Choyaa: Unless the Orange Institution evolves to meet the needs of both its members and society at large, then it is finished…

The phrase “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” has been disproven on numerous occasions, but never was this phrase less apt than when it comes to the Orange Institution, an organisation that haphazardly plods from one publicity to disaster to the next. There has never been much in the way of self-reflection within the Orange Institution on its many gaffs, the leadership prefers instead to carry on regardless whilst blaming others for its problems, an approach that has caused Orangeism to continually contract. Whilst the Orange Institution has many detractors, it’s the organisation itself that has been responsible for most of the problems it currently faces.

When a video filmed in Dundonald Orange Hall depicting individuals including several Orangemen singing a song mocking the murder of Michaela McAreavey went viral on social media, the resulting revulsion and condemnation were universal. As an Orangeman, it made me feel sick to the stomach that so-called fellow “brothers” would do this. It’s not an Orangeism I can relate to, nor have I met a single member who has felt anything other than horror and guilt at this event but it is something that all members have an onus on them to address. The incident has made me question my membership, I have become tired of tin-eared leaders who bury their heads in the sand when problems arise and shoot down even the most modest internal suggestions. Like many members, I will be awaiting the outcome of the investigation into the above video and I will be expecting decisive action. Whilst all Orangemen involved have now resigned, the Institution itself will need to take corrective action and be seen to take corrective action. Wider questions must be asked of the lodge that hosted this event, the entire leadership team should be relieved of their duties and the removal of the lodge’s warrant should not be ruled out.

The Orange Institution is very poorly positioned in 2022 as membership continues to grey and decline. This was put into stark focus for me at a recent district parade held in Kesh (Pettigo district). This district should comfortably have had over 200 members parading, however, last Sunday with visiting personnel included they were barely able to muster up 30 with the vast majority being in the upper limits of 60 years of age, furthermore, there was only one Orangewoman parading. These issues are not restricted to the Pettigo district, there are 15 districts in total across Fermanagh and over the past 10 years all but one has experienced significant decline, a pattern replicated across Northern Ireland and Ireland as a whole with only a small number of areas bucking the trend. In Fermanagh, few lodges will be large enough to walk on their own this Twelfth, instead, they will need to be merged with other lodges or combined under a district banner, in addition to this, the female lodges barely exist. Despite the decline of Orangeism in the Lakelands, nothing has been done to address it with those at the county level simply sending out a directive to every lodge to recruit two new members whilst covering their ears to any feedback lodges may have. If there were serious intentions about addressing the need for new members whilst maintaining existing members, the “Recruitment and Retention” committee in Fermanagh would not have been disbanded.

There are wide-ranging issues within Orangeism that are contributing to the decline in Fermanagh and beyond, numerous issues seep through from the top whilst others are more localised. Many members have expressed concerns about the organisation getting overly involved in the anti-Protocol rallies and politics in general, placing the organisation in an unwinnable position. In addition to this, there are complaints that Grand Secretary Rev Gibson has focused all of his energies on opposing the Protocol and very little on dealing with matters critical to the Orange Institution. In Fermanagh, Rev Gibson is an anonymous figure with most Orangemen recognising him from anti-Protocol rallies rather than being a leading member, it is unknown if during Rev Gibson’s time as Grand Secretary if he has ever set foot in Fermanagh. The Orange Institution has an obvious political dimension which itself has raised concerns from detractors, however, the organisation needs to address its over-involvement in political issues. Rev Gibson had the unenviable task of taking over from the previous Grand Secretary Drew Nelson who was working on modernising the organisation internally and enhancing its cultural tenets, this resulted in the opening of two Orange museums and Orange halls being used more widely by community-based organisations. Sadly, Drew Nelson’s innovative work has been curtailed following his untimely death in 2016 and this is something that the current Grand Secretary must address.

