[Phrase taken from William Watson's poem 'Ulster's reward', Times, (14 Sept. 1912),]
The British media and British people are largely interested in Northern Ireland only in the event of dramatic political developments. By definition such developments consist either of agreements and "progress" towards "peace" or outbreaks of violence. This pattern of sporadic attention makes it fairly straightforward to adopt a self-conscious attitude of "neutrality" and of moral superiority to the inhabitants of Northern Ireland, whether these are combatants or not. Yet such a perspective is in fact far from neutral, and has helped to shape the pattern of recent political and social developments in Northern Ireland almost as much as has the wilful ignorance of Irish nationalists (North and South) and Unionists.
I would recommend to Britons and Irish nationalists who have not examined it a reading of Ruth Dudley Edwards' book The faithful tribe (The faithful tribe: an intimate portrait of the loyal institutions (London, 1999)) - and not just next July when most Britons are next likely to think about Northern Ireland. The precise circumstances in which the book was written and publicised have now passed though the controversies of course are still resonant. I would recommend a perusal, however, not because of the light it sheds on contentious parades of Orange Order lodges and other Loyal institutions, but because it provokes thought into the broader historical interactions of religious and political convictions which underpin contemporary society in the north Atlantic archipelago.
One of the most thought-provoking passages is the description of part of the initiation ceremony for a new member at one particular Orange lodge. Initiates are asked, for instance, to concur with the following passage:—
Do you promise, before this Lodge, to give no countenance, by your presence or otherwise, to the unscriptural, superstitious, and idolatrous worship of the Church of Rome? And do you also promise never to marry a Roman Catholic, never to stand sponsor for a child when receiving baptism from a priest of Rome, or allow a Roman Catholic to stand sponsor for your child at baptism? And do you further promise to resist, by all lawful means, the ascendancy, extension, and encroachments of that Church; at the same time being careful always to abstain from all unkind words and actions towards its members, yea, even prayerfully and diligently, as opportunity occurs, to use your best efforts to deliver them from error and false doctrine, and lead them to the truth of the Holy Word, which is able to make them wise unto salvation?
This is only a part of a particular initiation ceremony, but not a part wildly out of spirit with the intent underlying such ceremonies. Ms. Dudley Edwards observes:—
All that Orangemen can see or hear when they read such words are the injunctions to behave properly towards Roman Catholics. They are genuinely baffled that outsiders find such rules and language bigoted. (p.62)
I do not find this language bigoted, but I am troubled by the comfortable assurance that another group of people just do not have anything of the truth in them. Proper behaviour, as defined by this language, would seem to be a rather patronising, dismissive attitude: The successful Orange initiate appears unable to accept that people practise another way of life. (The Orange initiate is not alone in this, of course.) Dogmatic assertions about the error and falsity of particular creeds, and efforts to "deliver" proponents of such creeds from them, are high-risk strategies with uncertain results. They also seem to be born of desperation. The aim of winning others over entirely to a rival, incommensurable way of life seems an unlikely way to rapid progress.
Attempts at religious conversion have different parameters from other forms of intellectual argument. But the distinction is rather subtle. A pragmatic attitude to other peoples' ways of life could, on the one hand, be dismissed as weak or conservative quietism, tolerating multiplicity because lacking the commitment to do anything to unify society [R. Kearney, Postnationalist Ireland: politics, literature, philosophy (London, 1997), p.65]. On the other hand, assuming some sets of controversial convictions to be certain, at least at some unacknowledged level, is a practical necessity. Any politically active person would like other people to feel differently about certain things, and means to influence them in one direction or another. The difference between this and orthodox religious conviction is easily overlooked. To some interpreters it is non-existent. Frequently, to such observers, there is no ground between orthodox religious convictions—only a gaping chasm. Ms. Dudley Edwards not surprisingly thus reveals that atheism is more offensive than Catholicism to members of the Loyal institutions [Edwards, op. cit., p.15]. (It should be noted that Ms. Dudley Edwards, who declares herself an atheist, and who clearly knows the Loyal institutions better than I do, expresses little overt unease towards the elements of their members' religion.)
