Glory Days of the Orange Order

The second part in a multi-part series examining the history and current context of the Protestant marching orders, this week looking at the Orange Order during the first Stormont administration, 1921-1972.

When seven Westminster MPs, all Orangemen, met in January 1886 in the midst of the Home Rule crisis to form what eventually became the Unionist Party, they set the stage for the relationship between the Order and the Party thereafter. The Order sought to have a direct and crucial influence on political decisions, an objective which was fully realised when Ireland was partitioned twenty five years later. ‘The marriage between the Unionist Party and the Orange Institution’ meant that ‘the Order became a central organisational link in the unionist political machine’ in the new Northern Ireland statelet.

Each of the six Stormont Prime Ministers between 1921 and 1972 were Orangemen, as were all but three Cabinet Ministers between 1921 and 1969. Three Orange ministers later left the Order, one because his daughter married a Catholic, one to become Minister of Community Relations in 1970; the third was expelled for attending a Catholic religious ceremony. Of the 95 Stormont MPs who did not become Cabinet Ministers, 87 were Orangemen. Every Unionist Senator between 1921 and 1969 - with one exception - was an Orangeman . One of these senators, James Gyle, was suspended from the Order for seven years for visiting nationalist MP Joe Devlin on his deathbed, showing, as Farrell puts it ‘even in death the Unionists were ungenerous’.

Orangemen in power used public office to make Orange exclusivism a central doctrine in state policy. Thus, Basil Brooke, then Minister of Agriculture and later Prime Minister, stated in Derry in March 1934: “ I recommend those people who are loyalists not to employ Roman Catholics, 99 per cent of whom are disloyal” . And in April 1934, the Prime Minister himself, Lord Craigavon, backed this up in the most infamous of the sectarian statements of the era: “I have always said that I am an Orangeman first and a politician and a member of this parliament afterwards ... All I boast is that we have a Protestant parliament and a Protestant state” . Although the rougher edges of this sectarianism were smoothed somewhat in time, even in the liberal 1960s, the same exclusivism came through in the sentiments of a later Prime Minister, Terence O’Neill, in May 1969: “If you treat Roman Catholics with due consideration and kindness, they will live like Protestants, in spite of the authoritative nature of their church” . Terence O’ Neill, himself a member of the Orange Order, Apprentice Boys of Derry and Royal Black Institution, divided unionist and Orange opinion. Hostility by some brethren to O’Neills reforms reached such a stage that George Forrest, the Unionist MP for Mid-Ulster was dragged off the platform during the Twelfth rally in Coagh, Co Tyrone in 1967 and kicked unconscious.

The vanguard of the Order in government and in Stormont was backed up by a huge and influential army of foot soldiers in the wider society. Probert estimates that in 1969 there were between 125,000 and 130,000 members of the Order. Even the shake up of unionism in the 1970s did not decimate the Order. There were still an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 members in 1980, 4,000 - 5,000 of whom were still in the South. The percentage of RUC members who were also members of the Order is unknown, but the B-Specials were almost exclusively Orangemen.

Such an organisation, reaching from workers, through the security industry and up to the top ranks of the government was a powerful political force. Although there were frequently severe tactical differences between different groups, the strength of unionism in the Stormont years was the ability to hold together as a strategically focused power bloc. The apparent enigma was that unionism united factory owners and those they employed and exploited, that “all the unionist leaders were members of a “squirearchy” leading a party which was predominantly working class” . The mechanism which held this together, the explanation of the enigma, was the Orange Order.

The Orange Order was not content to be merely a powerful force behind the scenes of politics and industry. There was also its public face, most apparent during the annual marches. Had those marches been confined to unionist areas it could easily be concluded that they were nothing more than folk festivals, the unionist community’s equivalent of Mardi Gras. But a key component of the annual marching was the objective of ‘flying the flag in enemy territory’. Miller concludes that “Orange parades can only take place either on the sufferance of the local Catholics or by virtue of an overwhelming show of force by the authorities”. This was apparent through the five decades of Unionist Party monopoly rule.

In 1935 the worst violence since the foundation of the statelet occurred, leaving nine people dead and 514 Catholic families, comprising 2,241 people, intimidated out of Protestant areas. The violence began on the Twelfth of July when the annual Orange march was returning from the Field (then in East Belfast) and invaded the small Catholic enclave of Lancaster Street, off York Street. For its part, the Orange Order blamed the violence on ‘that portion of the populace which ever arrays itself on the side of sedition and disloyalty’.

