RITE AND REASON:NOW THAT the dust has settled on another Twelfth of July celebration it is surely time to take stock of the revelations recently made, and confirmed, about falling numbers in the Orange Order, writes BRIAN KENNAWAY
It is some nine years since I commented on declining numbers in the order.The only thing which has changed since is that the haemorrhaging has continued and now the leadership has acknowledged it.
Such an acknowledgement requires deeper analysis.
In any mass membership organisation there will always be fluctuations in numbers. There has been a steady decline in numbers from 76,000 members in 1948 to 35,000 today.
Over the years when the institution has been challenged on its obvious decline it has responded with highly inflated if not false claims.
The Orange Standard, the official newspaper of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, has as recently as September 2006, maintained that numbers were "not in decline".
Grand secretary Drew Nelson has responded to the recent revelations of decline by saying that Northern Ireland is becoming a more secular society, in which the Orange Order was seen by some as old-fashioned.
He said: “We are an organisation that expects our members to go to church at a time when church attendance is declining . . . The question is why considerable numbers of young Protestants continue to join an organisation with such traditional values.”
However, do such statements stand up to public scrutiny? After all, one of the most long-standing criticisms of Orangemen is that their members do not attend church regularly. Though this criticism is more applicable in some areas than others, it is particularly valid in areas like Belfast and south Antrim.
When local people, Protestant or Catholic, see Orangemen parading on the Twelfth of July who have little or no connection with any church, they find it hard to believe that it is what it says it is – “Christ-centred, Bible-based, church-grounded”.
What of this new mantra of 100,000 members worldwide? Are we seriously expected to believe that there are 65,000 members from Canada to Togo? A “Christ-centred, Bible-based, church-grounded” organisation should above all be truthful!
Is it going to cause irreparable damage to reveal the membership within each jurisdiction?
Nelson has claimed that it is the “high standards” demanded of Orangemen which has contributed to the declining membership. Surely the very opposite is the case.
Is it not the image projected by the Orange Order today which prevents individuals with “high standards” from joining? This opinion is supported by recent letters in the press which cite as reasons for decline the “tarnished image in the eyes of many Protestants”.
In reality it is also the paramilitary influence and connections evident in some areas which prevents people with “high standards” from joining.
People in local communities know “who’s who”. When they see paramilitary members, and in some cases leaders, walking with an Orange Lodge they are far from impressed. In some cases the paramilitary connection is not revealed until a death notice appears in the press, from both their lodge and the particular paramilitary organisation.
There comes a critical point in every organisation when issues have to be faced as to whether or not the organisation can be sustained. With rising costs having to be met from an ever-declining and aging membership, the Orange Institution is coming closer to that critical point by the day.
Rev Brian Kennaway is former education convenor of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland and author of The Orange Order: A Tradition Betrayed