Culture and the protection of identity

“Cultural Dimensions of Conflict”

“The Protection of Identity”

I am always reminded, when I ponder the subject of ‘culture’, of the words of the German playwright  Hanns Johst:- ‘Whenever I hear the word culture. . . I release the safety-catch of my Browning!’

How do we define CULTURE? – “a particular society at a particular time and place”. All sorts of dynamics are involved in culture – looks, dress, food, language, identity/nationhood, religion etc. Culture is therefore not static but rather it evolves in accordance with the various changes in the dynamics of society.  You cannot therefore, in some sense, protect cultural identity.  How do you protect that which is evolving?

The United Nations Economic, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) described culture as follows:

“… culture should be regarded as the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, and that it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs[UNESCO. 2002. Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity.] . 

On the basis of that definition religion therefore plays a significant role in culture.  In the past in this island there were three significant and distinctive religious groups – Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter.  The dynamics of each of those groups have changed beyond all recognition in the last 100 years, as a direct result of the changes in society in general.  Partition has played its own particular role in helping to create six distinctive religious groups. Each group – Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter have different and distinctive dynamics North and South.

With the welcome influx of the migrant communities we now have in addition to traditional cultures, emerging cultures which ought to command our respect and support.

If however, cultural identity is understood to be the unchanging values of civic society – values like respect for human relationships, tolerance of those with whom we differ [“Vive la Difference”], respect for the environment in which we live – then these values ought to be guarded and protected.


From a broadly Orange, Unionist and Protestant perspective the issue of CULTURE is, I believe, a relatively recent subject for discussion.  The word ‘Culture’, for example, does not appear in any of the foundation documents of the Orange Institution.

The oldest document of Orangeism which has remained virtually unchanged since 1798 is known as the BASIS.  While it does not use the word ‘culture’, it does give expression to what we might call the ‘cultural ideology’ of a people. It reads:-

The Institution is composed of Protestants, united and resolved to the utmost of their power to support and defend the rightful Sovereign, the Protestant Religion, the Laws of the Realm, and the Succession to the Throne in the House of Windsor, BEING PROTESTANT; and united further for the defence of their own Persons and Properties, and the maintenance of the Public Peace.  It is exclusively an Association of those who are attached to the religion of the Reformation, and will not admit into its brotherhood persons whom an intolerant spirit leads to persecute, injure, or upbraid any man on account of his religious opinions.  They associate also in honour of KING WILLIAM III, Prince of Orange, whose name they bear, as supporters of his glorious memory.

There are a number of cultural values which are highlighted in the BASIS, and which I believe fit into the UNESCO definition of culture – “spiritual, . . .value systems, traditions and beliefs.”

● Being unashamedly Protestant. – (‘The Institution is composed of Protestants’)

● Defending the values of eighteenth century society – LOYALTY (‘defend the rightful Sovereign’) – RELIGION (‘defend. . .the Protestant Religion’) – CIVIC RESPONSIBILITY (‘defend. . . the Laws of the Realm’).

● Being unashamedly Orange – (‘They associate also in honour of KING WILLIAM III, Prince of Orange, whose name they bear, as supporters of his glorious memory.’)

If it is true, that culture is not static but evolves in accordance with the various changes in the dynamics of society, this raises a number of crucial questions which I want to address.

Can evolution become revolution?

Can a culture be created?

How far can culture evolve without loosing its raison d’etre?

What is really worth protecting within Protestant culture?


Like many things within that broad Protestant community which I have described, it has been REACTIVE.  The ‘they have we must have syndrome’.

We have seen this more recently in terms of the Ulster-Scots tradition and the Somme commemorations – which we will examine later.

We have seen this over the last forty years.  The reaction to the IRA campaign was the creation of the UDA. etc.,


The IRA have a political voice – Sinn Fein – therefore the UDA have their political voice the New Ulster Political Research Group (or NUPRG) founded in 1978, which then evolved into the Ulster Loyalist Democratic Party in 1981. In 1989, the ULDP changed its name to the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP), which dissolved itself in 2001 following very limited electoral success. The Ulster Political Research Group (UPRG) was subsequently formed to give political analysis to the UDA and act as community workers in loyalist areas.

