Orange Order leader warns of ‘downward spiral’ in North-South relations

Organisation calls for a ‘change in attitude’ from Dublin and withdraws from Shared Island Unit

A file photograph of Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar meeting the Grand Secretary of the Orange Lodge, Rev Mervyn Gibson at Government Buildings. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

A file photograph of Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar meeting the Grand Secretary of the Orange Lodge, Rev Mervyn Gibson at Government Buildings. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

North-South relations will fall into a “downward spiral” unless unionist anger over the Northern Ireland protocol is addressed, a senior Orangeman has warned.

The grand secretary of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, the Reverend Mervyn Gibson, said the relationship between unionists and the Irish Government was “at a low” and he expected it would deteriorate further “unless there is a change in attitude” from Dublin.

The Orange Order has withdrawn from involvement in the Shared Island Unit in the Department of the Taoiseach, saying it could no longer engage with it.

The €500 million Shared Ireland Unit was set up in 2020 to examine “the political, social, economic and cultural considerations for a shared future in which all traditions are mutually respected”.

In a letter to the Taoiseach on Thursday informing him of its decision, the Order said the protocol had “fundamentally damaged relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland” and criticised the Government’s “scant regard” for unionist views.

“The Orange family will not play any part in a process that masquerades as two neighbouring jurisdictions improving relationships for the benefit of both countries when in reality they pursue an agenda that enforces a protocol that normalises and ‘talks up’ the inevitability of a United Ireland,” the letter said.

No regard

“The Irish Government’s attitude in recent times has shown that they have no regard for the unionist community in Northern Ireland who they now view as collateral damage in their political strategy.”

In a statement on Friday, the Government said it had not yet received the letter, adding that it has “engagement with the Orange Order in a number of areas and would wish to maintain and further develop that in the period ahead.”

Unionists are opposed to the protocol – the part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement which relates to Northern Ireland – because it places a customs and regulatory Border in the Irish Sea, between the North and the rest of the UK.

The main unionist parties want the protocol scrapped, and last month the DUP announced it would stop all cross-Border activity related to the protocol as part of its five-point plan to “ditch the protocol”.

Rev Gibson said the Order’s decision was a follow-up to this, and he expected other “civic unionist” organisations would make similar moves. “This is only one body we’ve withdrawn from. There are other actions on the margins wider unionism will be taking as well to show their anger at the South,” he said.

“Every organisation will make up their own mind, but as people see how bad the protocol becomes I think people will then see, well, you can’t ride two horses in the Republic, you can’t build relationships and then at the same time destroy Northern Ireland, which is what’s going to happen.”

He said the protocol needed to be changed radically, and these changes had to take place “peacefully and democratically”.

Concerns have been raised over the potential for loyalist violence amid heightened tensions over the protocol in loyalist areas.

Political and constitutional

The Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), an umbrella group which represents loyalist paramilitary organisations the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando, said this week opposition to the protocol “had to be political and constitutional in nature”.

Meanwhile Northern Ireland’s former first minister, Peter Robinson, writing in the News Letter on Friday, said he could think of no time over his 50 years in politics where unionists have felt “more alienated than they are now”.

Unionists, he said, “discern that Northern Ireland’s relationship with Great Britain has changed without their consent” and feel “estranged from the prevailing political arrangements”.

He warned that “we are perilously close to a line which, when crossed, will lock us all into a pattern all too familiar to my generation” and if this sense of estrangement is not addressed it could, for some, “morph into rejection of the political process”.

He said there were “forces using the exigencies of Brexit to advance a programme of constitutional change through stealth and propaganda” and warned those “driving this agenda forward” to “take care”.