In the 1950s, the Longstone Road area near Annalong, County Down became the Drumcree of its day. In June 1952, Orangemen from Annalong went out of their way to march through the nationalist Longstone Road, which was not a traditional route. The march was banned by Stormont. The ensuing uproar from Orangemen and Unionists persuaded the Stormont government to back down and allow another Orange march through the area on July 3, 1952. But the route was blocked by local nationalists and the RUC did not have enough personnel to force the march through. Further parades in ensuing years were banned, but in 1955 permission was given for a Twelfth parade. 12,000 Orangemen, led by local Unionist MP Brian Faulkner, paraded twice along the road protected by 300 RUC men, many in riot gear. The following year a pitched battle ensued with an Orange march on Easter Monday. Locals blocked the road with boulders and farm machinery, but the RUC forced the march through eventually. At Easter 1958, 300 RUC men again forced a march through. Although the local nationalists suffered as a result of this annual invasion, not everyone was so unfortunate. Faulkner, like Trimble 40 years later, enhanced his public profile as a staunch unionist, a fact that led to his rapid rise in the party.

In 1968, two weeks before the Twelfth, Dungiven Orangemen marched without incident through the town to unveil their new banner. Two weeks later, nationalists blocked the local lodge as it marched en route to the Twelfth celebrations in Limavady. Many of the demonstrators were arrested. There was minor vandalism against the local Orange hall. So, next day, B Specials were sent to guard the hall; the District Commander of the B Specials also happened to be the Master of the Dungiven Orange Lodge whose march initially sparked off the trouble. That evening, the police baton charged a crowd of nationalists leaving a dance, killing 66 year old Francis McCloskey . An Orange march was the trigger for one of the first deaths of the current ‘troubles’.

When a civil rights march was announced for Derry on the 5th of October 1968 the Minister of Home Affairs at the time, William Craig, used the excuse of an alleged Apprentice Boys parade to ban both marches, a favourite tactic before and since.

One year on and the Apprentice Boys parade in Derry in August 1969 sparked off the Battle of the Bogside which was to eventually lead to the introduction of British troops following the most serious rioting in almost 50 years in Derry, Belfast and elsewhere in the North. The August parades were subsequently banned in 1970 and 1971. In 1972 the Apprentice Boys abandoned their attempt to parade across the bridge which had been blocked by British soldiers. A rally was held in the Waterside and addressed by the Rev. Ian Paisley.

The myth exists in some quarters that there was a ‘golden age’ in the 1950s and the 1960s when Orange marches were just fun, when even nationalists went to watch and when no nationalist had any objection to marches in their areas. That myth does not match the reality.

Direct Rule and the Orders

The explicitly political role of the Loyal Orders did not end with the demise of the ‘Orange State’. To this day they continue to influence unionist politics both at the centre and the extremes.

With the abolition of the Stormont parliament in 1972 and direct rule imposed from London, the monolith that was Ulster Unionism fragmented. Since the late sixties power was no longer in the hands of a single united Unionist Party. The role of the Order, as always in times of crisis, was to unite unionism and oppose concessions to nationalists. Months before the demise of Stormont the Scottish Grand Secretary, John Adam, trawled Orange lodges in Scotland looking for volunteers with military experience to “go to Ulster to fight”. Thousands are alleged to have ‘answered the call’ though the UVF said “it did not yet need them”. In a speech to the Oxford Union the Grand Master of the Order, Martin Smyth MP, compared the loss of Stormont to “the people of Prague when they wakened one morning to find Russian tanks on their streets”. (Did he subconsciously equate the Irish with the Czechs and the British with the Russians ?) He went on suggest to that Direct Rule was not regarded as “lawful government” in an ominous warning of things to come.

Meanwhile the Orange Order continued to parade. In June 1972, while a fragile cease-fire disintegrated during a confrontation in the Lenadoon area of Belfast, word came through that the British Army had forced an Orange parade through the Catholic Tunnel area of Portadown . The news was seen as further evidence of a breach of the cease-fire. The rerouting controversy was not limited to the Portadown area. Guelke notes that for nationalists “conflicts with the British Army over such sensitive issues as the routes of Orange Order marches provided an additional source of alienation from the British authorities”.

