Orange Institution and Politics…

Much has been said in recent times about how Unionist voices are not being heard, however, when Reverend Mervyn Gibson appeared on ‘Talkback’ recently it was one of those times when I wished this sentiment was true. Reverend Gibson was interviewed in his capacity as the Grand Secretary of the Orange Institution; however, his appearance was at times a mix of poor representation, misrepresentation and it also added further confusion as to what the Orange Institution stands for. It also raised questions about the Orange Institutions’ role in politics.

Mercifully when the interview was being broadcast, I was happily ignorant that it was happening, it was only later when I heard that it was a “car crash interview” that I decided to listen to it. It was a poor performance from Reverend Gibson who at times appeared to be out of his depth and was clearly ill-informed on a number of topics which resulted in some spurious answers. During the discussion, Reverend Gibson was asked if he would expel gay Orangemen from the Orange Institution? Reverend Gibson responded that he was unaware of any gay members and that if there were any they would have to be “reviewed”. This response was disingenuous, mean-spirited, and a complete fallacy. There are numerous openly gay members within the organisation across Ireland, including in my own native Fermanagh, many of these members outrank me in seniority and as such would certainly be in regular contact with leadership hierarchy including Reverend Gibson. Several gay Orangemen that I know of have been hugely responsible for keeping extremely small lodges afloat and indeed several of these lodges are punching significantly above their weights in terms of attracting members, purchasing new banners (a mammoth achievement for small lodges), and through playing active roles within their communities, particularly during the pandemic. For Reverend Gibson to dismiss or to threaten to remove them is hugely disappointing. Like political Unionism, the leadership of the Orange Institution will need to catch up with its membership on this as what Reverend Gibson said on ‘Talkback’ was a gross misrepresentation of the reality.

On the topic of attending a Catholic wedding or funeral mass, Reverend Gibson bizarrely suggested that a member would be expelled or indeed could leave the Orange Institution, attend a funeral/wedding mass and then rejoin. This is a ludicrous statement that either depicts a person aloof from the organisation he leads or it was said in a flippant manner. When I joined my lodge, I was specifically told that this rule was obsolete and that lodges were awaiting movement from the hierarchy to ratify this point. This indeed is the case and in fact, if members who have attended Catholic funeral or wedding masses were expelled then the membership would be so low that the Orange Institution would cease to exist. What we have in reality is a disconnected leadership, some of whom are procrastinating on the removal of this rule. The rule such as it is has made it into the news all too often, there was the dreadful high-profile case of Tom Elliott and other UUP members who were also Orangemen attending a funeral mass for murdered police officer Ronan Kerr, this resulted in one lodge out of 1200 issuing a complaint that was ultimately and rightly dismissed. There have been ample demands from private lodges to remove this rule, however, as of yet, these demands have been ignored by those within Grand Lodge. Considering the non-adherence to the rule from members and the fact that the rule is a PR disaster, Grand Lodge dragging their heels on this is farcical.

Messaging from the Orange Institution is characteristically flawed, sparse, inaccurate and poorly articulated. Typically, leaders will advise that the organisation is solely a religious organisation, County Fermanagh Grand Master Paul Stevenson made the following point at the 2019 Twelfth:

“The Orange Order is always facing challenges, just everyday politics comes into a lot of it, not that we are a political organisation, we are a religious organisation and that is what we are bound on.” He added: “People try to bring politics into it but it’s something we don’t really allow in the institution. You can have your own personal views, which is fine, as does everybody, but we try to leave politics out of the Lodge.”

