Orange Order Needs to Rediscover its Political Direction

Guest writer, Radical 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.

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.

I know that at first reading, this introduction 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.

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 Peter Robinson in 2013 is now facing 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. 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 have abandoned the ballot box in their thousands, 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, the DUP and UUP now face a range of political alternatives which will further fragment the pro-Union vote.

In the 2014 European poll, Provisional Sinn Fein should easily ‘see off’ any potential challenge from the SDLP with the former expected comfortably to retain its MEP. This is not the case within the Unionist community as 2013 has seen 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.

So where does the Orange Order sit in all of this latest crisis in Unionism, apart from occupying its usual ‘piggy in the middle’ position in the Ardoyne Shops parade dispute?

At first glance, the Ardoyne Shops saga can be seen as a battle for supremacy in nationalism. Republicans who want an alternative to the Provisional Sinn Fein peace strategy championed by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness clearly now recognise they will never beat PSF at the ballot box.

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 Ardoyne Shops saga is not about Orange feet on a Catholic street, but which nationalist residents group holds the balance of power in the area. Is 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 comes out 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. The recent 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. 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.

The 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 economic crisis in the Republic, 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 McGuinness 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.


  1. Since the writer is such a wonderful Orange man, please allow me to knock three times on the door and await the permission of the worshipful master to enter this discussion.
    His article has started with a facetious and bold claim that Sinn Fein have a moral obligation to allow the Orange Order to have their own way and that Sinn Fein will be preventing a loyalist backlash. A backlash that has been threatened for many years yet has never managed to manifest itself. Claims that dissident Republicans are riddled with informers yet dismissing the truth that so are the loyalist groups. Recent UVF super grass trials and various other leading loyalists who over the past ten years have been outed as MI5 agents. Pot kettle black. Far right loyalism is very similar to the far right race groups in America. Having previously lived in the states, I have personal experience of groups such as the Knights of the KKK and the extreme far right neo Nazi group which wished to walk in the area I had lived in, in New York. I wonder if the Democratic party or in particular Obama as their leader, has the moral obligation to allow a vile parade to proceed where it is not wanted?
    Ethnic cleansing of a British culture? Really. What is British about the north of Ireland. Beyond being a subjected state of the United Kingdom, the left over remnant of a fallen empire. We always hear about our British way of life yet it is nothing like the real British way of life that persons enjoy living in England. If the 6 counties is so British, then why are we not allowed to vote for the British prime minister elections? Why do the politicians at Stormont have no say at all, in how England is ran? Why once you arrive in England, are you called Paddy and only ever referred to as Irish and not an equal British person?
    To mention the United Irishmen as being hijacked by Republicans is absurd. These men were the founders of Republicanism. Based upon the ideals of the American and French revolutions. Equality for all on the island of Ireland.
    The whitewashing of the 11th and 12th of July as some sort of fun family day out is a tad off the real truth. Yes, I agree that many a family enjoyed going to the parades and many were peaceful. Though for us who grew up in working class loyalist controlled areas, the 11th night featured masked gun men at the bonfire before it was lit. The burning of Irish flags, Celtic shirts and any election posters of Sinn Fein and SDLP. Around that bonfire, many a drunken teenager started a fight over who supported which paramilitary group.
    The 12th day when yet again, hundreds of drunken mobs trailed along behind bands whom were also half pissed.
    The comments about political alternatives such as the Protestant Coalition, is laughable. They are publicly a joke. Self statements such as “ we are a non political political party” who will not run for elections. Led by former BNP scam artist, Jim “Dodgy” Dowson. I have yet to meet one Protestant who even takes them serious. These flag protesters are a minority and will remain a minority. The vast vast majority of normal everyday people in Protestant areas, just want to live in peace.
    As for loyalist dissidents, he is reading far to much Sunday World. I do believe that a dissident loyalist threat could become a reality but I do not think it will be anywhere near what he describes. His previous comment about loyalists with M16's in the crowds was a great comedic act for those who read it. Loyalism is on its last feet. Society has changed, times are moving forward and nobody I have spoken to in areas like where I grew up, want these flag protesters or a return to the dark days. His comment of how the IRA blew themselves up and how Sinn Fein are marketing that, does he remember the UVF bomb makers who blew themselves up in their kitchen in East Antrim area?
    I will end this with one statement. It is not Sinn Fein or Republicans responsibility to cater to the Orange Order. It is Unionism who has failed them and it is Unionism with whom the responsibility lays.

  2. AM-

    Can't add much more to what I thought was another great comment by Maitiu-but I will try-

    John says-

    " I fear I am losing this battle "

    Thanks for holing the Loyalist tide back john-I hope you are better at it than King Canute-guns never worked and now they are trying to scare us with words-

  3. Great Post Maitiu. Hope to see you penning a piece yourself for TPQ.

    I'm wondering if the Coulter fella has his LEFT hand on the bible when Penning these pieces!.

    Like he says this;

    "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."

    So he wants SF to assist the Order and engage with them!.

    The order won't engage with any Nationalists in North Belfast to stop their coat trailing by drunken Bandsmen and supporters.

    I say to Coulter, Its time your LOL Order woke up to reality and started looking up to their own working class communities, and , Not looking down on them ,to remind him this is not 1969/70, and , SF should be doing the same in Nationalists areas instead of showing their face when a vote is required.

  4. I would love to pen an article for here. Sadly I do not know how to go about doing so. This site only has Facebook for contact?
    Unless AM contacts me or what not.

  5. Maitiu,

    send an e mail address to the comments section although not for publication. I will send you contact details