Orange Order goes from bad to worse in crisis
The Orange Order needs to make the case for civil liberty and democracy and step back from confrontational grandstanding, writes Alex Kane
A few days ago, following four nights of rioting, I offered the Orange Order some advice through this newspaper:
"On occasions like this, you need strategies and option papers. You need to understand the precise nature and knock-on effects of the problem and gather around you a body of media and public support-including influential figures, who have been well-briefed, are sympathetic and prepared to take your side.
"And learn to use the media and propaganda to your advantage, rather than coming across as a big, grumpy Orange bear with a very sore head. So far, you haven't been doing a good job."
Well – and defying all the odds – the Order managed to get worse. After yet more rioting and disruption, it asked the Parades Commission for permission to parade by Ardoyne shops again; fully aware that, whatever decision was taken, would almost certainly result in yet more violence.
It didn't bother having a meeting with the Commission; nor did it send someone (even a supportive non-member of the Order) to speak on its behalf.
It's almost as if it wanted its application rejected.
And it gets worse. It put in that application at much the same time as it announced that it would take part in the talks process kick-started by Richard Haass on Wednesday.
So, on the one hand it was making a gesture of good faith and indicating a willingness to talk about reaching solutions and compromises, yet, on the other, it was deliberately upping the ante in what were already very tense, very dangerous circumstances.
Mixed messages. Bizarre decisions. Backfiring strategies. Absurdly archaic structures. Take your pick of what best sums up the thumping big problem at the heart of Orangeism, but there's no denying the fact that it has a problem – and it's a problem it seems incapable of resolving.
Even some natural supporters will have nodded in agreement when Gerry Kelly said: "The Orange Order in Belfast need to step out of the bubble they are living in."
It doesn't matter that the vast majority of its parades pass off peacefully. It doesn't matter that the vast majority of Orange Order members are mostly ordinary people who take a pretty flexible approach when it comes to attending Roman Catholic weddings and funerals.
All that matters is that each and every one of those ordinary people is being tarred with the same brush, and portrayed as members of a reactionary, bigoted, sectarian, triumphalist organisation.
Yes, people are still turning out to see the bands and spectacle, but fewer and fewer are choosing to join and more and more are quietly leaving.
Even the statement issued after the Parades Commission's ruling speaks volumes. Indeed, let me be blunt about it: what's the point of issuing a statement of complaint when you can't even be bothered to meet with the very body whose permission you are seeking?
If you're neither meeting with them, nor negotiating with them, you're not really in a strong position to criticise the decisions they make.
The very best thing the Orange Order could have done after the first night's rioting would have been to issue an unambiguous statement condemning the violence (rather than suggesting that, by some torturous logic, the "Commission must bear full responsibility"); instruct all members and supporting members of bands to stay away; institute disciplinary action against those sash-wearing members who can be identified attacking the police or anyone else, and do everything possible to lessen tension.
Then spend the next few months of the Haass process to row back, rethink, engage, set out options and reconnect with its quieter grassroots.
Yet it is bringing people back onto the streets tomorrow, knowing that most of those people are angry, easily stirred up and beyond its control.
And knowing, too, that the plea for "those intent on causing trouble" to stay away will, almost certainly, fall upon deaf ears.
The leadership of the Orange Order cannot dismiss the Parades Commission as a "discredited body", accuse it of being anti-unionist and anti-Orange, call people onto the streets and then simply wash its hands of everything when riot follows riot.
It has been incredibly stupid and incredibly naive in its handling of this whole business.
I'm supportive of the argument that roads are public roads and that, generally speaking, they should be useable by any lawful organisation.
I don't have to like the views and values of that organisation. I don't have to like the opinions, lifestyles, culture or religious worldview they promote.
I don't accept the argument that roads should be broken down into us-and-them stretches. So yes, the Orange Order should be able to go down the Crumlin Road and a republican organisation go down the Cregagh Road.
Just as long as it doesn't go out of its way to deliberately provoke or offend on the journey to its destination.
That's why the Orange Order needs to be talking to anyone and everyone; including the Parades Commission and its replacement.
It needs to make the case for the civil liberty and democracy it claims to champion. It needs to step away from confrontational grandstanding by assorted grand masters and demonstrate that there is nothing to fear from its beliefs and ceremonies.
And it's not just Catholics it needs to convince, either.