Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Book Notes: The Orange Order, A Contemporary Northern Irish History by Eric P. Kaufmann

For external observers of the Northern Irish scene, there are few things which meet with such bemused incredulity as the parades of the Orange Order. While the quaint nature of their archaic costumes and incessant rhythms of the accompany bands might initially prompt a rather patronising amusement - all such thoughts are banished when it becomes apparent that these are the symbols of a deep-seated culture war. The men who wear the orange sash are grimly determined to maintain these traditions even when they are part of civil disobedience, while rogue elements on the fringes of Orangeism are willing even to kill to enforce them.

Kaufman's book is a fascinating insight into this organisation. Writing as an outsider, he has been given unparalleled access to the archives of the Grand Lodge of Ireland in order to explore this unique institution. The results of his work, are for the outsider, absolutely fascinating, and deeply revealing. It is always challenging to read in detail, the history of a people with whom you have no natural or cultural affinity. If the symbols and image of unthinking belligerent Loyalism, completely alienate so many people in Britain - the history of the struggles of these people at least enables the reader to understand their actions.

The picture Kaufmann paints is of a highly ritualised ethnic-defence organisation, whose numbers, power, and influence over Northern Irish life and politics has been steadily on the wane for over a generation. Significantly (and with a barrage of statistics) he analyses the rifts and divisions within the movement - which are far more significant than the media coverage would ever suggest. Rural-urban divides, class divisions, geographical-splits, and a strong secular-vs-Christian battle for the soul of the movement all emerge in competing traditions.

In practical terms the two strongest impulses, in response to the steady erosion of Loyal/Orange dominance of the province, have been to either work with traditional structures of church, UUP, and seek to restrict reform; or to pursue the 'rebel' Unionist cause, typified by the DUP, the 'Spirit of Drumcree' group or even for a small minority, the paramilitaries. The Christian-influence emerges as a significant brake on extremism, and the secularisation of the order a powerful radicaliser. This is an interesting observation, especially for those who (like me) have always been shocked that Christians, never mind clergy, could join such a narrow, sectarian body.

The book begins with a detailed analyses of the Order, and the sub-divisions and groups within it. Then it charts the breakdown of the Orange/UUP/Stormont control of Northern Ireland. Noteworthy is the role the order played in ending the leadership of politicians prepared to compromise Loyalist hegemony, under pressure from London. Charting the course the Order played during the troubles and proposed power-sharing deals of the 70s, the book comes to a finale around the events surrounding the peace-process, and Good Friday Agreement.

Significantly the book explores in great depth the contentious issue of parade-routes, and the Order's tense relationship with the much-resented Parades Commission. It explores the symbolic and political importance of marching to the Orangemen (going some way to making this comprehensible to the outsider, even if not always justifiable), and why Sinn Fein/IRA targeted these marches as part of their strategy through residents-groups. It explores the way in which the Order were cornered into losing the propaganda war so comprehensively around Drumcree, but why government strategy made it rational for both sides to ramp up the tension at every turn.

Finally the book examines the major threat to mainstream Orangeism, which turns out not to be Nationalism, or government indifference to their traditions (although those are undoubtedly present), but loss of members. The Order accounts for a smaller percentage of the male Loyal/Protestant population than it has for generations, its membership is ageing and many are leaving.

At the 'rebel-Unionism' end of the spectrum, the Order is seen as not radical enough, being too religious, and having made too many compromises. The former link to the UUP, which is no longer seen as the party of Molyneaux, Smyth and "No Unionism"; but of Trimble-ism, compromise, parades-commission and prisoner-releases, makes the order seem ineffective in defending the Loyalist heritage. In a sense, the book suggests that these rebels are right in their analysis. The steady erosion of the protestant majority, and its political and cultural control, has meant that each compromise offered by moderate leaders has not made London and Dublin appreciate their flexibility, but has in fact paved the way for the next series of concessions. Belligerence, intransigence, and even violence have achieved greater gains for both Loyalist and Nationalist communities, when they have been prepared to use it.

At the traditionalist and Christian end of the spectrum (frequently also the more educated and middle-class element), the loss of membership has been associated with an abhorrence at the violence and intransigence with which the Order has been associated. The involvement of the likes of Johnny 'mad-dog' Adair, the LVF, or the UFF at parade-stand-offs in Drumcree or on the Lower Ormeau road, has lead to many drifting away from the Order or actually resigning from it. The Twelfth might have been a 'family day out' many years ago, but the presence of the heavy-drinking, potentially violent, 'kick-the Pope' bands and radical-youths on the fringe of Orangeism, have lead many to abandon it altogether.

The Order emerges from Kaufmann's work as a frequently misunderstood, and beleaguered organisation, struggling to find its role and identity, in the new realities of Northern Ireland. It looked slow to learn the lessons of PR and news-management, and so was easy for its opponents to outmaneuver - which happened time and time again. Riven by internal divisions over both tactics and identity, the exploitation of such fissures was all too easy for deeply-hostile politicians such Mo Mowlem and especially Peter Hain.

This is a really helpful read for anyone, like me, who has ever looked at an Orange march in astonishment or even bewilderment - wondering who these people are, and what they are so angry about. It explains why some of their tactics, which from the outside look so incomprehensible and self-defeating, are coherent when viewed from within.

The book probably contains too much detail, of stats and quotations from Grand Lodge meetings, much of which could have happily been footnoted so that the argument and analysis could flow more happily. However, the one thing the book lacks is a brief sketch of the history running-up to the 1960s when its narrative begins. Other than that - great, incisive, informative stuff, and another bargain from this years Oxford Uni Press sale!


Anonymous said...

unfortunately this is the sort of book that has had no research or investigation and is just another form of have a go at people who are ttrying to defend their faith from extremists who seek to try and destroy its integrity

That Hideous Man said...

While you may take issue with some of the author's conclusions, accusing him of having "no research or investigations" simply shows that you haven't read it. Perhaps you could read it and then comment again...