Orange Order must adhere to Christian ethos

Orange Order must adhere to Christian ethos

It is very unusual to say the least that two books on the Orange Order, directed to different audiences, should appear within weeks of each other. Eric Kaufmann’s The Orange Order: A Contemporary Northern Irish History is an academic study while Mervyn Jess’s The Orange Order is a popular production in journalist style.

Kaufmann’s analysis makes a shocking and compulsive read, all the more because he had access to the Order’s internal documents. He statistically analyses the various political, religious and social trends within the Institution, and quickly defines, using all his sociological skills, various groups within the Order as ‘reformers, ‘rebels’ ‘conservatives’, ‘populists’, ‘traditionalists’, ‘liberals’ and ‘moderates’.

What makes Kaufmann’s book a major contribution is the fact that this is a critical analysis, based largely on the records of the Institution itself. He argues that the traditional Orangeism of the West of Ulster is being replaced by the more militant Orangeism of Antrim and Belfast.

Kaufmann covers all the major events in the recent sorry history of the Institution. Drumcree is covered objectively as well as the impact of the ‘Spirit of Drumcree’. The relationship with loyalist paramilitaries and the vexed question of discipline are addressed with critical analysis. The decline is membership is both analyzed and diagnosed.

His conclusions do not make comfortable reading. He poses the question – “Have the Order’s actions measured up to its ethical standards?” The report card he says is “mixed”. He further states: “Orangeism’s principal failing is its history of resisting measures designed to equalize the economic and political status of Catholics and Protestants. It has also reacted suspiciously to policies designed to increase inter-communal goodwill and has been far too equivocal about the violence caused by its Loyalist supporters and some unruly members.”

Mervyn Jess on the other hand presents us with a more ‘populist’ book. The first half of this book contains a general survey of the history of the Order followed by an explanation of its workings and ritual. The most significant aspect of this book is the second half in which he allows the Orange Order and its opponents to speak for themselves. Some of the things which the Order says about itself may not be palatable – even to those within its ranks.

The longest interview is with an anonymous Orangeman, who, clearly and with obvious sincerity, expresses views which no authentic Orangeman could contradict. Gerry Kelly on the other hand claims – “I think in our own way, we can prove we are not about wiping out the Orange culture”. The evidence is still awaited.

The interview with the Grand Secretary, Drew Nelson, is one of the most astonishing aspects of this book. Questioned about the issue of criminality it is not a sufficient for a religious organisation to hide behind the excuse that “Northern Ireland is a very morally ambivalent society . . .” Neither is it convincing to state “lodge members convicted of sex offences are more likely to be a problem for the Orange Order than paramilitary connections . . . it is likely that any Orangeman placed on the Sex Offenders Registrar will face automatic expulsion”. If this did not happen in the past, what confidence can there be that it will happen in the future?

Jess is not put off by such answers and presses Nelson on the paramilitary issue by way of questioning him on the “flute bands that have close ties to loyalist paramilitaries”. The answers are astounding and will leave both Drew Nelson and the Institution a hostage to fortune.

Nelson says: “There certainly should not be any band involved in an Orange parade carrying anything that implies support for the present day UVF . . . I was told that bands have stopped doing this. . . my understanding is that they no longer carry anything implying support for illegal groups. . . We would not engage a band that carries any insignia or flags that imply support for an illegal organisation.”

We will not have long to wait to see the evidence for such statements!

Together these books are complementary and contradictory. Drew Nelson’s statement by Jess is contradicted by Kaufmann, who says, “In the end, the sword is mightier than the pen, and the Orangeman must do the paramilitaries’ bidding.” This appears to be confirmed by interviews with, Drew Nelson, among others.

What both these books do is highlight the fact that the public perception of the Institution stands in total contrast to its own acclaimed standards. It is hoped that they will make a major contribution to an understanding of the Orange Order, but particularly a self-understanding.

If the Orange Institution is to have any credibility in the modern world it must be seen to be what it claims to be: “a Christian organisation . . . Christ-centred, Bible-based, Church-grounded”.

The Rev Brian Kennaway is is a former education convenor with the Orange Order and author of the book The Orange Order: A Tradition Betrayed, now in paperback

This article appeared in the July 17, 2007 edition of the Irish Times.