Good King Billie sure has a lot to answer for these days. More formally known as King William the Third of England (but only the second of Scotland), he reigned as King of England from 1689–1702. He is famous for two things: finally defeating both the Irish and the Scottish, and overthrowing his predecessor King James the Second of England. It was his defeat of the Irish at the battle of the Boyne and his usurpation of James the Second that have left echoes resonating down through the ages to our modern times.
James the Second was a Catholic king in the heavily Protestant country of England who had raised the hackles of his nobility by attempting to reform laws that restricted the rights of Catholics. Fearing for their power, they “invited” William of Orange, a Dutch prince, to invade England and depose James.
Following William’s coronation the English parliament passed the legislation that prohibits Catholics from occupying the throne of England, and severely limited their rights. It goes without saying that this didn’t sit well with either the followers of King James or Catholics.
Jacobeans (supporters of James in exile), with the support of the King of France, worked endlessly to plot the overthrow of William, including inciting a war between Scotland and England. After some initial triumphs, they ended up being soundly defeated after only a month’s worth of battles.
William’s legacy as the symbol of Protestant domination over Catholics was cemented at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, in which he defeated a James-led Irish Revolution. Subsequent to the defeat, James was forced to flee Ireland and Britain, ending his threat to William’s rule.
It is this legacy that lives on to haunt us, in the form of the Orange Order today. A quasi-political organization that professes to be concerned with the preservation of the Protestant religion and culture, its influence throughout countries of the British commonwealth, former colonies, extended into the highest branches of power.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were when the Order was at its most influential. Prime ministers in Canada and other countries were past members of the Orange Lodge and their unofficial “old boys” network allowed them to maintain a vice-like grip upon the world of business in places like Ontario.
By allowing only male members of the Protestant faith, and conducting business deals behind the closed doors of the lodges, they were able to shut out members of other faiths from any real economic power well into the sixties. (Interestingly enough, colour was never a restriction for membership; one only need to look at the number of Mohawks who were members, or even the number of lodges that were in Africa for proof.)
It is in Ireland, however, where the Order’s biggest impact is still felt to this day. In most other countries the Orange Order membership has dwindled and died as attitudes have liberalized and changed. But in Northern Ireland, especially, they maintain a large membership.
They continue to march in commemoration of King William’s triumph over the Irish at the Battle of the Boyne. Members of the Orange Lodge until recently were associated with the Ulster Unionist Party, and are affiliated with the Democratic Unionist Party, both ultra-loyalist groups. They also join with other Protestant extremist groups in opposing the Good Friday Agreement, a move seen as being against attempts to resolve the bitter struggle between the faiths in Ireland. (The Order’s split with the Ulster Unionists came about when the party signed the Good Friday Agreement)
While the tradition of Orange Parades has vanished, or like St. Patrick’s Day parades have become cross-cultural events, elsewhere, in Ireland the “marching season” is still marked by politics and bouts of violence. Singing and chanting anti-Catholic songs and slogans, the marchers attempt each year to force their presence upon Catholic neighbourhoods.
Having learned from past experiences what a bad idea it is to let them march through Catholic parts of Belfast, the Ulster constabulary and the issuer of parade permits have taken to forbidding them passage through those neighbourhoods. Unfortunately, as events from the past weekend show, this doesn’t curtail the violence.
An article in today’s Scotsman newspaper recounts a weekend’s worth of rioting and violence that was the result of an Orange parade on Saturday in Belfast. Called some of the most dangerous violence faced by a police force in United Kingdom history by Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde, it was marked by sniper attacks, bomb-throwing and arson.
More than fifty police officers were injured during the course of the disturbance that appears to have run for at least twenty-four hours. While police faced down a crowd of seven hundred, who bombarded them with everything from Molotov cocktails, paint guns, and live ammunition; bombs, carjackings, arson, and sniper fire were happening in other areas of the city.
While the Irish Republican Army’s (I.R.A.) recent decision to abide by the terms of the ceasefire by the surrendering of its arms was seen as a sign of hope for the troubled counties of Northern Ireland, this outbreak serves as a reminder that there are extremists on both sides of the issue. Neither the Ulster Defence Association (U.D.A.) nor the Ulster Volunteer Force (U.V.F.) have received the same amount of publicity as the I.R.A., but this weekend’s turbulence should change that.
While a good deal of the blame for the violence in Ireland has justifiably been laid at the feet of the I.R.A., groups like the Orange Lodge can no longer lay any claim to “only defending ourselves”. Protestations of innocence wear thin quickly when those included in your marches are people carrying the flags of paramilitary armies, and you try to break police barriers to parade outside of your designated route.
Justifying your attack based on some spurious tradition of the right to march on any of “the Queen’s highways” is pretty thin, especially in light of the fact that your intent was to seek and provoke a violent reaction from those watching your parade in the first place. What other reason could a group like the Orangemen have for parading through predominantly Catholic neighbourhoods?
The Orange Lodges were bad enough with their exclusive membership policies, but now as they are becoming the rallying point for extremist “Loyalist” (loyal to the Queen and England) viewpoints they have become dangerous. This weekend’s violence may have been part of a campaign seeking to draw the I.R.A. out of retirement as a means of completely derailing unification talks, which we can only hope is not successful. (The I.R.A. stands to score more points by staying out this weekend’s events completely.)
Whatever the motivations, if the Orange Lodge does not take steps to distance itself from the actions of paramilitary forces, it will create a legacy no different than that of any other terrorist organization. They, like so many Irish organizations on either side of the fence, need to start living in the twenty-first century, not the 1600s.
There is no useful purpose served by the veneration of a 17th-century king and his accomplishment in our century. As long as the Order chooses to propagate the hatreds and bigotries of times long past, the chances for peace in Ireland are slim. Orange may be the colour of liberty in former Soviet satellites, but in Northern Ireland it just means business as usual: violence and death.