Scots lead way in how Orangemen can reach others
On Saturday, I was the keynote speaker at the Glasgow Orangefest - aka Cultural and Heritage Day. It didn’t bother the County Grand Orange Lodge that I’m from a Roman Catholic nationalist background and describe myself as a Judeo-Christian atheist.
The purpose of Orangefest was to welcome outsiders and show them that the bands and banners reflect an enlightenment culture of civil and religious liberty, parliamentary democracy and free speech and that being a proud Protestant doesn’t mean being anti-Catholic. I met there such guests as the Irish Consul and a representative of the Catholic Church.
The weather was mostly vile but the audiences were substantial, stoical and appreciative.
It’s 20 years since I was first invited to a loyal orders parade by a Co Tyrone farmer distressed about the appalling relationship between Orangemen and the media that had been so evident in the coverage of Drumcree 1995.
Henry wrote to me out of the blue because he had seen from some of my articles that I was trying to understand the unionist tradition.
The invitation to be his guest at a Royal Black Preceptory Last Saturday parade in Aughnacloy in August bewildered me, not least because I didn’t know what he was talking about, but I wasn’t going to turn down the hand of friendship even from a total stranger.
The weather was depressing and there was a fair bit of tedious sitting about on damp grass listening to dull speeches, but people were kind and the Grand Master took me to the pub afterwards and answered my questions with openness and warmth.
And so I embarked on years of strange adventures during a terrifying period of communal violence when the loyal institutions were being entrapped by clever enemies and their own obstinacy into challenging the state to which they were loyal.
Their demonisation as faceless triumphalists like the Ku Klux Klan was heartbreaking to tens of thousands of decent people.
My attempts to explain to a media mesmerised by slick Sinn Fein propaganda that the loyal institutions were better than they seemed and the residents’ groups more sinister soon made me accustomed to abuse.
I’ll always be grateful to the undercover reporter who recorded Gerry Adams telling a private Sinn Fein meeting in Co Meath in November 1996: “Ask any activist in the north ‘Did Drumcree happen by accident?’ They will tell you ‘No’. Three years of work in Lower Ormeau, Portadown, and parts of Fermanagh, Newry, Armagh, Bellaghy and up in Derry… into creating that situation and fair play to those people who put the work in… they are the type of scene changes that we have to focus in on and develop and exploit.”
As I told the audience on Saturday, there were many occasions when I despaired as I tried to persuade intransigent Orangemen that the sane response to an obvious republican trap was to avoid it rather than march into it shouting “No surrender”.
Those interesting times culminated in The Faithful Tribe, my warts-and-all book that was liked by many of the people whose story I was trying to tell.
Apart from the sheer interest of the whole experience, and the richness of coming to understand a new world, I made some wonderful friendships, starting with Henry and his wife, who with their children became my Northern Irish family.
The Scots Orange have been way ahead of Northern Ireland in reaching out to others but the old sectarian antagonisms make it difficult and the demonisation of Orangemen carries on among the bigots, now augmented by cybernats who hate them for their defence of the Union.
Among the more entertaining attacks on my participation in Orangefest were allegations I was intent on celebrating fascism and sectarianism and would be up to my knees in Irish/Catholic/Fenian blood.
Of all the reports on my speech, the one I most enjoyed came from a friend on Facebook. “I nipped over to Glasgow to be offended by Ruth Dudley Edwards and her angry mob of murderous hoodlums. She was whipping them up into a frenzy, saying stuff like paramilitarism was wrong and don’t make drunken idiots of yourselves — honestly, when will the hatred and violence stop? Ban this sick filth!”