What is the future of the Orange Order?

Today, across Northern Ireland, thousands of Orange Men will be parading for the 12th of July commemorations. But what is the future of the loyal orders? 

Like most institutions, their numbers have been declining. From a high point of 90,000 in the 1960s to 34,000 in 2012, I suspect the figure for active members today is more like 20,000.

What is the place of the Orange Order in the 21st Century? Are they just quirky historical relic, or do they have an active role in today’s society?

A few months ago, I got a tour of Clifton St Orange Hall in Belfast as part of the North Belfast Festival. It was fascinating to see inside the building that many of us pass if you are ever on the Westlink. If I remember correctly, the statue of King Billy on the roof is the only horse statue in Northern Ireland. 

I was very impressed with our tour guide, who honestly answered every question asked of him; they really should do tours more often as it is a fascinating building. 

My granny was from the Shankill, and while I never met my great-grandfather, he may have been a member of the Orange Order and had meetings in this building. Not sure what he thought of his daughter running off with a guy from the Falls. I can’t imagine he was too happy.

Clifton St Orange Hall is frozen in time, like walking into 1920. All the rooms are as they would have been 100 years ago, I suspect the only thing that has changed are the drinks prices in the function hall.

The memorials to the dead of the First World War are pretty extensive and quite touching. WW1 decimated the ranks of Orange Lodge members, and the ghosts of those young men who never came home haunt the very fabric of the building.

I have been thinking a lot about trauma lately. What we went through in the troubles was pretty bad, but WW1 was a different level of slaughter. No PSTD or trauma counselling back then; you just got on with life as best you could. You can see that the various memorials were their way of dealing with the trauma and, dare I say it, an attempt to justify or explain the senseless slaughter of WW1.

I was at a talk the other week by the Orange Order Historian Dr David Hume. It is a measure of how far we have come as a society that there was a talk about the Orange Order in the James Connolly Centre on the Falls Road. Dr Hume was listened to with respect, and he answered all questions honestly and truthfully – it was a model of how to talk about contentious topics with civility and grace. 

David put the order in the historical framework of the various fraternal organisations that have existed over the centuries. There are the obvious ones like Freemasons but also the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, the Fraternal Order of Eagles, the Independent Order of Rechabites, the Templars of Honor and Temperance, the Independent Order of Foresters, the Knights of Columbus, and the Loyal Order of Moose. Wikipedia has a whole list of them

Processions are marches are also standard across many cultures and traditions. From religious processions to trade union marches, they are a part of our social history. 

The Orange Order could better communicate what it is about, but I think the problem is they struggle to explain to themselves why they still exist. If you ask them why they do what they do, the most common answer is because their father did it, and their grandfather etc – it’s tradition. 

Catholics view the Orange Order as triumphalist and supremacist, only interested in walking where they are not wanted. But like everything in Northern Ireland, the truth is a thousand shades of grey. 

Without dialogue and understanding, both sides fill the vacuum with suspicion. I remember being friendly at Queens with a young Orangeman from Portadown. He once said to me – “You lot think we are plotting the downfall of popery, but we are not; we are sitting around arguing about what sandwiches to have on the twelfth!”

As you age, you realise the importance of respecting and understanding other people’s views. I go out of my way on Slugger never to criticise people personally, and I will not lie; it is a struggle as it is a lot easier and more fun to rip into people. 

How different would Drumcree have been if both sides had listened to each other respectfully?

But it is easy to look back and wonder what if. Those of us who remember those dark days know that neither side was willing to compromise; we all took sides. We gave into our worst instincts as a society, and the Quinn boys and Michael McGoldrick paid the price.

Despite the attempts of some politicians to reopen old wounds, we are lucky that nearly all parades pass off peacefully today. Most people greet Orange Order parades with a shrug of the shoulders. 

To be honest, even after all the talks and tours, I still don’t get the attraction of the Orange Order to people. But that is life – there are many things I don’t understand the appeal of, but millions of people still do them.

Today is likely to be the last parade to the field in Belfast. They plan to shorten the route in future years. The plans are interesting because it shows even with the weight of tradition, things change.

I know from experience the comments will descend into the usual back and forth, but can I ask you to try something different today? Before jumping into the comment box, take a moment to pause and think about why you think the way you do. What is your reaction when you hear the words Orange Order? Are you echoing the views of your parents? Your side? The media? Maybe you don’t care either way. It is fascinating to pause and think about why we believe what we do. But I know you won’t as self-reflection requires work, and it’s easier to just parrot our default positions.

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