Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Orange leaders outflanked by Protestant 'dissidents'

Orangemen during a stand-off with police on Woodvale Road, Belfast, close to the Ardoyne, after their protest march was re-routed by the Parades Commission
Orangemen during a stand-off with police on Woodvale Road, Belfast, close to the Ardoyne, after their protest march was re-routed by the Parades Commission

The split at Stormont last week over the Parades Commission shows the extent of the challenge facing the American diplomat Richard Haass as he seeks solutions to Northern Ireland's most divisive issues.

A vote of 43 to 42 could not have been closer. The debate allowed a lot of hot air to escape from between MLAs' ears but it solved little as was evident soon after when the Orange Order again applied to march past the Ardoyne interface at the weekend.

Who is pulling the strings within the Order and the unionist parties in Belfast? The appalling sectarian violence of the past fortnight suggests the answer is far from clear in the north and east of the city.

When the North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds was struck by a protester's brick, the incident symbolised that even he and his party are struggling to rein in another form of dissidents, not hardline republican, but disillusioned, disaffected, down-in-the-mouth unionists living in interface neighbourhoods.

Who is in control? The only figure who has emerged from the Belfast Orangemen to give any explanation to the media is the Rev Mervyn Gibson. When I chatted to him recently at a private function in Belfast, I thought a more straight-talking, honest Protestant I couldn't find.

Since then Mr Gibson, a Presbyterian minister and chaplain to the Orange institution, has become the lead character in the tragedy being played out nightly on our streets. No-one else amongst the Belfast Orangemen appears capable of speaking and explaining what is going on.

What does the rest of the Order across Northern Ireland think of events in Belfast, of the mayhem which has left dozens of police officers injured and even more rioters facing the stigma of a criminal conviction on their CVs?

The enduring image of this Twelfth should have been of shirt-sleeved marchers enjoying the sun. Instead it is of a young police officer lying on the ground, his upper body set alight with a petrol bomb and his colleagues struggling to put out the flames of hatred.

Which brings us back to the question: who is pulling the strings in Belfast? First we had the suicidal flag protests. Then we had the even more suicidal parade protests at the Twelfth and after. Everybody including the Orange Order says violence is wrong yet it took until the weekend for the penny to drop and for Saturday's protest march to pass off peacefully after five nights of rioting.

Up until that point there appeared to be no discipline. No authority. No concern that every stone thrown was damaging the Orange Order's own much-cherished attachment to upholding "our freedom, religion and laws".

In the midst of last week, the television cameras showed a knot of men standing together outside a community centre in east Belfast. The media was reporting on a meeting between community workers, paramilitaries and local politicians.

Amongst the group was Mr Gibson and Gavin Robinson, the former Lord Mayor who is considered a possible MP for East Belfast, maybe even a future DUP leader. Who amongst these men had any real influence on the streets, I wondered?

The riots surrounding the Twelfth following on from the flag protests suggest a deeply worrying scenario.

That elements within the Belfast Orange Order or its fringe support are not in tandem with any unionist political leadership including the DUP. There continues to be the dangerous making of another dissident movement, this time within the most depressed Protestant neighbourhoods in the city.

The membership of the Orange Order once embraced many more middle-class Protestants and some of the big-house brigade of landed gentry. The Order has shrunk significantly from those days but still claims almost 40,000 members.

In rural Ulster, as could be seen on the Twelfth, the parades were largely carefree, orderly and respectable – a far cry from the viciousness of some Belfast brethren, not least the use of an Orange ceremonial sword to smash the protective head-gear of a police officer.

Who pulls the strings of the Belfast banners? The events of July 2013 suggest that within the wider Orange and unionist community across Northern Ireland, antennae should be twitching and more questions asked.

If someone within the Orange Order does not get a grip on its public image, untold damage could be done to the peace and political process in Northern Ireland.