The Orange Order: a tradition betrayed

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2006), Reviews, Volume 14

The Orange Order a tradition betrayed 1The Orange Order: a tradition betrayed
Brian Kennaway
(Methuen,  £15.99, ?23.25)
ISBN 0 413 77535 6
The author of this work has been an Orangeman for over 40 years and a senior member of the Grand Lodge of Ireland for 25; for years he has been one of the most public faces of Orangeism and is frequently called upon by the media when seeking comment on Orange affairs. In writing this book he has done something rare: he has broken ranks with many of his brethren and put before the public a severe indictment of today’s Orange Order; he castigates its leadership and makes no bones about accusing it of leading the Order into a moral and political quagmire. Yet he himself remains a staunch member, believing in what he calls the Order’s core values. The purpose of his enterprise is to rescue the Order from a looming perdition. On the book’s flyleaf we are told that he writes more in sorrow than in anger.
But the Revd Kennaway does not simply give us a moan. He seeks to convince us that the Order’s true values—enshrined in its ordinances and constitution—are compatible with tolerance and equality, and that a reformed Order, true to its history, would be a force for good in Northern Ireland’s divided society. On the basis of the accusations he makes here, and the prima facie evidence that he assembles to support them—together with the well-attested reputation of the Order for bigotry, coat-trailing and street violence—he may have to write more than one book, or indeed a multitude of books, before he can persuade the public to soften its perceptions of the Order.
But Kennaway is patently sincere. He is a man of known integrity and, curiously among Orangemen, he is a liberal who has no hang-ups about working with people of goodwill of all persuasions. He is, in fact, a fine, decent Ulsterman and would be a credit to any community. But he is still something more: he is a man of high courage who has dared to spill the beans, knowing full well what wrath will descend upon him.
What is his case against the powers-that-be in the Orange Order? Put simply, he believes that they have lost the plot. They are weakened by a sectarianism that few of them even acknowledge, are politically myopic to the point of stupidity, and more than a little ambivalent about matters such as the Belfast Agreement, the peace process and, it would seem, Loyalist violence. They are, in fact, a hidebound and unsophisticated bunch without vision or plan; a dust-jacket quotation from Ruth Dudley Edwards (who is presumed to know the genus) refers to them as ‘fools and knaves’.
Kennaway holds that as a result of its inept leadership the Order has become discredited and cut off from much of its normal support. It has not, however, split—that is something that he says it does not do—but it has severely haemorrhaged. Its membership stands at an all-time low (about 30,000); many of its most able are either disenchanted or have drifted away. There are few graduates in its ranks; to all intents and purposes it is a proletarian outfit, heavy with riff-raff, plus an argumentative, obscurantist, rural wing. It has no power, no influence, no prestige, and is spurned by the Protestant middle classes, who are embarrassed by its vapourings and antics. People in the know largely see it as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
The tenor of Kennaway’s remarks is that if the present leadership continues the Order will self-destruct or fade away. His book is a clarion call to those who will listen, to wake up and pull back from the brink. But will anyone lend him an ear? The omens are not good. Orangemen are notoriously bad listeners and prone to resent being instructed.
A good example of Orange mulishness is found in the Order’s attitude to the famed Drumcree débâcle. A knowledge of rocket science was not required to see that Sinn Féin had laid a trap for the Order. Adams and McGuinness had two purposes: they wanted to test the British government’s ‘parity of esteem’ policy and at the same time provoke the Orangemen, whom they knew to be irked by concessions to the nationalist agenda. The idea was to pit the brethren against the police and army whilst Sinn Féin sat back and watched the fun.
The ploy worked. The Orangemen behaved exactly as predicted. They foolishly walked into the snare, not once but annually for four years! The episode caused a rumpus in the Order and gave rise to the ‘Spirit of Drumcree’ faction that set the brethren at loggerheads. Some may remember the amazing scenes on television during the 1998 ‘Twelfth’ at Pomeroy, Co. Tyrone, when a spat broke out and bowler-hatted Orangemen waded into each other with furled umbrellas. The repercussions of these events still reverberate and matters may not yet be resolved.
In truth the Orangemen’s posture at Drumcree did not permit the flexibility to deal with the predicament. As before, they believed that strength of numbers and tenacity would permit them to bulldoze past all obstacles. Belatedly realising their impotence, they were reduced to writing supplications to the Garvaghy Road residents, who, of course, simply laughed at them. So did the rest of the world. Had they listened to Kennaway’s sane voice and that of other sensible folk they would have avoided the resultant odium.
Is Kennaway correct in thinking that the Order would be a force for good if loyal to the values of its basic documents? The problem is that for a long time—even before this leadership took office—the Order’s stock traded at basement prices. Rightly or wrongly, it is perceived as a crude ‘kick-the-pope’ organisation, whose members’ fulminations about ‘popery’ are insulting to Catholics, neighbours and fellow citizens who espouse that religion. The meritorious features of its ordinances seem like a list of banalities that have little bearing on how Orangemen behave in the real world. The dichotomy between its precepts and its practice strains the confidence even of the most ecumenical.
What exactly does the Order stand for? By its own account it exists to protect the tenets of the Reformed Faith and to maintain Northern Ireland’s connection with the crown. Neither of these purposes can be construed as illegitimate or, given the reality of political allegiances, even unreasonable. It is the Order’s clumsy, disrespectful and inappropriate expression of them that gets up people’s noses. Can Orangemen not recognise, for instance, that some of their marches reek of triumphal intolerance? The annual procession in commemoration of the Battle of the Boyne can be compared to the British Army insisting on marching through Paris every 18 June in celebration of its victory at Waterloo, its bands playing tunes that insult the memory of Napoleon and denigrate his soldiers. At the Boyne, good men fought on each side. Who could deny the courage and patriotism of Sarsfield, or that he too was fighting for religious and civil liberty?
Many find it difficult to see Orange marches as other than old-fashioned methods of dominance. They carry a subliminal message for Catholics: ‘We are your superiors. We know that you hate this demonstration of the fact. We dare you to do something about it: if you don’t, you confirm your inferior status.’ The swaggering braggadocio of the bandsmen appears designed to ensure that the message gets through.
Are Orangemen as bad as they are painted? Of course not. To most of them and their families Orangeism represents a way of life. The local lodge provides conviviality and companionship; its rituals have a meaning and rhythm that tap into the wellsprings of their faith. Its halls are often focal points for local communities and serve as venues for a range of gatherings other than those strictly Orange. The lodges frequently raise money for charities and often provide welfare services for members who suffer bereavement, illness or hardship.
Crucially, membership of a lodge can give a sense of ‘belonging’—an important factor in a cold, technological age when many working-class people feel increasingly alienated and rejected. This social aspect of Orangeism has been seriously neglected by historians and sociologists, who prefer to concentrate on the overtly political or religious. In all, Orangeism is archaic and extreme and not far from absurd. People’s attitudes towards it tend to rest on their experiences of its various facets, although some, for political reasons, wilfully demonise it. History certainly suggests that Ireland’s relationship with it has not been happy.
Brian Kennaway is the first insider to take the lid off the movement. His book pulls no punches and is the most refreshingly straightforward treatment recently available. It should be bought, borrowed or nicked by everyone—irrespective of their political or religious views—who seeks to get beyond the myths and find the truth. It is not, however, a historical work; in all but one chapter it deals with the contemporary Orange Order.
Kevin Haddick Flynn


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