The exclusively Protestant Orange Order needs to decide if it can become a vehicle for the rebirth of Christian socialism in Ireland, or take advantage of the growing cross-border relations and move more of its contentious parades from Northern Ireland into the Republic.
The challenge to the Loyal Orders – made up of the Orange Order, its male-only more religious Royal Black Institution and the Apprentice Boys – is how they march forward following a successful conclusion to a three-year dispute in north Belfast and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s visit to Orange headquarters.
Last October saw three Orange lodges and bands march in full regalia past the mainly nationalist Ardoyne Shops area to complete a July 12 march they had begun in 2013, but were prevented from finishing by a Parades Commission ruling not to march along the contentious route.
Loyalists set up a so-called “peace camp” near the location costing millions of pounds to police. However, after lengthy and intense negotiations between the Order and one of the two nationalist residents’ groups in Ardoyne, a solution was reached to allow the Order and the band members to complete their return leg.
The problem which loyalists face is which brand of republicanism are they dealing with when they enter talks with nationalist residents? Some residents’ groups would be dominated by Sinn Fein supporters; others by nationalist who support the dissident republican (anti-Sinn Fein) cause.
The Order still has to achieve a resolution to the notorious Drumcree dispute in Portadown, which has raged since 1995.
Orangemen and band members have been prevented from completing their return leg from a Battle of the Somme commemoration parade along a predominantly nationalist road.
The years 1995, 1996 and 1997 witnessed serious rioting after the march was forced through the road. Since 1998 – the year of the start of the peace process with the Good Friday Agreement – there has been no return leg for the loyalists.
A major problem which loyalists have faced is the changing geography of Northern Ireland. Areas which were previously overwhelmingly Protestant when traditional parades began have now become either majority Catholic or evenly mixed.
Many nationalists regard Orange and loyalist band parades through their areas as akin to the KKK holding a march through a predominantly Afro-American locality.
As well as shifts in the make-ups of communities, the Loyal Orders also face the growth of an increasingly secular Ireland on both sides of the border.
In the Republic, the clerical sex abuse scandals have smashed the influence of the Catholic Church to the point where same-sex marriage was legalised in a nation which was seen as one of the main bastions of Catholicism outside the Vatican.
In Northern Ireland, the mainstream Christian churches which had an iron grip through the so-called “Bible Belt” have seen their influence wane considerably since the peace process kicked in.
The forward march of the pluralist society in Ireland has posed a major dilemma for Christian socialism throughout the island – does it even have a role or vehicle of expression?
Many young Christian socialists have found a welcome home in the growing Pentecostal movement, founded in County Monaghan just over a century ago.
Known for their American-style “happy-clappy” forms of worship, the Pentecostalists have been increasing in popularity where traditional mainstream Christian denominations have seen their pews steadily emptying.
Perhaps the Loyal Orders need to return to their religious roots and become a movement to promote Christian socialism based on the New Testament teachings of Christ in the Beatitudes.
Ironically, on issues such as abortion, divorce, same-sex marriage and homosexuality, the Loyal Orders, fundamentalist Protestants and conservative Catholics would all share the same theological stances. What they lack is a united front to express those views.
On the issue of contentious parades, one of the most popular and least controversial annual Orange demonstrations has taken place in the County Donegal seaside town of Rossnowlagh in the Republic for decades.
Surely the Orders could find many quiet Rossnowlagh-type locations south of the border to hold their traditional parades, or even use their new political ‘love-in with Leo’ to find new locations for a new generation of parades.
In a few days, the Order will commemorate the traditional Twelfth. As the Loyal Orders also commemorate the centenary of the final year of the Great War in 1918, what better way to remember those from Ireland who served in that bloody campaign than to launch new parades south of the Irish border?
One of the Republic’s leading political parties, Fianna Fail, has unveiled plans to contest Northern elections by the end of the decade. Perhaps parade disputes could be eased if more Fianna Fail members got involved with nationalist residents groups, thereby edging Sinn Fein out of its role in such organisations.
Dr John Coulter is a former Religious Affairs Correspondent at the Belfast News Letter, a former Director of Operations at Christian Communication Network Television.
Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter. @JohnAHCoulter