However, the Orange Institution makes frequent interventions into matters political as was the case on ‘Talkback’ when Mervyn Gibson discussed Brexit, the Withdrawal Agreement, Unionism and every other subject that William Crawley put to him. At every Twelfth demonstration, political proclamations will be made from the platform and a significant number of Union flags comprise the Twelfth procession. The reality is that whilst the organisation is primarily religious, there are political, cultural, historical, charitable, and civic tenets to it. By denying these realities, the Orange can appear disingenuous and this creates mistrust within the community. Many will disagree with me on this; however, I feel it’s acceptable for the Orange Institution to have a political aspect and to use its platform to articulate a strong and generous message that is reflective of its members. My problem with Reverend Gibson and others representing the Institution in public is that they frequently appear to be on solo runs, voicing their own views under the umbrella of the Orange Institution, their views can often be problematic, cause mistrust, and don’t reflect the perspectives of members. An example of this was when Reverend Gibson suggested collapsing the Assembly, this has little support within the Orange or Unionist family and indeed would be counterintuitive to making Northern Ireland work as a part of the UK. Also, rash calls for protests and civil disobedience without even a brief consultation with members illustrate a level of arrogance, if such actions go wrong as they all too frequently do, then this will reflect poorly on the Orange Institution. The Orange is undoubtedly and unashamedly a Unionist organisation, although I have met one or two members in my time who would favour unification (Donegal types). The organisation is right to articulate positions on the Union, however, it must do this on an informed and constructive basis that neither undermines the democratic principle or causes concerns for others. Unfortunately, at times Reverend Gibson appeared ill-informed on an array of matters. Criticism of ‘Economic Unionist’ is failing to understand the dynamics of Unionism as well as being problematic approach, with reference to the Withdrawal Agreement, his statements regularly offered no solutions, and were rather counterproductive kneejerk reactions. The main frustration many Orange members will have is that these views are expressed without any consultation with the membership.

A recent article I wrote for Slugger was regarded by some as being harsh on the UUP. One member of the UUP who is no fan of the Orange contacted me in response to my article to gleefully advise that relationships between the UUP and Orange will be “much cooler” under Doug Beattie’s regime and may not extend beyond a “Twelfth Tweet”. This is perhaps a realistic assessment and it certainly should be food for thought for Reverend Gibson and the Orange Institution as a whole, relationships with political Unionism have changed. In the past political Unionism has all too often used the Orange Intuition and then dumped it at its own convenience, this was true with the ‘Irish Language Act’ and will likely be true of the ‘Protocol’. The Orange must be smarter in how it manages its relationships with political parties to ensure that any dealings are beneficial, positive and don’t entail the Orange Institution being used in a negative manner. Political Unionism should also reflect on their dealings with the Orange Institution, rather than using the Orange as cannon fodder or a well to attain votes, having an open and healthy relationship would be much more productive. There is nothing more cringeworthy than watching a Unionist politician who despises the Orange Institution, skirt around at Twelfth Demonstrations to ensure they are seen and preferably photographed so that they can use this to divvy up their vote count at future elections. I have known DUP and UUP members seeking election who would join the Orange in advance of any elections only to leave if their election candidacy was unsuccessful. On the relationships with political parties, I feel the Institution needs to be bolder and should build relationships with non-Unionist parties too.

Whilst I am critical of Reverend Gibson’s interventions at times, I also recognise that he holds an entirely thankless position that is not remunerated. Being a lodge secretary is referred to as a “life sentence”, being Grand Secretary must be an even greater headache. Where Reverend Gibson has thrived is in how he has directed the organisation over the course of the pandemic, not only in terms of curtailing events but also in mobilising the organisation to source and deliver large volumes of food parcels and PPE across the community. What I would like to see from Reverend Gibson is some moderate modernisation of the organisation and a better public-facing initiative, this work was underway under the leadership of Drew Nelson, however, since Reverend Gibson has assumed the reigns of Grand Secretary there appears to have been a regression. In this time of leadership changes within Unionism, I am reluctant to call for further changes within the Orange, however, with several key positions within the organisation appearing to members as being ineffective and indeed invisible including Grand Master, Deputy Grand Master, and Chief Executive Officer (a remunerated role), it’s difficult to justify their continuation so perhaps a refresh at the top is in order? Making the very able Dr David Hume redundant was a huge mistake, however, with Lee Reynolds now on the transfer list following his resignation as a Special Advisor to the First Minister, there are options available to bring both new and old blood. Frankly, the Orange Institution operates too much like the UUP, there are many different loosely connected factions internally, members choose to listen to the leader or not depending on their viewpoint and the leader can make up announcements on the hoof during media interviews unbeknownst to members, this all needs to change.