There is also a NEW ‘Flag Culture’ which apes the other side – Nationalist areas erect Palestinian Flags and Loyalist areas respond with Israeli Flags, without seemingly any realisation that loyal British Solders from Ulster were murdered by the Israeli during the emergency in Palestine in the 1950’s

Within the broad Protestant culture there has also been a micro-culture which has developed over recent years. The ‘Loyalist Culture’ which has developed is so fragmented that it is difficult to define.  Loyal to what?  The Community?  The State?

The ‘Band Culture’, which has developed over the last twenty-five years has been more revolutionary that evolutionary.  The ‘Kick-the Pope’/‘Blood and Thunder’ band, with its paramilitary influence if not connections, has replaced many of the great bands of the past.  This is particularly seen in urban areas though it also appears in parts of rural Ulster.

As with ‘Loyalist Culture’ so ‘Band Culture’ is seen as at threat to the Roman Catholic community.  But it is also seen as an embarrassment to many in the Protestant community, who fail to see either ‘Loyalist’ or ‘Band’ culture as an authentic expression of their cultural identity.

The question remains, are these NEW CULTURES worth protecting?


Significantly, during the period of the Drumcree stand-offs, we can observe a subtle shift in the language of press statements issued by Grand Lodge, from the religious nature of the Institution to cultural rights and heritage.  There appeared to be a lack of understanding, not only of the nature of culture, but of the true nature of Christianity itself.  Christianity cannot be tied to any particular culture, and indeed Christians are not to become adjusted to the prevailing culture of the society in which they live.  Biblical Christianity is, to use the words of John R.W. Stott, “counter-culture”. * Christian counter-culture The message of the Sermon on the Mount, John R.W. Stott, Inter-Varsity Press 1978.

Culture, from the Reformed Evangelical theological perspective, develops from the religious/philosophical views of its participants.  It is the tangible expression of religious thought, not the cause of religious development as is sometimes suggested. The real danger for the Institution is that culture becomes the substitute for faith.

The revamped WEB Site of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland in the spring of 2003, continued to affirm the authentic, traditional position of the Institution:

The Order with its proud history is primarily a religious organisation that also expresses the culture of a people. 

This is still the official position of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, as is noted on their WEB SITE: Under the heading – “The Religious Basis of The Order” – “The Orange Institution is a Christian Organisation” – “It is Christ-centred, Bible-based, Church grounded”

Recent months however have demonstrated something of a ‘shift’ in the customary ‘head-in-the-sand’ approach of the Orange leadership.  We have witnessed visits by the leadership of Grand Lodge, to Áras an Uachtraráin, talks with the Department of Foreign Affairs, the SDLP and even with Archbishop Dr. Sean Brady. (No Orange Chaplain was part of the delegation, though the Royal Black Institution was represented by a Chaplain)

In a recent interview in the Irish Times (17 June 2006), Drew Nelson, the Grand Secretary and possible future Grand Master revealed his visionary thinking to take the Institution well into the twenty-first century. The Orange parades, he suggests, should be ‘celebrated the way Brazilians celebrate Mardi Gras.’ That is certainly ‘visionary thinking’.

Was he not aware that ‘Mardi Gras’ (French for “Fat Tuesday“) is a Roman Catholic celebration that is held just before the beginning of Lent?  Besides how would the highly decorative spectacular of half naked women fit in to what Drew Nelson previously described as the first ‘core value’ of the Institution – ‘the preservation and propagation of the Protestant religion.’? (Belfast Telegraph 28 April 2006 )

Also in recent months we have heard a new word which suggests and emerging culture – Orangefest

The Grand Lodge Web site reveals:-

Drew Nelson, Grand Secretary of the Orange Order, said that over the last two years senior Orangemen had visited both London’s Notting Hill Carnival and the Alarde Parade in Hondarriba in the Basque region of Spain.

“These study tours flagged up important issues about the organisation of large street festivals in the 21st century. The most important lesson we learned is that civic involvement is vital at a time when all public events throughout Europe are subject to increasing regulation”, said Mr Nelson.