A pressing issue that the Grand Secretary could be tackling is some of the rules that are frequently brought up, several of which are now defunct and should be removed including the ban on members attending Catholic funeral and wedding services, a rule that during my entire membership has not only not been enforced but has been actively discouraged. Place much less focus on Catholicism within the rules and much more focus on being pro-Protestant, encouraging personal responsibility and community involvement. Some of the rules at present are a hindrance to attracting new members, current members find them off-putting and they allow opponents of Orangeism to attack the organisation for being “institutionally sectarian”. In Fermanagh there have been complaints that the hugely successful “Charitable and Social” committee was stood down, this was in addition to the loss of the “Recruitment and Retention” committee and nobody has heard from the “Communication” committee in years. The loss of these groups has caused obvious internal problems and the lack of any initiatives to take their place is an obvious problem. These localised problems are rampant across all areas of Northern Ireland and frequently are the result of poor leadership. Fermanagh has recently appointed a new leadership team at county level with the new County Grand Master and his deputy being young, extremely popular, and well respected, however, they have huge challenges ahead and they’ll have to ring in the changes, they cannot become implementers of the current failed policies.

One of the most frustrating aspects of being a member of the Orange Institution besides the incompetent leadership is how grassroots members are completely ignored. New members voicing new ideas are quickly closed down and even when established members voice a view it’s almost always dismissed at the lodge, district, or county levels. This results in members becoming frustrated and or leaving which in turn has left the organisation as a primarily older man’s club. Many members complain that outside of the Twelfth there is very little offered by the Orange Institution to keep people interested, whilst this will vary from lodge to lodge, there is more than a little anecdotal evidence to back this up.

If lodges are inactive throughout most of the year, only opening for 1-2 stuffy meetings and providing nothing of interest to keep existing members and attract new members, evidently there will be problems. Ironically, some within the organisation are happy to have Orangemen as paper members only, “as long as they pay their dues” which has resulted in stagnation within many lodges. At a generous estimate across Ireland, membership is around 35k-40k, membership fees are around £100 per year and this is much higher when all of the additional charges levied at members are included, therefore it’s hardly surprising that members who are continually ignored choose to leave rather than to pay these running costs each year.

If we take the upper limit of membership at 40k and then use the average fee for a member of approximately £100, then the Institution brings in around £4 million per annum. However, where does all of this money go? Most Orange halls are either unbuilt and in limbo like that of Castle Archdale in Fermanagh or they are in a state of disrepair which is all too common across Northern Ireland. It should be noted that whilst there are sectarian attacks on numerous Orange Halls, there are also many examples of halls being left to flounder, this is a poor advert for the organisation. A huge problem for many Orange Halls is that they fail to open their doors throughout the year, whereas these halls should be the hub of local communities, in reality, many open just 2-3 times each year, usually for a lodge meeting or band practice. There have been questions over the grant money the Orange Institution receives and the organisation should seriously prepare for such revenue streams being cut or at best reduced. However, again if such money is being awarded to the organisation, it is unclear to many members where it is going as the organisation itself is perpetually penniless and there are no tangible results from these cash injections,

Much has been made of the rural and urban divide within Orangeism, with ample negative attention given to Belfast. In 2015, Fermanagh Country Grand Master Stuart Brooker was highly critical of Orangeism in Belfast following trouble at the Twaddell Avenue protest. Furthermore, an internal audit in Fermanagh amongst members continually flagged behavioural problems within the Orange Institution in Belfast. It would be easy to paint a simplistic narrative of rural Orangeism as good vs Belfast Orangeism as bad (or if you dislike Orangeism, bad Orangeism vs very bad Orangeism), however, it’s worth looking at some of the wider problems. In Belfast, there is a huge drinking culture at parades that has not fully been grappled with. I attended an Apprentice Boys of Derry parade on Easter Monday in Belfast and witnessed first-hand huge numbers of Apprentice Boys breaking rank during the parade to relieve themselves against people’s homes and property, this is not what was meant by the “relief of Derry”!! I flagged this on Twitter at the time but some who participated in the parade dismissed it completely whilst many others pointed out that this was “par for the course with such parades”. Such behaviour is never acceptable, loyal orders and bands are duty-bound to ensure that this does not happen and more action is needed to address this issue.

The Orange Institution also needs to examine its relationship with alcohol in general, the “It’s about the battle not the bottle” campaign was a good initiative, but going back to the video at Dundonald Orange Hall, the inside of the hall was strewn with beer cans, alcohol is strictly forbidden in any Orange Hall in Fermanagh, where is the consistency? The Belfast parade has also come in for criticism due to having paramilitary trappings within the procession, again organisers must address these types of issues which are intolerable. Many parades rely on the goodwill of the local community, showing respect to that community is a minimal requirement that those on parade and those watching should adhere to.