If the world were an Orange lodge, as Ms. Dudley Edwards amply illustrates, the creed of its believers would have a great many advantages. She depicts their behaviour as marked by an unconscious internationalism [Edwards, op. cit., pp.113-4]. The connection between such a faith and communal or ethnic conflict is not readily apparent. But there is a connection. Communities comprising believers of different creeds have predominated throughout recent world history. Contest for the control of the political apparatus has been a not uncommon feature of disputes between rival faiths. The temptation to use temporal sanctions to "defend" orthodoxy has been historically hard to resist, particularly for those who believe their orthodoxy to be essential to any stable society. Both the successes and the limitations of these sanctions, the experience of assimilation and of persecution, have strengthened the tendency for alternative religious creeds to become key elements of rival ethnic identities. Irrespective of the sincerity and unconscious internationalism of believers, ethnic conflict across boundaries defined by religious belief is a phenomenon which a world divided into practitioners of different religious creeds will frequently struggle to avoid.
It is hard to believe that religious divisions will evaporate rapidly. Even if they were to disappear, it is not apparent which orthodoxy (if any) is most likely to "deliver" all the others. If the existence of a set of believers in a different religion from one's own is a challenge and a threat, converting, killing, expelling or migrating away from these rival believers becomes a duty. But the modern world, and elements of theological creeds themselves, look askance at killing and expelling rival believers. Conversion is more acceptable, but that requires the largest investment of effort for the smallest rapid return. Migrating away from rival believers has a long and important tradition, including among Orange communities. However, it is certainly not a happy tradition. Retreat conflicts with other equally definitive beliefs of Orange communities (and not just Orange communities). Depending on manner, it may be regarded as synonymous with ethnic cleansing, and hardly distinguishable from expulsion.
The accommodation of different creeds, not the deliverance of certain creeds, seems to be a fundamental necessity of temporal life. It is sometimes suggested that a belief in one particular religion is the best place from which to seek this accommodation. One observer of Indian society has argued that, until the recent past, 'traditional concepts of inter-religious understanding [in the subcontinent] contained communal animosities within tolerable limits'. Participants in the modern Hindutva movement, however, are motivated by an aggressive communalism. The communalists model their idealised version of the Hindu religion not on such traditional concepts but on the greater political organisation and monolithic power of the semitic creeds. Hindutva, the same commentator continues, 'may turn out to be Western colonialism's last posthumous attack on Hinduism'. [Ashis Nandy, "Secularism, Hindu nationalism and the fear of people", in John Coleman and Miklós Tomka (eds.), Religion and nationalism. Concilium, 1995-6 (London, 1995), pp.96-102, especially 101, 100, 99.]
Readers may be more familiar with the argument that Christianity is the most tolerant religion. Readers of Ms. Dudley Edwards' book will find cognate views expressed by members of Loyal institutions therein-particularly, of course, the view that Protestant Christianity is the basis of British tolerance and liberty [Edwards, op. cit., pp.108, 111, passim.]. The contention that Christianity is the basis of a tolerant British society has a great deal in common with the argument that Hinduism is the basis of a tolerant Indian society. In each case, secularisation is held to be responsible for sectarian bigots who throw stones, petrol bombs, or other missiles in the names of faiths. However, the totalising claims of the two ontologies are ultimately incompatible. This justification by superior tolerance is also a case where one can leap to different conclusions. It is the old argument about with which particular dogma to start. Under the cloak this time of protestations about their own liberality, the believers of different faiths again compete for control of the political apparatus, entrench orthodoxies, and yell incommensurable assertions at each other.
Accommodation does not seem likely to take place with more missionary work, in a world where the dividing line between the limited education disseminated in missionary work and the antipathy of ethnic groups is blurred. Accommodation thus seems more likely to take place on the secular plane than through any creed emerging victorious from this debilitating debate. I do not believe that this secular plane constitutes yet another rival or alternative way of life. The existence of groups of believers (in political and theological faiths) who are antipathetic to each other is not a challenge to those who act upon the secular plane, but rather a vindication. The fact that it is possible to leap in such different directions would seem to indicate that leaping might not be a good first step. I expect that more of believers' thoughts and actions will thus take place upon the secular plane. I anticipate that they will continue to find some way of doing this without compromising their deeply-held convictions. To be frank, I cannot precisely perceive how, but that is likely to be an indication of my personal limitations—similar feats have been achieved in the past.
