To understand Orangeism, a movement which had its origins in the religious and political conflicts of the Europe of the seventeenth century, might well appear to be an impossible task as we enter the twenty-first century.

The formation of the Orange Order or the Orange Institution in 1795, one hundred years after William’s Irish campaign, has often been described as the coming together of various loyal fraternities which already existed at that time.  There had been the long established ‘Orange tradition’ of Williamite Societies.  These various fraternities, ‘The Boyne Society’, the ‘Enniskillen Society’ and others, met in memory of William and the Constitutional Settlement.  The Boyne Society had branches in many parts of Ireland, particularly in Ulster, and was still going strong in 1795. There was also the Volunteer movement, recognised by many historians as the forerunner of both the Orange Order and the United Irishmen. A third source was the ‘Orange Boys’ formed by Presbyterian farmer James Wilson of the Dyan.

These groupings all came together under the pressure of the agrarian attacks of the ‘Defenders’ on the Protestants of County Armagh.  Outside Dublin, County Armagh was the most densely populated County in Ireland in 1795, and this put particular pressure on the possession of land for a livelihood.  When these groups came together after the ‘Battle of the Diamond’ on 21st September 1795, the Orange Society was born.  Later it was to be more correctly known as the Loyal Orange Institution of Ireland.

It will be evident that the Loyal Orange Institution of Ireland was a manifestation of Orangeism and not Orangeism per se, the same is true today.  Orangeism in itself, apart from any particular organisation, is a much broader philosophical concept, embracing the great principles of the sixteenth century Reformation, and lived out in the lives of all those who embrace its core values.  This is ethical Orangeism.  While it was born in the religious and political conflict of the sixteenth century, it is fundamentally pro-Protestant and not anti-Catholic.

One of those ‘fundamentals’ of Orangeism is “Civil and Religious Liberty”, or to use the modern term “Human Rights”.  This had its origins in the reign of William III.  William responded to the invitation of influential English and Scottish Protestants, and invited to rescue their rights and liberties and be their King. He arrived at Torbay on 5th November 1688, with a fleet of ships.  The flag flying at the masthead of the Brill, the frigate carrying William, carried the message “The Liberties of England and the Protestant Religion I will maintain”.   This was a combination of the purpose of his mission – “The Liberties of England” and the motto of the House of Nassau – “I will Maintain”.

This has to understood in historical terms.  Chief among the opponents of ‘liberty’ – both civil and religious in the sixteenth century was the  Roman Catholic Church.  The Protestant Reformation was a reformation for Christian liberty.  This liberty which is embraced by not only all true Orangemen, but all true Protestants, was displayed on the evening of Saturday 11th January 1998.  The Grand Master Robert Saulters, accompanied by several senior Orangemen went to the ‘Church of Our Lady’ in Ballymena’s Harryville Estate, in support of the worshippers who were being picketed by a ‘loyalist’ mob.  As parishioners went in and later came out from the Saturday evening Mass, the Orangemen stood outside the Church  behind the banner which read; “Orangemen support civil & religious liberty for all”.  Members of the Orange Institution came from all the main Protestant churches.   That broad inclusive churchmanship has in the past, kept the Institution from becoming sectarian.

Those who attended with the Grand Master were; the Rev. Dr. Warren Porter, Assistant Grand Master, Colin Shilliday, Assistant Grand Treasurer and ex officio member of the Education Committee, Rev. Brian Kennaway, Convenor of the Education Committee, Rev. Ian McClean, Grand Chaplain of County Antrim, Rev. Derek McMeekin, Deputy Grand Chaplain and Minister of 1st Ahoghill Presbyterian Church, and Graham Montgomery, District Lecturer of Magheragall District Lodge in County Antrim, and also a member of the Education Committee.

The world in which the Orange Institution now operates is a very different world from its origins, or indeed the world of the zenith of its influence, at the turn of the twentieth century.  The Institution has not the influence in society which it once had.  It is no longer the organisation to join if you want to get on in the world.  In the closing years of the last century, when there were over twenty Lodges in the capital, Dublin, many were made up of the professional classes.  Solicitors, because it was perceived to be a way of promotion, were more than willing to advertise their membership.

Today, in Belfast many of the business people no longer belong, and in many cases have no sympathy for, the Orange Order.  This is largely because of the confrontational image which the Institution has projected, as the conflicts over parades have taken on a life of their own.  There is also the reluctance to be identified with a group which might lead to some personal financial loss.  In my opinion the Orange Order has lost considerable influence in the Ulster Unionist Party, not just over the perceived NO stance on the Referendum, but also because of the DRUMCREE factor.  This confrontation over parades, particularly at Drumcree, has resulted in an ever diminishing influence with those in religious and political authority and a serious reduction in membership from the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

There is evidence to suggest that the twin problems of the Institution today are duplicity and inertia.  Duplicity is evident when those in leadership make enlightened statements to the leaders of civic society, and then contradict them in press releases.  The inertia is evidenced when everyone knows what is wrong and what needs to be done to change the situation, but no one is prepared to do anything about it.

Having public protests which result in the injury or death of members of Her Majesties Security Forces, must bring shame on any organisation which professes to be both Christian and Loyal.  30 years ago many condemned the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association for bringing people on to the streets and not accepting the responsibility for the violence which resulted.

Those who call people on to the streets today, particularly in a volatile situation, must accept responsibility for the consequences. Human responsibility is a fundamental principle of the Gospel.  Accepting personal responsibility for our actions is also a sign of maturity. But the Scriptures also teach us that we are ‘our brothers keeper’.  Paul encourages the early Christians  – “Do not cause anyone to stumble”(1 Corinthians 10:32). In accepting responsibility for our actions we must also recognise that we must accept some responsibility for the results of our actions!  We cannot wash our hands, either in public or in private, of the consequences of our actions.  We should not forget that history has not judged Pontius Pilate well for a similar ‘hand washing’ exercise!

And yet all this could and should be very different.  The BASIS of the Orange Institution is in the public domain.  It states:-

“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.”

To understand Orangeism today one has to understand it on two levels, the level of its principles and the level of its practice.  Its principles are articulated in its many and varied publications, but chiefly expressed in the “CORE VALUES” of Brotherhood, Reformed Piety, Civic Awareness, Civil & Religious Liberty, and Tolerance.  Its practice is seen in many of its members living out its core values in their everyday lives.  But sadly, many others within the membership fail to live by those core values.  This is seen most notably in the present conflict associated with parades.

At present there would appear to be a variance between the principles and practice of Orangeism.  Therein lies the dilemma.  The Rev. Dr. Robert Dickinson, a former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, and a member of the Loyal Orange Institution of Ireland once said, (in the 1980’s):- “I believe in the principles of the Orange Order, but I do not believe that the Orange Order believes in those principles any longer”.  Present evidence would suggest that he was correct, at least as far as the leadership of the Institution is concerned.

Rev. Brian Kennaway.


Education Committee,

Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland.


This article appeared in ‘Corrymeela Connections‘, Summer 2000