What is the true purpose of the Loyal Orders within the pro-Union community and the wider Irish society? That’s the key dilemma which the leaderships of the various orders - the Orange Order, the Independent Orange Order, the Royal Black Institution and the Apprentice Boys - must pose if they are to become nothing more than an ageing society which commemorates a series of battles in the late 17th century.
It would appear as Ireland marks the actual 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement tomorrow that the Loyal Orders have either lost their way or been wrong-footed by republicans over the past two decades since the official start of the so-called peace process.
The bitter reality which the Loyal Orders must face is that they no longer enjoy the privileged position within the pro-Union community as they did in 1998 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed.
In April 1998, the Order had been able to walk down the predominantly nationalist Garvaghy Road in Portadown since the first contentious parade in 1995. Indeed, the Orange Order was fulfilling its traditional role as a vehicle of communication between the working class loyalists and the middle and upper class unionists.
This had always been the strength of the Loyal Orders since the formation of the Ulster Unionist Council in 1905, and especially since partition in the 1920s. The Loyal Orders were the cement which held together the various strands of the pro-Union community, involving the various classes - upper, middle and working , the marching band scene, the Unionist Party, and equally importantly, the Protestant Church denominations.
That link with the Protestant Churches was further cemented in the role of the Loyal Orders’ senior order, the Black - often dubbed the poor man’s Masonic. The Orange once had a very significant political role - for many years it had UUC delegates until the Yes/No rift in the Ulster Unionist Party over the Belfast Agreement saw the UUP cut Orange delegates adrift.
The Apprentice Boys movement was seen - along with the Independent Orange Order - as predominantly working class orders. Both were excellent communications tools between the Unionist political elite and working class Protestants. The Loyal Orders also played a vital role in mobilising Protestant voters at elections. However, as with many pro-Union and Protestant mobilisation movements since the start of the conflict in the late 1960s, the Loyal Orders suffered from the ‘luxury’ of internecine fighting and splits.
After the 1998 Drumcree parade was prevented from marching back from Drumcree Parish Church along Garvaghy Road, coupled with the deaths of the three Catholic Quinn brothers in Ballymoney in North Antrim and threats made against senior Orange chaplains who called for the Order to leave Drumcree hill as a mark of respect to the three brothers, the Unionist middle and upper classes began to distance themselves from the Order.
There were even scuffles and verbal exchanges from the militant Spirit of Drumcree pressure group within the Orange Order and pro-Agreement supporters at a couple of demonstration fields that 12 July in 1998.
Slowly, but surely, elements of political unionism began to walk away from supporting the Loyal Orders as republicans realised middle and upper class unionists did not want to be associated with parade confrontations.
Nationalist residents’ groups were formed to target what had previously been for decades traditional parade routes, putting further strains on the cohesion between the unionist parties and the Loyal Orders. Republicans always seemed to be a couple of political steps ahead of the Loyal Orders.
However, in areas where nationalist residents’ representatives and Loyal Order members would hold talks, agreements were generally implemented to allow parades to continue.
As well as disagreements between the pro-Union community and the Loyal Orders as to how contentious parades could be resolved, the Loyal Orders faced opposition from another two opposite ends - the growth of liberal Unionism and the increase in the number of Protestant fundamentalists who do not believe it is ‘Christian’ to be members of secret societies.
The formal break in the link between the UUP and Orange Order delegates to the Ulster Unionist Council marked the beginning of the slippery slope of Loyal Order influence within the pro-Union community.
As liberal Unionism increased its grip inside the UUP, the Loyal Orders became increasingly isolated. Likewise, an increasing number of young Protestants preferred to become involved with the marching band scene rather than join the ageing Loyal Orders.
Within the Protestant Church denominations, such as the Pentecostalists, Baptists and Brethren, the position took hold that once a person became a ‘born again’ or ‘saved’ Christian, they had to quit the organisations of the world under the banner of ‘come ye out from amongst them’. This included the Loyal Orders and other secret societies, such as the Freemasons.
Add all these situations together, and we have the Loyal Orders slipping substantially in influence within political Unionism. This has forced the Loyal Orders to rethink both image and strategy and focus on making the Twelfth a family fun day along the lines of the traditional Rossnowlagh demonstration in Co Donegal organised by the Southern border county lodges on the Saturday prior to 12 July, or Black Saturday - the last Saturday in August which is organised by the Royal Black Institution and marks the traditional end to the marching season.
Rather than politics, the Loyal Orders have been forced into a cultural corner where they have to justify their existence within Unionism.
The development of a liberal and secular middle class Protestantism - namely the growth of the so-called ‘Garden Centre Prods’ and ‘Latte Libs’ - has put the Loyal Orders under further pressure as to their roles within the pro-Union community.
In terms of propaganda and the media war, the Loyal Orders always played second fiddle to republicanism. In spite of the Stormont stalemate and Direct Rule from Westminster an almost foregone conclusion, the general perception is that the peace process is holding - so what ‘fear’ have the Loyal Orders to mobilise the Protestant voters against?
Republicans are now embarking on a cultural and literary war against the pro-Union traditions in Ireland. In the war of words, especially when it comes to revisionism, or the rewriting of history, the Loyal Orders are again losing the battle. How long will it be before republicans actually manage to spin the story that King James really won the Battle of the Boyne in 1690?
But the key question is - what is the future role for the Loyal Orders? Firstly, the Loyal Orders either have to make their peace with the Protestant Churches, or open a channel of dialogue with new Christian denominations to allow worshippers to belong to Loyal Orders.
In short, the Loyal Orders must return to their religious roots and encourage as many Protestants as possible to re-engage with their Reformed Faith. In this respect, the Loyal Orders have a key role in combatting the spread of the secular society in Ireland.
Similarly, the Loyal Orders must fight an educational war against republican revisionism. In the 1980s, I once covered the traditional Sham Fight at Scarva when I was a News Letter reporter. It is hosted by the Royal Black Institution and takes place on 13 July, including a re-enactment of the Battle of the Boyne. For a laugh, I filled the headline - ‘Shock Win For James!’. Needless to say, the newsdesk did not share my dark sense of humour!
The lesson from this is simple - how many other events in the conflict will be revised by republican writers and ‘historians’ to give a nationalist slant on those events?
Also, the Loyal Orders must mobilise their members within the Christian Churches to encourage Protestants to register as voters - and vote on polling days. How many republican and nationalist candidates have been elected because Unionists stayed at home? The Loyal Orders cannot moan about a dilution of Unionist civil rights if they will not adopt the same tactics as the Afro-American community in the 1960s Deep South of the United States and register people to vote.
The role of the Loyal Orders, therefore, will be found in future months and years in the Christian Churches. Hopefully, this will have a knock-on effect on the pro-Union political parties.
John Coulter is a unionist political commentator and former Blanket columnist.
John Coulter is also author of ‘An Sais Glas: (The Green Sash): The Road to National Republicanism’, which is available on Amazon Kindle.
Follow John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter