Orange Order public relations disaster
Orange Order public relations disaster

By Danny Morrison (for Daily Ireland)

It is almost the Twelfth, when Orangemen across the North march in their thousands to celebrate the victory of William of Orange over James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. It was 300 years ago, but doesn’t it seem as if it were only yesterday?

If this celebration and those of the Apprentice Boys and the secretive Royal Black Preceptory were solely a bit of pageantry about historical events, they would be fairly harmless and we could all join in, watch as spectators or simply pass by.

However, the Twelfth of July was never just about history but was a unifying force within unionism, an expression of sectarian triumphalism and exclusiveness. It was (Orange arches in the workplace are thankfully now prohibited) and still is aimed at alienating nationalists -- thus the importance of parading through or close to nationalist areas and singing anti-Catholic songs to remind the besieged residents of their place in an Orange state.

Although the struggle for full and equal rights remains uncompleted and continues, the irony is that Orange and Apprentice parades have played a central role in the chain of events that have led to the undermining of unionism and the Union and to the galvanising of the nationalist community.

A further irony is that any intelligent Orange representative who appreciates this fact and attempts a compromise with nationalists is ridiculed and scorned for being “in breach of Grand Lodge policy” when actually trying to improve the order’s image. Earlier this year, the order severed its formal links with the Ulster Unionist Party while moving closer to the Democratic Unionist Party.

In 1969, the Twelfth marches resulted in rioting in Belfast and Derry, almost as a prelude to the riot directly sparked by the march of the Apprentice Boys in Derry on August 12. That riot turned into the Battle of the Bogside. It was a major challenge to the authority of the unionist government at Stormont because nationalists were determined that the writ of the RUC would run no longer in the “Bog”.

A few months earlier, the RUC had gone on the rampage in the same area, assaulting people, including Sammy Devenney -- who died of his injuries that July.

The RUC in Derry was so exhausted after days of fighting that the government mobilised the B Specials and planned to send in RUC reinforcements from other areas. Nationalist protests across the North were meant to tie down the RUC but, in Belfast, the B Specials, loyalist mobs and the RUC reacted by attacking and setting fire to hundreds of Catholic homes, mostly in the Falls and in Ardoyne. Eight people were killed across the city. The ill-preparedness of the republican movement for those attacks contributed to the split in the IRA and the emergence of the Provisional Army Council.

An IRA armed struggle was not inevitable, even if it was the strategic objective of some republican leaders. Only eight years earlier, the IRA had been forced to abandon its Border campaign because of lack of support. Immediately after August 1969, support for the IRA was based overwhelmingly on it being a defensive body. Conditions were simply not there for an armed struggle, nor were republican volunteers prepared or trained adequately for a campaign.

Again, it was Orange marches -- and British army support for those marches -- that were to trigger a series of events that were to create the necessary conditions for armed struggle.

On June 27, 1970 in Belfast, the Orange Order planned to march past Hooker Street on the Crumlin Road, where Catholics homes had been burned down, and up Cupar Street past Bombay Street in the west, which had been similarly razed to the ground.

We know from documents and records that both the British and unionist governments were told by their own advisers that these marches were provocative and would lead to widespread trouble. But we also know that Sir Ian Freeland, the General Officer Commanding of the British army in the North, made the following remark to the joint security committee:

“It is easier to push them [Orange marchers] through the Ardoyne than to control the Shankill.”

It spoke volumes for a mindset that still persists among many in the PSNI and the British administration. It explains why loyalists have been allowed to march past Ardoyne and feel no compulsion to negotiate. But it is an issue, like Garvaghy Road and the Lower Ormeau, that ultimately damages the cause of those the marching is meant to placate. Such pandering postpones the day of a settlement based on the rights of residents and marchers alike.

As predicted, widespread rioting broke out on June 27 and ended up in gun battles and loss of life in various parts of Belfast. In Ballymacarrett, a loyalist attack on St Matthew’s church was repelled by members of the “Provisional IRA” after the British army had refused to intervene. Paddy Kennedy MP approached a British patrol for help and was told: “You can stew in your own fat.” Several men died, including the Catholic defender Henry McIlhone, while the senior IRA figure Billy McKee was wounded.

The Stormont government took no responsibility for what had happened and blamed republicans. At the next meeting of the joint security committee, on July 1, it was decided that the authorities had to “restore the military image” and put down trouble “with maximum force”.

This explains the Falls curfew one week later and the raid and seizure of arms that had never been used against the British army but were there solely for the protection of people who had experienced terrifying government pogroms just ten months earlier.

The curfew, by alienating and politicising a huge swath of nationalist opinion, was to dramatically change the political context. When the British army first came onto the streets in 1969, it was welcomed by the majority of nationalists as their protectors. Over subsequent months, this benign image rapidly changed as the Brits became a mere tool of unionist repression, then later the enforcers of British direct rule.

Stormont had also been dragging its heels on introducing reforms. Many nationalists -- particularly among the working class -- were coming round to the republican view that they could not get their civil rights until they had got their national rights and that this would involve an armed struggle against the government and the system.

It was this mood that the republican movement tapped into and it was after the curfew that the IRA slowly began its campaign, beginning with sabotage operations against key installations and using incendiary devices timed to go off at night in large downtown stores. All of its first military strikes were initially described as “reprisals” for specific British army or RUC attacks on nationalists. There was no military blueprint. The campaign in its early days was largely a matter of improvisation. By the time the campaign was full-blown, republican military structures were still only being put in place in many areas.

Orange marches (and, indeed, other protests such as those at Harryville and at Holy Cross) were to play their part again and again in influencing national and international opinion about the sectarian nature of unionism. But it was the Drumcree protest and the demand to get marching down the Catholic Garvaghy Road that probably did most to hurt the Orange Order, as well as demoralise its members over their failure. Supporters of their cause burnt three children to death and shot dead a Catholic taxi driver out of spite.

Yes, the Orange Order -- whose purpose was to galvanise Protestantism and unionism -- has certainly undermined the cause it espouses, though few of its members appear to appreciate this.

The Orange Order is truly a public relations disaster.

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