Taking a holistic look at Orange parades, rather than opposing protocols, Rev Gibson would do well to bring in a parading protocol to address the sloppy appearance of too many on parade, those looking worse for wear or parading in jeans and tracksuits have been raised internally on numerous occasions. The complaints have been dismissed as these individuals “swell the numbers” but in reality, they only serve to put potential new members off and cheapen the image of Orangeism as a whole. Any protocol should completely ban the displays of all paramilitary paraphernalia or people parading who are intoxicated.

Away from protocols, the structure of the Twelfth day needs greatly adjusted and modernised. The Belfast route at seven miles is much too long, this results in only flute bands being able to participate and with elderly brethren on parade, this is a real test of endurance. After parading to the field, the last thing that most people want is to listen to an angry man on a platform talking politics, this year undoubtedly the Protocol will be mentioned. People prefer to use the break in the parade to meet family members and enjoy lunch etc. However, towns during the interval feel like dementors from a Harry Potter book have taken over, the area can feel soulless whilst in the field, the platform proceedings will be listened to by a maximum of two dozen people, and the poor unfortunate band that has to play the music whilst everyone else is off with their family and friends.

There is a real opportunity during the interval to develop a carnival atmosphere with music, re-enactments, poetry, etc. that would both encompass the town and the field and give people a better flavour of Orangeism. The platform proceedings which should primarily be a religious service could be held before the inward-bound parade. These suggestions have been made many times but are unsurprisingly ignored and organisers remain baffled as to why so few people attend the platform proceedings, one thing organisers should also note is that whilst the Twelfth still gets a huge footfall, these numbers are reducing and there is a need to reorganise the day to make it a more family-friendly and culturally enriching experience.

The overplaying of the National Anthem should be addressed, it’s played once in the field at the end of the platform proceedings, again for every lodge during the outward-bound part of the parade with all lodges stopping at random locations along the route (some far removed from the route) often with a band behind them playing a completely different tune (usually drowning out the National Anthem), the National Anthem is then played a third and final time when lodges parade their hometowns at the end of the day. This is in addition to the double whammy at church parades leading up to the Twelfth when it’s played at the end of the service and again at the end of the parade. Some church ministers like to have a little bit of fun with Orangemen by requesting that all three verses be sung (the words are not displayed), the first verse is sung with such gusto that the church vibrates but for the next two, all that can be heard is the minister singing and the church mouse scurrying away.

The parade route on the Twelfth for the outward-bound leg is a mess with bands and lodges going off in random directions, depending on where their bus is parked, this can often mean that many bands and lodges don’t parade through the town, after this there is the dash to leave the Twelfth before it ends so that the bands and lodges can parade their town in the evening, this usually only serves to create huge traffic jams, particularly for those coming from…. the Twelfth. One thing that always amazes me about the Twelfth is that the Orange Institution makes no concerted effort on the day to recruit new members, there are no stalls with information at them, there is nobody for potential new members to speak to and there is zero education on the day about Orangeism in general – what a wasted opportunity. Logistics have always been poorly managed within Orangeism at the Twelfth, from large gaps in the procession, the lull at the interval, to the disorientated return parade, and the huge queues at the few eateries in attendance but one of the biggest complaints is the lack of toileting facilities. The Twelfth is heavily orientated around families and with thousands at each Twelfth, there are usually less than 10 toilets put on for those in attendance, like many issues this has been raised so often and fallen on deaf ears that some families have simply voted with their feet and no longer attend.

One thing that is continuously reported incorrectly in the media, usually with the title of “Orange Order opposes………..”. In reality, this will likely be one member speaking out without any internal consultation, at present this is likely to be Rev Gibson. These solo runs are not only damaging to the organisation but they frequently misrepresent the views of members, presenting to the public a simple caricature of an organisation. It always amuses me when some prominent Unionists cast doubt on my Orange membership citing me as having “unacceptable” views, ironically the criticism is always from people who are not members of the Orange.

