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Why Orangemen must put best foot forward

As Northern Ireland enters a fresh marching season, many in England will watch in despair at what they perceive as a sectarian event from a land stuck in a 17th century time warp.

However, were they to re-enter that century, they would find, to their surprise, that Protestantism represented the liberal avant-garde of the day. Why then, do the English and other international observers associate Orangeism with tribal backwardness?

It is worth recalling the close early connection between liberty and Protestantism. Protestantism, Charles Taylor reminds us, shrank the sphere of the sacred, pouring cold water on the magic of the Catholic Church and its priests. This secularising move also democratised religion and produced the lively competition of sects that characterises Protestantism. Protestant countries like Holland and England developed the earliest liberal political institutions.

On the face of it, the Orange Order is well placed to advance this progressive tradition. Prince William of Orange and his invasion of the British Isles ensured the success of the Glorious Revolution, the first liberal revolution. This led to an unprecedented Bill of Rights and the Act of Toleration of 1689 which permitted dissenters to worship freely.

William sought religious liberty for all, including Catholics, though this was a step too far for his English hosts.

Despite this usable past, the Orange Order has always found it difficult to get good press. In much of the 19th century, its marches were banned. Soon after Partition, in 1922, it formed a press committee to fight what it termed the 'slanderous' accusations of the radio and newspapers of that period.

In February 1968, the Order's Central Committee discussed the possibility of producing a film to spruce up its image, and during the height of the Troubles, Belfast Grand Master Martin Smyth flew to New York to make the Orange case.

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Nearly three decades later, stung by the scenes at Drumcree, the leadership introduced a full-time press officer at the House of Orange backed by county PR officers. More recently, we have seen Orange Christmas cards, floats and even a superhero, Diamond Dan the Orangeman. All the while, Orange leaders have repeatedly tried to convey a respectable image to the public.

Why have these heroic attempts produced so little? The nub of the problem lies with the Orange product. No matter how branded, it will never sell in the secular, liberal British mainstream. Though Protestantism was conceived in liberty, the Order is basically a conservative organisation dedicated to preserving the memory of Protestantism in the British Isles.

This explains why the Order has served as an ethnic organisation and not a religious one. It has thrived in locales where people connected with the memory of Protestantism in Britain.

The Order found fertile soil among the ultra-British loyalist population of Canada and Ulster, with partial success in parts of central Scotland, northwest England and what is now the Republic of Ireland. Even American Orangeism was connected to Ulster and Canadian immigrants, while in Togo and Ghana the competition between British and French missionaries helped spawn the tiny movements there.

The Order's universal Enlightenment ideas remain, but its members are far more attracted to the symbols of these principles than to the precepts themselves. The Battle of the Boyne, the Siege of Derry and Dolly's Brae are glorious victories. The Somme is a terrible tragedy. These episodes excite the passions far more than the Act of Toleration.

An extreme analogy may be found in the Old Order Amish. Their forbears were anarchists, many of whom were drowned and burned by the reigning authorities. The sect's outlook today is completely different, seeking to meticulously conserve once-radical principles and consecrate the memory of early martyrs.

In the same way, the Order has translated the universal into the particular, the liberal into the conservative, and the abstract into the emotive.

Should the Order change its stripes and embrace King Billy's radicalism? The liberal principles of the organisation have occasionally been trumpeted, but the message has fallen on sceptical ears. Some - especially Orange chaplains - urge the Order to pursue an evangelical mission as a Christian organisation.

This might improve the Order's image, but in the end would probably fail as a recruiting strategy, because for most people, pageantry trumps philosophy.

What's more, Orange folklore has become intertwined with the myths and symbols of the Ulster-Protestant ethnic community. The Order will continue to serve as a vessel of Ulster-Protestant identity, frustrating those who prefer its progressive principles.

The work of the Ulster Society and the Order's education committee to celebrate Orange symbols as a cultural contribution to society is a therefore a more realistic step forward.

If the Order can transform its commemorations into public festivals and tourist attractions, this will do more for it than a thousand PR campaigns.

Before this Protestant St Patrick's Day can take flight, however, the Order must heed Reverend Brian Kennaway's call to better control the troublemakers that cling to its parades and infiltrate it at the edges.

This is no easy task given the Order's decentralised structure, limited resources and the chilling threat posed by paramilitaries in inner-city areas. Still, any pressure that can be brought to bear in this direction will pay great dividends.

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