The Northern Irish Order of Orange wants to keep the Protestant faith pure and let Northern Ireland be a full part of the United Kingdom. No easy task: Protestants are losing political influence and Brexit raises additional obstacles.
It’s drizzling in Ballymoney, even though it’s mid-July. James Anderson shrugged his shoulders. Despite his advanced age, he is busy setting up a modest stage on the outskirts of a sports field in the village. In the north of Northern Ireland, even in the middle of summer, it is rarely dry for a whole day. Anderson does not think that it will prevent people from coming to see the Orange March this day or to attend the church service and the speeches that will then be delivered from this stage.
On the sports field, the inflatable castle for the children is already proudly standing. Now only the banner of The Independent Loyal Orange Institution (ILOI) behind the pulpit remains. Iloi is a spin-off of the Loyal Orange Institution. The two conservative Protestant brotherhoods are better known as the Order of Orange. The order annually organises the Orange marches on 12 July, which many Northern Irish Catholics find offensive and which in the past regularly led to clashes-even after the conflict between the (predominantly Protestant) pro – British part and the (mostly Catholic) pro-Irish segment of the population officially ended in 1998. That conflict, the Troubles, took the lives of at least 3,500 people in the thirty years before. Tens of thousands were also injured.
During the Orange marches, Protestant brass bands throughout the country celebrate the victory in 1690 of the Dutch Reformed stadtholder William III over the expelled Catholic King (also his father-in-law) James II during the Battle of the Irish river Boyne. The victory definitively confirmed William III as the new king of England. The annual marches and the Order of Orange owe their names to his surname van Oranje. Orangists see the victory as the foundation on which the (unwritten) British constitution and freedom of religion in the United Kingdom are built. Many Catholics, on the other hand, see the marches primarily as an expression of Protestant feelings of superiority.
However, according to James Anderson, that idea about Protestant exaltation is a misconception. When the bright orange banner on the stage finally stands and two gray speakers are connected to the microphone, he explains that the Orange Order is against violence and oppression. And he can know it: he is the Imperial Grand Master, the Supreme Leader, of the ILOI. Despite this, his fraternity wishes to keep Roman Catholicism and Protestantism strictly separate. Members of the Orange Order must not only be members of a Protestant church, but may, for example, marry exclusively other Protestants. Anderson: “we exist to protect the Protestant historical heritage in Northern Ireland”.
That’s more important than ever. “In the current political situation, Protestant values can simply be lost,” Sighs The Imperial Grand Master, who has been organizing Orange marches on and around July 12 for almost fifty years. In elections in early May, for the first time ever, the pro-Irish arch-enemy Sinn Féin became the largest party. And because of the so-called Northern Ireland protocol in the Brexit agreements, border controls for goods have suddenly been introduced between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
The latter creates economic disparities. The protocol provides that Northern Ireland remains within the common market of the European Union, while Scotland, Wales and England have withdrawn from it. Thus, as agreed in the 1998 peace agreement, a hard border on the island of Ireland, between Ireland (EU member) and Northern Ireland (no longer EU member since brexit), is avoided. Such a border could revive historical tensions. But the resulting emotional distance within the British kingdom does not please the Orange Order.
“The situation makes us nervous,” Anderson says. What does all this mean for the position of the Northern Irish Protestants? For a long time they were the politically dominant group, now they may come under oppression. The Orange Order will have to work extra hard to protect Protestant values. We need to do this with fewer and fewer members. At the start of the Troubles in the late sixties, the order had about 90,000 members. A huge number out of a population of 1.5 million, of whom, moreover, only a little more than half were Protestant. Meanwhile, the number of members has decreased to 30,000.
The lack of young members
That’s still a significant number out of a Protestant population of 750,000, but it’s especially lacking in young members, Anderson admits. “It sometimes seems that youth has knocked all morality out of the window.”Yes, at the also traditionally Protestant bonfires, on the evening before the Orange marches, he still sees enough young people. “But their behavior there has nothing more to do with Protestantism.”
He sighs. “Perhaps we as the Orange Order have not kept up with the Times enough. In terms of technique, for example. I don’t see what’s wrong with keeping traditions.”
The night before, Andersons seemed to be proven right, in the small town of Larne. The huge bonfire there does indeed seem to have little to do with religious meaning. Hard house beats pop out of loudspeakers. Most of the hundreds of dancing young people are drunk or have such large pupils that alcohol alone cannot be a question. Behind them, exactly at midnight, the flame goes up in a more than 60 meter high tower of wooden pallets, a world record. Three drones and numerous mobile phones film how the flames eat their way into the building. Until, after half an hour, the tower collapses and turns into a huge campfire.