Is ‘ORANGEFEST’ the answer? No more that ‘Mardi Gras’ is the answer to the protection of cultural identity.  Because there is a foundation within Protestant culture beyond which we cannot go otherwise we lose our raison d’etre, that is the authority of Scripture!

If the Orange Order is – “. . . a Christian Organisation” – “It is Christ-centred, Bible-based, Church grounded”, then this is the dynamic which must be to the fore in its cultural expression.


I also detect in recent years a searching for a renewed, if not new, cultural identity.  This, as already inferred, is seen in the relationship of the Orange Order to the Ulster-Scots tradition and to the commemoration of the sacrifice of the Somme during the First World War.

The theological makeup of the Institution at its foundation was largely Church of Ireland (Anglican).  Even given the Ulster dominance within the Institution in the twenty-first century, it should be remembered that the plantation stock of Ulster was made up both of Ulster-Scots Presbyterians and English Episcopalians.  The Anglican influence appears to have been forgotten by some.

This was illustrated clearly in the March 1999 edition of the Orange Standard, in which the Executive Officer, George Patton was quoted as saying, with reference to the Orange Festival at the Waterfront Hall: “This is an extremely important moment in our history and we must stand proudly together in our Orange and Ulster-Scots heritage. . .”.  What about our Anglo-Irish heritage?  Turning to page 10 of the same edition of the Orange Standard we can discover the answer, in an article by R.G. McDowell, – they are ‘now extinct’.  Making reference to the make-up of the United Irishmen the author stated:

The United Irishmen got their name as they were supposed to be an alliance between the Irish, the Scots-Irish and some radical element of the now extinct Anglo-Irish. (Italics mine).


While there is an acute danger in equating Orangeism to Ulster-Scots, an even more radical element of the Ulster-Scots tradition finds itself sitting comfortably with the British Israelite Movement.  Not only is this reducing the revered to the absurd, but also it is also grossly offensive to thousands of individuals who treasure their Ulster-Scots heritage, and cringe when it is made a laughing stock in the eyes of the world in general, and the academic world in particular. To equate the Orange Order to the Ulster-Scots tradition is to do a disservice to both.

Coinciding with the welcome interest in the Republic of Ireland in the sacrifice of the Somme, there has been a renewed, if not exaggerated, interest of the Orange Order these events of 1st July 1916.

While I do not want to underestimate the courage and sacrifice of these who were described at the time as ‘Lions led by donkeys’, there is the real danger of so elevating the Somme, in exclusively Orange terms, that it passes into folk lore on a par with the Boyne.  The implication of that would be to make it exclusive rather than inclusive.

The Portadown Times archives have the names of 321 local men who died in the1914 -18 War. According to a letter to the Portadown Times in 1999 from David Jones, the Press Officer for Portadown District only 22 were members of Lodges within the District.  Of those 22 who died throughout the Great War, 5 died at the Somme. The other 299 causalities were a mixture of Roman Catholic and Protestant non-Orangemen.

Most recruits from the wider Portadown area were in the County Armagh Regiment of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, a Regiment thought to have the highest number of Roman Catholic recruits in the 36th Ulster Division, approaching 50%.  The danger of colouring the Somme ‘orange’ is obvious.


Cultures are worth protecting and preserving so long as they are AUTHENTIC!  That is a culture which has an AUTHENTIC, historic past, even tough it is evolving taking into account the dynamics of the changing society within which it functions.

A culture is worth protecting and preserving which adds to the value of society as a whole, making it a richer and more diverse society. An AUTHENTIC Orange cultural identity is therefore worth protecting.

Culture which evolves without losing its core values is worth protecting and preserving, but not a culture which is artificially created.  There is a danger of creating an exclusive culture which would exclude Edward Carson because he was a Dubliner and an Anglican. There is a danger for Orangeism, of developing a monolithic culture which will resemble that of de Valera more than that of Carson.

In terms of the FAITH BASED Orange culture to which I belong, the problem lies not so much in the culture itself, but some of the expressions of that culture which at times gives the greatest cause for concern.

How can we best protect our cultural identity?  By being true to yourself !

This above all: to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man. [Hamlet]


This presentation was given at the Glencree Centre on 26th August 2006