'We are not going to be bribed out of the United Kingdom' - Orange Order chief

Order’s grand secretary says talk of a united Ireland is a ‘scare tactic’ used by politicians

A stack of leaflets in the reception of the Museum of Orange Heritage in south Belfast shows a cartoon of golf club wielding Orangemen marching on to a putting green.

"Where's the 12th this year? Enjoy the Orange . . . and the greens," the leaflet reads, suggesting a visit to watch one of 18 Orange parades to tourists arriving early for next week's British Open at Portrush. It is the first time one of golf's "majors" has been played in Northern Ireland in 68 years.

Rev Mervyn Gibson, grand secretary of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, says the parades on July 12th, the biggest date in the unionist calendar, attract what the tourist trade calls the "culturally curious".

“They see a parade with colourful bands and banners, and music. To them, it is another Mardi Gras,” he tells The Irish Times as the Orange Order prepares for the Twelfth.

Sitting in Schomberg House's Aughrim boardroom – named after King William III's bloodier 17th-century victory in Co Galway – the Orangeman reflects on inclusion, and exclusion, as the debate rages around Brexit, stirring issues of political identity and nationality in Northern Ireland.

He says he has not read The Irish Times weekend interview with James Nesbitt but is interested in it given what he hears of the desire of the Northern Irish actor – a Protestant who sees himself as "an Irishman from the north of Ireland" – for "a new union of Ireland".

Rev Gibson says unionists “when they become famous” sometimes move away from unionism because it is viewed as being “on the wrong side of history” when “republicanism has all the romanticism”.

“People associate with that as opposed to what is viewed, wrongly in my opinion, as a bigoted and sectarian culture,” he says.

This Orangeman sees himself as British but "proud to be from Northern Ireland" yet with an "all-Ireland dimension" given that his father and grandfather came from Co Donegal.

“When you go sort of binary [and say] you can’t be Irish and British, that’s wrong; you can be both,” he says.

‘Project fear’

Rev Gibson does not see any risk to the North's place in the United Kingdom from Brexit and does not believe Northern Irish Protestant unionists have anything to fear. Talk of a united Ireland as a fallout from the UK's departure from the EU is a "scare tactic," he says, while warnings of a no-deal Brexit leading to a Border poll on Irish unification is part of "project fear" or people "playing politics with it".

He describes last year's visit of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to the Orange museum, becoming the first serving Irish head of government to visit the Orange Order's HQ, as "pivotal in changing and improving relationships".

Asked about Tánaiste Simon Coveney this week describing the risk of a no-deal Brexit never being higher, the Orangeman, who voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum, says he has "nothing to fear from politics".

A Border poll on Irish unification may indeed come but Rev Gibson “just doesn’t see the need for it right away”. Neither does he believe that a united Ireland is inevitable.

“What will come will come but I am not a doom-gloom merchant, saying it is around the corner,” he says.

He argues that the “three Bs” – as Rev Gibson calls “Brexit, the backstop and Border polls” – are being used “to unsettle the constitutional question” and to “create apathy among British people”.

“The only thing that will take us into a united Ireland is a vote of the majority of the people. As a democrat, I’ll accept that. I’m not going to go to war over it,” he says. He believes “backstops will come and go” but little will change as a consequence of Brexit or negotiations.

“We will survive as a British people here in Northern Ireland. We have faced a lot bigger challenges than that,” he says.

“We couldn’t be bombed or bullied out of the United Kingdom. We are not going to be bribed out of it now either.”

Rev Gibson questions how some unionists such as Ulster farmers opposed to Brexit for economic reasons could favour a united Ireland.

“One wonders that if someone can change their allegiance for purely economic reasons, what was their allegiance in the first place?” he asks.

Irish passports

Saying that, he understands how Ulster unionists can apply for an Irish passport for economic or pragmatic reasons if it makes travelling on holiday to Europe or to their Spanish holiday homes easier. As a Presbyterian clergyman, he regularly signs Irish passport application forms for unionists and loyalists, he says.

“It surprises me but I don’t think it diminishes a person’s Britishness. They are not signing them to be Irish; they are signing them for European citizenship, for the benefits of living or working in Europe,” he says.

This year’s Twelfth celebrations have drawn controversy over large bonfires set to be lit on the eve of the Orange parades across Northern Ireland commemorating the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Bonfire builders voluntarily removed tyres because of the risk from fumes but Belfast City Council insisted on material being removed from one large bonfire on the grounds of the Avoniel Leisure Centre in east Belfast. Rev Gibson has warned that further action could be seen by the community as an "attack on their culture".

“People think we go out to annoy someone or poke someone in the eye. That maybe happened in the past, by the nature [of] when it happened, where it occurred and as a response to something. But, by and large, people go out on the day to celebrate the day, not to annoy someone else,” he said.

He sees this year being no different because of Brexit. There will “political messages” on the day around support for remaining in the UK, for implementing Brexit and for the security services such as “Soldier F”, the former British soldier facing murder charges over killings on Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972.

Parachute Regiment flags have appeared next to Union Jacks and Ulster Banners on posts around Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland.

“We’re not majoring on those things. We don’t walk to protest in many instances. We walk to celebrate,” he says.