04 June 2006

They're marching into history


Henry McDonald looks at Brian Kennaway's brave account of the decline and fall of the Orange Order, A Tradition Betrayed

Sunday June 4, 2006
The Observer

The Orange Order: A Tradition Betrayed
by Brian Kennaway
Methuen £15.99, pp320

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usIn this time of outre conspiracy theories (Jesus marrying Mary Magdalene and siring children; MI5 bumping off Princess Diana; the Duke of Edinburgh acting as an agent for lizard-like aliens), it's heartening to see the comeback of the good old British cock-up theory of history. The cock-up in question here is the decline and fall of the Orange Order, the Protestant marching institution.

As a tale of self-inflicted wounds, buffoonery and general self-defeating stupidity, the story of the Orange Order at the end of the 20th century is vintage cock-up. This book, written by an insider, is a devastating critique of the order's leadership at a time of historic change in the North of Ireland.

Brian Kennaway has been a lifelong member of the Orange Order and is currently a Presbyterian minister in Co Antrim. He is regarded as being a liberal unionist who has taken a personal stand after loyalist ultras in his village determined to set Protestants against Catholics there.

His central thesis is that following the IRA ceasefire in 1994, the republican movement set a trap for the loyalist marching orders and those orders, including the Orange institution, walked into that vice with their eyes wide open. The trap was essentially a series of localised territorial struggles based around controversial marches. Residents' groups were formed in nationalist areas where Orange parades traditionally passed by or through; many of these ad hoc committees were headed up by convicted IRA men.

The presence of ex-IRA prisoners on these groups generated a knee-jerk response by the likes of the Orange Order. The Orange leadership refused to engage in talks with residents because they 'would not talk to terrorists'. This principle is picked over, discussed and highlighted by Kennaway in this brave, illuminating book. While the order's leaders don't talk to republican terrorists, they appear not to have any problem talking to loyalist terrorists.

Kennaway deserves praise for exposing dozens of incidents where either individual Orange lodges contained convicted loyalist paramilitaries, or where the order has used or encouraged the presence of loyalist terrorists in various stand-offs, in particular the so-called sieges of Drumcree. The author believes the Orange Order leadership made an enormous mistake when it decided to allow itself to become a 'battering ram' against the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. To ally with one faction of unionism (Ian Paisley, the Democratic Unionists and other hard-line loyalist politicians) was a huge tactical error that alienated thousands of moderate Ulster Protestants, Kennaway contends. To shore up his argument, he points to the decline in numbers and, in particular, the flight of the Protestant middle class away from the institution over the last three decades.

There are unfortunate deployments of cliches such as the use of Churchill's to 'jaw-jaw is better than to war-war' quote to back up his view that the order should have engaged in dialogue with nationalists rather than running away from them. The only thing even drearier than that other Churchillian Ulster cliche - the 'dreary steeples' - is the repeated use of it in books about the Northern Ireland question.

Kennaway's panacea for the Orange Order is that it should return to its roots as a cultural and religious organisation and refrain from taking sides in the political seizures that have torn unionism apart. This may be a tad naive given Orangeism's history, from its opposition to the 1798 United Irish rising to the leading role it played in forming armed opposition to home rule. None the less, this is an honest attempt at surveying the wreckage caused by the Orange Order's own foolishness over the last decade.

In his final chapter, Kennaway reminds readers that 'a core value of evangelical Protestantism is honesty.' In Orangeism, the opposite of honesty is not so much falsehood, but hypocrisy. Kennaway has had the courage to expose this hypocrisy throughout this important book.

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