The Scottish-Irish Orange Connection

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 4 (Winter 1999), Letters, Letters, Volume 7

Sir,—In the last issue (HI Autumn 1999) T.G. Fraser (‘The Scottish-Irish Orange Connection’) claims that ‘no better reminder of one of Ireland’s most distinctive contributions to Scottish society could have been found than the parade held by the Loyal Orange Institution of Scotland in the south Ayrshire town of Cumnock on 12 September 1998…to commemorate the arrival of Orangeism in Scotland’.
A much more interesting ‘walk’ was held that summer in the north Lanarkshire village of Harthill, attended by none other than David Trimble, prominent Orangeman and leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. Far from underpinning any notion of Scottish-Irish Orange brotherhood, the events of that day exposed the gulf between the politics of Ulster Unionism and the harsh (from an Orange perspective) reality of Scottish politics at the end of the twentieth century.
Having led 500 marchers through one of the most deprived villages in Scotland, Trimble lectured them on the need to avoid giving succour to any kind of nationalism, Scottish or Irish. The Ulster leader’s ignorance of the nuances of politics in the west of Scotland was embarrassing. Many in his audience were perplexed by his advice. They may be pro-UK unionists, but many of them have consistently voted for the Scottish National Party at local and national elections. The reasons for this are at once complex and predictable.
The historic Orange loyalty to the Tory party in Scotland has gone, and no Protestant unionist party has been capable of garnering the so-called ‘Orange vote’. Referring to the Scottish general election of May 1999, Fraser states that ‘the fact that the fledgling [Scottish Unionist] party won some 7,000 votes seemed to offer the prospect of winning over discontented Conservatives’. Seven thousand votes may seem significant in a place the size of Northern Ireland, but in a country with an electorate of four million, it is minuscule. The reasons for this disaffection with the Conservatives are hinted at in Fraser’s article. He claims that the industries where Orangemen had been perhaps over-represented—given the demographic make-up of the west of Scotland—had gone into terminal decline. Coal mining, shipbuilding and steel making in Scotland had indeed all but disappeared by the end of the 1980s. Rightly or wrongly, the vast majority of Scots, including Orangemen, blamed Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative government. Add to this the ignominy of the poll tax—introduced in Scotland before anywhere else in the UK—and loathing of the Conservatives had become almost a badge of Scottish national identity. In Scottish political discourse in the 1980s, the Anglo-Irish Agreement wasn’t even a footnote.
The death of John Smith in May 1994 can, in retrospect, be seen as a turning point in the history of Orange politics in Scotland. The Labour leader was greatly mourned throughout the UK. A final tribute would have been the election of his successor with a massive majority. However, Smith died in the middle of a power struggle within his local party, a struggle simplistically characterised as one of ‘Protestant’ Airdrie v ‘Catholic’ Coatbridge. The Labour Party chose as its candidate the former general secretary of the party in Scotland, and a personal friend of the Smith family, Helen Liddell. Local Orangemen, including those in Harthill, saw the chance to flex their muscles in an area with a strong Orange tradition. Despite the evidence that the majority of Orangemen usually vote Labour, there remains the perception that the party is dominated by Catholics, like Liddell. Consequently, the Orangemen swung their support behind Labour’s main challenger, the SNP. They were actively encouraged by a minority of SNP activists from outwith the area.
The Monklands East by-election of June 1994 was one of the shabbiest episodes in recent Scottish political history. The constant baiting of Liddell, referred to variously as Helen Reilly (her maiden name), the ‘Coatbridge Fenian’, or more prosaically, ‘that Irish cunt’ (‘Irish’ referred to Liddell’s great-grandfather, born in County Armagh in 1847), left many Scots feeling decidedly uneasy. Liddell won the election by less than 2,000 votes, in what had been one of the safest Labour seats in Britain. In her victory speech, she castigated those in the SNP who sought to promote nationalism on the coat-tails of unionist prejudice.
The by-election was a disaster for the Orangemen, and merely served to discredit their attempts to unduly influence the Scottish political process. Chastened, the SNP has since gone out of its way to court the much larger Catholic vote in Scotland. Politically, the Orange Order, which had never officially declared for any candidate, was left bruised and isolated. The effects of Monklands East were still obvious when the Order voiced its opposition to Democratic Unionist Party candidates standing in the Scottish general election of May 1999, claiming their presence would only damage the cause of unionism in Scotland.
The Order in Scotland was also undermined by the Drumcree crisis of 1998. Following the murder of the Quinn brothers, the Scottish press reported a bizarre incident in which two Orangemen from West Lothian were seen to dance naked around a bonfire at Drumcree. It was this episode, with all its connotations of satanic ritualism, which prompted one of the Order’s Deputy Grand Masters, a Presbyterian minister, to resign. Another prominent Orangeman decried the fact that too many of the Scottish brethren wished they had been born in Ulster, contrary to Fraser’s claim that ‘Scottish Orangeism has long outgrown its Irish origins’.
The Orange Order in Scotland is seen to be wedded, primarily, to what can be regarded as the cause of ‘Ulster Protestantism’. Consequently, the abuse it has attracted from the media speaks volumes of the Scottish chattering classes’ attitude to Northern Ireland. It should also concern those Ulster Unionists who delude themselves into believing that Scots can be relied upon in any future Council of the Isles. The Scottish Labour Party is not about to antagonise its Catholic supporters, who form the backbone of its support in central Scotland, by coming to the aid of Trimble and co., while the SNP leader Alex Salmond, determined to attract those same Catholic votes, praises the Republic of Ireland and all things Catholic and/or Irish at every opportunity.
The Scottish unionist academic, Graham Walker of Queen’s University, Belfast, has bemoaned the ‘countless interventions in the Scottish press…stressing the theme of “Celtic solidarity” with Ireland, and praising the Irish Republic as a model of a small nation Scotland should follow’ (Scottish Affairs, Autumn 1998, 133-137). In contrast, Orangemen and their allies have been variously described in the Scottish quality press as ‘in-bred lumpen scum’ (The Glasgow Herald, 5 July 1991), ‘white trash’ (The Herald, 17 July 1998) and ‘ugly Huns’ (The Scotsman, 23 August l997).
Such attitudes are not new. Orange walks were banned from the streets of Glasgow and Lanarkshire for much of the nineteenth century. The authorities would not tolerate the violence and sectarianism associated with this alien, Irish, phenomenon. Professor Tom Devine of Aberdeen University, in his recently published The Scottish Nation, highlights the correlation between areas of Orange activity and settlements of Irish Protestant immigrants to Scotland in the nineteenth century.
T.G. Fraser refers to William S. Marshall’s excellent history of the Orange Order in Scotland, The Billy Boys. Its conclusions are worth quoting:
the Orange movement in Scotland remains an opaque society, still largely unknown but definitely unloved. Here indeed is a movement whose reputation has gone before it…It really can be viewed as the black sheep of traditional working class culture…History certainly suggests that Scotland’s relationship with Orangeism has not been a happy experience.

Attempts by Unionist politicians and academics to detect ‘ties that bind’ where few exist do little to further the debate on identity which is at the core of the Irish Troubles and which is only just being addressed in the new devolved Scotland. Scots are beginning to think again not just about their past, but about their current relationship with the world. Hopefully, ignorance and myth will not get in the way. Evidence suggests the vast majority of Scottish voters crave a modern, pluralist, liberal democracy, either devolved within the UK or independent. Tragically for Northern Ireland, they gaze across the North Channel and see only what to avoid.—Yours etc.,


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568