Andrew McQuillan

The Orange order risks damaging the cause for Irish unionism

Members of an Orange Order gather ahead of parades in west Belfast on July 12, 2023 (Credit: Getty images)

Another year and another July has come round where viewers in the UK have been treated to the sight of some of their compatriots in Northern Ireland marking William of Orange’s triumph over his father-in-law James II, the Catholic Stuart King, on the ‘green grassy slopes of the Boyne’ – as the Orange song goes – in 1690. 

Mention Ulster unionism and, to the casual mainland observer, it will conjure up images of stern bowler hatted men in orange collarettes and sashes, the skirl of pipes and flute bands, parading disputes and monumental bonfires of pallets and tyres on loyalist housing estates. Even weeks after the event, the acrid smell of these colossal structures lingers in the air, as much a sensory reminder of the marching season as the Union Flag bunting criss-crossing the streets. It is commonly held that while this is going on, many nationalists slip over the border to Donegal to escape it. 

Increasingly, unionism’s proximity to all that goes with Orangeism seems to be more of a hinderance

Orangeism is an essential part of the rhetorical and cultural underpinning of unionism, despite only a minority actually pursuing membership of the Orange Order itself. The slogans which, for many, continue to define unionist politics – the cry of no surrender – stem from 1690. In the heyday of unionist control before the Troubles, the institution of the Orange Order held incredible sway; every Northern Ireland Prime Minister from 1921 to 1969 was an Orangeman and its gatherings were more influential on the direction of policy than the parliament at Stormont. 

However, these are changed times. Increasingly, unionism’s proximity to all that goes with Orangeism seems to be more of a hinderance than a help. Many unionists and loyalists, though, will cry foul at such a suggestion. 

They will point out that on a practical level, the Orange Order and the events around 12 July provide a social glue which would otherwise be absent in many places, especially through charity and community work.

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Written by
Andrew McQuillan
Andrew McQuillan writes about politics and unionism across the UK. He is Scottish and has lived and studied in Belfast for several years.

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