Sash My Father Wore

Unionist commentator Dr John Coulter was an Orangeman for more than 20 years. In this exclusive article for The Pensive Quill, the ex-Blanket columnist reflects that it is as much in republicanism’s interests for the Orange Order to rediscover its political direction as it is in Unionism’s. Dr Coulter fears that unless this new role for the Order is achieved, a violent dissident loyalist movement will emerge based on Protestant working class frustrations.

I warned in August 2013 there was a danger that republicans could become too provocative towards the Protestant Unionist Loyalist (PUL) community.

Since that article on The Pensive Quill four years ago and in subsequent publications, that fear has increased with the recent bonfire saga on 11 July. A serious perception is emerging within the ranks of the PUL community that a cultural war is being successfully waged against the pro-Union community in the North, aided by a well-organised republican community and an increasingly-militant and vocal liberal Protestant lobby. 

First, the Loyal Orders were forced off the street, as with Obin Street in Portadown in the 1980s; then the Loyal Orders were forced off the roads, as with Portadown’s Garvaghy Road in the 1990s; then the Loyal Orders were forced out of the villages, such as Dunloy in Co Antrim.

The Parades Commission has been used effectively against the marching band fraternity. Now, it seems, the traditional bonfire community is next, while the so-called ‘Garden Centre Prods’ simply ‘tut-tut’ and bury their heads even deeper in the political sand.

Granted, the situation has not been helped by the current stalemate at Stormont and the decision by Irish voters to reinforce the ‘one party’ ethos in the republican and unionist communities – namely, the DUP and Sinn Fein.

In spite of the LGBT community’s ability to rally support on the ground behind the campaign for same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland, a lot of Christians who oppose same-sex marriage theologically and Biblically still attend church.

While the DUP has clear policies on same-sex marriage, abortion and divorce which the Christian Churches’ evangelical wings can flock too, there is always the doubt – what happens if the DUP decides to follow the election-battered Ulster Unionists and adopt a more liberal agenda?

Many Protestant denominations are witnessing the emergence of liberal wings, and this is especially true within the so-called ‘Big Three’ – the Church of Ireland, mainstream Methodist and mainstream Presbyterian. In recent weeks, there has even been talk of a so-called ‘liberal wing’ developing within one of the more fundamentalist denominations, the Elim Pentecostal movement, which was founded in Monaghan in the early 1900s.

Perhaps the time has come for the Protestant Loyal Orders to return to its religious roots, and launch an Irish Christian Party or a Christian Socialist Party, which would clearly adhere to staunch evangelical Biblical views. This situation would only become a reality if the DUP ‘went liberal’ on social issues.

Meanwhile, democratic republicans have a moral obligation to facilitate the Protestant Loyal Orders over contentious parades to prevent the establishment of a violent dissident loyalist movement. Certainly, the distinct lack of confrontational situations during the Twelfth 2017 is clear proof that this accommodation between republicanism and Unionism can be practically achieved.

I know that at first reading, this warning will be misinterpreted as a ‘let the Prods march traditional routes, or the loyalists will wreck the country!’

But this contentious and volatile political situation has been brought about because Provisional Sinn Fein has demonstrated its ability to ‘milk’ the benefits of the peace process better than the mainstream Unionist parties.

In spite of the current Stormont impasse and the threat of a return to Direct Rule from Westminster, the DUP is now locked firmly into a power-sharing Stormont Executive with Provisional Sinn Fein. However, the Provisionals have been able to sweep to power as the largest nationalist party in the North by eating electorally into the SDLP’s former traditional voter-rich Catholic middle class.

At the same time, the Provisionals held onto their own traditional republican working class heartlands. The DUP copied the Provisionals by electorally hammering the rival Ulster Unionists in the UUP’s middle class Unionist heartlands.

But the DUP made a serious tactical error in copying the Provisionals’ strategy. The DUP was so eager to get into power at Stormont that it left its traditional working class Protestant areas behind. The DUP under Arlene Foster in 2017 must avoid the same backlash in the Unionist community which former First Minister David Trimble faced with the UUP in 2003.

Provisional Sinn Fein also has an added advantage which the DUP does not enjoy – republican unity is stronger than so-called Unionist unity. The dissident republican movement and republican socialist movement could not mount a serious political challenge to Provisional Sinn Fein. In the past decade, Provisional Sinn Fein has electorally ‘wiped the floor’ with non-Sinn Fein alternative candidates.

For example, in spite of putting up a credible republican alternative ideologically to Provisional Sinn Fein, the group known as Concerned Republicans failed to win any seats in the Northern Assembly.

In spite of there being a range of political alternatives to Provisional Sinn Fein, such as Republican Sinn Fein, eirigi, the IRSP, and 32 County Sovereignty Movement, there is little chance of these groups substantially eating into the PSF vote to such an extent that Northern nationalism witnesses a revival of the election-battered SDLP.

