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Looking back at the ‘Orangefest’

John McAnulty

4 August 2009

This years July demonstrations represented the first full-scale attempt to convert the notorious 12th July into a new modern 'Orangefest'. The attempt, politically organized and heavily subsidized by the British, has a clear purpose. As with the peace process more generally, the aim is to rebrand sectarian bigotry as 'cultural difference' and then crush any opposition with a call to support diversity.

There has been opposition to the rebranding, the majority of it from within the ranks of the Orange brethren themselves, but a more interesting question is: can it work? Can the Orange be mutated into a cuddly tourist attraction? This is clearly of some importance in assessing the longer-term stability of the peace settlement.

At one level to ask the question is to answer it. The Orange Order is not in any meaningful sense a cultural organization. It is a virulent anti-Catholic organization committed to sectarian privilege, the sectarian division of Irish society and of the working class, for the defence of monarchy and imperialism. Its long history is a history of riot and of close association with the death squads.

In the very recent past we have seen mass uprisings around Drumcree and in very recent years a full-scale armed battle with the state forces on Belfast's Springfield road.

This year’s demonstrations have all the classic elements of the Orange season. Gradually increasing sectarian tension, provocative flags and emblems where they will represent the greatest level of intimidation, the McDaid murder in Coleraine, expulsion of Roma, a crescendo of individual sectarian and racist attacks, arson attacks on schools - the rising tension before the 12th each year is mirrored by a long tail of incidents in the months following.

Even the relative quiet of the Orange marches on the 12th is part of the tradition, demonstrating the respectability of the Order and establishing a gap between what went before and what comes after. That tradition was somewhat marred this year, as speaker after speaker stressed their opposition to any modernisation of the Orange Order and their commitment to their traditional diet of bigotry. 

Even the Ardoyne riots were completely traditional. The Orangemen went home for their tea while the police waded into the rioters. 

But, as with the peace process itself, the aim is not to change the reality of the Orange state, but change perceptions by rebadging the Order. To this end the British have run a campaign of light pressure combined with heavy bribes. 'Orangefest' carnival activities are organized. Belfast city centre shops open in the space between the outgoing and returning parades. Grants are handed out for bonfires. Attempts are made to control the number of flags, to tone down the number of paramilitary emblems and reduce provocation at interfaces.

There are two problems in making this work. The first is that in order to rebrand Orangeism you need to support it. The immediate result, again, as with the peace process as whole, is that society becomes more sectarian rather than less. The sectarian marches, bonfires and emblems are still there, but now they are paid for from the public purse. To overcome this problem everyone must go along. They must gaze fixedly at the naked emperor and loudly praise his new clothes.

Those who suffer most from this contradiction are within the ranks of Sinn Fein. They are forced by their position within government and the sectarian logic of the peace process to support the rebranding of the Orange. The McDaid murder is followed by Sinn Fein calling for more leadership from the unionist politicians providing justification for the killing. The farce of Loyalist decommissioning is signed off. Provocative flags and emblems are described as 'complex problems' rather than intimidation. Rioting by nationalist youth is condemned and named republican groups set up for repression by the state on the word of Sinn Fein. 

And this lays bare the mechanism of the Orangefest rebranding. The rebranding can succeed as long as Sinn Fein endorse it, but the contradiction between pretence and reality will gradually erode their support. 

Sinn Fein are fully aware of this and are scrabbling desperately for indications that they are dealing on an equal footing with the unionists.  In the process they look even weaker and more ineffectual. Adams writes to the Orange Order asking them to recognise Sinn Fein and meet them for talks. In the process he endorses every lie about the peaceful nature of the marches and the status of the Orange as a harmless cultural institution - all to no avail as far as the Order is concerned. They persuade the DUP to inch slightly closer to the devolution of policing, tearing up the strictures of the peace process in order to do so and guaranteeing that Catholics will be excluded from any future ministerial position in the justice ministry. Talks are under way with the DUP to transfer the issue of parades from the reactionary Parades Commission to the even more reactionary mechanism of horse-trading operated by the Stormont leadership.  Even the Sinn Fein showcase of the West Belfast Festival is to be graced by UDA brigadier Jackie McDonald.

Leading republican figures publicly complain that they need some return for the thankless task of policing the Orange demonstrations. No sooner do the Shinners make the complaint than their ability to carry out this function began to erode. Years of forcing back nationalist youth fell apart in the Ardoyne area of Belfast and were replaced with days of vicious confrontation with heavily armed police. A number of leading figures resign.  In the main this is a blowback from the failure of their southern campaign to make themselves junior partners to Fianna Fail, but there are a significant number of northern departures around the policy of collaboration with the British and unionists.

We are clearly on the downside of the push to stabilise partition. Public support for Sinn Fein is slackening and their ability to motivate and retain their own members falling off. At the same time the rioting is a perfectly routine part of the Orange state and represents no alternative. There are now a multiplicity of republican groups, but none have come up with a political alternative to the Shinners.  There is a wide level of local resentment at Orange sectarianism but in the absence of a political alternative much of it has a strong tinge of sectarianism itself.

That alternative will be a working class, political alternative, but it can only build itself by rejecting Orangeism, rejecting the 'Orangefest' and rejecting sectarian division of the working class


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