable of change. Its very existence is dedicated to resisting it but I stand ready to be proved wrong.

Sam Thompson is a keen amateur historian who can be contacted on Twitter @Jarriesam