The reality of the Orange Order is that it is a counter-revolutionary institution set up and maintained to target not just Catholics but also 'disloyal' Protestants. It's formation and spread was encouraged by the British state in the years leading up to the 1798 rebellion precisely in order to drive a wedge between ordinary Catholics and Protestants. The 12th of July was picked as the key date to provide an alternative attraction to the marking of Bastille day and in itself to mark the sectarian massacre that led to the formation of the Orange Order.
The Orange Order was born in Armagh in 1795 as part of an armed terror campaign to deny full citizenship rights to Catholics. This was in the context of struggles between landlords and tenants in the area of which the Anglican Archbishop of Armagh said "the worst of this is that it stands to unite Protestant and Papist, and whenever that happens, good-bye to the English interest in Ireland". Specifically the penal laws forbade Catholics from bearing arms, but radical (and mostly Protestant) volunteer companies in the 1780's had been recruiting and arming Catholics with the "the full support of a radical section of Protestant political opinion"1 .
The sectarian attacks that accompany Orange marches today also go right back to its origins. Again in 1795 up to 7,000 Catholics were driven out of Armagh by Orange Order pogroms. But there was one key difference with today, then many expelled Catholic families were sheltered by Presbyterian United Irishmen in Belfast and later Antrim and Down, and the (mostly) Protestant leadership of the United Irishmen sent lawyers to prosecute on behalf of the victims of Orange attacks. They also sent special missions to the area to undermine the Orange Order's influence.
Indeed the Orange Order probably played a key part in ensuring the failure of the 1798 rebellion. At the time General John Knox, the architect of this policy described the Orange Order as "the only barrier we have against the United Irishmen"2 after the failed rebellion he wrote "the institution of the Orange Order was of infinite use"3 . The survival of the Orange Order since, and in particular the special place it was given in the sectarian make up of the northern state (every single head of the 6 counties has also been a senior member of the Orange Order), reflect its success in this role.
The strategy was simple. In order to prevent Protestant workers identifying with their Catholic neighbours the order offered an anti-Catholic society, led by the wealthy Protestants that offered all Protestants a place in its ranks, and the promise of promotion and privilege. The annual parades were a key part of this strategy, they filled two roles. They allowed the working class Protestant members a day in the sun to mix with their 'betters' and at the same time lord it over their Catholic neighbours.
At the same time they exposed radical Protestant workers to accusations of being 'traitors' for refusing to take part in the events. Much of the imagery of loyalism, the bonfires, the bunting and the painted kerbstones provide an opportunity to demand of every Protestant worker in a community 'which side are you on'.
Right from the start the parades have been accompanied by violence as they attempt to force their way through areas where they are not wanted. The first parades of 1796 saw one fatality, but in 1797 14 were killed during violence at an Orange parade in Stewartstown. In 1813 an Orange parade through one of the first areas of Belfast identified as 'Catholic' saw four more deaths.
The town of Portadown has long been a hot bed of 'contentious' parades, banned marches took place there in 1825 and 1827. In 1835 the Portadown marches claimed their first victim, Hugh Donnelly, a Catholic from Drumcree. Armagh Magistrate, William Hancock, (a Protestant), said:
"For some time past the peaceable inhabitants of the parish of Drumcree have been insulted and outraged by large bodies of Orangemen parading the highways, playing party tunes, firing shots, and using the most opprobrious epithets they could invent ... a body of Orangemen marched through the town and proceeded to Drumcree church, passing by the Catholic chapel though it was a considerable distance out of their way."4
In the relevant stability after the defeat of 1798 the British and local ruling class felt they no longer needed the Order and, as we have seen, went so far as to ban it and its marches. Its survival during these years shows that the institution cannot simply be viewed as dependent on Britain or local Protestant rulers. It also fed off the historical legacy of sectarianism and annually offered a chance for the 'little man' to feel big. In this sense the psychological attraction of Orangism for poor Protestants is similar to the attraction described by William Reich of poor workers/unemployed for fascism.
The Orange Order's complex nature is also shown by the events of 1881 when it was possible for the Land league to hold a meeting in the local Orange hall at Loughgall. Micheal Davitt told the crowd that the "landlords of Ireland are all of one religion - their God is mammon and rack-rents, and evictions their only morality, while the toilers of the fields, whether Orangemen, Catholics, Presbyterians or Methodists are the victims".
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This danger of class unity saw the ruling class and British conservatives rapidly returning to the Order and the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland responded with a manifesto claiming that the Land League was a conspiracy against property rights, Protestantism, civil and religious liberty and the British constitution. When the question was put this way the Orange Order fulfilled its role and went on to provide the scab labour which attempted to harvest Captain Boycott's crops.
From this period on, with the growth of the socialist movement, the Orange Order's warnings became extended to the idea of a conspiracy of "Popery", "anarchy" and "communism". These sort of warnings were repeated whenever periods of social radicalism saw Protestant workers acting in their own interests as it was precisely at these moments that the danger of them linking up with Catholic workers threatened the unity of the Order. In 1932, when the Falls and Shankill rioted together against unemployment, the Order warned "loyal subjects of the King, the vital necessity of standing guard against communism".
Although Catholic workers have been and continue to have a higher chance of being unemployed than Protestant workers for much of the North's history, rates of Protestant unemployment have still been high. This gave the Orange order both a 'carrot and stick' to encourage Protestant workers to join. The Order was a place where workers could meet employers, and formally or informally receive job offers. On the other hand, particularly in rural areas, employers would be aware of who was a member and discriminate in job applications against those who were not.
Understanding the reactionary origins of the Orange Order is central is understanding why the claims that the marches represent 'Protestant culture' is about on a par with claiming a Ku Klux Klan march represents 'white culture'. Indeed the very promotion of a separate 'Protestant' culture can only be seen as deeply reactionary in the context of the 6 counties. The term 'Protestant' culture is never used to include the Protestant republicans of 1798 or 1934, for instance. As such it's real meaning can only be 'anti-Catholic'.
1 The Defenders, p18, Deirdre Lindsay, in 1798; 200 years of resonance, Ed. Mary Cullen. 2 The Tree of Liberty, Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760 - 1830, Kevin Whelan, p119. 3 The Tree of Liberty, Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760 - 1830, Kevin Whelan, p120. 4 The figures for killing and quotes in this section come from the PFC report 'For God and Ulster: an alternative guide to the Loyal Orders' to be found on the internet at http://www.serve.com/pfc/loyal.html