It is unfortunate, if perhaps somewhat inevitable, that the now annual battles around the 'marching season' fall along religious lines. The Orange parades are being used to test the supposed neutrality of the northern regime and the RUC in particular. The losing side in this dangerous game however is likely to be the working class, Protestant and Catholic, as the confrontations and the sectarian attacks that occur around the Orange marches drive people further into 'their own' communities.
The Orange Order was born in Armagh in 1795 as part of an armed
terror campaign to deny full citizenship rights to Catholics. This was
in the context of struggles between landlords and tenants in the area of
which the Anglican Archbishop of Armagh said "the worst of this is that
it stands to unite Protestant and Papist, and whenever that happens,
good-bye to the English interest in Ireland". Specifically the penal
laws forbade Catholics from bearing arms, but radical (and mostly
Protestant) volunteer companies in the 1780's had been recruiting and
arming Catholics with the "the full support of a radical section of
Protestant political opinion"(1).
The sectarian attacks that accompany Orange marches today also go
right back to its origins. Again in 1795 up to 7,000 Catholics were
driven out of Armagh by Orange Order pogroms. But there was one key
difference with today, then many expelled Catholic families were
sheltered by Presbyterian United Irishmen in Belfast and later Antrim
and Down, and the (mostly) Protestant leadership of the United Irishmen
sent lawyers to prosecute on behalf of the victims of Orange attacks.
They also sent special missions to the area to undermine the Orange
Indeed the Orange Order probably played a key part in ensuring the
failure of the 1798 rebellion. At the time General John Knox, the
architect of this policy described the Orange Order as "the only barrier
we have against the United Irishmen"(2)after the failed rebellion he
wrote "the institution of the Orange Order was of infinite use"(3) . The
survival of the Orange Order since, and in particular the special place
it was given in the sectarian make up of the northern state (every
single head of the 6 counties has also been a senior member of the
Orange Order), reflect its success in this role.
The strategy was simple. In order to prevent Protestant workers
identifying with their Catholic neighbours the order offered an
anti-Catholic society, led by the wealthy Protestants that offered all
Protestants a place in its ranks, and the promise of promotion and
privilege. The annual parades were a key part of this strategy, they
filled two roles. They allowed the working class Protestant members a
day in the sun to mix with their 'betters' and at the same time lord it
over their Catholic neighbours.
At the same time they exposed radical Protestant workers to
accusations of being 'traitors' for refusing to take part in the events.
Much of the imagery of loyalism, the bonfires, the bunting and the
painted kerbstones provide an opportunity to demand of every Protestant
worker in a community 'which side are you on'.
Right from the start the parades have been accompanied by violence as
they attempt to force their way through areas where they are not
wanted. The first parades of 1796 saw one fatality, but in 1797 14 were
killed during violence at an Orange parade in Stewartstown. In 1813 an
Orange parade through one of the first areas of Belfast identified as
'Catholic' saw four more deaths.
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