Going down to the secular plane, it is true, can also be a hasty impatient leap: The discovery of truth even via old arguments is important. It is a leap that it would be too easy for English atheists to wish Orangemen and women would take as he reads of Orange initiation ceremonies. But such unilateral movement is unlikely and undesirable others have to come down too. Like Ms. Dudley Edwards, I don't think the Orange initiate deserves the animus that is felt towards him (only a "he" would undertake the initiation from which the above excerpt is taken). There are no more problems with his creed than there are with many sets of belief that are criticised far less. Unfortunately, the patronising sympathy of avowed English secularists like me—particularly one from the English liberal-left, with its rather ignorant tradition of antipathy to Ulster Protestants—is unlikely to prove any consolation to the Orange initiate.
What consolation is there? One consolation, in its way, is the parallel often drawn between contemporary Northern Ireland (particularly Unionists in Northern Ireland) and Britain of a few generations ago. Ms. Dudley Edwards alludes to a comparison of Northern Irish society with 1950s Britain [Edwards, op.cit., p.88]. Like many clichés the parallel survives because it serves the needs of different parties. A gulf of understanding between the prevalent British identity of Unionists in Northern Ireland and versions of "Britishness" in Britain undoubtedly exists [J. Loughlin, Ulster Unionism and British national identity since 1885 (London, 1995)]. According to the cliché, the two have a close family relation, which, in its way, the cliché makes closer still. For nostalgia for the 1950s survives in Britain as well as in Northern Ireland [S. Bruce, The edge of the Union: the Ulster Loyalist political vision (Oxford, 1994), pp.39-40]. For those Britons anxious to wash their hands of Northern Ireland, the cliché makes it easy to dismiss the Loyal institutions as anachronistic [Wedded to the past, Economist (13 July 1996), pp.23-4.]. But the very existence of such British nostalgia shows that the cliché is simplistic and, in fact, doesn't do justice to Northern Ireland. When I grew up in 1980s eastern England, elements of 1950s Britain were alive and well. I didn't think much of them. Conversely, on my brief visits to Northern Ireland, I have found a country of great contrasts—but one in which the 1990s had arrived.
It is fashionable among other British observers instead to blame sectarianism and intolerance in Northern Ireland for the province's increasing psychological and cultural distance from Britain (particularly from England). The Loyal institutions have become the focus of some rather astonishing hostility, even appearing in some otherwise highly scholarly essays, which focuses on their alleged sectarianism and intransigence [N. Davies, The isles: a history (Basingstoke, 1999), pp.921-2]. In Paul Stephenson's play United we fall the 'Pinks' traditionally march through a neighbouring village on 'the twelfth' merely to bang drums, play pipes 'and vent our general spite' [Play broadcast on BBC Radio Four, 7 July 2000]. British hostility to Irish nationalism is an unsurprising if historically regrettable phenomenon. British hostility to Unionism in Northern Ireland is more surprising. Yet most Britons are quite capable of alternating between these two attitudes. Britons blame anyone else even those who claim to British—rather than come to terms with the possibility that the problems of Northern Irish society might just embody a complex legacy of identities from all over the north Atlantic archipelago, and therefore should constitute an intimate concern for all.
Sectarianism there undoubtedly is; but this does not make Northern Irish Unionists exceptional. Recent historiography has emphasised the role of sectarianism in nationalist Ireland in the early years of independence [P. Hart, The IRA and its enemies: violence and community in Cork, 1916-1923 (Oxford, 1998).]. Nor is "sectarianism" a good explanation of any gulf of understanding between Northern Ireland and any other part of Britain, as Unionist intellectuals have pointed out in recent years. The Northern Ireland problem, writes Graham Walker, is about the haphazard and in some ways artificial development of the UK. It is about the multi-definitional character of "Britishness". Britishness is not a single, homogeneous entity. Rather it represents a plurality of identities, some of which, like that of the Ulster loyalists, can seem, for example to the English, to be very "unBritish", given the common English perception of what Britishness should mean. However, the Ulster loyalist sense of identity is far more understandable to Scots, whatever their views on the desirability of a united Ireland. Scots can sympathise with Ulster loyalist frustration regarding the English equation of "English" and "British". Scots know very well about religious sectarianism and about a system of education segregated, in effect, according to religion. Scots can readily relate to the potency of Orange and Green symbolism. In such respects Scotland and Ulster are indeed close cousins. Potentially, they can do much together to deconstruct the concept of Britishness and perhaps to redefine it more beneficially for all. [Graham Walker, Scotland and Ulster: political interactions since the late nineteenth century and possibilities of contemporary dialogue, in John Erskine and Gordon Lucy (eds.), Cultural traditions in Northern Ireland: Varieties of Scottishness. Exploring the Ulster-Scottish connection (Belfast, 1997), pp.91-109, especially p.107].
