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Their master's voice: Orange Order's Edward Stevenson

By Alex Kane

Even an Orange Order historian admits it's an inarticulate organisation which doesn't explain itself well to the world. Edward Stevenson, a farmer's son from Tyrone, is the man tasked with making it more articulate.

There was a time when being Grand Master of the Orange Order was a fairly cushy number. He would have been on first-name terms with the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, along with all of the cabinet and most of the MPs.

He would have been a welcome and honoured guest at top tables and capable of deploying the Order's huge membership as a means of steering, or shoring up, government policy.

And since most members of the Ulster Unionist Party were also members of the Orange Order, it was often difficult to distinguish between the permanent party of government and the Orange establishment. No wonder so many nationalists talked about the "Orange State".

Those days have gone. The Grand Master is still an important figure within the wider, more fractious unionist family, but he no longer has the clout he had. Yet The Twelfth is still a big day here and individual parades can dominate the headlines year after year.

The Order has members across the UUP (although I think Mike Nesbitt is the first leader not to be a member), DUP, TUV, Ukip, PUP and even some local Conservatives, meaning that Orange concerns remain on party agendas: not least because there is evidence that Orange Order members tend to vote.

The other big change is that the Order is increasingly coming under pressure to explain itself and its role. Are its celebrations primarily political (a celebration of the United Kingdom and just another manifestation of party political unionism); religious (a celebration of a Protestant victory over Roman Catholicism); cultural (a celebration of broader "unionism" and its collective values); or historical (a celebration of the 1688 Settlement and the accompanying Bill of Rights).

This is how the constitutional historian Elizabeth Wicks describes it: "The significance of 1688 is not widely appreciated today and yet many of the constitutional facts taken for granted in modern Britain are a direct legacy of this Revolution and the settlement which followed it. The contemporary relations between Crown and Parliament, and between individual and government, still rest upon the foundations of this 17th-century revolution settlement."

The battle is worth remembering and the Orange Order is right to trumpet the political and constitutional importance of William's victory.

Yet it remains the case that not everyone in Northern Ireland sees it the same way.

Too many - and not just nationalists - see it as triumphalist and sectarian. Elements of the Orange Order - particularly in Belfast - see it that way, too: not as a celebration in its own right, but as a chance to say something like "this land is our land, not your land".

They see it as cocking a snoop at the "other side", rather than a harmless, yet important cultural/political/historical event. The fact that some elements within republicanism have a thoroughly hypocritical attitude to the Orange Order should neither here nor there when it comes to long-term strategy for the Order.

The Orange historian Clifford Smyth noted recently: "The Order isn't well understood. It is an inarticulate organisation, which doesn't explain itself well to the world." A similar point has been made by other historians.

The man now charged with trying to make the Orange Order more articulate is Edward Stevenson, who was elected Grand Master in January 2011. He was born in Ardstraw, Co Tyrone, on April 30, 1955. His late father served with the RAF prior to employment as an agricultural contractor, while his mother was a housewife. He has one sister.

He was educated at Ardstraw Primary, Strabane Grammar and Queen's University, where he graduated with a degree in agriculture. He has run the family farm since then. He is married to Arlene and they have three sons and two grandchildren.

For someone who says that one of his particular memories of growing up was "going to the Twelfth parade every year with my parents", it isn't surprising to learn that he has been a member of the Orange Order for 43 years.

He joined in his late teens and is a former County Grand Master for Tyrone as well as a former Deputy Grand Master of the Order. He sums up the dual purpose of the Order as "promoting the Protestant and Reformed Faith as well as preserving our culture and history".

When pressed on why so many people - including some within the pro-Union community - have such a negative impression of the Orange Order, he responds: "I think there needs to be a greater understanding among the wider community. A lack of understanding leads to misconceptions. We hope our new museums and outreach centres will help greatly in this regard."

And yet this need for a greater understanding doesn't include talking to Sinn Fein or residents' groups and the Parades Commission: "Clearly the current legislation regarding parades needs replaced with laws and regulations which are fair and equitable. The Parades Commission must go. The onus remains on the Secretary of State to act decisively in this regard."

Yet in exactly the same way that the Order has allowed both Drumcree and Twaddell Avenue to run on and on without resolution, one senses that this continuing failure to talk to parties or bodies they don't like means that the Parades Commission will run on and on, as well.

He denies that the stand-off at Camp Twaddell is doing huge damage to the image of the Order: "We live in a democratic society, so people have the right to protest.

"The protest at Twaddell has now been ongoing for over 700 days because of the deliberate intolerance and organised agitation by republicans against the Orange family. Those who threaten violence have been rewarded by the Parades Commission. It is they who should be embarrassed."

Clearly, they're not embarrassed, though, meaning that the Orange Order is lumbered with yet another stand-off that seems unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. Again, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Clifford Smyth's criticism, that they don't explain themselves well to the world, is a valid one.

But, in some areas, they are making progress. They have opened two museums in the past few weeks, the Museum of Orange Heritage in Belfast and Sloan's House in Loughgall.

Stevenson is clearly very pleased: "The primary purpose of the new museums is to inform and educate the wider community and our own community about the traditions and ongoing relevance of Orangeism. We are very grateful to our 'critical friends' within nationalism who offered very constructive input in the planning stages of the project."

The fact that he acknowledges they have "critical friends" within nationalism and that they were prepared to listen to them on such an important development should not be underestimated.

The Order is also working closely with schools to explain their history and importance: "We currently have educational and museum outreach officers engaging with schools from both sides of the community.

"Some may be surprised to know that our engagement is very well-received by the (Catholic) maintained sector."

Stevenson is generally upbeat about the future of the Orange Order: "Latest figures indicate that we have over 33,000 members and the recruitment campaign over the past year has been very encouraging. There are also over 600 marching bands in Northern Ireland and the vast majority will be on parade on The Twelfth."

He also emphasises their political role: "The Orange Institution is unique in that it is the only organisation which brings all strands of unionism together and is not connected to any political party. This is something greatly appreciated by the wider unionist community."

The Orange Order is not the force it was. It won't be again. But it remains a key part of our history and culture. It has a role to play and a voice that deserves to be heard.

The museums and educational outreach are welcome developments. But the Order still has huge PR problems in other areas and it needs to find a way of addressing and resolving them.

Critical friends in nationalism are important: but it could do with similarly critical friends within broader unionism. I get the impression that Stevenson is aware of that reality.

A life so far

  • Born Ardstraw, Co Tyrone in April 1955
  • Has been a member of the Orange Order for 43 years
  • Has run the family farm since he graduated from Queen’s University
  • Is married to Arlene, they have three sons
  • Is a church elder and a Boys’ Brigade officer
  • Elected Grand Master in January 2011

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