The Orange Order: An Insider’s View…

To my surprise some recent thoughts of mine on the Orange Institution and its problems received a number of requests for more detail and I was kindly asked to post a topic or two on the subject. I thought I would break it into three posts if this doesn’t bore the Slugger audience too much, namely (1) Life in the Orange and the challenges faced, (2) A day at a Fermanagh Twelfth and (3) Moving the Institution Forward.

Many years ago I am told joining the Loyal Orange Institution (sometimes referred to as the Orange Order) was seen as good for you social standing and useful for your career, whilst this may have been true in the past, the current reality is very different. In 2019 being in the Orange Institution is purely about believing in the essence and principles of the organisation, in fact being found in the Orange could be bad for your social standing as well as career ending! As members of the organisation we fundamentally believe in the reformed Protestant principles, this is the universal requirement and with this there is an offshoot that encourages members of the Orange to be regular church attenders. Other elements make up the fabric of the Orange within Northern Ireland include support for the Union with Great Britain and Loyalty to the British crown.

As a kid I saw the Orange as a baseline of respectability, my Dad was a member as were many other family members and more and more I noticed friends from school had taken up the call and joined their local lodge. I was relatively late in taking up that call as I had gone to University which meant living away from home and it was long after my degree was completed that I opted to join. I had always intended to join as I was very keen on the organisation but it was a Twelfth many years ago in Lisbellaw where I first started to notice a decline in Orange feet that I finally decided to don the collarette.

I was very surprised about how loosely the Orange was run, one could go as far as to say it was wholly unprofessional. All lodges are required to meet monthly, although in Fermanagh some might only meet once or twice each year and frequently meetings would be cancelled at the eleventh hour with no explanation at all.

Meetings are generally the first Monday of the month and many lodges won’t change this so a raft of members cannot attend. The meetings themselves lack structure and generally consist of collecting dues along with a brief religious act, there is certainly no plotting done against Catholicism and to be perfectly honest the word “Catholic” has never been said at any meeting I’ve attended.

Attendance at monthly meetings is very low across the county and across NI. My own lodge has about 25 members with 10 appearing at monthly meetings and at the Twelfth we could get around 18 appearing, although not all will parade partly due to the advanced age of some, whilst others will be absorbed into the band.

It’s the missing 7 that cause much trouble for the lodge, these are the individuals who drop off the radar completely sometimes after only just joining the Orange. As record keeping within the lodge is abysmal there are frequently no numbers we can call to inquire after the members. Each year in October we do the returns for the lodge which basically means that if we have 25 members on the books we have to report this to the district and pay the associated levy per member. Dues can be on average £80 per year with the painstaking process of collecting it each month, with a certain percentage of the £80 going to the district for each member. The problem here is if a member is returned via this process who has already left but not told us and currently owes the lodge money, the lodge has to pay the levy to the district regardless if they don’t return and the process to debt suspend/expel members is very tedious and can take up to one year.

In fact due to the crisis in numbers, lodges are reluctant to embark on suspending anyone. One of the worst cases was a member of our lodge being missing for four years and paying zero during this time but the lodge still had to pay four years of levies. Due to meetings being rather dull, the Orange can be a difficult sell to a new member and it’s no surprise when many don’t return until the Twelfth day if at at all. Some directive may be sent to the lodges from the leadership (usually from county level), but it’s not uncommon for these to arrive too late or not at all. 

I’ve been acutely aware that education is a significant problem within the Orange. Some members are extremely sketchy on the context of the battle of the Boyne and even on explaining what the Twelfth is about or Orangeism in general. Internal procedures are also not known by all members and in formal events there can be issues with protocol not being followed. Many within the Orange would have had a basic education and this can sometimes become all too apparent when they are debating on social media. However in general education and online debating are issues right across the spectrum for Protestants in Northern Ireland.

One of the worst kept secrets is that the Orange membership figures are plummeting and Fermanagh is no exception to this trend. In fact around 75% of the membership sits within the 50+ age bracket, so as well as numbers plummeting, the profile is getting older. It was once said that recruitment within the Orange was like having two taps running into a sink with the plug out, however in the current sphere the plug is still out but there is now only one tap running. Briefly a Recruitment committee was set up, however the person running this left the Orange for unknown reasons and the committee has never since been properly revived, and that was almost 10 years ago. 

Bands are one of the most important mechanisms in promoting our organisation and there is a strong crossover in terms of membership. However there is no working relationship here between bands and lodges or even county and band (Fermanagh doesn’t even have a band forum). It is true to say that many bands and lodges enjoy a good working relationship, however amongst others it’s a little more cautious with some bands and lodges only communicating briefly on the Twelfth morning.

In recent years Fermanagh has seen the loss of five bands namely Ballyhoe and Clabby silver bands, Fawney, Tamlaght and Enniskillen pipe bands (although there is a push on by one band member to revive this band). It’s noticeable that a number of others are in trouble, including Ballinamallard silver, but there is no directive from the Orange to help them. In fact when I raised this at district level I was told it’s better not to draw too much attention to this as others could start to fail too. This is an ostrich style approach. Lodges pay for bands to come out, in Fermanagh bands usually don’t charge small lodges. If a band steps out of line the lodge is responsible for disciplining them. It’s rarely an issue in Fermanagh but can sometimes happen elsewhere.  

“Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” is a well known biblical verse that relates to charity and basically means that we should give in secret for it to have any resonance with God. In the Orange, however, charitable giving is significant and widely broadcast and I can understand why – the organisation gets such a bad rep that stories such as these take the sting out of the many negative stories. However this money has to come from somewhere and indeed it’s the members footing some of the bill. However the Orange relies heavily on grants to maintain its halls etc., so in effect we’re robbing Peter to pay Paul and this has caused issues within the Orange.