Many loyalists – especially those in urban working class communities – have interpreted Provisional Sinn Fein’s reaping of the peace process benefits for Catholic districts as an erosion of Britishness by republicans in Northern Ireland.

Unionists abandoned the ballot box in their thousands - and especially the UUP, resulting in nationalists winning seats in traditionally safe Protestant areas. Had Unionists flocked to the polling booths in the same numbers as they did in the early 1970s, Belfast City Council would never have been under republican and Alliance control, and the Union flag dispute which has rocked the North would never have occurred.

The loyalist working class – which largely provided the manpower for the Protestant paramilitaries – feels that it is being hammered by a ‘double whammy’. On one hand, loyalists feel that Provisional Sinn Fein successfully working the peace process amounts to cultural ethnic cleansing of the British heritage and identity. On the other hand, loyalists feel deserted by the mainstream Unionist parties.

Added to this is the perception among loyalists that while Provisional Sinn Fein has been able to keep an electoral lid on rival dissident parties, could the DUP and UUP now face a range of political alternatives which will further fragment the pro-Union vote? The DUP, like the UUP in the 1960s, is the dominant elected voice in the pro-Union community, but could an alternative to the DUP emerge, or has the pro-Union electorate sent a clear message to the Unionist parties that it wants one major party to represent Unionism?

In the 2014 European poll, Provisional Sinn Fein easily ‘saw off’ any potential challenge from the SDLP with the former comfortably retaining its MEP.

The situation has also changed radically for Unionism. In the run-up to the 2014 Euro poll, Unionism saw the launch of two new political parties (the moderate pluralist NI21, and the hardline loyalist Protestant Coalition) plus an upsurge in interest for the staunchly Eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party. By 2017, the DUP reigned supreme in the Unionist community.

So where does the Orange Order sit in all of this in Unionism, apart from occupying its usual ‘piggy in the middle’ position with parade and bonfire disputes?

Similarly, the British and Southern Irish intelligence communities have the dissident republican movement so heavily infiltrated with spies, agents, informers and touts, that the concept of a PIRA Long War of terrorism has little chance of succeeding, let alone get off the ground. The assorted band of dissident republican terror groups can only mount a ‘start/stop’ staggered terror campaign at best.

In reality, the past Ardoyne Shops saga was not about Orange feet on a Catholic street, but which nationalist residents group held the balance of power in the area. Was it the Provisional Sinn Fein-supporting Crumlin Ardoyne Residents Association (CARA), or the non-Provisional Sinn Fein Greater Ardoyne Residents Collective (GARC)?

The British and Irish governments will be praying that CARA remains on top, because should GARC succeed in becoming the dominant voice in Ardoyne, it will prove that dissident republicans can mount a credible alternative to Provisional Sinn Fein.

This leaves the Orange Order in a dilemma. After years of posturing, the Loyal Orders have at long last recognised the benefits of talking directly to nationalist residents groups. A past Londonderry Twelfth solution proves the fruits of the PR spin – it’s good to talk!

But in the case of Ardoyne, which residents group does the Orange Order talk to – CARA or GARC, or both? But there is an even bigger boogie man looming on the horizon – a dissident loyalist terror campaign.

Lest I be accused of keyboard warrior scaremongering, let me emphasise that this article is based on private chats with sections of Protestant opinion who voice a similar concern. This is not an article I write lightly. As a born-again Christian (and I will allow only God, and the Lord ALONE to judge me on this matter, not the army of hypocritical, finger-pointing Pharisees which bedevils the Christian faith), I have tried to present a Biblical foundation to my Revolutionary Unionist ideology. I fear I am losing this battle.

This is not because I see my Radical Right-wing Unionist ideology of Revolutionary Unionism as being irrelevant to 21st century Protestantism, Orangeism, Unionism and loyalism, but because the growing frustration which is developing rapidly within the Protestant working class communities.

The Orange Order has got to become a political pressure group like the old Vanguard Unionist movement or the Ulster Monday Club faction which existed within the once dominant UUP. I attempted to address this issue in an exclusive article for the loyalist web site, Long Kesh Inside Out.

I know at first hand the power which the Orange Order can wield, as I was a member of the Order for more than two decades. I literally donned the sash my father wore.

While as a primary and grammar school pupil, the Twelfth was a time for family gatherings, my happiest memories of the Orange and Black Orders are of my dad – as a Deputy Imperial Grand Chaplain – preaching the Gospel of the Risen Saviour at annual divine services of both Loyal Orders. I only left the Order to care for my severely autistic son. I still believe passionately in the Qualifications of an Orangeman.

Likewise, as a journalist, I was always reporting on parades and only once did I get the opportunity to walk on the Twelfth. (I will leave the ethical debate as to whether journalists should be members of political parties, pressure groups, or other campaign organisations for another day!).

The biggest mistakes which the Order made was to sever its connections with the UUP and embark on a daft cultural venture headed up by a cartoon character dubbed Diamond Dan. Then again, over the past half-decade, the UUP sought to distance itself from its traditional voter bases in the Christian Churches, Loyal Orders, marching band scene and loyalist working class.

Culturally, the Orange Order will never be able to match republicanism in this battle. The power of the Order has always been its ability to act as a political conduit between the various factions and classes of pro-Union thinking.

Republicans have had centuries of marketing their culture. They have even turned Protestant-led rebellions, such as the Presbyterian-dominated United Irishmen into a republican celebration. It was also Radical Presbyterians who saved the Irish language from extinction, but republicans have again stolen gaelic from right under the noses of Presbyterianism.

A past Castlederg republican parade to mark two dead Provos killed by their own bomb is clear proof of how republicans can market former members. You need only see how Provisional Sinn Fein ‘milked’ the 10 dead hunger strikers in 1981 to see how effective republicans are at creating the ethos of nationalist culture.

In 1981, around 100,000 people marched behind the coffin of hunger striker Bobby Sands MP. How many walked behind the coffin of loyalist terrorist Billy Wright in Portadown after he was shot dead in the Maze in 1997 by the INLA?

It is only a matter of time before republicans cash in on the Twelfth celebrations pointing out that it was King Billy’s elite Catholic Dutch Blues troops who won the Boyne for the Orange champion, and that the Pope held a special Te Deum in Rome to commemorate William’s victory.

To survive the Orange Order must become a political pressure group, tone down the cultural hype and become a forum where the various classes and factions within the pro-Union community can meet to represent their people.

If the Order fails in this mission, especially among the Protestant working class, a body of opinion will emerge with the terrible conclusion that violence is the only way to gain recognition for the Unionist people. Where would Provisional Sinn Fein be today had it not been for the PIRA terror campaign?

But it takes two to tango. The Orange Order cannot achieve this pressure group role on its own. It is to republicans’ advantage for the Order to become a political cement for Unionism once again.

Even if a small faction of loyalism returns to armed conflict, it has the ability to create ‘Merry Hell’ in Southern Ireland and mainland Britain. Such a dissident loyalist movement will ironically adopt the ethos which PIRA maintained – one bomb in Britain is worth 100 in Belfast.

London and Dublin are not worried while any type of terror campaign is limited to the Six Counties. It is when that campaign lands on the front door steps of Leinster House and Westminster that both governments sit up and take notice.

Given the looming economic crisis in the Republic over Brexit, what would the added impact be of a dissident loyalist bombing campaign on a scale of the Dublin and Monaghan ‘no-warning’ massacres of the 1970s? In Britain, the Irish community is one of the largest of the ethnic groups on the mainland.

What would the impact be of a similar bombing campaign against Irish pubs, clubs and the Irish Embassy? Such a scenario can be dismissed at face value as tabloid-style scaremongering. But the emergence of a dissident loyalist terror movement is steadily becoming a reality and could catch Stormont, the Dail and Westminster on the hop.

The frustration generated by the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s eventually spawned PIRA. The same conditions and scenario are emerging again in the North, only in the loyalist communities this time. In the early 1970s, Stormont was ill-prepared to help the Irish Nationalist Party assist the calls for civil rights – civil rights which would also have benefited many working class Protestants.

Provisional Sinn Fein has a moral obligation not to taunt the working class loyalist community. PSF should be working directly with the Orange Order to heal the frustrations within the working class loyalist community.

If PSF can assist the Order in finding its true role within Protestantism, the knock-on effect will be to ensure the mainstream Unionist parties and the new movements engage with the loyalist working class communities.

Of course, PSF could sit back, hold up holy hands, and dismiss the Orange crisis as a ‘hun debacle’. But if Provisional Sinn Fein can negotiate with Unionists to bring about the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements, surely Messrs Adams, Kelly and Ms O’Neill could negotiate with the Loyal Orders to bring working class loyalists in from the political cold.

It is in no one’s interests to see the emergence of a violent dissident loyalist movement. Some may argue that the seeds have already been sown for such a movement during the Union flag protest riots. Hopefully, the Christian Churches, too, will recognise the dilemma which the Order finds itself in.

  • Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

2 comments to ''Sash My Father Wore"

  1. here's a nice wee post celebrating the sash somebody's forefather wore!

  2. Completely ignores the fact that a large percentage of so called 'Loyalist Paramilitaries' have feathered their nest quite nicely on the drug trade.

    They won't be too keen to stop their lifestyles of DVLA cars, sitting drinking all day in bars, holiday's to Spain and afford all this while not having a job!

    And why would 'dissident loyalists', which is an oxymoron by the way, be upset at PSF and decide to bomb Dublin in retaliation?

    It's 2017 not 1975. Wise the bap "Doctor" Coulter.


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