Why the Orange Order may wither away

Why the Orange Order may wither away

The core values of the Orange Order are fraternity, religious piety and civil and religious liberty, but some Orangemen have not lived up to them in recent years, leaving the Order in disarray over its future, writes the Rev Brian Kennaway.

Writing in the Belfast Telegraph, two years ago, on 15th July 1998, a former Assistant Grand Master and Grand Chaplain of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland the Rev. Dr. Warren Porter said:- “Many Orangemen are simply broken-hearted.  The Twelfth of July 1998 certainly could not be described as a “Celebration”. Scores, if not hundreds simply did not turn out.”

For many of the decent God-fearing Orangemen, the Twelfth of 1998 was the lowest point on the Richter scale.  Few believed that lower points could have been reached, particularly after what some regarded as a ‘seismic shift’ by Portadown District over the Drumcree parade in 1997.

The Orange Institution, as an Institution, often makes reference to “the principles of the Institution”.  This is perhaps better communicated to today’s world as “the Core Values of Orangeism”.  These Core values can be identified in the publications of the Institution as, – Fraternal Brotherhood- Religious Piety (of the Reformed variety)- Civic Awareness – Civil & Religious Liberty – Tolerance.

At present there would appear to be a variance between the principles and practice of Orangeism.  Therein lies the dilemma, which has become obvious in recent years.  This dilemma became obvious to some members of the Education Committee, as they attempted to answer the hard questions from an ever increasingly interested audience.  One of the most challenging questions constantly asked, particularly by the Protestant and Catholic youth, was – “Ok, we understand your principles or core values, but while we may not share those core values, we do not see them in practice in our communities – why?”  A close second question in terms popularity was – “What is being done, or has been done, with those whose behaviour does not match up to the core values?”

As in all organisations or institutions there is sometimes a divergence between the principles of that organisation and its public practice.  This has been the problem of humanity, since “Adam was a boy!”  Yet there is the tendency in the media to demonise the whole because of the backsliding of the few.  You cannot condemn all the members of the Orange Institution because of the obvious bad behaviour of some of its membership, or the inertia of its leadership, any more that you can condemn the whole Catholic Church in Ireland because of the wayward behaviour of some of its clergy.

The fact that is not always appreciated is that the majority of Orangemen, throughout this Island, are quietly working out their principles as they engage with their communities, of which many of them form an integral part.  They are working out the core values of tolerance, brotherhood, respect of Sunday, and observance of the laws.  Many are the pillars of their local community and are among the most loyal to their respective churches.  They are the true Orangemen who are seeking to justify the words of Jesus – “By their fruit you will recognise them.”  [Matthew 7:15,16]

These solid true citizens are those who are totally distraught by the events which have, more recently, become the public face of the Orange Institution.  This solid decent Orangeman, the pillar of his local community has become one of the most disillusioned members of his society.  He is asking questions, which in his heart he knows he will not really find an answer.  Where are we going as a ‘religious organisation’ pledged ‘to keep holy the Sabbath day’, when the Lord’s Day is desecrated by political speeches and calls to start a ‘war’, outside Drumcree Parish Church?  Where are we going as a ‘loyal Institution’, when our members are seen to be openly attacking Her Majesties Crown Forces, or when Counsellor Jim Rodgers is heckled on an Orange Platform for condemning violence?

These and other serious questions need to be asked.  But if past experience is anything to go by, they may be asked, but they will not be answered.  The issues might well be air-brushed out of existence.

If past experience is anything to go by this solid, decent, citizen who embraces the core values of Orangeism will simply drift.   He may not even resign his membership – he will stop attending orange functions, stop walking on the Twelfth, and eventually lose all interest.  The media are paranoid about a ‘split’, but the Institution seldom splits – it simply continues the age-old tradition of haemorrhaging.  There is that tradition among a section of the Protestant community, particularly among the middle classes, that they will avoid controversy.  After all there are much more important things to do in life than to attend meeting which are both fruitless and confrontational.

The Order has tragically failed to grasp the days it is living in.  Instead of looking out it is looking in.  Instead of broadening its membership it is alienating people.  Instead of spreading its message it is refusing to talk.  Instead of confronting its natural enemies, it is running away.

It will be evident to any serious student of Irish history, that the Loyal Orange Institution of Ireland, when it was founded, was a manifestation of Orangeism and not Orangeism per se.  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.

Therefore the primary question to be addressed is :-“Is Orange Institution at the beginning of the twenty-first century, a true manifestation of historic, traditional Orangeism?”  Is it as our forefathers desired it to be, a broad and inclusive bonding of Protestantism?  Has the Institution become so narrow and exclusive in both its membership and its public image, that it no longer represents the traditional values of Orangeism?

The expression of Orangeism, as identified by the Loyal Orange Institution of Ireland, has changed so perceptively over recent years that many are questioning whether the Institution is a true reflection of Orangeism, as envisaged by the founding fathers of the Institution.

The spirit of confrontation of recent years has effectively worked against the affirmation of Unionist principles, espoused by the majority of the population in Northern Ireland.  In the first place, all this tension and confrontation over parades has turned people who would be traditionally unionist, into at least an attitude of ambivalence over the union.  As the tension continues that ambivalence is in danger of progressing to an attitude of agnosticism.  It may in effect be self defeating, as far as the Institution being an expression of unionism is concerned.

The History of the Orange Institution and the history of modern Ireland are interwoven and inextricable.  The difference in the Orange Institution between ‘what it was’ and ‘what it is’, is illustrated by the remarks of R.M. Sibbett with reference to the behaviour of Orangemen at the time of partition:

“Their duty to protect their own state, and to dwell in peace with those who happened to be in authority on the other side of the border was not inconsistent with, but part of that duty.  For this reason, the Orange Order stood for something constructive, not anything destructive, in both North and South, and the best testimony to that attitude on its part is the respect its members, in each of those territories, have exhibited for law and order.  The best of citizens, either in Ulster or in the Free State, they are among the most enterprising, industrious and peaceful.”

R.M. Sibbett’s book remains the only major ‘official’ History of the Orange Institution.  One cannot help but feel that the author, if he were alive today, would be a very unhappy Orangeman, if he even remained a member at all.

The Rev. Brian Kennaway is a former Convenor of the Education Committee of the

Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland.


This article appeared in the Sunday Business Post on 16th July 2000