The Orange Institution has become synonymous with Northern Ireland and its political discourse, with this it accumulates supporters and many, many detractors. I am hugely fortunate to have been afforded the opportunity by Slugger to write my articles anonymously, being in the Orange can act as a lightning rod for some to direct their hatred for the organisation onto. Thankfully I have received nothing more than a few menacing messages on social media, however, public-facing members receive significantly more abuse. This has now become quite prevalent on social media where references to Orange culture (or as it’s often spelt “Kulture” in reference to the Klan) attract some of the most horrific criticism that does not pass for reasonable discord. Sadly, concentrated hatred too often comes from those pontificating about tolerance, shared spaces, respectful conversations, and a “New Ireland”. Last week a photograph of a bandsman and his two young sons resulted in an onslaught of bile directed not only at the father but also his children, some of the messages from self-labelled “anti-sectarian progressives” are shocking, with the tweet below only capturing some of the milder messages.

Christopher Stalford and his son were also subjected to an onslaught of abuse when Christopher posted a photograph of himself and his son enjoying the Twelfth parades. Unfortunately, this type of hate is generally unchallenged and is too often based more on ignorance rather than any intricate knowledge of Orange culture beyond the negative stereotypes. For example, the Orange Institution has been frequently called a “racist, white supremacist cult”, however, images such as the below are often met with silence from the said critics or indeed ironically with racist abuse.

Attacks on social media ultimately feed into attacks on Orange Halls and Orange property in general, although such attacks occurred long before the invention of social media. In recent days I passed an Orange hall close to Fivemiletown in which the sidewalls had been defaced with paint and the letters “IRA” were daubed on. Although an attempt has been made to disguise this vandalism, it’s still very obvious. The hall is now in need of a full repaint which the lodge that owns the hall will be reluctant to carry out as it will simply invite another attack. Such attacks are being reported to the PSNI less often as the conviction rate is so low to almost being non-existent, many lodges also feel the publicity only serves to give the perpetrators a “badge of honour”. There is also a feeling within the Orange community that whilst the police brand the attacks as “hate crimes”, they are not always taken very seriously. Officially since 1969 there have been over 600 attacks on Orange halls averaging out at around 12 per year although if attacks that go unreported are taken into account the figure would be significantly higher. Some of the unreported attacks that I am aware of include smashed windows, paint attacks and doors forced open or destroyed. The PSNI have been critical of halls that do not have metal grills installed to protect the windows and doors, however, such interventions detract from the character of these halls and can make them look unsightly, also it should be a reasonable expectation to expect halls not to be attacked. Priceless lodge artefacts have in the past been destroyed due to arson attacks and in present times all such artefacts are stored offsite to protect them. I have passed Clifton Street Orange Hall on innumerable occasions (a hall that has been frequently attacked), it is a building that has decayed and the metal shielding makes the hall appear more like a jail. I know there is little incentive to get this hall properly restored due to the potential for future attacks which in turn makes it difficult to secure funding.

Until the lazy narrative that energises much of the hate that is directed towards Orange culture is challenged, then such attacks will continue, whether they be on social media or in reality. This has to be tackled in a three-pronged approach which includes the following:

– The rule of law has to been seen to be effective in ensuring hate crimes be they online or offline are properly investigated with convictions ensuing.

– The Orange Institution needs to be proactive in ensuring unsavoury elements within their ranks are dealt with and seen to be dealt with. This includes paramilitary paraphernalia within processions, unscrupulous members expelled and properly tackling the issues around excessive alcohol consumption at parades – something the Institution has begun to address but further work is needed.

– Those outside of the Orange family must be more vocal in challenging hate when it arises. When an Orange Hall is attacked, a condemnation can too often include the word “but” or as was witnessed last week the sectarian bile directed to the bandsman and his young sons was in some quarters “justified” due to perceived issues with the band in question. People can and should always express legitimate concerns, however, there is a clear line when expressing legitimate concerns ends and indulging in hate and sectarianism begins. A significant caveat is necessary here in that most people across the community do not condone this type of behaviour and are very vocal in condemning it.

Overall, the Orange Institution needs to greatly improve its public image, the message needs to be improved upon, better delivered and the organisation must build up better and more constructive relationships with not only Unionist parties but also with non-Unionist parties and the wider public in general. The Orange Intuition does have a political aspect to it and they will express political views, but these must be more measured, pragmatic, and constructive – the days of shouting “no, no, no” are over. The time has long since arrived when the Orange Institution must get its house in order if it wants to survive, the current DUP implosion should be a wake-up call for everyone involved in the Orange Institution, act and act now.

Orange Order Parade” by Shutterbug Fotos is licensed under CC BY-ND