The first attempt by Downing St to hand some degree of power back to political parties in the North came with the publication of a White paper on a proposed new power sharing agreement between Unionists and the nationalist SDLP which was to include an ‘Irish dimension’. The intention was to isolate the IRA. The Orange Order rejected the White Paper out of hand . On December 3 1973 the Orange Order organised a meeting at the Ulster Hall together with the semi-fascist Vanguard movement, led by William Craig, (and whose deputy leader was David Trimble). Also present was Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party and the anti-power sharing faction of the Ulster Unionist Party . The loose right-wing alliance which emerged, the United Ulster Unionist Council (UUUC), went on to play a major role in the defeat of the 1974 power sharing executive. Staying with the eastern European theme the official organ of the Orange Order, the Orange Standard, called the power sharing experiment (Sunningdale) “the first Western example of Iron Curtain treatment of a satellite”. In order to co-ordinate opposition the UUUC went on to join a larger pan-Unionist front including at least seven loyalist paramilitary groups . A strike by loyalist workers, accompanied by widespread intimidation and a sectarian murder campaign, saw the British government accede to loyalist demands and the experiment was abandoned. The British Army had again refused to move against loyalists. At the height of the strike, the Portadown UVF, in collusion with the British security service MI5 which was attempting to destabilise the Wilson Government, planted no-warning bombs in Dublin and Monaghan. Thirty three people died. One of the strike co-ordinators, Sammy Smyth, said, “I am very happy about the bombings in Dublin”.

In September 1975 the Vanguard leader, William Craig, proposed a ‘voluntary coalition’ to run the North. The UUUC, including the Order, rejected the proposal. Soon after Craig was expelled from the UUUC. At the beginning of the month four Orangemen were murdered when a group calling itself the South Armagh Republican Action Force enter an Orange hall in Newtonhamilton and opened fire.

In the mid-seventies the Apprentice Boys of Derry decided to withdraw from the Ulster Unionist Party where they had been represented on the Ulster Unionist Council since 1911. The breaking of the link with Official Unionism was not however the result of any ‘depoliticisation’ within the organisation. The move was prompted by the growth in influence of the Democratic Unionist Party and the resultant need to accommodate the broader ‘unionist family’ within the Apprentice Boys.

The 1975 Twelfth Orange parade through the Catholic Obins St and Garvaghy Rd in Portadown takes place after the area is placed under de facto curfew by the security forces. The unionist orientated Portadown News commented, “A visitor to the town could have been excused if he had been under the impression that a fair proportion of the British Army stationed in Ulster had been drafted into the town, and an equally large proportion of strength of the RUC” .

Meanwhile loyalist paramilitaries again attempted to flex their muscles in a political strike, in 1977. Though supported by Paisley the strike was criticised by the Order and the Ulster Unionists. The strike action failed to win widespread support and collapsed.

The ‘unionist family’ was to remain divided. The Order continued to call for a ‘crackdown’ on the IRA and a return to ‘majority’ (Unionist) rule. Not all emergency measures taken against the IRA were to meet with the Order’s approval however. The Exclusion Orders by which entry to Britain could be denied prompted the Orange Standard to comment “Soon the British Ulsterman may find himself as persecuted as the German Jew in the early days of Hitler, through the existence of offensive legislation such as the Exclusion Order...” . There was one person however whom the Orange Order did wish to have excluded. When it was announced that the Pope was to visit Ireland in 1979 the Order joined Paisley in warning the ‘anti-Christ’ that he was not welcome North of the border .

Portadown again became the centre of attention in 1981 when residents attempted a sit-down protest to stop the Drumcree Orange parade. The RUC, having batoned residents off the road, allowed the parade which included the two Unionist MPs, Harold Mc Cusker and Martin Smyth, Grand Master of the Orange Lodge of Ireland. One of the ‘walking brethren’ was George Seawright, the controversial DUP politician who later called for Catholics to be “incinerated” and was himself assassinated by the IPLO, a splinter republican group.

In 1983 the Irish Government sets up the New Ireland Forum in a renewed attempt to isolate republicans and bolster the electoral fortunes of the SDLP . When the report of the Forum was subsequently published the Orange Order added its voice to the chorus of unionist condemnation with resolutions being passed at Twelfth parades throughout the North .

The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 saw a closing of the Unionist ranks, again in opposition. The Agreement set up a joint Secretariat at Maryfield in Belfast allowing the Irish Government an ‘advisory role’ in decision making, a move which infuriated unionists. Against a background of rioting and attacks on the RUC the Order concluded that “the Agreement and those who signed it have many sins to answer for”. One of the ‘sins’ that had to be answered for was the rerouting of Orange parades away from nationalist areas of Portadown, sparking rioting between Orangemen and the RUC in 1985 and again in 1986. The banning of an Apprentice Boys parade in March 1986 in Portadown “leads to furious clashes between the RUC and loyalists..” During the clashes Keith White became the first Protestant to be killed by a plastic bullet . The homes of over 500 RUC members in loyalist areas were attacked in the controversy surrounding the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the rerouting of parades. A former SDLP mayor of Derry, Joe Fegan, called for the annual Apprentice Boys parade to be banned . In a later fraternal message from the Grand Master of the Orange Lodge, Martin Smyth MP, to the Apprentice Boys of Derry, Smyth reminded the faithful that “we still resist the false claims of Popery and throw off the shackles of the Anglo Irish Diktat”. while a Deputy Imperial Chaplain of the Orange Order, the Rev Robert Coulter, compared the Agreement to that obtained by Chamberlain at Munich and warned, “the betrayal of Chamberlain led to a blood bath and Margaret Thatcher’s treachery could introduce to N.I. and Eire one of the greatest blood baths in their histories”.

