Theorizing Modernities article

Religion, Politics, and the Orange Order in Northern Ireland: Defending Protestant Britain in the Age of Secularism

“King Billy’s on the Wall” mural in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photo Credit: Flickr User aa440. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

The Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland—more commonly known as the Orange Order—describes itself as “a membership organisation…committed to the protection of the principles of the Protestant Reformation and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which enshrined civil and religious liberty for all.” Yet, the history of the Order raises questions about such commitments as it was, at various times, seen to advocate a political union with Britain that denied Irish Catholics civil, religious, and political liberties. The Orange Order has historically struggled to align its stated “liberal” values with its desire to protect the idea of a “Protestant Britain.”

These contradictions are not often acknowledged by members of the Order who continue to view the organization in an almost entirely positive light and as representing a truer form of liberty that it believes stands in stark contrast to the “sectarian” politics of their Other—the Catholic, nationalist population. The development of the peace process in Northern Ireland, however, has served to once again shine a light on the Order and generated an internal debate as to how it should respond to growing criticisms from both within and without. Some within the institution, pointing to a declining membership amid controversies associated with parading disputes, have subsequently called for a new direction that better reflects wider social and political realities. Although efforts have been made to this effect, progress has been minimal due to a failure to overcome fears and suspicions of the Other; a failure largely explained by the fact that the narratives and traditions of the Institution continue to emphasize the perceived threat posed by the Catholic/nationalist population.

As such, the Orange Order is a useful case study for understanding how groups struggle to overcome long established processes of othering that reinforce the divisions from a turbulent past at a time when new and alternative futures are being sought.

“Othering” through “Constructed Perceptions of Reality”

In the words of Anthony J. Marsella, culture “influences and impacts conflicts and their resolution” (652). At the heart of his argument is the need to better understand “the power of culture” in constructing what he describes as an in-group’s “perceptions of reality” which “shape and construct our realities (i.e., they contribute to our world views, perceptions, orientations) and with this ideas, morals, and preferences” (657).

Two key outcomes of this process are crucial: (1) the constructed “perception of self as self-righteous, moral, justified, and ‘good’ by virtue of religion, history, identity”; (2) the perception of the Other as being “evil, dangerous, threatening” and therefore a “danger to national or group survival, identity [and] well-being” (653). Furthermore, these constructed realities provide an in-group with a degree of certainty about themselves and, as such, there will be a “reluctance” to “tolerate challenges to these realities” (653).

The Orange Order and Othering

The processes described above are evident across the history and evolution of the Orange Order which was founded in 1795 amid the increased sectarian tensions brought about by growing demands for social and political reform in Ireland, and a broader international crisis stemming from the upheaval of the French Revolution.

That international crisis had convinced many in the British political establishment that there was a pragmatic need to placate Irish Catholics as a means of preventing potential alliances with revolutionary France. The reforms being sought, however, were anathema for many in the Irish Protestant community who believed they went against everything that the Reformation stood for. In the short term the British (Protestant) state would be providing funds to support the education of Irish Catholic clergy via a newly established seminary at Maynooth, but more symbolically the state would essentially be providing a degree of legitimacy to Catholicism. Consequently, many Irish Protestants believed the proposed measures would threaten the social, political, and economic order they had fought hard to establish over the previous two centuries. Religion and politics in Ireland could not be separated.

King William III mural in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photo Credit: Flickr user Jay Galvin. CC BY 2.0. DEED

Within the Protestant community the linkage between religion and politics was fed by negative popular representations of what the Catholic Church sought to achieve. In his history of the Order, Richard Niven (a member of the Orange) writing in the late nineteenth century, described the belief of members that “ever since the Reformation Protestants have been the subjects of persecution, and more particularly in our own land have been held up to every species of contempt” by “their bitter foe,” Catholicism, which sought a political “ascendancy.” The Orange Order, however, stood firm against this and was “the only organisation that has ever been able to cope successfully with Popery; not by secret conspiracy, but by open opposition and telling arguments” (3).

Popular written histories of the Institution, such as that by Niven and that by Michael Dewar, John Brown and Samuel Long, present long and detailed chronologies of persecution by their Catholic Other. Particular moments of Irish history are put forward as evidence of the constant threat Protestants have faced and continue to live with—from the rebellion and massacres of 1641 to the Williamite Wars of 1689-91; and from the 1798 rebellion, through the Easter Rising of 1916 down to the most recent conflict in Northern Ireland.

