There’s Orange in the Rainbow

The Independent on Sunday (08.07.07) had an Interview by Cole Moreton with Drew Nelson, of whom there is a photograph, according to the caption he is Grand Secretary of the Grand [Orange] Lodge [of Ireland, presumably] – his actual title may be slightly different. There is a strap-banner Northern Ireland and under it is the headline Orange Order marches on, but now it’s a festival. Which has a rather disapproving ring to it. The point being that the Orange Order is being given money from various funds to ‘clean up its act’. The Order got itself involved in the ‘stand-off’ at the Drumcree, County Armagh churchyard. It waSean uncharacteristically volatile reaction to a problem that had already been resolved.

The Order (and its – many – affiliated bodies) had damped down the reaction by the Protestant community in Northern Ireland to the prorogation of ‘Stormont’. The latter was the venue of the local sub-Parliament. It was got rid of in May 1972. The suspicion was that this was the first act in a ‘sell-out’ to the IRA. The Dublin government was not in a position to sustain its own economy at that point. It did not want to assume responsibility for Northern Ireland ‘ quite apart from the mayhem which would have ensued if an attempt had been made to expel it from the UK State. The Orange Order issued statementSeand publications to the effect that ‘Stormont’ had been something of an incubus, getting between the people of the six countieSeand those in Great Britain. This headed-off a fascist development called Ulster Vanguard.

The situation at Drumcree arose out of the fact that a housing estate had been built on part of the Portadown Orange district’s route back to the town, from Drumcree. This estate was entirely Catholic in population, and they objected to the march for a number of years. An agreement was come to that the route would be used without any of the ‘triumphalist’ trappings of Orange marches. This was adhered to by the locals in Portadown. But outsiders, including Dr. Paisley, who is not a member of the Order, decided to make an issue of the matter. They marched down the Garvaghey Road and gloated about ‘showing the Union flag’, without a hint of irony or embarrassment about that word ‘Union’.

Probably the whole Protestant community was roused by the Garvaghey Road situation. It looked like a straightforward case of a Protestant group being discriminated against. The above situation arose in 1995, I happened to be living in east Belfast at the time, and there was a great deal of tension about the matter. Twelve months on, the situation for most reasonable people had changed. They’d had a year to think. The first matter that came to mind was to wonder why there was no tension about getting to the church (for a Service). It became obvious that the Portadown District used one route to get to the church, and another to return to base. Every other Orange demonstration (now called ‘march’ due to media pressure – the old, unaggressive term was ‘walk’) uses the same route to and from its place of origin.

The Order was forced by die-hards in the local District to support a series of confrontations with the police and army. To uphold its sovereign right to annoy its neighbours, (with whom they had made a reasonable agreement – and then, had themselves, been blackmailed into breaking the agreement by people who saw it as a piece of ‘ more Loyal than thou’ grandstanding). These people, they included Ian Paisley and David Trimble were nowhere to be seen when the ‘Loyalist’ paramilitaries moved-in, and actually fired shots at ‘their’ police and army.

The above is to put things into perspective ‘ the Orange Order, which as, by anybody’s standards, been a moderating element in the course of the war in Northern Ireland ‘ was badly wrong-footed. It had to an extent, reinvent itself, and the above named OrangeFest is part of this.

The above could be said to be starry-eyed about the Orange Order, but it is no longer part of a power set-up. (It had a large number of seats on the Ulster Unionist Council for a century. And therefore was implicit in the running of Northern Ireland, which was not an exemplar of democratic procedure. But, it has to be said, the Order took its public duties more seriously than other elements on the Council.) More to the point, in upstart (www.upstartublishing.com), the Order seems to have taken a leaf out of NIGRA (the Northern Ireland Gay Rights Association)’s book.

The Belfast LGBT Pride committee was, for ten years, a sub-committee of NIGRA. From the beginning it was made clear that the ‘march’ at the end of a festival was not going have a Mardi Gras feel to it. It was given the non-threatening name ‘Dander’ (which did not, incidentally ‘come of the top of somebody’s head’) it was clearly thought-out to deflate any objections from the ‘usual suspects’. It happened to be the Free PresbyterianSeand the Free Methodists, one a small denomination and the other minuscule-to-non-existent. They were hog-tied by the fact that railing against anybody having a ‘wee dander’ is just absurd.

There were some objections to this designation. Some young people wanted a ‘serious’ demonstration (they meant ‘solemn’, which is not the same thing as ‘serious’), but NIGRA in its publicity always underlined that the Dander was a Civil Rights demonstration. As we noted, a serious point can be made with a smile on one’s face. In fact doing it with a smile makes the point ‘ we are citizens just like you ‘ more effective. Other objections came from the sort of people produced by any small city, we ought to have taken our line from more important places. (It is worth pointing out that the use of Mardi Gras as a designation for Pride events post-dates our first Pride’s publicity efforts. Even though Mardi Gras has a specific function, Fat Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lenten fast. It is a bit odd applying it to week long events in high summer.) For better or worse, more important places did not have a specific term for their ‘walks’, so ‘dander’ it is.This business of a serious event like a Gay Pride / Civil Rights demonstration being put in the context of a festival, was taken up by the ICTU (Irish Congress of Trade Unions) about five years ago. The Mayday march was no longer simply to be a gathering of the faithful. It became the main event in a lengthening (as the Gay one appears to be shrivelling) festival. This includes drama, music, poetry reading – and food and drink – supplied by the growing number of ‘ethnic’ minorities in Belfast and Northern Ireland. Even the food and drink may have been (probably subconsciously) suggested by us – we had a barbecue for many years.Thus the ‘family friendly’ OrangeFest?

The ‘family friendly’ might seem a bit out of reach for an LGBT ‘dander’. Our first in 1991 had a 77 year old participant and some lesbian mothers with children ranging in age from babes in arms to seven year olds.

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