Belfast Telegraph

Diluted Orange still a force in Ulster society

The Orange Order has more members than all the local political parties put together. But who joins it? And why? Jon Tonge and James McAuley decided to find out

For the third consecutive year, the marching season has been marred by serious rioting, mainly at sectarian interfaces in Belfast.

There has been much political progress, exemplified by co-operative power-sharing between unionists and nationalists in the Assembly. Yet two clear problems remain.

Dissident republican violence continues sporadically, but a more permanent feature is the continuing communal polarisation.

There has been no reintegration of Northern Irish society and the consociation of political elites at the top is built across an electoral and societal chasm. The mayhem at the peak of the marching season is where the communal faultline is laid bare.

In 2010, we directed the ESRC Northern Ireland General Election survey. The survey found that only 0.3% of Catholics believed that the Orange Order should be allowed to march without restriction, whereas almost half of Protestants believed it should enjoy unfettered marching rights.

A total of 72% of Catholics believed that the order should not be allowed to march through nationalist areas, compared to only 7.5% of Protestants supporting this prohibition.

The Parades Commission, whose legitimacy is still questioned by the Orange Order and whose existence is rejected by 90% of Orangemen, adjudicates in an arena in which there is little agreement.

But why do Orange Order parades entering nationalist areas cause such outrage? The process may consist, as at the major flashpoint of Ardoyne in north Belfast, of a few (almost silent) bands passing an interface.

But there is widespread antipathy among Catholics, which, given the survey results, cannot be written off as simply rejection by a few. What is it about the Orange Order that causes such Catholic objections?

In a recent article in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations, we conducted the first-ever membership survey of the Orange Order. What did this survey tell us?

Surprisingly little is known about who joins the Orange Order - and why. Although it is regularly accused of sectarianism, its members reject the charge that they belong to an organisation that is 'anti-Roman Catholic'. A majority of members do, however, acknowledge that the order is 'anti-Roman Catholic Church'.

The Orange Order's prohibitions on members marrying Catholics or attending Catholic services, and expulsions for these 'religious offences', while not numerically large, remain the most common type of ejection.

Orangemen are God-fearing, religiously practising, socially conservative individuals, drawn towards a collective organisation which promotes Scripture as the religious inspiration. The order represents an uncompromising wing of unionism which holds steadfast to faith and crown.

Although obviously supportive of Northern Ireland's constitutional position, it fears the hollowing out of the Britishness of the majority tradition here.

A cultural war has (largely) replaced the shooting war, although the latter never really disappeared, according to Orange Order members with only 15% believing that the IRA's armed campaign is really over. The regular burning of Orange halls adds to these fears.

Thus the Orange Order sees the need to defend the 'traditional' routes of its marches as part of this cultural contestation. In its view, retreat from streets, or restrictions on songs and hymns imposed upon parades, mean defeat in the zero-sum game between Protestant-Unionist-Britishness and supposedly ever-encroaching Catholic-Irish-Nationalism.

A key external message from the Orange Order has been its plea for unionist unity to defend Protestant-British interests.

A majority of Orange Order members support the concept of unionist unity. But this did not stop brethren deserting the UUP in favour of the DUP.

Two-thirds of order members support the DUP, perceiving it to be the stouter defender of their religious and political interests.

This transfer of support occurred in the years immediately following the 1998 Belfast Agreement. Since then, there has been grumbling within Orange ranks over the DUP's power-sharing deal with Sinn Fein, but insufficient complaint to disturb the new political order.

Orangeism has undergone numerous changes and endured numerical decline in recent decades. The order has not enjoyed direct political influence since the collapse of unionist majoritarian government in the early-1970s.

Yet it is a mistake to underestimate the order. Even in reduced circumstances, its membership of 36,000 comfortably exceeds that of all Northern Ireland's political parties combined. In all, 50% of unionist Assembly members belong to the order.

Above all, it is impossible to imagine any other organisation in Northern Ireland capable of attracting 200,000 followers onto the streets.

'Orangefest', the new marketing term for the marching season, has attempted to rebrand the order's celebrations as a cultural festival.

This marketing device has annoyed two very different types of people. Some particularly religious within the order fear it is an attempt to dilute the order's religious message; some nationalists believe the term ignores the sectarian connotations underpinning the event. So, no consensus there either then.

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