Whilst a lot of funding has came from grants, many Orange halls across the county and indeed province remain in a state of disrepair, much to the annoyance of residents. If one looks at the Orange hall at Magheracross, it has been out of commission since the late 1970s. The hall in in a Protestant area but the associated lodge has declined so much that it does not have enough members to bring out the banner at the Twelfth. As these grants are unsustainable long term, what provisions are in place to allow the Orange to maintain its property and give the vast sums it currently gives to charity?

Annually there is a great initiative by the Orange whereby they invite a group of people to the Twelfth who would find it an alien concept. The Orange hosts the group for that day and takes them out for dinner in the evening along with a few select members within the Orange. However this event is fully funded by the council and not the Orange, therefore it is a meaningless gesture in some ways from the Orange that has created a number of PR disaster for the institution as Sinn Fein sometimes attend the evening reception and meet the group, something the Orange leaders attempt to hush up. This is duplicit leadership and a poor way to treat the many loyal members within the organisation. 

There is an extremely fractious relationship between Protestant churches and the Orange, which was definitely accentuated following the Drumcree saga. All members of the Orange have a church parade to attend leading up to the Twelfth and it has not always proved easy to arrange these services. Frequently now the established minister will go on holiday to avoid the Orange, and a seconded pastor will cover proceedings and will frequently not recognise that it is an Orange service.

There was once a time when the Orange’s ranks were swollen with ministers but now they are very few, it’s almost certain that many churches particularly the Church of Ireland discourages its clergy and vestry members etc. from being members of the Orange. 

The media profile of the Orange has been well known for being atrocious. In Fermanagh it’s perhaps a little less atrocious simply because the media grants us less time. However gaffes do still occur. The County Grand Master recently called for all gay members of the Orange in Fermanagh to be expelled. This was a very uncharitable comment considering there are a number of gay members within both the band and lodge scene and one openly gay Orangeman is the Worshipful Master of his lodge. Fortuitously this dreadful interview was ignored and the gay members are still active Orangemen. A team from the Orange meet the local newspapers regularly about running features, however the little coverage the Orange gets in the newspaper doesn’t change from one year to the next so it’s difficult to know what these meetings are achieving.

I think many of us recognise the wording of our ethos can sound a bit harsh. There is too much emphasis on Roman Catholics whereby instead it could concentrate more on Protestant biblical principles. There is no reason also why a member of the Orange cannot attend a Roman Catholic church for a funeral, wedding or baptism of a friend. Most lodges – my own included – deemed it would be offensive not to attend, however we are still awaiting the rules to be ratified on this.

How many times do we hear about the good things in our rules? “Civil and Religious Liberty for all, Special Privileges for none”, expulsion for members acting in an uncharitable manner towards their Catholic neighbour and encouragement of members to get active in their community and to in effect be a good citizen.

We are bad at getting our message across. People assume the Orange are responsible for the bonfires in Belfast. They are not – but could they show a more positive approach and perhaps run community beacons instead? Accusations of being like the KKK are never countered, yet we have many non white members within our organisation. When a member goes rogue there are no mechanisms in place to respond effectively to what they have done.

Protocol on parade is a personal gripe of mine. In the bygone days of yore the Twelfth was a day of impeccable dress codes and standards on parade. Now however Orangemen can be found parading in jeans, talking on their phones or even smoking whilst on parade. Bands frequently are missing pieces of uniform and last year I saw the bass drummer of a pipe band appear in jeans and a t-shirt. I was a little surprised during my first Twelfth that nothing was mentioned in terms of standards expected on parade, and the lack of discipline at times is why some people tell me they won’t join.

There is a lack of females within lodges. This speaks for itself and is true across NI. In Fermanagh there are less than 100 Orangewomen and this number is frankly unsustainable based on the advanced age of many within the organisation. I raised this point before and besides being fobbed off with the line that it’s a separate organisation, I was reminded that a new female lodge was formed in 2011 in Lisbellaw. I honestly do believe a trick is being missed here in terms of females and the Orange, but if I am being honest, the females still are not treated seriously by their male counterparts.

One of the main gripes within the Orange is the lack of leadership. Each lodge has a Worshipful Master who leads the lodge but is only really responsible for overseeing the general running of the lodge. Each lodge rolls up into a district (there are 15 districts in Fermanagh) and each district has a district master. The districts report into the county and each county has a County Grand Master and each country reports into the Grand Lodge of Ireland (Overseen by Edward Stevenson). Communication between the different layers is a nightmare and even between districts it’s an issue. When a problem arises within a lodge it can be difficult to get a response, for example if someone is found guilty of a serious conviction the mechanisms are not in place to allow for immediate expulsion, instead the lodge has to meet at its next sitting, propose the expulsion which then goes to district, county and then to the top before it’s ratified.

It can be frustrating reading about an issue in a newspaper where it states that someone is in jail but still a member of the Orange, yet members will know that the cogs are turning very slowly. On the subject of expulsions many members would prefer that undesirables are dealt with in a more robust and proactive manner, it can almost take one year to remove someone from the organisation, would this happen in any other field. It’s also unclear in Fermanagh as to what steps leaders have taken in recent years to address out raft of issues? Some key issues at present are as follows:

 – Recruitment

– Retention 

– Relationship with local churches

– Media profile

– Community outreach work

– Band and Lodge Relationships

On the above there is no policy in place to tackle these issues, there is no joined up thinking and there is no long term strategy. At present in Fermanagh and across Northern Ireland it’s like the Orange is going through a managed decline process. 

In the next instalment I will discuss the Fermanagh Twelfth and in the third I will round everything off with some solutions to the problems outlined here. If I have missed anything do let me know.

Choyaa is an Fermanagh Orangeman

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