It is both necessary and paradoxical that a large measure of power in deciding who is British and who isn't rests largely with the inhabitants of England. The English alone among the British have never really had to think about what Britain is, partly because the inhabitants of England are the majority of Britons, and partly because the idea of Britain seems (at least to the English) to have been successful for a long time through not being defined at all.
Northern Irish Unionists, however, whose membership of "Britain" has been more fragile for generations, have had to think about the question in far greater detail. It would not therefore be surprising if Northern Irish Unionists had clearer ideas about "Britishness" than those prevailing in England. The Orange initiate finds it natural to promise not to marry Catholics [Note however that at least some lodges in the United States have dropped this condition; see Edwards, op.cit., p.117], because the concept is to him akin to a kind of adultery: he is already married into a British family, and the condition of that marriage is Protestant supremacy. Traditional British national identity, as Linda Colley has shown, was bound up with Protestantism [Britons: the forging of a nation, 1707-1837 (New Haven, 1992), pp.367-70]. And historically, this close relationship between religion and national identity has produced more sectarianism throughout the United Kingdom than is often realised. [Edwin Jones, The English nation: the great myth (Stroud, 1998), pp.12-21, 222, 234]. It is apparent to me as a secular liberal just how far the influence of orthodox religion still permeates the traditional institutions of Britain—even if those institutions have proved less vivacious in the face of hostile influences than has the Orange Order.
Ms. Dudley Edwards quotes a sermon by Brian Kennaway in Lurgan in October 1997. Kennaway has been the type of moderate influence within the Orange Order whose quiet endeavours Ms. Dudley Edwards feels have not been given their due. He quoted fellow Ulsterman William Bingham (then Deputy Grand Chaplain of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland):—
"As I look around Britain today, I look at the situation not only as an Orangeman and an Ulsterman, but as a Christian—indeed a Christian minister. I am committed to Orangeism, but I am supremely committed to Christ. I recognize that my approach to religion—indeed many people's approach to religion in Northern Ireland—is out of tune with the times in England but I do feel passionately that Christ and the gospel has provided the answer to the deepest needs of society and that peace and reconciliation begin at the Cross."
Kennaway continued in his own words:
People like to draw parallels to our present crises to the turn of the century—the Home Rule crisis—but some things are different, you know. And you'd better believe it. You see God played a more significant part in our nation at the beginning of the century. People were fundamentally more religious. And when they sang the words of that hymn we sang "O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come", they actually meant it. Do we? What's the answer?The answer is reformation and revival under the anointing of the spirit of God. [Edwards, op. cit., pp.45, 44]
This is a very important point. The strength of Protestant Christianity has been crucial not just to such security of status as Northern Ireland has enjoyed within the United Kingdom, but to the construction of Britain itself. The result is that while there are sectarians among the Unionists of Northern Ireland, there is also today proportionately more strength of feeling about national identity than in Britain, where the avowal of Protestantism has declined more rapidly. That decline, it can be argued, currently (though perhaps not permanently) makes Britain and not Northern Ireland exceptional [Stephen Howe, Ireland and empire: colonial legacies in Irish history and culture (Oxford, 2000), p.106], and that decline has thrown we English into a crisis of national introspection about who we are and what we will become. It may be that English hostility to the Loyal institutions in Northern Ireland is the discharge of the frustrations of a society which has not really come to terms with its past, a kind of transferred self-loathing. Another cliché sometimes uttered on this side of the Irish Sea suggests that the problem with Northern Ireland is that there are a lot of Protestants, a lot of Catholics, and not enough Christians. Were this true, the only difference between Northern Ireland and England today would be that England has lost more of its Protestantism and Catholicism.
