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How conflict masked the Twelfth’s decline

When I remember the Twelfth of my childhood years, I see the banners of the Orange Lodges appearing, tops first, from the south side of Finaghy Railway Bridge, and rising up to the hump of it like the sails of galleons in a summer breeze.

For hours they breasted that bridge, fluttering at the top of it, gliding downhill to the field and rest. I used to wonder if the lodges arriving last minded missing the speeches that would have started before the men had even got settled and wrestled their boots off.

Those memories, if they don't exaggerate, raise a few questions to my mind about the fundamentals of orangeism.

One of these concerns the recurring defence of traditional routes. No one seems to mind that the parade doesn't go to Finaghy any more. They can have the excuse, if they want it, that the M1 was built across the field, but another harsh reality made that route unviable from the early seventies; it would simply not have been possible to protect the parade when Riverdale, where I lived, adjacent to Finaghy Road, was a no-go area, and armed IRA men walked about with little concern to conceal their weapons. It was like Laramie then.

I can't help feeling that the traditional routes that the Orange Order has been most concerned about are those along which the Catholic population was never quite large enough to to make rejection plain and final.

The main Twelfth Parade passes close to where I live now, and it seems much reduced from the glory days, when some would be preparing to leave the field when the last arrived. The bands and lodges are spaced more thinly — the numbers aren't what they were.

And if that is to do with change in Northern Ireland, the broader secularisation of Britain must be part of it too.

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The Orange Order seemed for a time, earlier this year, to have some political influence when it gathered unionist leaders to discuss possible pacts between them. In the real world, it is inconceivable that the Order could bring much influence to bear on these parties.

Conjure up a picture in your mind of the affable and blushing Robert Salter, sit him beside attack dog Peter Robinson, and ask yourself if it is really likely that the First Minister takes his instructions from the Grand Master.

At a gathering in Hillsborough Village Centre on Wednesday night to discuss Protestantism under the auspices of Hillsborough Lodge No 19, as part of their Festival of the Fort, there were few who remembered the Field at Finaghy.

One of them was Rev Mervyn Gibson, who marched there in the days before he joined RUC Special Branch. He recalled another change in the status of the Orangeman, that he was paid a half crown for holding the banner string in those days where today the Orangeman actually has to pay to take part.

Alliance Party MLA Trevor Lunn remembered the Twelfth at Finaghy too, and grew up near me. He said: “All the Catholic children from the nationalist areas came with us to watch the parade; it wasn't a problem.”

I had to explain to him that we were all there to collect the lemonade bottles and take them to the shops to get money back on them.

He concluded that from the past experience of reasonable amity towards the parade before the Troubles, there would be less opposition from residents groups if the Order confined itself to its religious roots, and was less political.

In addition, I suppose it would help if we went back to charging 3d on lemonade bottles, and turning the Twelfth back into a money-spinner for urchins.

But Mervyn Gibson reminded everybody that the Order has its origins in conflict and politics at its core, though he said he approved the uncoupling of the Order from the Ulster Unionist Party. He said: 'It was formed after a fight outside a pub; that's the roots of the Orange Order. That doesn't mean that we are going to stay in conflict, but it was born out of conflict.'

But he said that the Order |still retained the right to “speak out when the Union is under threat”.

I was on the panel myself, and argued that the Union was never under threat throughout the Troubles, a point that Jeffrey Donaldson beside me appeared to agree with me on.

Mervyn said it was under threat when the IRA was armed by the Irish Government, and attacked Protestants for 30 years, but I think the failing of unionism and Orangeism through that period was in not reassuring people of the obvious, that the IRA never had any prospect of driving Britain out of Ireland.

Instead, many attempted to reinforce their own political relevance by arguing that without consolidating around Orangeism, they would be absorbed into a united Ireland and the British link would end. It was always a myth, perpetuated by republicans and swallowed with relish by Orangemen.

The Orange Order not only exaggerated the republican threat, it inflated the importance of the Catholic church in the years of its actual decline. A former Grand Master Martin Smyth told a Vanguard rally in the Ormeau Park that there would be no IRA threat “if the Bishop of Rome would put his house in order’’.

The Orangemen had more faith in the power of the Catholic church than Catholics themselves had.

Many Catholic institutions, particularly the religious orders, were, like the Orange, huge and pervasive up to the 1960s, when the arrival of the parade at Finaghy was like a vast armada which, had we really feared it, would have stopped our hearts.

All have declined in power and importance in a changing Ireland.

Conflict masked that change. The Orangemen are now waking up to it.

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