Bitter divisions threaten Orange Order in fiery wake of Drumcree

 

Yesterday's statement by a group of senior Orange chaplains backing Rev William Bingham in his call to the Portadown Orangemen to call off the Drumcree protest shows how deep are the divisions in the Order after last weekend. They know that any attempt to force a way down the Garvaghy Road is now doomed.

This was a broadly representative group, including three of the five grand chaplains and around 15 of the 50 deputy grand chaplains, many of whom were either too frail to attend the drafting meeting or are away on holiday. One man who was there said only one of the chaplains he had contacted but who was unable to attend had problems with the statement.

"We are up to the neck in human excrement, as deep as we can get, and we are digging a hole as fast as we can in Portadown," said one senior Orangeman who wants the Drumcree protest called off immediately.

He feels considerable sympathy with Portadown Orangemen, who have lost eight parades in recent years. "They've got their backs to the wall. But that doesn't justify the kinds of acts we've seen. They can't be Pontius Pilate - the violence wouldn't have been there if the Orangemen had not been at Drumcree."

Another Orangeman says the damage caused to the Order by Drumcree and the Ballymoney murders could be limited if some resolution is found to the Garvaghy Road dispute by this weekend. Most observers believe that to be unlikely, despite the possibility of resumed "proximity talks" between Orangemen and residents in the next few days. The departure of thousands of Orangemen for their traditional summer break this week will improve the atmosphere somewhat.

"If it drags on longer than the weekend, then the danger is greater that it will start to fragment," says this man. He sees it as a positive sign that Joel Patton, leader of the hardline Spirit of Drumcree group, is due to start his holidays tomorrow. "It's a pity he didn't start them a month ago," he joked bleakly.

The fragmentation could see a breakaway led by Mr Patton and die-hards from Portadown, which an extremely weak central leadership would be powerless to prevent. Mr Patton is a member of Ian Paisley's Free Presbyterian Church, and some Orangemen wonder whether he has been taking lessons from that master of fomenting division in unionist institutions.

The DUP leader, who has not been a member of the Order for 40 years, was down at the Portadown barricades again on Monday night, urging on the diminishing number of protesters. "He's doing what he does best - cranking it up - and still using it as a way to get rid of David Trimble," said one Ulster Unionist Orangeman yesterday.

The televised heckling by Mr Patton and his acolytes of Rev William Bingham at the Co Tyrone Orange demonstration on Monday, and the scuffles which followed, will have done his cause little good among the majority of Orangemen, who are quiet, law-abiding, church-going people.

Off camera, Mr Bingham was attacked by a Patton supporter, grabbed by the throat and thrown into a ditch. It was an unprecedented - and, to many devout Orangemen, deeply shocking - public assault on an evangelical Presbyterian minister, a much respected and long-standing Orangeman, by one of his own "brethren".

However, there are those who wonder if certain Orangemen, angry and desperate after the defeat at Drumcree, might find Joel Patton's angry style of leadership attractive. They will not be concerned that the Drumcree debacle was also a defeat for the man who only 10 days ago was threatening to bring Northern Ireland "to its knees" if the Orangemen were not allowed down the Garvaghy Road.

The crowds who turned up outside the Portadown church last week showed two very different faces of the Order. Observers noted that on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights, the people who came in from Derry, Fermanagh. Tyrone and Down were overwhelmingly respectable and good-humoured. On Thursday night it was the turn of Co Antrim, the area most in thrall to the Spirit of Drumcree group, plus young loyalists from Belfast, and the atmosphere became strikingly more ugly.

Fear of the Portadown Orangemen splitting away is believed to be one of the factors in Co Armagh grand master Denis Watson's ambivalence on continuing the clearly abortive protest. Some who know him say his natural inclinations would be closer to William Bingham's, but as a man who was elected to the Assembly for the area on a "march-down-the-road" ticket, he has to stick with the Portadown irreconcilables.

The leadership is in a shambles. Last weekend the British Prime Minister's chief negotiator, Jonathan Powell, said it was clear that the Order's leaders should come out in support of the Armagh chaplain's call in the wake of the Ballymoney killings, but "they haven't got the balls to do it."

It appears to have been the intention of the Grand Master, Robert Saulters, and the Grand Secretary, John McCrea, to do that when they went to Portadown on Sunday afternoon after talks with the First Minister, David Trimble, and the Deputy First Minister, Seamus Mallon. In the event they were unable to convince the Portadown leadership, and their follow-up statement pledged continued support to the protest. Mr Saulters, a man of moderate instincts, has probably had enough and will depart when his term as Grand Master is up in December. His call for unionist unity and for a positive approach to the Assembly will fall on deaf ears.

At the moment there is no one on the horizon, other than extremists and mavericks, who seems at all interested in inheriting the poisoned chalice of the Order's leadership from him.

Many Orangemen, particularly the more old-fashioned, religiously motivated members, are frankly outraged at the events of the past 10 days. "We're up the creek without a paddle, and the creek is of our own making," said one prominent figure yesterday.

This man calls himself an Orange "fundamentalist", in that he believes in the fundamentals of Orangeism - the principles of the "reformed faith"; civil and religious liberty for all and brotherhood among Protestants. All three, he believes, have been terribly compromised by the confrontation at Drumcree and the violence it provoked throughout Northern Ireland. "The feeling of powerlessness and anger at the gutlessness of our perceived leadership is very widespread," he says.

Rev Warren Porter, a past assistant grand master of the Order, is another unhappy man. He went public after the chaplains' meeting on Monday night. "If the Orange Order departs from its principles, then I will have to part from it. And that will apply to more than me, " he said.

Orangemen are not used to defeat. "They will have to go away and lick their wounds - it's a new experience for them," said one sympathetic Unionist politician yesterday.