When the Ace of Trumps became the Two: Unionism and the Diminishing Power of the “Orange Card”?

“I decided some time ago that if the G.O.M. [Grand Old Man/William Gladstone] went for Home Rule, the Orange card would be the one to play. Please God it may turn out the ace of trumps and not the two.”

So wrote Lord Randolph Churchill in a letter to Lord Justice Fitzgibbon on 16th February 1886 as the first Home Rule crisis came to the fore. In playing the “Orange card” his plan was to mobilise Ulster Protestants by tapping into their long-held fears of “the Other” and exploit the sectarian tensions that had plagued Ulster throughout much of the century.

The fears and insecurities were often, despite its own displays of bravado, best epitomised in the Orange Order – thus his reference to the Orange. For Churchill it was essential, in order to defeat Home Rule, that Ulster Protestantism would unite and speak with one, if necessary threatening, voice: “Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right”, he would later menacingly insist.  

Churchill’s use of the “Orange card” set an important precedent for Unionist political leaders. It became an important political strategy for mobilising unionist/loyalist support at times of crisis and, more often than not, during elections as was evidenced in the recent Assembly campaign when it backfired in spectacular fashion.

Importantly, this was not the first time it failed to achieve its intended objectives and history suggests that the “ace of trumps” should not be seen as a guaranteed outcome. A clear example of this was during the third Home Rule crisis (1912-14) as Sir Edward Carson entered into a dangerous game of bluff with Irish nationalism and the Liberal government.

Carson, in playing the Orange card, believed that if Ulster sought “separate treatment” convincingly enough, Irish nationalism would pull back from its Home Rule demands rather than accept a partitioning of the island. Carson’s goal, after all, was to protect the Union – the “guiding star” of his political life – in its entirety.

Carson’s politicking however, although designed to play on Protestant fears and wider sectarian tensions, also succeeded in mobilising nationalist anger and played directly into the hands of militant separatists. As Bulmer Hobson, a key figure in the reinvigoration of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, described to RTÉ in 1963:

“Carson…changed the whole political climate in Ireland, he shook it out of its dream of constitutional agitation. It made the young men feel that they got to be up and do something…”    

Carson’s Orange card, in reinforcing the sectarian divisions of the time, pushed Ireland ever further towards a partition that neither unionism nor nationalism wanted. Particularly after the crisis generated by the Easter Rising of 1916, it was clear that the Orange card was no longer serving the needs of Irish Unionism and that Carson had no other hand to play.

This latter point is of huge importance. Even if Carson’s campaign had been successful in preventing Home Rule, in all likeliness this would only have been a short-term victory. Ulster Unionism, despite its restructuring since 1905/06, had never devised a strategy capable of removing the threat of Home Rule in the long-term or prepared themselves to take the bold moves necessary to create a more stable Union.

As will be discussed shortly, this very much resonates with the current position Unionism now finds itself in.  

Following partition the Orange card came to play a very different role. Despite having secured a state with a significant Protestant majority, the Orange card continued to be employed but now as a means of guarding against a fracturing of unionism that could become a threat to the political dominance of the Unionist Party.

Central to this was the preservation of a perceived nationalist/republican threat. Political speeches, often delivered from Orange platforms during the July celebrations and during election campaigns, sought to reinforce the idea that the next constitutional crisis was merely around the corner.

According to this narrative, any division within Unionism was a sign of weakness that could prove fatal. As political historian Graham Walker argues, unionist leaders worked hard to ensure that electoral politics in Northern Ireland became little more than a ‘straightforward struggle’ between Orange and Green.

This approach, in the main, served unionism well for a considerable period. Somewhat ironically its effectiveness was undermined when a threat, of sorts, did emerge in the form of the civil rights movement. The demand for equality – for reform not revolution – generated significant divisions within unionism about how best to respond.

For some, a positive response opened the possibility of a new stability in Northern Ireland that could, once and for all, put to bed the constitutional question. This was, perhaps, best summed up by Terence O’Neill’s condescending remark in 1969 that “if you give Roman Catholics a good job and a good house they will live like Protestants”.

For other unionists, however, any such conciliation was merely opening the door to the “enemies of Ulster” and should be strenuously opposed. In many respects, the descent into conflict helped to maintain a stronger degree of unionist unity than might otherwise have been the case – most unionist politicians were again united in their analysis of who the enemy was and how they ought to be fought.

Making peace has tended to be more problematic, as evidenced in James Molyneaux’s famous assertion that the IRA ceasefire was “the worst thing that has ever happened to us”. Just how problematic it was can be seen from the fracturing that took place between pro- and anti-Agreement parties.

These divisions created a scenario in which it was the DUP that were capable of play the Orange card more effectively. In so doing they could successfully argue against what they deemed a weak agreement for unionism and claim they were negotiating a much stronger settlement.

The problem, of course, is that even strong agreements contain elements they don’t like and this remains unionisms greatest problem. A strong, confident unionism is seen to exist only when it is standing up to “the Other” – it is not when it is compromising or, worse still, implementing those compromises.

Yet, it is arguably accepting this necessity that can strengthen the Union in the longer-term. This is particularly true given the changing demographics of Northern Ireland.

Catholics expected much from power-sharing between Sinn Féin and the DUP. In particular, they expected a recognition of, and respect for, their Irishness – something the DUP has seemingly failed to accept sufficiently.

This has been reinforced by the party’s support for Brexit and the fears that this has generated within the nationalist community that it may, once again, create a hard border on the island. For many, this is an entirely unacceptable outcome.

Indeed, whilst not necessarily lending itself to republican militancy, Brexit may yet prove to be the moment contemporary Unionism once again awakened a complacent nationalism.  

For the DUP, and unionism more generally, lessons need to be learned not only from the last Assembly election campaign but also from history. Put simply, the Orange card can very easily deliver the two.