Efforts to rebrand the Orange Order are doomed to failure

Opinion: North’s Protestant middle class has already abandoned the organisation

Preparing for the Twelfth. The bonfire is ready to be lit and the middle class has left town. Photograph: Reuters

Preparing for the Twelfth. The bonfire is ready to be lit and the middle class has left town. Photograph: Reuters

Sat, Jul 12, 2014, 01:00

Here’s a question. Is the festival of stomping, shouting and sunburn currently being endured in parts of Ulster the only such patriotic celebration that doesn’t have a name? In Sydney they enjoy Australia Day. German Unity Day has been a holiday in that country since 1990. And so on. But the Ulster Protestant celebration is always simply “the Twelfth”.

How appropriate. This is a locale so devoted to austerity that – as evidenced this week – its bakers refuse to provide Bert and Ernie cakes for gay weddings. The non-conformist sects have always shunned frivolous decoration. There the event sits. Its well- scrubbed face is unadorned by make-up. Its blouse and tights are modest. Nothing so idolatrous as a name defies its ruddy purity.

A great deal has changed in the North over the past 20 years. The Twelfth has, however, remained largely the same. Continuing a conversation that has been going on since the time of the Trilobites, the Parades Commission was, this year, asked to decide whether the Orange Order could bark its way past the Ardoyne in north Belfast.

The commission said it couldn’t. The unionists sulked. Various politicians sighed. Meanwhile, the second Ice Age enabled the evolution of certain larger land-based vertebrates.

Yet the Orange Order and its satellite bodies will keep paying lip service to modernisation. The most hilarious manifestation of this urge occurred in 2008 when – catching up with a cultural phenomenon that emerged in the US between the world wars – a special committee devised a superhero to represent the Order’s aims and philosophies.

“There were many strong entries such as Sash Gordon, Sashman and the Boyne Wonder,” David Hume, the Orange Order’s director of services, said in a statement that immediately rendered all satire irrelevant.

They eventually settled on “Diamond Dan the Orangeman” but, sadly, the campaign fell apart when it was revealed that Dan’s image had, without proper authorisation, been plucked from a digital library. The proposed Orangefest faltered.

Fun for all the family?

The Twelfth does sound like fun for all the family. After pounding about the Province in clothes ill-suited to the summer months, you get to stand in some awful field and listen to lectures from red-necked clerics whose theological beliefs make the Witchfinder General seem like Hans Küng. Still, there doesn’t really seem much chance that the Twelfth is, any time soon, going to become this island’s version of Mardi Gras.

You can dress it up however you like, but the event remains profoundly entangled with exclusion and bigotry. “Today defending Protestantism is not so literal as it was in 1795,” the Orange Order says on its website. Yet it remains an organisation that does not welcome Roman Catholics (or their spouses). Good luck flogging that to a modern secular tourist constituency.

This is not to suggest, of course, that all Orangemen are dreadful people. Earlier this week, Dan Keenan, writing in this newspaper, addressed the challenges for Orangeism.

Neanderthal and archaic

The Rev Mervyn Gibson, Orange Order chaplain, in the course of a very civil conversation, made a comment that got to certain issues rarely addressed outside Ulster. “There are those who condemn the Order, they say it’s too working class, it’s archaic, it’s Neanderthal, it’s got a knuckle-dragging image,” he said.

They do say that. They say it within Northern Ireland. And many of those who say it were raised as Protestants. We can debate whether the Order is still fighting a religious war. But it is certainly fighting a class war, and not in the way that many Southerners might think.

Visit the leafy glades of middle-class south Belfast this week and you will discover a virtual ghost town. Along the residential avenues of the Malone Road and within the chi-chi eateries of the Lisburn Road, a soothing torpor reigns.

It is some time since these parts of Northern Ireland were Protestant enclaves. Indeed, more than 10 years ago, a Unionist politician guiltily told me: “Some of my less enlightened colleagues refer to it as Vatican City.”

But the mass exodus on “Twelfth Week” has gone on for as long as anyone living can remember. Urban middle-class Protestants in Northern Ireland have never had much time for all that marching, lemonade-drinking and empty bellowing. Seek the barristers and doctors on July 12th and you need look to the golf courses of Florida, Andalucia and Donegal.

The wealthier Northern Ireland gets, the less keen its citizens will be on irritating the blameless shopkeepers of the Ardoyne. It’s a slippery sort of argument. The Order is as much at risk from snobbery as it is from enlightened inclusivity. Oh well. You take your allies wherever you find them.

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