To those who are deeply immersed in its traditions and institutions, Orange Order parades in Scotland are magnificent celebrations of Protestant culture and heritage. To those not, they are disruptive, offensive, provocative, sectarian and triumphalist.
The Orange Order has been an established part of Scottish life and culture for over two hundred years now. Whilst its annual parades celebrating the Battle of The Boyne are only a small part of what it does – charity work and supporting good causes are rarely mentioned – it is the parades that appear to attract the greatest amount of criticism.
According to Eddie Hyde of the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland, such criticism is unfair; sectarianism is a myth in Scotland, and Orange Order parades are only provocative to those who do not take the time to understand why they are in the streets.
So what are we not getting here? Why are they in the streets? If Orange Order parades are a celebration rather than a form of triumphalism, what exactly do these parades celebrate and why are these celebrations not intended to be sectarian, triumphalist and provocative?
The Orange Order claims that its parades are celebrations of the ideals of Protestantism, which form the official religious and constitutional values underpinning the United Kingdom state. They are said to include tolerance of other faiths, individual liberty and democracy. Indeed, we have had David Cameron reminding us recently that we need to be more confident in promoting these ideals and values.
If we dig beneath the colourful and noisy surface, the point would appear to be that what is being celebrated is not a hatred of Catholics and Catholicism – despite appearances to the contrary – but the outcome of a series of battles and political events that established Protestantism as the official state religion in this country, thereby cementing a momentous shift in political ideology from absolute monarchy to parliamentary democracy, guaranteeing civil and religious liberty for all.
Therefore, it would appear, the criticism that Orange Order parades are sectarian and provocative is unfair – they are not being triumphal about Protestantism being victorious over Catholicism, but are celebrating the Protestant faith, and the fact that Protestant values were central to the defeat of Absolutism and the establishment of Parliamentary sovereignty. That’s not a bad thing, is it?
I think this is as deep as we need to go. It is one thing to talk about celebrating Protestant ideals. It is another thing to consider how these ideals come to be embedded in the minds of some of the participants of the parades, and in some of its hard core loyalist spectators, and how they can manifest themselves in the form of hateful behaviour towards Catholics and symbols of Catholicism – or indeed to anyone who happens to be in the way at the time. In that sense, it can be very difficult to escape the criticism of sectarianism and triumphalism.
The Orange Order in Scotland is registered as a permitted participant in the Scottish Referendum campaign, actively supporting a vote against independence. It also happily makes the point that it existed before political parties such as the SNP. That the Orange Order supports the continuity of the United Kingdom in its current form is hardly surprising, given that it celebrates the political ideology and religious ideals underpinning the union, in which it still considers Scotland to have a positive role to play.
Orange Order parades are said to be celebrations of the religious and constitutional basis of the UK state. However, that way of thinking belongs to a period in history from which many people in this country have now moved on, and as such we need to ask the difficult question whether these values still form a sound basis today.
What about the idea of post-sovereignty and the late twentieth century shift in political thinking away from nation states and the unitary concept of sovereignty that is central to the United Kingdom’s constitution, to one in which sovereignty is divisible among multiple political communities, within which different cultures, religions and ethnicities are given space to participate on equal grounds?
The Orange Order is passionately committed to a union that cannot accommodate this shift in thinking. Whilst we are not fully in this new political era, there are signs that things are changing in this direction. Supranational institutions like the European Union are excellent examples of this and it is not too difficult to understand why the United Kingdom and many of its traditional institutions are struggling with it. Scottish independence would not fit well either.
Bob Dylan famously cautioned us not to criticise what we cannot understand, and perhaps this is what Eddie Hyde was getting at in his defence of parades. However, even if we do not, or simply cannot, understand what the Orange Order claim to have the right to celebrate in their annual parades, we should all be entitled to criticise any form of activity that leads to fighting, public disorder, multiple arrests and a twelve year old girl being hit in the head by a bottle.