Belfast Telegraph

Orange Order staging march in Edinburgh in support of Union: Thousands due at parade ahead of Scottish referendum

By Alasdair McKillop

The Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland is staging a march through Edinburgh in support of the Union less than a week before the Scottish public vote on its future.

The UK, as the entity most of us have known all our lives, is very much on the line. Bolstered by support from Northern Ireland and possibly England, it has been estimated that as many as 15,000 people might turn the capital orange for a day – or at least over lunchtime. In the first instance, it should be noted that planning for the march long predates the past week’s perceived panic over some bad polls for the No campaign. Indeed, the Order’s campaign group British Together has been registered with the Electoral Commission as a permitted participant for some time now.

Orange marches, even in Scotland, are undeniably disruptive. While not suffering from the same potential for acute confrontation as is present in some, albeit dwindling, parts of Northern Ireland, the best participants can hope for is a grudging toleration of their presence. Some are not so accommodating, viewing them as an assertive expression of intolerance – Scotland’s fractured past come to life on the streets. It is unfortunate that the Order only impinges on the consciousness of most people in Scotland when it takes to the streets. Dislike of the parades enforces a generally shallow understanding of the organisation and its history.

At a time when the study of immigration and diaspora are intellectually, not to say politically, fashionable, there is little appreciation of the Order as an important reminder of the migration of Ulster Protestants to Scotland. Furthermore, for all of the comment about Scotland’s left-leaning political culture, the country is nevertheless a cold house for this authentic expression of working class culture. A large part of the problem is the Order’s association with sectarianism. No exercise replicating that carried out on behalf of the Co Fermanagh Grand Lodge is required to underline that point. The Order participated in two high profile summits on the issue organised by former First Minister Jack McConnell but whether this led to an appreciable improvement in its public image is doubtful, although it was a commendably mature move on its part. Nevertheless, it remains yoked to concerns about the persistence of sectarianism in Scotland and has probably suffered from a greater willingness to publicly discuss the issue.

Whereas previously it was possible to detect a pragmatism about the Order’s ability to advance the pro-Union cause because of its poor public image, there is now a determination to press ahead with a high-profile display despite any opposition. It should be noted that organising such an event is consistent with responses to previous moments of political, cultural or religious significance. A march was held in 2007 to mark the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union and significant activity was planned to coincide with the Papal visit in 1982. Throughout the Troubles the Grand Lodge charted a course informed by the requirements of friends in Northern Ireland and with a view to managing any hardline sentiment within its own ranks. Notably, the assistant Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, Rev Mervyn Gibson, has framed support for Saturday’s march as a reciprocal gesture for the support Scottish brethren offered throughout the Troubles. Remarkable as it would have seemed then, Scotland’s place in the Union looks more precarious than Northern Ireland’s during the darkest days. Gibson and others seem determined they will not be found wanting in their support, although questions about the effect of independence on their own community and mutterings about border polls will surely be nipping their heels.

The former Scottish Grand Master Ian Wilson has stated publicly that the march is intended to counteract any complacency among Scotland’s Orangemen and women. Circumstances have conspired to make it doubtful any supporters of the Union are complacent at this stage but that couldn’t have been predicted with certainty when the march was being planned. It is also possible that a strategic eye has been turned to the two possible outcomes of the vote, with it being concluded that a march will serve a purpose either way. If there is a No vote, then there will be a boost to morale from the Order being seen, rightly or wrongly, to have played a role. A Yes vote, on the other hand, will be harder to recover from if there is a feeling it meekly succumbed.

The template for reports ahead of the march have been set. Thus, we have implications or outright predictions of trouble and spurious links to an entirely separate event with UKIP leader Nigel Farage. Jim Slaven of the James Connolly Society, sensing an easy PR victory, has warned Scottish republicans and leftwing activists to keep their distance. The possibility for deliberate provocation of this sort was hard to detect in the majority of reports prior to Slaven’s intervention. No one is sure whether or not Jenners shoppers are on high alert.

Figures associated with Better Together have attempted, in no uncertain terms, to highlight the fact it has no links to the Orange Order or the march. Their fear, and it is probably well-founded, is that any bad behaviour will rebound on the wider No campaign, with eager Yes campaigners seeking to tarnish it with the Orange brush. The waters have been muddied somewhat in recent days, however, with the DUP’s Sammy Wilson reported as suggesting there was a degree of sympathy towards the Order within the Labour Party. If this is the case, then Jim Murphy wants nothing to do with it based on recent comments. Those looking to substantiate the comments might refer to the appearance of Graeme Morrice, MP for Livingston, on the platform at this year’s Boyne celebrations in Bathgate.

Isolated comments or incidents aside, the demands of the independence campaign have arguably served to further the Order’s estrangement from mainstream political unionism, despite the fantasies some independence supporters might entertain. It is instructive to consider Liam Clarke’s recent assessment that the Order’s influence in Northern Ireland had grown to levels not seen Lord Brookeborough’s days. The differences in the social and political contexts are stark.

For some, independence is imagined to be like a guillotine that will sever Scotland from the influences of a contested past, with associations and preoccupations left behind. These individuals will be hoping Saturday is the swansong for the Order, to be followed by the break-up of the state from which its members derive an important part of their identity. It would be understandable if these same members were to consider their current marginalised position in a Scotland which is part of the UK and ask if it were likely to improve following a Yes vote. Would expressions of an older Britishness be accommodated as Scotland began its own march? Some would hope not but it will be in the handling of such things that the new Scotland will necessarily be measured.

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