Orange Order Marching to nowhere - Stirring Up Sectarian Hatred


IT IS A great tragedy that once again this July the working class population of Belfast's Lower Ormeau will be mobilising to try and stop the Orange Order from marching down their road. A tragedy because the Order should never get that far, it should be stopped by the working class population of the Upper Ormeau! Although Orange marches have been opposed since they began, the recent wave of nationalist opposition in Belfast dates from events in February 1992. On the Lower Ormeau Road in Belfast five Catholics were murdered in a bookies shop by the UDA. That July, some Orangemen while marching past the site of the gave five-fingered salutes. The Portadown march through the Garvaghy Road had provoked serious confrontations in 1972, 1975 and 1981.

Much noise has come from loyalist quarters about the central involvement of current and ex-Sinn Féin members in the residents' committees that oppose the march. While it is undoubtably true that the confrontations help Sinn Féin push its agenda of 'parity of esteem' and provide a mechanism for highlighting the problems with the RUC, there is also little doubt that the campaigns against the parades are genuinely popular. It is up to the residents to choose who will act as their spokespersons in talks with the Orange Order.

However for anarchists, while we should oppose the Orange Orders parades where ever local people reject them (and our ideal would be for 'Protestant areas' to also oppose them), there are real problems with the way these campaigns are proceeding.

They have been caught up with Sinn Fein's need to put the RUC to the test and have tended to move towards a position of lobbying the British state to ban Orange marches (via the Parades Commission) and use its military to enforce these bans. Thus the Drumcree confrontation of 1998 and the massive show of military force deployed by the British became a shop front for the role of the British state as an 'honest broker' between two troublesome children.

Far from exposing the role of the British state in Ireland and thus why it should withdraw, this appears to demonstrate the importance that it stays to 'keep the peace'. This is the problem with putting Britain's commitment to 'parity of esteem' to the test, it is all too easy a test for the British state to pass!

Anarchists cannot call for state bans on marches in any guise. Bitter experience has shown that when the state is given a weapon to ban reactionary marches it will quite happily use this weapon against progressives ones too. Nowhere should this be clearer than in the six counties, the current round of conflicts saw its origins in the banning and re-routing of Civil Rights marches in 1968.

The central problem however is that the residents' groups are fighting on the sectarian terrain chosen by the Orange Order. With its membership declining and its influence on the state under threat, the Order needs an 'anti-Protestant' opposition to justify its continued existence.

The residents' groups are allowing themselves to be painted into this corner because their opposition is almost completely based around the anti- Catholic nature of the Orange Order. This makes it all too easy for the Orange Order to tell Protestant workers that the opposition is really 'anti-Protestant' in nature. It also leaves unchallenged sectarians within the nationalist areas who are active in or around these groups.

As anarchists we could just wish this issue would go away and so refuse to deal with its complexity. However to do this would also be to make ourselves irrelevant for the two to three months that the 'marching season' dominates the northern political agenda.

In general we should support the attempts to physically prevent the Orange Order marching through residential areas where they are not welcome. We should not involve ourselves in lobbying the British or Irish states, either directly or indirectly (through the Parades Commission), to ban marches. We should not demand that the RUC or British army act to enforce whatever bans may exist.

Politically our role around such campaigns should be to challenge the exclusive focus on the Orange Order as an anti-Catholic body. We should highlight its role as a body that is anti-left, against workers' unity and responsible for testing/ disciplining radical Protestant workers. This would serve two purposes, firstly it would undermine the tendency towards mirror image sectarianism within nationalist areas. More importantly, it would open the door towards 'cross-community' opposition to the Orange parades.

This final point will seem hopelessly utopian to many. However until significant numbers of Protestant workers begin to openly reject the Orange Order it will continue to succeed in its primary objective, as a counter revolutionary body. It is probably the case already that an overwhelming majority of southern Protestants oppose the Orange Order, and even in the six counties many radical and even liberal Protestants are probably quietly opposed to the Order.

Right now however there is no opening for them to express this opposition. In the ideal situation we could hope for a broad organisation 'of all religions and none' committed to physically defending areas against Orange parades. Creating that ideal situation starts now with the struggle to win hearts and minds to anti- sectarian working class politics.

This article is from Workers Solidarity No 57 published in March 1999