Why the Orange Order’s no longer the Protestant voice
Another week, another previously unthinkable symbolic moment — first that friendly handshake between the Queen and Martin McGuinness and now Drew Nelson has become the very first member of the Orange Order to address Seanad Eireann.
Seanad chairman Paddy Burke welcomed the move as “another step on the path to sustained peace and reconciliation”, while Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said that the occasion was “a measure of how much the peace process is reshaping relationships on the island of Ireland”.
We are taught to call this progress. But what does it all really mean?
One thing is clear — in these parts, we're suckers for the grand gesture. We all feel the force of it. When the Queen met McGuinness, the initial impact of that image was unmistakable, calling up all kinds of contradictory feelings: surprise, warmth, curiosity, pride, hope.
The simple humanity of the handshake lingered, not as a guarantee, or an apology, or a resolution, but as a moment of connection across untold differences. And this is why we buy into these publicity stunts: at heart, we are an emotional people.
Beneath the sharp-faced exterior, we are childishly sentimental, often illogically so, and as soft as marshmallow.
We are affected by romance and grand gestures. We are fiercely, doggedly loyal and we love a hero, especially if he's broken, or flawed — in fact, like George Best, that makes us love him all the more.
Moments of high drama, like between the Queen and McGuinness, fuel our avid imaginations; more than that, they make us feel important. It makes the rest of the world look at us, and, being incredibly self-obsessed, we like that. Fortunately, we have a strong vein of wise-cracking cynicism running through us, too, which helps to counter-balance the sentimentality.
We remember that the meeting between the Queen and McGuinness, although historically resonant, is also a highly choreographed vehicle for Sinn Fein's political ambitions and not a free and natural expression of goodwill.
Neither does it do anything to resolve the bitter, ingrained complexities of sectarian hatred, except in the most diffuse and aspirational way.
Likewise, Drew Nelson's trip to the Seanad, while welcome, should not be over-played.
Nelson spoke pleasantly and with dignity, acknowledging the need for change. He said that “while we want to remember 1690, we do not want to live in it” — a soundbite which probably took many hours of desperate brain-cudgelling at Schomberg House.
Even when he called for a parade in Dublin, Nelson politely admitted that he “completely understands the challenges” such an event would pose.
This was the Orange Order of starched cuffs, temperance, prayers and decent living; not the sort that gets bladdered and leaves Blue WKD bottles lying all over the Queen's highway.
But such fine words mean nothing unless they correspond to reality and unless they deliver change on the ground.
For all Nelson's forward-looking talk of “individual freedom of thought, conscience and responsibility”, the Orange Order is a tired, old organisation, founded on principles of intolerance and increasingly irrelevant to the new Northern Ireland.
Remarkably, Drew Nelson described the Order as “a strong unifying force within a very diverse Protestant community ... a strong communal glue holding Protestant society together”.
If that were ever true, it's true no longer. In this instance, Drew was spinning the Seanad a yarn, massively overstating the power and reach of the Order.
You rarely hear from them, but many, many Protestants want no truck with Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland. They just don't care. It's not part of who they are.
And this is especially true of young people, the post-conflict generations: to them, parading about in loudly coloured uniforms and talking about recondite 18th century Williamite societies is of zero interest.
There are many ways of being culturally Protestant in 21st century Northern Ireland and the Orange Order certainly does not have a monopoly on that.
Perhaps the real trouble with these big moments is that, by the time leaders feel comfortable enough to make them happen, it's often too late and the potential for actual transformation is lost.
Why didn't the Seanad invite the Orange Order to visit at the height of Drumcree? Why did the Queen wait until the 60th year of her reign to step inside a Catholic church in Northern Ireland?
The grand gestures of today may appear new and audacious, but once the thrill has worn off, they change nothing.