At the December ‘Shutting of the Gates’ ceremony the General Secretary of the Apprentice Boys puts the high attendance down to “ the feeling of opposition to the [Anglo-Irish] Agreement and the celebrations are being used as one way of making ... [that] ... protest”. Earlier that month the Apprentice Boys joined the Orange Order, Royal Black Preceptory, Official Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party in a rally against the Agreement in Coleraine.

In response to the disputes surrounding parades the Public Order (N.I) Order 1987 came into force requiring prior notification of all parades.

At the 1989 Twelfth parade in Portrush the Grand Chaplain of the City of Londonderry Orange Lodge and former Moderator of the Presbyterian church, Rev. Robert Dickinson, reminded the brethren, “We again face tyranny, not only from the IRA but a deceitful Government, a European Government and the Roman Catholic Church.” He went on to accuse the Archbishop of Canterbury of “hatred of Ulster Protestants”.

The decision by the Apprentice Boys of Derry to apply to the International Fund for Ireland for funding sparked protests at the 1990 August parade. A number of clubs carried banners demanding, “Say No to Blood Money” while Paisley led a protest at a rally outside the courthouse where he claimed that the proposed grant of some #200,000 was “a bribe to get Protestant people involved in the Anglo-Irish Agreement” . The ‘Boys’ deny that Paisley may be expelled from the organisation because of the protests.

On the Lower Ormeau Rd in Belfast five Catholics were murdered in a bookies shop by the UDA in February 1992. That July Orangemen march past the site of the killings and some of the marchers gave five-fingered salutes in mockery of the five dead. The Secretary of State, Patrick Mayhew, condemned the actions of some of the marchers saying they, “ would have disgraced a tribe of cannibals” but then allowed further parades by the Loyal Orders along the Lower Ormeau Rd over the next two months. In the week leading up to the July parade Orange spokesmen repeated that they could not understand why Catholic residents of the area are offended. Earlier that same week, Archie Mc Kelvey, an Orangeman of over 40 years standing was expelled from the Order for having attended Catholic church services . Riots which accompany the annual Twelfth parades in 1992 result in the death of Kieran Abram. At the trial for manslaughter of three men accused of involvement in his death Justice Mc Collum said of the Twelfth, “hatred and antagonism are aroused, and the rituals surrounding the activities of those preparing for what is supposed to be a celebration, reflect the awakening and also the encouragement of those feelings of hatred and antagonism”. The Grand Lodge of Ireland reacted to the comments with “incredulity”.

The publication of the Downing Street Declaration prompted Brother Melvin McKendry to warn readers of the Orange Standard “... when will the majority of people in Northern Ireland realise that while they wish to be British, that the Queen, the Government, and the entire opposition in Parliament don’t want them as part of Britain.” which meant in effect, “Goodbye Northern Ireland, we are rewarding your loyalty to our Queen and our country by giving you to Albert Reynolds and the terrorists” . The Loyal Orders were not however content with mere statements opposing the political initiatives of the period. In February 1995, the DUP called a meeting of the ‘unionist family’ at its east Belfast headquarters. That the DUP had convened the meeting was not unproblematic since the ‘unionist family’ was in dispute over just who was head of the ‘family’, Paisley or Molyneaux. The nine organisations who attended included the Ulster Unionists, the Popular Unionist Party, the Orange Order and the Apprentice Boys of Derry. The Governor of the latter organisation, Alistair Simpson, commented, “We, in the Apprentice Boys, have been calling for the development of a united unionist approach for some time, and last week’s meeting was a welcome move in that direction”.

Five months after the meeting the first stand-off began at Drumcree between Orangemen and the RUC. The Order stressed that it was a religious body and again feigned surprise as to why local Catholics should resent the parade or the organisation. The resolution passed at Drumcree that year stated, “We totally condemn the tyrannous and unnecessary interference with the peaceful procession returning from a Protestant place of worship on the Sabbath Day”. One month later, in August, the Apprentice Boys of Derry were granted permission to parade the full length of the city walls, a move which sparked sit-down protests and later led to rioting. The Apprentice Boys maintained that they were merely exercising a cultural tradition. The fact that both organisations also follow a clearly political agenda was lost in a meaningless verbal maze of ‘traditional church parades’, ‘civil and religious liberty’ and the ‘inalienable right to march’.

[to be continued]

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