I’m not sure where nationalism would be these days without the stereotype of the Orange bigot. The bonfire story is now a staple of the commercially problematic silly season, when papers are hard to sell.
As Mairia Cahill noted last Sunday, “on Wednesday the PSNI confirmed this year was ‘one of the safest and most peaceful July 12th events in recent memory’.” She goes on to write:
You didn’t hear that on Newstalk.
For too long south of the Border, the Twelfth of July holiday has been painted in a particular light — David Attenborough-esque; akin to explaining a different species, offensive in itself to lots of unionists who have no truck with sectarianism, but who hold the holiday dear.
To explain it frankly, this depiction is akin to Irish people being stereotypically depicted by others on St Patrick’s Day as drunks with pet leprechauns. Neither is acceptable.
This year was not only the most peaceful but also the most popular in years. Decent weather helped, but the self enforced cancellation of celebrations in 20 and 21 put extra relish on the event.
The images of nationalist and Alliance politicians on some bonfires were condemned as hate crimes by Mervyn Gibson. The truth is the Orange Order doesn’t organise bonfires, it’s an informal tradition.
As Cahill notes, sectarianism and bigotry exists on both sides of NI’s religious divide, but the media generally only focus on one side. Indeed there’s a remarkable level of hypocrisy on the matter.
In August, anti-internment bonfires will spring up with signs stating “Kill all Huns”, and burning Union Jacks, or a huge crowd will sing “Ooh Aah Up the Ra” at Féile an Phobail (before it happens, please note not everyone in west Belfast supports the IRA).
Whilst the bin throwing eejit (maybe that’s unkind and there’s a tragic backstory there, who knows) made headlines, all of these will pass without reporting. The stereotype will endure.
Gail Walker in the BelTel strikes a note that should be heard far and wide on the island, by anyone seeking a better future for everyone who lives on it our little rock in the ocean:
This is no dying institution, but more modernisation is essential. The fact it’s a unionist or loyalist culture doesn’t mean it can’t be understood by those from other traditions; but everyone needs to work at that with equal grace.
No one community has a monopoly on toxicity. Those with platforms to make their opinions heard should be detoxifying attitudes and behaviours. And not just on the Twelfth or at Easter.
There is no holiday from this. That effort has to be made every single day of the year — to be bigger and better than what one dislikes or even fears.
A few years back Ruth Dudley Edwards wrote with forensic attention to the telling detail of the deliberate demonisation of Orange and protestant culture by one of the now most successful nationalist projects on the island:
…as the Provos realised that they had to abandon their failed military strategy, they set about undermining unionist culture, and refashioned history to render perpetrators as victims, victims as perpetrators, and all unionists as bullies and bigots.
In the 1990s the objective of the brilliant republican propaganda campaign was to paint every member of a loyal institution as a demon – provoking them to fury by covertly setting up intransigent IRA-led residents’ groups to block parades while reciting to TV cameras pious rhetoric about terrified Catholics and supremacist Orangemen.
Catholic fears of loyalist pogroms were whipped up and there were arson attacks on Orange halls and boycotts of Orangemen’s businesses.
In 1996, Mr Adams’s heartland the Falls Road acquired an enormous mural with the heading ‘Not All Traditions Deserve Respect’. It featured a hooded and robed Ku Klux Klan horseman with an Orange sash riding across a green landscape littered with skulls.
Nowhere these days does that account for the extremely negative image of Orange culture appear in wider republican or nationalist story of the people of the island. The simple [Bigoted? – Ed] majoritarianism of the demographic shift, they believe, will take care of the unbelievers.
In the meantime, a Sinn Fein TD tweets a famous “party song” at a GAA function welcoming home victorious All Ireland champions Limerick to their home city with few remarks and little controversy.
As a political hypocrisy it’s such a commonplace no one sees it any more.
It becomes invisible to the average nationalist eye. Yet, the internally unchallenged idea of Orangism as synonymous as with the KKK may also be quietly killing moderate nationalism.
Years ago, Brian Feeney once said on TV that this hypocrisy was a feature of tribal life in Northern Ireland, something to the effect that no one wanted to call it out for fear of “our side” losing face.
What he didn’t say is that it is also damaging to the longer term ambitions of nationalism in particular since over time it has forced a lot of people who might have otherwise stayed in nationalism to bail out.
Twenty years ago, just before Christmas, republicans confidently predicted the demographic shift would move things decisively in their favour. They were sorely disappointed when the needle barely shifted.
When the proportion of Protestants dropped by 5% ten years ago, they were so delighted they missed the act that there was a barely 1% growth in Catholics (who’d been a majority in schools for a generation).
Something is going wrong for moderate nationalism in particular. Most nationalist leaders (with some exceptions) have taken their eye off what they need to succeed and has focused on the” failure of others”.
It’s poor compensation for voters many of whom are shifting further into the vengeful version of their political philosophy or leaving it altogether. How else to explain the failure of the demographic calculus?
Orangism has learned to live with the unjust stereotyping of their culture. The real and lasting damage is not to them any more, but to those who continue to hold it and try to prosper from it.
This deadlock over culture does not serve 32 county ambitions (which require a widely shared, and shareable understanding of what the future entails for the broader population) at all well.
My friend John Kellden reduces the genius of democratic Sweden into two words, Smorgasbord and Ombudsman. Of the latter he notes it’s…
…all about unions trying to make life very complicated for anyone running a business. We got free education, free healthcare and trains running on time out of it as well, which means it’s not all that bad. But complicated. For those of you who code, it’s like cramming everything about a society inside GitHub, and actually getting it to work.
That’s the work of true Irish republicans of good will. You can see it clearly in Micheál Martin’s generous and unconditional come-to-the-table smorgasbord of the Shared Island Initiative.
If we can bring our selves to take the comfortable worn in green glasses off and be the challenge function on our own transgressions rather than just our orange neighbours, relatives and friends.
Our struggle is not with ethnicity, it’s with a culture that insists (in contravention to both unionist and republican pretensions) on dividing us. We can change that, if we can find the will.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty