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Orange Parades and Culture, the Socialist View

Joe Craig

15th July 2005

Once again the arrival of the marching season in the North has witnessed scenes of rioting, most recently in Ardoyne in North Belfast, and the equally predictable blame game, which on this occasion pointed the finger at Catholic residents as initiators of the violence. Running alongside this have been reports of a consistent pattern of attacks on Catholic homes and some violence in the other direction.

The ‘blame’ for this situation cannot be apportioned on the basis of who threw the first stone or even on which ‘side’ is responsible this year for the majority of attacks on the homes and property of the other.

An alternative blames ‘society’ but of course ‘blaming society’ is often just a way of blaming everyone and no one, leaving judgement suspended in mid –air.

But in this case those who want to blame society have to look at what sort of society they are blaming. So what sort of society is it? To answer this we could do no better than to ask why it exists in the first place.

The Northern state was created as the largest viable territory that would contain a Protestant majority so that the society within its boundary could be defined by this majority, in sectarian terms.

The 3,000 or so Orange marches that take place every year are mechanisms for celebrating and asserting the sectarian character of the territory within the State’s boundaries. The Orange Order is uniquely placed to do this, defining itself not just in Protestant terms but in anti-Catholic ones, passing political resolutions that provide the mixture of religion and politics that results in virulent sectarianism.


Orange Order parades are coat-trailing exercises in sectarian triumphalism and intimidation which are now defended as simply expressions of Protestant culture – as if this was some sort of justification.

But Orangeism isn’t culture, except in its widest definition and certainly not in any aesthetic sense, but is more accurately described as politics – sectarian politics. If someone wants to insist on its cultural content then its particular content is a sectarian one and thus nothing is changed.

Calling something a culture doesn’t mean it is above criticism. In fact saying something is part of your culture is just a way of saying that this is what you do. In no way can it be presented as any sort of argument for continuing doing so, never mind asking anyone else to publicly accept or approve. Human history is full of barbaric and decadent cultures that no one would ever dream of asking anyone to respect.

Secondly it isn’t Protestant, at least in the sense that it is the authentic and essential expression of interests that all Protestants either do or must subscribe to. This means that not all Protestants must feel obliged to recognise it as an expression of their identity.

It also means that opposing Orange marches is not sectarian, is not anti-Protestant, but is positively anti-sectarian – provided they are opposed because they are sectarian and not because those opposed agree with the Orangemen that they are expressions of Protestant culture.

It means to defend them, as in defending their right to march, is to defend the right to sectarian triumphalism and intimidation. No such right exists just as there is no right to engage in racist intimidation.

This means socialists must defend Catholic residents who oppose such provocative sectarian displays within or beside where they live. In this context who threw the first stone doesn’t matter. What matters is that socialists oppose Orange parades because of their sectarianism.

But if they are sectarian they don’t cease to be so when they take place in Protestant areas, so this also means socialists oppose Orange marches through Protestant areas. If the purpose of these marches is to assert sectarian Protestant unity against Catholics we are in favour of Protestant workers rejecting such sectarian unity.

The prospect of Protestant workers demonstrating against Orange marches is a long way off but the worst thing socialists could do is to agree that Orangeism is necessarily a legitimate part of Protestant workers’ identity. Socialists want workers unity. This necessarily means rejection of Orangeism by Protestant workers and this will not be aided by Catholic workers being told to accept it because of some supposed cultural content and significance.

Some claiming to be non-sectarian – in fact most claiming to be non-sectarian – try to show off their non-sectarian credentials by saying that what is true for Orange ‘culture’ is true for Irish culture. This is false. What passes for most Irish culture is genuinely cultural and is not sectarian. This is simply a reflection of the fact that there is an Irish nation but not an Irish/Ulster/British-Protestant one.

There is no doubt that Irish culture has been heavily tinged by Catholicism but it is not essentially and necessarily sectarian in the way Orangeism is. Take sectarianism out of Orangeism and you’re not left with much. This is not the case with Irish culture either expressed in the Irish language, music or literature. In any case the real culture of Ireland, as opposed to the historic, is rapidly changing. Those who wish to assert the equality of the Orange and Irish cultures had better tell us just what standard they are applying that measures them as equal.

This is not to say that there is no such thing as Catholic sectarianism. There is, it is on the increase, it is easily recognised but as yet no one has thought to prettify it by calling it ‘culture.’

The increasing tendency of republicans to say they have no objection to Orange parades in Protestant areas undermines their own case for opposing them in Catholic ones. Either they are sectarian or they are not. Any other reason for opposition becomes a variety of sectarian apartheid – the two ‘communities’ become separate but equal, except the original apartheid demonstrated that separate means unequal. This is in fact the demand of Orangeism, which is why opposition to their parades is progressive. It strikes at the sectarian character of the State and therefore at the existence of the State itself, and challenges imperialism’s excuse for maintaining it – often it is the forces of the State that ensure Orangeism is allowed to parade its bigotry successfully.

The republican claim to sectarian equality, if achieved – and that is increasingly shown to be doubtful – would mean freedom from Orange parades in existing Catholic areas but not from a society plagued by thousands of sectarian parades everywhere else. The evolution of republicanism shows that unity that actually overcomes sectarianism and does not seek some unstable equality of sectarian rights cannot come from Irish nationalism. The answer to Orange culture is not therefore Irish culture because the latter is not the articulation of any social or political interests that want to overcome it.


A problem has arisen because the deeply ingrained sectarian character of Northern society has found a new way to legitimise itself. We are now told that we have to recognise the equality of the two traditions – Orange and Green, Protestant and Catholic. If you don’t belong to either and you’re not from an ethnic minority there isn’t really any political space for you.

This means that political rights are no longer to be assigned in classical liberal terms – in terms of individual rights where each is at least theoretically considered equal before the State. Instead political rights are more and more counted in terms of the two traditions or cultures. Thus in the Belfast Agreement representatives had to designate themselves as one or the other in order to avail of full voting rights in the Stormont Assembly.

This obviously reinforces sectarianism by assigning political rights to those who identify themselves in sectarian terms. And commentators supporting this arrangement express surprise that those who do it best have grown!

That all human beings are equally worthy of respect does not mean that what they do and how they behave (their culture) is also equally worthy, but this is precisely what the sectarian nature of the Belfast Agreement asserts. Political rights no longer belong to people but to traditions. This reached its lowest level when Catholic primary school children were subject to vile assault and abuse because the Orange tradition had the right to protest.


The alternative that socialists try to build is a common identity between Protestant and Catholic workers which asserts the primacy of their class position and is committed to overcoming division founded on religion. This new identity can only succeed if it is political, i.e. if it has its own response to the existence of a sectarian state.

One means of doing this is through the trade unions which are the only organisations that contain large numbers of Catholic and Protestant workers.

Unfortunately the history of these organisations is that they are incapable of achieving this task because they have failed to argue for an alternative socialist politics, leaving them parroting the most reactionary nonsense of the ‘equality of the two traditions.’

The latest example of this was the proposal by Galway Trades Council to the ICTU Congress to make the Twelfth of July (Orangeman’s day) a holiday in the Republic of Ireland. The Twelfth is the biggest day in the year for ‘respectable’ bowler-hatted displays of bigotry that are accompanied by kick-the-pope bands celebrating affinity to one or other loyalist paramilitary group. That this is already a public holiday in the North is simply official recognition of the sectarianism of the state, as is the fawning BBC coverage of the main Belfast parade.

That inside the trade union movement there are those who think that extending this recognition to the trade unions is something progressive explains why the unions have so miserably failed to tackle sectarianism. As a result sectarianism appears especially strong because no alternative is presented which in turn strengthens its legitimacy. Bigotry becomes acceptable, even legitimate, because there are lots of bigots.

‘If at some stage in the future, we achieve a united Ireland we cannot ask them to drop the 12th as a public holiday which is part of their tradition,’ said John Carty, an organiser for the council. Why in a united Ireland would anyone want to give recognition to the bitterest sectarian division? More importantly, it hasn’t been understood that the political defeat of Orangeism is a prerequisite for uniting Ireland’s workers. Defeating Orangeism is part and parcel of uniting the Irish working class.

Ninety years ago a much more impressive attempt was made to unite Ireland’s people on terms set by imperialism and supported by Orangeism. Hundreds of thousands of Irish nationalists and unionists fought side by side in the trenches of northern France in the First World War. Tens of thousands died. It was hailed at the time as a great means of uniting Orange and Green and erasing sectarian division. Five years later this division was immeasurably strengthened by partition. The end of division heralded by those who imposed and lived by it was a sham.

In light of this experience the proposal from Galway Trades Council smacks as being not so much mistaken or stupid as just pathetic.

The task of uniting Ireland’s workers has fallen to Ireland’s tiny socialist movement. We can advance forward if we reject excuses for sectarianism that claim it’s only part of our ‘culture.’


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