Belfast Telegraph

Orange Order needs to march to a different drumbeat

If the Orange Order believes its values are under attack then it needs to spell out those values in a better light and come up with a PR strategy pretty soon, writes Alex Kane

Alex Kane

It's never good when an organisation has to begin a Press statement with the words: "We seek to clarify events." It usually means that something has gone badly wrong and that they are trying to distance themselves from both the consequences and responsibility.

The reality is that, no matter how hard the Orange Order tried to nuance and parse yesterday's very lengthy statement, the impression left in the minds of most people – including many of its natural supporters – is of yet another occasion when the Order clearly lost the propaganda battle.

Lost it so badly, in fact, that no amount of saying: "The vast majority of parades and demonstrations went off peacefully," makes the blindest bit of difference.

The main story, locally and nationally (and big enough to sweep the discovery of non-decommissioned IRA weapons towards the back pages) was the sight of men (some in sashes) and bandsmen (in their uniforms) attacking the police.

Here's the dilemma for the Orange Order: There is a section of republicanism which will never accept the right of Orangemen and accompanying bands to parade in what they designate as "republican areas".

Whether it's Sinn Fein-linked resident/community groups (most of which seem to be terribly 'concerned'), or dissident-linked groups, their main priority is, quite literally, stopping the Orange Order in its tracks.

On the other side of the road is that majority of Orangemen (58%, according to a recent internal poll) who think they have an unfettered right to parade wherever they want to parade.

And that's the problem: what we are seeing is the almost inevitable consequence of what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object.

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. But the Orange Order has done none of this.

It scuppered a proposed replacement for the Parades Commission in early 2010. It doesn't talk to the existing commission. I'm pretty sure it wouldn't talk to an all-party alternative, which included Sinn Fein and SDLP representatives.

It has a list as long as my arm of the sort of people and organisations it won't talk to. And most of its spokesmen are convinced that nearly everyone – including the media – is against them.

What isn't clear, however, is whom they would be prepared to talk to. The US diplomat Richard Haass (a special envoy to Northern Ireland from 2001-3) arrives this week to kick-start a process which, it is hoped, will lead to all-party recommendations on parades, protests, flags, symbols and emblems.

Will the Orange Order talk to him? Who knows? If past form is anything to go by, they will lay down so many pre-conditions for dialogue that he will simply go ahead without them. And they need to remember that.

The Orange Order may be a key part in all of this, but they will not be allowed to stop others from talking and reaching decisions.

Back in 2010, the Order 'worked' with the UUP to wreck a parades strategy which had almost been agreed by the other Executive parties.

The ploy reaped no electoral dividends for the UUP in the 2010-11 elections (which is why it had done it in the first place) and left the Order having to deal with the Parades Commission for another three years.

Worse, there is no-one on the commission who sees things from the Order's overall perspective, which means that it has no-one it can trust, or use as a conduit for talking to other members. In other words, they find themselves in the worst possible of all worlds.

And they will stay there until they wake up, grow up and deal with the world as it is, rather than as they wish it was.

If members have a case to make, then make it. Make it at every available platform and media outlet. Explain themselves: who are they? Are they a religious, cultural, social, historical, or political organisation? What is their role in the everyday life of Northern Ireland? Why is parading in particular places so important to them?

I think that one of the most persistent problems for the Order is that the leadership takes the rest of us for granted and assumes that we actually know what makes it tick.

Yet it seems to me that the Order hasn't fully accepted that the world is changing and passing it by. If it thinks that what it is facing is a 'cultural war' (and I have some sympathy for that analysis), then learn to present its culture and values in a better, clearer light.

And learn to use the media and propaganda to its advantage, rather than coming across as a big, grumpy Orange bear with a very sore head.

The Orange Order has a battle on its hands and it has managed to drag all of us into it. If it doesn't want to lose, then it has to persuade an awful lot of people that its cause is worth supporting.

So far, they haven't been doing a good job.

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