The Orange Order is back in the news again, following the announcement that it has a new Grand Master, Mr. Edward Stevenson. A typical Nationalist reaction to such news was “there goes the new head-honcho bigot”
We all need to be careful about our choice of words. All of us are imprinted with varying degrees of bigotry as we grow up. If your place of birth is Northern Ireland, the chances are that you have more religious bigotry to deal with than in most regions of Europe. Conquering one’s own bigotry, in relation to all forms of prejudice and intolerance, is just as much about developing an open mind as it is of being tolerant of the bigotry of others.
I do not have a problem with religious bigotry which is confined to doctrine or dogma. It follows that I don’t mind being told that I will “not be saved” or that I am following a “hellish path” if I abide by the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. It is all the sort of stuff which Protestants generally believe about Catholicism, whether or not they are members of the Orange Order. Where bigotry hurts is when it leads to inhumane behaviour such as avoidance, shunning, unkindness, intolerance, discrimination and, at the worst extreme, religious hatred.
On paper, at least, the Orange Order tells its people to show kindness and neighbourliness to Roman Catholics. Some Orangemen do just that and I am privileged to know some of them as my friends.
Unfortunately, these people do not represent the majority in that organisation. The majority of Orangemen are law-abiding citizens. They are also generally polite to Catholics and happy to do business with them. However, in their minds, Catholics are still “themuns.” In their hearts they still can not go as far as completely trusting them. They also find it very difficult to think non-communally. Real neighbourliness, which falls short of public duty, is hard to come by. This kind of thinking leads to discrimination and isolationism. It is not conducive to a shared future.
So far as Northern Irish politics is concerned, the Orange Order continues to dabble in politics, refuses to endorse political or religious pluralism and refuses to take responsibility for its role in past oppression of Catholics. At present, most UUP MLAs and most of its membership are still either members of the Orange order or very supportive of Orangism. The combined effects of these circumstances represent huge obstacles to progress for those Ulster Unionists who wish to move their party towards a more liberal position.
Tom Elliot has gone on record as saying that he wants the Orange Order to stay out of politics. Perhaps this is a recognition that an increasing number of Protestants are being turned off by the Orange Order and what it represents. Nonetheless, the appointment of a new Orange leader did not stop him from making a political gesture of ingratiation.
Meanwhile, the new leader of the Orange Order, Mr. Stevenson, did not disappoint his brethren when it came to stirring the pot. Outside Ballykelly hall, Mr. Stevenson announced that he would not be talking to Sinn Fein or the Parades Commission or attending GAA matches. There was nothing new in that. This was a leader of an intolerant organisation practising what it preaches.
The Conservative Party, if it has any ambition left in Northern Ireland politics, should avoid any association with Orangism. Unfortunately, the present link up with the UUP puts in jeopardy the Conservative Party’s non-sectarian credentials (more about that in a future post).
Meanwhile, the Orange Order’s declining membership roll can only be a good thing for Northern Ireland politics. The future is bright but it certainly is not Orange.