Why demonising the Orange Order flies in the face of the shared and better future we should aspire to
Republicans would like to airbrush loyal orders from history, but they will not succeed, writes Nelson McCausland
Yesterday, I was the speaker at the Orange demonstration in the Co Antrim village of Broughshane. With just 11 lodges in Braid district, it is a small demonstration, but we had a thoroughly enjoyable day and the village was crowded with Orange brethren, bands and spectators, including many families.
The Twelfth has been one of the highlights of the year for as long as I can remember.
As a small boy, I helped to collect wood for the ‘boney’ and was then taken round the Eleventh Night bonfires by my parents.
On the Twelfth, we went to watch the Belfast parade in the morning and then went back again in the evening to see it for a second time.
The crowds, the banners, the bands and the atmosphere made the Twelfth a special day and eventually, in 1975, I joined the Orange Order.
For many Ulster folk, the Twelfth remains a special day.
It is a family day and it is also a community day when they meet people they may not have seen since the previous year.
Formed in 1795, the Orange Order has a history stretching back more than 200 years.
During that time, it has had its ups and its downs, but it remains a significant organisation in our society and its network of Orange halls accommodates a wide range of community activities and organisations.
Of course, there are those who would prefer to write it out of our history. I can recall a telling moment shortly after I became minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure in 2009.
The Ulster Museum was undergoing a major renovation, with extensive reconstruction and new exhibitions.
As the work was nearing completion, I was given a tour of the museum and was surprised to find that the exhibition for the 18th century included a substantial account of the United Irishmen, but nothing about the Orange Order.
The two organisations were formed in the same decade, but while one had collapsed before the decade was over, the other is still very much alive today.
Why then focus on the one that collapsed and ignore the one that has had a significant influence for more than two centuries?
I raised this omission with museum officials and, indeed, pointed out that they should include some information about other fraternal organisations, including the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
Subsequently, the omission was rectified, to some degree, by the inclusion of a small information board about the Orange Order, but it always looked like what it was: an afterthought.
Moreover, people who go to museums expect to see actual objects and artefacts, as well as information. With the order’s banners, collarettes, warrants and symbolism, there can have been no shortage of material available.
Since then, the exhibitions in the Ulster Museum have been changed completely and there are now some Orange artefacts among the exhibits, but that incident, at that time, seemed to me to reflect a desire on the part of some people to write the Orange Order out of the story of Northern Ireland.
Meanwhile, Irish nationalists and republicans have long recognised the role of the Orange Order as an organisation that embraces members of different Protestant denominations and supporters of different strands of unionism.
That is why they have often sought to demonise the Orange Order and its members, and that demonisation is the background to the sectarian attacks on Orange halls and the opposition to traditional parades.
Indeed, I suspect some republicans secretly hope that demonisation will lead to eradication.
If we are to build a shared and better future for Northern Ireland, then that demonisation has to come to an end.
If cultural diversity is to mean anything, then it has to include a place for Orange culture.
And, if we are to have real cultural understanding, then the Orange tradition should be reflected properly in our cultural institutions, in the media and in the education system.
Demonisation and marginalisation are the antitheses of that shared and better future to which we should all aspire.