The Orange Order – Mervyn Jess

The Orange Order – Mervyn Jess

(The O’Brien Press £8.99)

In this brief survey of the Orange Order the senior BBC journalist Mervyn Jess, has brought all his media skill to bear as he presents us with an overview of the Orange Institution from its beginnings to the present day.

The first half of this book contains a general survey of the history of the Order followed by an explanation of the workings and ritual of the Institution.  This is inevitably followed by an analysis of Drumcree in which Neil Jarman is quoted as saying: “It could not see beyond getting down the Garvaghy Road.” . . . “I think a large part of the fault lies with the Orange Order itself. Tactically they played it very, very badly.”  Jess then deals with the influence of the Orange Order both at home and abroad.

However the most significant aspect of this book to this reviewer 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 recorded 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 present Grand Secretary, Drew Nelson, displays an alarming lack of clarity.  Questioned about the membership he claims that it “is roughly half the size of the British Army throughout the UK”. He also states that, “There is no problem keeping the city centre lodges going, we still have a sufficiently high membership in Belfast . . .” This is not borne out by recent academic analysis or the visual impact of the Belfast Twelfth. The membership of Grand Lodge is said to be “approximately 150 members”, when it should have read “approximately 450 members”.

When it comes to 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?

Mervyn Jess is not put off by such answers and he pursues 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 Orange Institution a hostage to fortune.

Among other things 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 did not have long to wait to see this statement contradicted by bands at the Whiterock parade on Saturday 30th June.

If this is the Order which Drew Nelson actually sees then it is little wonder that he can state in reference to criticism – “I think almost none of it is warranted”.

The Grand Secretary also makes some errors of fact. In order to discredit the Parades Commission he maintains that the two Orange members of the Parades Commission, “had to resign their membership of the Order to take up their posts. . .” This is not true. One subsequently resigned “for personal reasons” and the other is still a member of the Order.

Nelson also alleges, with reference to the PSNI, “new recruits being encouraged and allowed to wear IRA medals won by their grandparents.” Jess wisely quotes part of the PSNI statement which in no way endorses such allegations.

There are a number of recorded factual errors by Jess:

Edward Saunderson MP, was the Belfast Grand Master.  The Protestant Churches and the Order defeated Lord Londonderry’s Education Plan in the 1920’s. The Government grant of £100,000 was to help promote Orange parades as a tourist attraction in Belfast.  Ian Paisley is not a member of the Independent Orange Institution.

Jess also claims – “The Orange Order’s plan to establish an interpretative centre at the Boyne battleground . . .” This was in fact the initiative of the Irish Government, not the Orange Order, and announced in 1998 by the then Foreign Minister, David Andrews. The Ulster flag does not consist of the Cross of St George but the old Ulster De Burgh Cross.

There is an unfortunate choice of words in reference to the old Ulster Volunteer Force of 1912, when Jess states that they were, “the forerunner of the ruthless loyalist paramilitary grouping, the UVF.”

Jess concludes with a very balanced comment, which of course applies to many human organisations:

Behind the collarettes and under the bowler hats there are many good and honourable men yet within the ranks of Orangeism there are also dishonourable members. Despite the laudable community service work, the large sums of money raised for charity and no matter how convincingly the Orange culture card is played, the good men will still find themselves being dragged into the dock by the misdeeds of their less virtuous brethren.

Brian Kennaway

Author: The Orange Order: A Tradition Betrayed (Now available in Paperback)