Patrick Murphy: Orange parade shows unionism is living in the past

Patrick Murphy

Patrick Murphy

Patrick Murphy is an Irish News columnist and former director of Belfast Institute for Further and Higher Education.

Orange Order grand secretary Rev Mervyn Gibson has predicted large crowds will turn out for today's parade from Stormont to Belfast City Hall.
Orange Order grand secretary Rev Mervyn Gibson has predicted large crowds will turn out for today's parade from Stormont to Belfast City Hall.

As unionists hold out on the protocol against international pressure, they might reasonably be expected to bring their case to Washington and Brussels, as part of a media offensive explaining their political and economic position.

Instead, the cutting edge of unionism is doing today what it has always done. Parading. Yes, parading, with flags, banners and regalia, as 25,000 Orange men and women strut the streets of Belfast, accompanied by 130 bands, before an expected crowd of 60,000.

Rather than an international campaign to capture the moral high ground on the protocol (which would not be difficult) they prefer to play The Sash, batter the big drum and shout No Surrender.

There is no harm in all of that, but it hardly represents a political strategy for unionism at a crucial point in its history. They are, they say, celebrating the northern state’s centenary.

Rev Mervyn Gibson, Orange Order grand secretary (a lovely title) explains: “Now that the Rangers [Europa League] final is out of the way, which sadly went the wrong way, this is something else to look forward to and to celebrate.”

That celebrating the state’s centenary should be seen on a par with a football match perhaps most clearly illustrates the current level of unionist political sophistication.

Their bands come from places like Hugh’s townland (Ballee), the plain of the pass (Ballyclare) and the narrow homestead (Ballykeel), but they are marching to prove (presumably to themselves) that they are not Irish.

Having tilled the Irish soil for 400 years, they still claim to be British. However, it is a form of Britishness which most British claim they do not recognise, leaving the loyal orders in an historical time-warp.

Like the USA’s Amish people who, for example, use buttons and pins rather than non-biblical zip fasteners, unionists have become the political Amish of modern Britain. The loyal orders skew unionism towards a set of beliefs in which time stopped over 300 years ago.

At one level their parade is harmless: grown men and women carrying banners celebrating a Dutch man’s defeat of an Englishman in battle, 330 years ago. (The English might regard it as a sort of politico-religious Morris dancing.) From another perspective, marching with bands might be viewed as occupational therapy for the politically insecure.

While bands play a valuable role in the social life of many unionist communities, especially in rural areas, using them as a form of political expression does little to articulate a way forward for unionism. Semi-religious ritual, however musical, is no substitute for political strategy.

Therein lies unionism’s inherent weakness: in commemorating the state’s centenary, the loyal orders are also celebrating its nature and purpose which, by inference, was a Protestant state for a Protestant people. Marching from Stormont to Belfast City Hall will neither restore nor justify that philosophy or its discriminatory consequences, even though they regard today’s state as an extended Rangers fan zone.

They are not the only ones living in the past. Britain still adheres to the medieval concept of an unelected monarch who cannot be Catholic and must also be the head of the official state religion, the Church of England (CoE).

The House of Lords has 26 places for CoE bishops. (Iran is the only other country with parliamentary places reserved for religious leaders.)

So the Orangemen use the monarchy as a cultural crutch, with its antiquated class system and the ridiculous notion of being able to bestow “honours" on others.

However, beyond the world of palaces, state coaches and tin soldiers, the Orangemen have only a manufactured connection with modern Britain, where Liverpool football fans boo both a modern Prince William and the national anthem.

So today, observe the sons of Ulster marching to their self-inflicted demise. In step with a long-gone past, but out of tune with the present, unionism must adapt or die. Today’s parade suggests they still have not got the hang of adapting.