This selective use of the past entirely ignores historical complexities, and the narrative of the Orange becomes confined to a simplistic “Good vs Bad” form. Members of the Order are socialized in the history through a popularized retelling that is not confined to books and pamphlets that many members may never read, but which is depicted visually on the banners that adorn their gathering halls and are carried on parades. Similarly, these key moments are memorialized in songs that are central to important social events such as the traditional July 12th celebrations. Through such mechanisms members of the Order construct a reality about both the righteousness of the in-group and the ever-present threat posed by the Other.

“Othering” and Conflict Transformation

Perhaps unsurprisingly these processes of othering have raised questions about the Orange Order within the context of Northern Ireland’s peace process, which has sought a reconciliation between the communities in conflict. Critics of the Order argue that it is, by its very nature, a sectarian organization incapable of change or of playing a positive role in the search for stability. But is this necessarily the case? Is it possible for the Orange to reimagine itself in a manner that allows it to protect its core principles but at the same time become a force for political, cultural, and religious reconciliation?

Members of the Order tend to believe that it has never been a block to progressing peace but rather that it is merely misunderstood by wider society. To this end, the Orange has prioritized efforts to reach out across the political divide to form better understandings of what they claim the Institution is and stands for. This has, in the main, focused on educational initiatives with members of the Order often visiting Catholic schools to give presentations and engage with students.

The Portadown District Loyal Orange Lodge return from the “Demonstration Field” along the Hamiltonsbawn Road in Armagh during the County Armagh the July 12th parades in 2009. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Yet, some members (and former members) of the Order have argued that these efforts are insufficient and that more needs to be done to confront the realities of a rising sectarianism within. The Rev. Brian Kennaway, in particular, has argued that the core values of the Order have been betrayed by elements of its own rank and file and that this has led to a decline in membership and public standing across the wider Protestant community. He maintains that the Orange needs to acknowledge a growing gulf between what the Institution claims to be and the practice of its members, with a particular requirement for the rank and file to better reflect the “Qualifications” for membership they signed up to. Kennaway, in his book on the subject, maintains that “far from being a sectarian, controversial and divisive body, the Order, properly reformed, could be a force for good and reconciliation in Northern Ireland’s deeply divided society” (xiii). He argues that the “Qualifications of an Orangeman,” which state that members “should strenuously oppose the fatal errors and doctrines of the Church of Rome” (4–5), should not be “judged to be any more ‘anti-Catholic’ than the doctrinal standards of the three main Protestant Churches in Ireland” (5), and points to the fact that the “Basis of the Loyal Orange Institution of Ireland” stresses that it should not “admit into its brotherhood persons whom an intolerant spirit leads to persecute, injure, or upbraid any man on account of his religious beliefs” (6). Kennaway maintains that the Order has become detached from such principles and that this has been to the detriment of the Institution. He argues that if the Orange is to have a future it needs better leadership capable of upholding what he has described as the “traditional and authentic values of Orangeism” (264).

Although this points to the possibility for reform by simply adhering to its own established principles, it must also be questioned as to the extent to which the Order has ever successfully lived up to these values as is stated by Kennaway. The fears of the Catholic Other have historically ensured that such values have, in the main, remained aspirational rather than practical. This leads to the further question: Has the peace process created an opening for the Orange to become the organization it claims to be?

One thing is increasingly clear, the fears generated by the processes of othering will not be overcome if the latter remains embedded in the traditions and the historical narratives people live by. For meaningful reconciliation in a post-conflict society, there is a need to engage more critically with history and the representation of that history—to acknowledge that our own roles in that story have not always been “glorious.” There is a need to better understand different interpretations and explore how conflicting narratives might be better reconciled or understood. If, however, groups such as the Orange continue to simply do what has always been done, how can alternative futures unfold?


Cathal McManus
Cathal McManus is a lecturer in the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work (SSESW) and Queen’s University Belfast and a Fellow of the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice. He is interested in processes of Othering and how these contribute to the development and maintenance of social divisions and conflict. Related to this he is interested in identity formation and nationalism. His work has been published in journals such as Nations and Nationalism, Terrorism and Political Violence, and Ethnopolitics.

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