During and after the UUP leadership election campaign, there was plenty of media focus upon the implications of Tom Elliott’s membership of the Orange Order.
In my last post, I highlighted an article by Liam Clarke. Clarke suggested that Elliott should be more like McCrea, if he wants to pick up the votes of presently non-voting unionists and the 20% of Catholics who are unionists. But is it really possible for a politician, who is a member of the Orange Order to succeed in picking up a substantial number of Catholic votes?
It is perfectly true that there is a market for disenfranchised Catholics. There are Catholics out there who would, in the climate of normal politics, vote for a centre right party. The Conservative Party has not yet found a way of connecting with these voters. It would therefore be very difficult for the UUP to do so.
There are many obstacles but two of them are directly connected to unionism and the Orange Order. One is the traditional Catholic view of Orangemen as insular sectarians. The other, not unrelated to the first, is Irish cultural identity. Could a leader of the UUP who was a member of the Orange Order crack those two problems? I think it is possible but it would take an extraordinary political leader to achieve it.
Some might find this hard to believe the following being said by me. If the UUP did have the right person with the right talent, it would not actually matter, subject to a couple of qualifications, if he was an Orangeman.
In politics, there is nothing wrong with belonging to a religiously bigoted organisation (or even a bigoted humanist organisation for that matter). All religions are bigoted but that does not mean that they engender political sectarianism. They will only be in the latter category if they tend to incite or promote division in communities along religious-political lines. The fact that there is bigotry in the dogma of a religion or a belief system should not matter so long as the politician is able to keep doctrine and dogma private, be able to act pragmatically in the national interest and meet the needs of people and society where they currently stand.
For an Orangemen to be successful as a cross community politician, he has to go further than I have suggested above. An Orange political leader has to find some way of dealing with the past. He has to send the right message of atonement to the Catholic community. He has to emphasise that Orangemen are obliged to love their neighbours, including all Catholics. He also has to transmit the sort of acceptance of responsibility for the wrongs of the past that David Cameron did when he apologised in relation to Bloody Sunday. Just saying all of those things is not enough. When he says it, people have to be able to understand that he really means it. If he can do all of those things, he could turn out to be a great leader from the Orange Order. Unfortunately, changes such as those, though they would be extremely important milestones, would not be enough on their own.
There has to be further connectivity with the Catholic community on the basis of their identity. There would have to be something in the policies of such a leader to connect with that identity. In the first place, hostility or mere antipathy towards the Irish language or Gaelic games would have to be consigned to the dustbin of history. Yes, he would also have to be prepared to bend to tokenism. That would include attending a GAA match.
A more economically liberal attitude would have to emerge in relation to the Republic of Ireland. Such a person would have to be open, from the point of view of Northern Ireland’s best interests, towards development of more cross-border initiatives and trade. Cultivating links with politicians in the Republic of Ireland would also be an important step in that direction. When those meetings are in the news, no opportunity should be lost to emphasise shared values.
If an Orange leader was capable of doing all of those things, then he would deserve to start attracting Catholic votes. What about the prospects?
Unfortunately, the emotional and cognitive experience of being a practising Orangeman is likely to lead to institutionalisation of standard viewpoints in politics. It would take an Orangeman of very substantial intellect to be able to set his own mind free from the sectarian box. Could Tom Elliott be that man?
In fairness to him, before “Gaelicgate,” he did put some noses out of joint within the Orange Order when he expressed a view that the Order should take a less prominent role in politics.
Against that, Elliot was perceived as having an opinion based on an insular mindset when he expressed hostility to the construction of two bridges near the border in Fermanagh. His speed of thought was found wanting when he was asked whether he would attend a GAA match. The omens do not look good.
I will remain open-minded about Tom Elliott. At the very least, he deserves some time to react to the novelty of his new position and to find that learning curve.