My difference with Kennaway is that as a secular liberal I do not look to the renovation of orthodox religion for the recovery of an old form of British national identity. I look, in the long term, to the emergence of new institutions and the recognition of more complex identities. Personally, I believe that there should be a place for Northern Irish Unionists among such institutions and identities. Indeed, I am confident that there will be a place, so long as the aforementioned ignorance of the English liberal-left is kept under control. Many others on this side of the Irish Sea however have no strong feelings on this issue, and international opinion may be against my conviction. As to the parades themselves, a contributor to this journal once suggested in another publication that there was no reason why Irish nationalists should regard hostility to the celebration of the Twelfth as a received element of their ideology. If July 12 were made a national holiday in the Republic, "uniting Orange and Green" might begin to mean something [B. Clifford (ed.), Reprints from the: "Cork Free Press": (1910-1916). An account of Ireland's only democratic anti-partition movement (Belfast and Cork, 1984), p.60]. The concept of a nationalist Twelfth might seem inherently unlikely to superficial observers. I disagree. In nineteenth-century Scotland, William Wallace and Robert the Bruce were icons of Scottish unionism. Scottish unionists proudly regarded the military victories of Wallace and the Bruce as having paved the way for a free and equal union of England and Scotland [Graeme Morton, Unionist-nationalism: governing urban Scotland, 1830-1860 (Phantassie, East Lothian, 1999), pp.176-88]. The reinvention particularly of Wallace as a symbol of militant Scottish nationalist antipathy to Englishness is an indication that the significance of traditions can change. There is much room for political contest and reinterpretation of meaning within national traditions without overthrowing them—or simply throwing at them, which is the response of some nationalists in this case [A.D. Smith, The ethnic origins of modern nations (Oxford, 1986), pp.211-2, 16.]
Somewhat less penetratingly, I once wrote that the protestation that the prevalence of pro-nationalist assumptions about Northern Ireland was the result of 'clever and misleading Nationalist propaganda' was 'a rather tired claim which Unionists are almost certain to make every time their aims are frustrated in Ireland' [Peatling, British ideological movements and Irish politics, 1865-1925 (Oxford University, D.Phil. thesis, 1997), p.6]. Ms. Dudley Edwards book provides some evidence for this assertion but I read these words now with awkwardness. There certainly has been rather a lot of 'clever and misleading Nationalist propaganda'. Unfortunately Unionists' expressions of irritation at that state of affairs have not helped them. More subtle political gambits however have emanated from Northern Ireland's Unionists, and commentators in safe vantage points (such as me) would be well advised to acknowledge these rather than risking reinforcing existing stereotypes. Ms. Dudley Edwards documents some of the progress that has been made in "public relations" by Unionists. For instance, there has been an effort by some participants in the processions of the Loyal institutions to utilise less martial language—the marches are sometimes now described as "pageants", more analogous to the Notting Hill Carnival than taunting sectarian triumphalism [Edwards, op. cit., p.25]. The web site of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland draws an equally cunning analogy between the communal segregation it argues is imposed by the Parades Commission and apartheid [Parades—The Case Against The Parades Commission, The Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland web site, last accessed 13 July 2000]. There is even a prospect that Unionists might try to turn human rights legislation planned by the British government to their advantage. None of this is likely in itself to facilitate nationalist celebration of the Twelfth, and in the short term it could exacerbate existing bitterness. But from a long-term perspective, it could be perceived more positively—as a contribution to building a different political language in connection with the parades.
And those of us in comfortable vantage points should be in no doubt—even the deployment of this language is a difficult compromise to make. Public relations, particularly as pioneered by recent British governments, can be a dirty business. Traditionalists—and not just traditionalists in Northern Ireland—who pride themselves on plain-speaking transparently like neither public relations nor the idea of an "accommodation of creeds". Those traditionalists who do not regard talk of "accommodation of creeds" as weak are likely to fulminate against it as "political correctness gone mad".
