Belfast Orangeism: loud, proud and bigger than ever

Order sees need to change to maintain long-established sense of relevance

Isaac Andrews of the West Belfast Ulster Political Research Group at the Twaddell loyalist protest camp, manned every day and night, coming up to one year after a Parades Commission determination last July prevented three local Orange lodges walking along a stretch of the Crumlin Road back to their hall. Photograph: Justin Kernaghan/Photopress Belfast

Isaac Andrews of the West Belfast Ulster Political Research Group at the Twaddell loyalist protest camp, manned every day and night, coming up to one year after a Parades Commission determination last July prevented three local Orange lodges walking along a stretch of the Crumlin Road back to their hall. Photograph: Justin Kernaghan/Photopress Belfast

Mon, Jul 7, 2014, 06:46

The second biggest date on the Orange calendar apart from the Twelfth witnessed the second biggest Orange District on Earth take to the streets of east Belfast last Tuesday.

Thousands of Orange Order members from 37 lodges across the city and parts of north Down marched behind 37 bands, pausing only at a Battle of the Somme memorial built into a wall (appropriately enough of the Ulster Unionist Party HQ) to commemorate the blood-letting of the Battle of the Somme on July 1st 98 years ago.

There, Orange Order chaplain the Rev Mervyn Gibson poignantly recalled the savage loss of life on that day and prayers were offered. A bugler sounded the Last Post, as caps were removed and heads bowed.

Then off the massive demonstration headed as the bands struck up again and the legions of drummers lashed into a pulsating rhythm with almost seismic force. It was deafening – but the thousands who turned out to watch and enjoy found it thrilling as their cheers testified. It was loud and proud.

Flute bands predominate in the city while the rural lodges associate more with pipe or silver or accordion bands. They also drum like nowhere else. If it’s blood and thunder bands you want – come to Belfast.

For the community in this part of the city, this commemoration (first held in 1917) is one of the high points of the social calendar. For outsiders, particularly those with no notion of Orangeism or what it is all about, it is baffling. Apart from a short religious ceremony and wreath-laying, it can appear an odd way to mark the anniversary of a horrendous battle.

And that in turn leads to a dilemma which senior figures in the loyal order are aware of and keen to rectify. Back in the band hall where The Irish Times was warmly welcomed, the Rev Gibson acknowledges the image many have of both the Order and its demonstrations.

“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 – in the same way that the Irish community was once portrayed in America. Many Protestants say ‘we’re better than all of that’, but I find that sad. Nobody is better than anyone else.”

He says Orangeism rests on three pillars – an assertion of Britishness, an avowal of Protestantism and dedication to the community. People witness only the marches, but see nothing of the charitable and community work and have no grasp whatever of the social importance of nights like the Somme commemoration, he adds.

Raymond Spiers, an Orangeman of 49 years standing and the local district master, insists: “It’s not just about parades. We play an active role in community life. The Orange hall is used by many groups and we’re involved in a wider umbrella group called the Inner East Forum which represents the unionist and community groups. That was formed during the unrest when everyone was pulling in different directions. So we enjoy a high profile and we’re well thought-of in the community.”

The Orange institution unites, it binds, it fosters, it helps raise finance and – obviously – it entertains, they say. It is central to the east Belfast community – or at least the vast Protestant majority there – and the view it has of itself and of its history.

Billy Cummings, a founder member of the Albert Bridge accordion band and an Orangeman for 54 years, talks not of marches or loyalist politics or defending the union – but of working with young lads, getting them into bands, or the Boys’ Brigade and church groups. Like Raymond Spiers, he has sons in the Order, but like his colleague, he also has a son who is not a member. How then can an institution which attracts tens of thousands on to the streets to watch parades, possibly survive?

Both admit there was a time when you did as your father did and his father before him. There is a sound reason why the line “the sash my father wore” is included in the best-known marching tune of them all.

Cummings admits the “automatic decision” to join has gone but insists the Orange tradition and its links to church and British identity is still highly relevant. Part of the trouble is there are now a great many other things for young people to do, he says. That, allied to the emphasis on self before community, makes his work harder.

The answer, says Spiers, is to move with the times. The Orange Order is gradually seeking to redefine its image and to market itself, shedding the association with street drinking and disorder. He want rid of the “blue bag brigade” a sharp reference to the teens and 20-somethings with their plastic carrier bags full of cheap off-licence booze who can sometimes blight what ought to be a family event.

They say the new emphasis is on Orange parades as festivals. They want an association with fun, family and friends rather than political demonstration. “Years ago there was only the Order and the church,” says the Rev Gibson, “but society’s changed. The church, the Masonic, the loyal orders – membership is all down because things have changed. I actually believe we’ve been pretty good at keeping members, not losing them.”

It will soon be the Twelfth and the Somme commemoration has whetted the appetite for the biggest bash of them all. They look forward to the Twelfth with anticipation, but there is also a quiet sense of foreboding about what may happen at Ardoyne if a resolution is not found.

The welcome back for the local lodges to the east of the city after the main Belfast parade is the best there is – anywhere. So says not one Orangemen, but four – independently of each other. “There is just nothing like it,” says one, struggling to find a suitably effusive description. “British Ulster is the best place in the world.”