The Orange Order’s Belfast County Grand Master, Tom Haire:
“We are not a member of any political party, therefore I would say we are not political, but as an organisation we are interested in what happens in our country,” he said. “Orangemen and their families, are all part of the political scene, they all have their political views. I do believe we have a right to express the views that we are hearing from the people on the ground, from the grassroots. And people are fed up with one party sniping at the other and so forth.”
According to its own figures, the Orange Order presently has 35,000 members in Northern Ireland; that’s approximately 3% of the current Northern Irish electorate, 5.2% of the electorate who voted last May, 11% of the total who voted for the pro-Union parties. With those kind of figures, the Order is then merely a medium-sized lobby group in the context of the wider Northern Irish politics? No.
A total of 37 Northern Ireland’s MLAs belong to an Orange Order Lodge, that’s over 33% of the total membership of the Assembly, a staggering 66% of the combined total of pro-Union representatives. Those figures don’t represent the strength of a lobby group, more of the all-pervasive influence the Trade Unions imposed on pre-Blairite Labour. And as over time that Trade Union link proved to be a liability rather than an asset in the modern age to the Labour Party, I believe the same is true with the continuing Orange Link with political Unionism.
Firstly, as the above figures prove, the Orange Order holds very much a minority position, even in terms of the pro-Union electorate. Yet despite “Orange Votes” (assuming they all voted of course!) being only one tenth of that pro-Union electorate , two-thirds of the Unionist representatives belong to and presumably hold views commensurate with that organisation. In other words, in 2010 the views of our elected representatives on a whole host of cultural and religious issues are unlikely to tie in with those of a large majority of the potential electorate.
In its own words: “The Orange Institution is set for the defence of Protestantism.”
Fine, it’s obviously not on its own in nailing its identity firmly to the mast; other social/cultural/political and even sporting organisations do exactly the same in Northern Ireland. But by doing so, the Unionist MLAs who belong to the organisation are also leaving no ambiguity open as to which side of the communal fence they are happy to be residing. The perception inevitably strengthens then that N.Irish Unionism is not about building a Union open and welcoming all, but is instead about primarily ensuring the protection and survival of Ulster’s “British/Protestant” “Community”. Unionism, to have any kind of future, needs to move beyond the communal.
As a pressure or lobby-group the Orange Order gets involved in a number of issues; for example, the Pope’s visit to the United Kingdom, parades and most recently, “Unionist Unity”. Particularly the first topic has potential to embarrass elected representatives who are also members of the Order (although to be fair, several have disagreed with the opinions expressed on this one by the leadership). However, once again, none of those issues mentioned ( and the other ones the Order tends to get involved in) are what you would expect members of a political party hoping to attract the widest and greatest potential support to associate themselves with.
The Marching Season is upon us and hopefully will depart without any outbreaks of the kind of civil disorder seen in the past in places like the Ardoyne. If they do occur though, rest assured the media and the wider public focus will be full-square on the role and place of Order. Mud, even if it may be undeserved mud, sticks not only to the organisation itself, but also (because they are its public face) to its political members.
Due to largely its disproportionate representation amongst MLAs, Orange “business” tends to takes up an excessive amount of time and stress at Stormont, the latest case in point being the draft Parade legislation. In times of economic stress, such as we are facing now, it simply shouldn’t be the all-important priority, as it often seems, for the UUP and DUP. The general public seeing their jobs, homes and benefits slowly disappearing down the plughole surely can not be happy with this emphasis.
Finally, the fact that members of the Orange Order comprise such a high proportion of the Unionist political elite has an indirect effect of stifling alternative and diverse views within the wider pro-Union body politic. When Danny Kennedy sees fit to address the question of “Unionist Unity” at a Lodge meeting and when the vast majority of the Unionist leadership will be walking on Monday, what chance then of a secular, modernist, non-communalist voice being permitted to have its voice heard within the parties as a whole?
I’ve set up the six areas where I think the continuing Orange domination of political Unionism weakens the overall pro-Union cause. That was the easy part; how it is addressed is much more difficult and can only commence if we collectively agree that it is a problem- I’m interested to hear whether other Unionists, of both the Orange and non-Orange variety, believe it is.