By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)
The day after the massacre by the Real IRA of 29 people in Omagh, including a woman pregnant with twins, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and I were at Stormont Castle to meet Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and British prime minister Tony Blair.
Gerry and Martin were there to discuss the crisis after the mas-sacre. I was there as a press aide.
Prior to the meeting we waited in a small room; Gerry Adams drew my attention to a framed poster hanging on a wall.
It was a 17th century Orange Order declaration of loyalty to the British monarch.
It was neither the time nor the place to be concerned about the declaration or the significance of its location - the seat of British power in Ireland.
However, when I closed Mervyn Jess’s book The Orange Order it struck me it was both the time and the place to write this story into this review of Jess’s very interesting exploration of the history of the Orange Order.
Reading the book it is very easy to understand why an Orange Order declaration of loyalty would be hanging on a wall in the office of the British secretary of state.
For most of its more than 200-year history the order and the British government have been inextricably linked.
Indeed at times it is difficult to distinguish the difference between the needs of the British government and the Orange Order.
This book gives the reader a real sense that the Orange Order, from its formation in 1795, was a garrison force, ready and willing to fulfil British government policy - irrespective of the consequences for the Irish people or the Orange Order.
“As an institution it has never been far from conflict”, is how Jess describes the Orange Order’s place in Irish society.
Elsewhere we learn that two famous battles dominate Orange culture - the Battle of the Boyne and the Somme in the First World War.
In the intervening time the Orange Order is involved in other battles, many of which are displayed on its Orange banners.
There was the battle of the Diamond, Dolly’s Brae; as yeomanry against the 1798 Rising; opposing Catholic emancipation and home rule; forming the UVF and the Ulster Unionist Council; as members of the RIC, RUC, B Specials and UDR.
In more recent times the Order’s insistence on marching through Catholic areas where it is not welcome has led to serious violent conflict in Drumcree, the Ormeau Road, Springfield Road, Dunloy and the Short Strand to name the obvious examples.
The order’s involvement with the Crown forces in Ireland and its readiness to join them is hardly surprising when the roll call of those who set up the order is considered.
Those involved in forming the Grand Lodge of Ireland included one lieutenant colonel, one major, two captains, two warrant officers, eight sergeants and four civilians.
In the century before the order’s formation there were a number of rural Protestant organisations dedicated to maintaining the memory of the Battle of the Boyne.
These were known as Boyne Societies whose members were also to be found in the Peep o’Day Boys - a violent vigilante grouping responsible for the expulsion of ‘thousands of Catholics from their homes across central Ulster.’
Although the order’s original membership is a mixture of members of the Crown forces
and peasantry very quickly the landed gentry and the wealthy aristocracy joined.
The historian Eamon Phoenix described the order’s pan-class appeal: “Orangeism brought together the master and the man, the landed classes and the middle classes, the shipyard workers and the agricultural labourers.”
After partition you could not be either a unionist prime minister or a government minister unless you were a member of the order beholding to your lodge.
The order relies on three anchors to maintain its relevance: belligerency, religion and parading.
Its religious outlook is sourced in the Boyne which it still believes and teaches was a victory for Protestantism over Catholicism.
Its parading is sourced in its desire to dominate, which is reflected in a key chapter about Drumcree.
The book ends with a spokesperson for the order saying it is modernising itself but unless it deals with the issues which make it unacceptable to Catholics then its past will dictate its future.
* The Orange Order by Mervyn Jess, printed by O’Brien Press, price #8.99.