Orange Order’s NICS report: how do we stop citing neutral bystanders?

With apologies for the delayed response (I’ve been buried in job application forms – the simple words ‘apply by sending CV’ are now a truly beautiful thing to me), a fascinating statement at the start of Samuel Thompson’s piece on the Orange Order’s report on the NI Civil Service leapt off the page and warrants another look: “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”.

This “suppose” points us towards another issue with the Orange Order document and with how we talk about groups of people by their assumed religion, when based on details collected by employers, in that – with church attendance believed to be below 50% and the Census-declared ‘no religion’ group heading for 20% (some fascinating stuff from American here too) – the method of being forced to tick a box or have your primary school sized-up by faith is now in an environment in which we can either stop pretending such figures are representative or else find a new questions to ask.

One of the forms I was busy completing last week insisted that I declare “which community” I “belong” to, or else the employer would be “encouraged to use the residuary method of making a determination”, i.e. take a rough guess based on the information in the application (here’s an older sample for the benefit of overseas viewers, the legislation can be found here).

But what does a ‘state your religion – or else’ actually prove in an increasingly non-religious Northern Ireland? That the person goes to church for hatches, matches and dispatches? That the person was marched off to church as a child and hasn’t given it a thought since? One small tick-box is assuming a lot.

The Orange Order report spends page after page examining such data, although a table on page three showing higher Protestant representation in every grade from Staff Officer and above stands out as a bit off-message, with the unstated inference being that the Order is in some way speaking for those those assigned as Protestants as a group or that there is some sense of shared experience by either group.


With so many people now non-churchgoers and/ or of no religion, let alone many people being active in their faith but not necessarily subscribing the Orange Order’s view of Northern Ireland or the workplace environment, it is quite a leap. After all, I saw almost no support for the report online, including from those I understand to be church-goers of the Protestant faith. As aside, and again for the benefit of overseas viewers, a very large number of people don’t care about politics in Northern Ireland enough to even vote.

The Orange Order’s document highlights, for me, to the need for a more reflective set of questions – if we must keep any – to be used by employers forced to hold a tally of religious identity in an increasingly secular Northern Ireland, especially if we are going to use such data for identity-in-the-workplace debates.


I’ve tried to approach to the report with some sense of empathy – my own grandfather was an Orangeman for a time and I have a number of respected friends in the Order – however, some of the more surreal examples of fear in the workplace listed in the report made this a difficult task. It is hard to defend the simple fact that in places the respondents did not apply the ‘reasonable man’ approach of taking a human interest in their colleague’s GAA match or recent bereavement behind the Mass Card on their desk, instead giving the impression that they feel uncomfortable around those of the Catholic faith who do not hide that fact. If the respondent felt they could express themselves similarly, and wished to do so, then an open debate about that specific issue as opposed to whataboutery would have played out in a stronger way.

And a habit of equating Catholicism with “Nationalist ethos” is also unfortunate, not least because a large number of those of the Catholic faith have previously (30.7%) described themselves as “Northern Irish”: perhaps something the Orange Order could acknowledge and capitalise on as opposed to taking a more defensive, ones-size-fits-all stance.

Similar to the style of writing we have seen from – say – Nelson McCausland of late, it isn’t explained why the Irish language causes fear while the use of Ulster-Scots in the Norlin Airlan Civil Service presumably wouldn’t, or why a non-Catholic sympathy card wouldn’t be an issue while a Mass card is worth mentioning.

As it happens, there is some meatier stuff in the report: Drew Nelson states that some members felt they are unable to openly discuss parts of their lifestyle while perceiving that Catholic colleagues were less restrained in doing so. We cannot deny that this is how the respondents experience their workplace, so perhaps there is a wider issue about how those who identify with Protestantism in this way feel about their identity in the workplace. And there are some better examples than those in the media about behaviour concerning the Orange Order members, such as  a Poppy Appeal box not being in place or negative language towards Orangeism. There is also a common theme that those quoted feel Catholic colleagues are more likely to be selected for promotion.

Perhaps there are some hard questions we could be asking ourselves? Are these justified complaints or simply the outworking of our shared love of confirmation bias in Northern Ireland? Unfortunately through the frequency of the widely-derided examples referring to the likes of Mass cards and GAA the chance to clearly present the case and have that open debate has been lost this time around.


The use of tick-box employment statistics for religion also means a lost chance to know how many in the workplace identify strongly enough with their Protestant faith to even be in with a chance of feeling affected by the issues raised: as I’ve said, it is too much of a stretch to make assumptions based on box-ticking bearing in mind there’s a fair chance a person could be a non-churchgoer and could well consider themselves as having no religion at all.

In short, as Samuel Thomson alluded to: why bring those who “suppose” they are nominally part of the PUL community (not a term I’m overly keen on) into workplace identity issues by assumption?

I’ve long held the view that while a standard hands-across-the-divide cross-community session might ask how the Orange Order can be understood better by those of the Catholic community, another pressing need is for the Orange Order to attempt to be better understood by the increasing numbers of those who only consider themselves to be nominally Protestant, if at all.

Avoiding claims that tick-box Protestants (who could be, in reality, non-religious and may well not be Orange Order supporters) as part of the Orange Order’s debating positions, i.e. recognising the many shades of views held, would be one good starting point for this.

With reference to the report itself, I am bamboozled by what the Orange Order thought the report would say about it as an organisation, by the presentation of the information, the apparent lack of being able to perceive the inevitable response to the document or what it says about the Orange Order’s strategy and identity going forward. Perhaps the type of thing the new Chief Executive being sought (and here) by the Grand Lodge of Ireland might end up considering.

Since we can’t simply accept and openly learn from our differences in the workplace, meaning workplace policies and tick-box religious designations must instead be used, perhaps the Orange Order could agree that the introduction of statistics – if we must hold information at all – showing information such as whether a person is ‘active’ in a faith or ‘strongly identifies’ with a faith would be a welcome addition to the workplace environment debate. This further depth and clarity would benefit everyone.

And if there are serious issues of inequality in the workplace better data could be used a part of the discussion without the distracting media-bait of finger-pointing at Mass cards and counting everyone into a debate they may well want to be counted out of completely.

A final thought: I wonder if I could apply for the Grand Lodge of Ireland Chief Executive job by simply sending a CV?

They might have to use the ‘residuary method’.

Conor Johnston – @CJohnstonNI – writes about subjects including culture (especially film/ cinemas), identity and media. He also blogs at