This cliché too needs to be challenged. Traditionalists do not run the risk not of being politically incorrect. This is no risk as far as they are concerned anyway, as they regard the allegation as a badge of honour. Their words and deeds however are in danger of being based on factually incorrect assumptions. Unreformed (if you'll pardon the pun) representations of Protestantism's triumph never represented Britain very well—still less the United Kingdom as it was (i.e., including nationalist Ireland). This of course is no reason for placing prohibitions on parades, but it does help to explain the long tradition within British public opinion (almostas old as the Orange Order itself) of regarding parades as other than loyal. Expressions of one-dimensional national identities, nationalist or unionist, are as likely to make individuals within one's own community feel uncomfortable as to unite it against outsiders. And many Unionists were made to feel uncomfortable because of the recent actions of some rather dubious self-appointed champions of the Orange Order.
It cannot be overemphasised however that to expect the unilateral repackaging of identity among Northern Irish Unionists is undesirable and unlikely. Even apart from the substantial outstanding reforms required within Irish nationalism, there are many on this side of the Irish Sea who do not understand the symbolic significance of their political words and deeds. Clichés in both parties about the British sense of fair play, "let's be British about this", are still the stuff of mainstream politics. The Prime Minister has asserted, with comfortable assurance, Few would disagree with the qualities that go towards that British identity: qualities of creativity built on tolerance, openness and adaptability, work and self-improvement, strong communities and families and fair play, rights and responsibilities and an outward looking approach to the world that all flow from our unique island geography and history.
When the Portadown lodge district master referred to the Poll Tax riots of the early nineties in justification of the recent protests of the Orange Order and their supporters, he made a telling point though not the one he had hoped. Recent British history supplies little support for the comforting insularity of British attitudes to Northern Ireland—the idea that while the factions in Northern Ireland cannot be trusted to get along on their own, "minorities" in Britain are governed by "majorities" with a light and tolerant touch. I don't think there is anything wrong in being British about things—after all, I can't avoid it and wouldn't want to. But Blair's snugly comforting blanket of assumptions about Britons' hereditary qualifications to the title of superiority is a despicable piece of ignorance. If tolerance is a valuable quality, it is dynamic and is defined in continual action—it has to be proved and reproved every day. Renegotiation and therefore change, however painful—is implicit in tolerance. Tolerance is not supposed to be relaxing or comforting.
Keith Jeffrey suggested in his otherwise extremely positive review of Ms. Dudley Edwards' book that the tribal dimension of Unionist interactions with other communities in the island was overemphasised [Walking the territory, Times Literary Supplement, (16 July 1999), p.11]. It does indeed seem useful rather to emphasise other narratives in the complicated history of Northern Ireland, and of the north Atlantic archipelago as a whole. While Ms. DudleyEdwards closely depicts the (in some cases rather dramatic) divisions in "the Unionist community" of Northern Ireland, divisions in "the Nationalist community" of Northern Ireland are necessarily not painted with so fine a brush. It is a complicated question indeed whether commentators should at all be resorting to lazy concepts like "the Unionist community" or "the Nationalist community". Undoubtedly these stereotype large numbers of heterogeneous individuals with multiple and competing identities [P. Shirlow and M. McGovern (eds.), Who are 'the people'? Unionism, Protestantism and Loyalism in Northern Ireland (London, 1997).]. The concepts themselves can also be dangerous it can be hard enough within Northern Ireland to break free of the hegemonic pull of Unionism and Nationalism without the stereotypes being constantly reiterated as the tools used in analysis of that society. However, it would be hard to deny the pre-existing strength of the associated identities. I have also clearly failed in the past to avoid reinforcing even cruder stereotypes than these. Cultivating an appreciation of the complexity of other people's identities is a constituent part of tolerance, and it is hard work for all of us.
For this reason, Ms. Dudley Edwards' picture of the men and women of the Loyal institutions as groups of good-natured but imperfect individuals deserves to be read widely in Britain and in nationalist Ireland at any time of the year-not just during July. It raises issues which are consistently relevant throughout the Atlantic archipelago. Her book, on the other hand, will not do as much good work if it is read predominantly in Unionist Ulster. This may well have been, and may continue to be, its fate. As Ms. Dudley Edwards' implies, too many of the involved parties read and listen only to flatter their own local conceit and entrench their own prejudices. And which of us, in these islands, unless we make a concerted effort to attend other than our own services (political and/or theological), can really condescend to Unionist Ulster for that or for anything else?