There is no such thing as a single Orange perspective; Orangeism is not a monolith and for such reasons, it would be advantageous to the organisation if a nationwide audit was done on the membership and its views to form a more realistic depiction of Orangeism and then from this, the leadership can design a strategy to move the organisation forward and to better articulate the views of its members. Several things spring immediately to mind, including the need for a change of leadership and fresh ideas. A large organisation needs a department that can work with the media, something that is lacking at present. Several roles cease to have any relevance such as Grand Master, something which most people assume Rev Gibson is, also the Deputy Grand Master role, and the Chief Executive role, the latter of which is one of the few paid roles within the Orange Institution but it appears to be nothing more than an administrative role and at present, it is providing no tangible benefits. What the organisation needs are a leader who can be voted in by the members to be employed and paid on a full-time basis, solely committed to the organisation, and someone who can meet with and understand members and ring in changes across the board including:

  • Modernise the rules
  • Develop lodge buddying programmes where successful lodges can team up with and help those that are struggling and potentially inject new ideas and energy.
  • Form a central committee aimed at investigating disciplinary issues, make it independent of private lodges, districts, and counties, and ensure that it can deal effectively and promptly with any matters arising
  • Create a new vision for the organisation that is lighter on political input and more focused on religious, cultural, and charitable aspects.
  • Roll out schemes across all of the Twelfth demonstrations, inviting groups not normally associated with Orangeism to attend e.g the local GAA team. This has been done very successfully in Fermanagh in the past.
  • Bring members from female lodges into the senior team and create closer working links between the male and female lodges.

With the live coverage of the Twelfth cut from the BBC schedules, a move that was not completely unexpected although I do think the BBC has made a mistake as their coverage in recent years had improved, moving away from solely being based in Belfast to covering a rural Twelfth in parallel with the Belfast event. However, it’s difficult to argue that some of the coverage each year seemed repetitive, one BBC insider told me recently that “it’s difficult getting any information from the Orange Order on what to cover but they always complain after the event on what we do cover”. This strikes me as an Orange issue and how many Orangemen lambasted the BBC for cancelling the live Twelfth broadcast but also previously proclaimed that the BBC should be defunded? There is still a highlights programme on BBC and a live broadcast on GB News, Orangeism has a second opportunity to work more collaboratively with the media on how it is viewed by the world and to present something more interesting and informative.

When the live coverage of the Twelfth was cancelled, it was noticeable who was stepping forward to complain that the BBC was attempting to erode the Orange Institution, namely Ian Paisley, Jim Allister, and Jamie Bryson. These men have all got one thing in common, none of them are Orangemen. Ian Paisley’s father was an Orangeman up until 1962 when he left, ironically in protest at some Orangemen for attending a Catholic mass. Contrary to popular belief, Ian Paisley senior did not then form the Independent Orange Institution, it was formed in 1903. Paisley senior also never joined this organisation, he did walk at the head of some of their parades but he wore his Apprentice Boys of Derry collarette – it’s all very confusing. Back to the original three men mentioned above, Ian Paisley, Jim Allister, and Jamie Bryson complaining about the threat to the Orange Institution. This reminded me of something that was said to my dad over 20 years ago, long before I became a member. The person was not an Orangeman but always spoke like they were, the individual was complaining about how there were so many external influences against Orangeism before concluding that Republicans would never destroy the Orange Institution. My dad responded by saying “of course, Republicans can’t destroy the Orange, what will destroy the Orange is internal intransigence, pettiness, the poor behaviour of some of our members, an unwillingness to change, and people like you who misuse the organisation and shout from the side but are unwilling to join”. The man completely rejected my dad’s summation, perhaps he would have fitted perfectly into the leadership of the Orange Institution.

The stark reality is that only those of us involved in Orangeism can erode it, our unwillingness to change, refusal to listen, and by continually denying that there are serious underlying problems. Unless the Orange Institution evolves to meet the needs of both its members and society at large, then it is finished. The spectre of death looms large within Orangeism, however, it has for many years but with membership smaller than it’s ever been and much older, it is going to be extremely difficult to maintain this tradition unless there is a radical overhaul. I still question my membership within the Orange Institution, despite its haphazard awkwardness and calamitous approach, seeing some of the good it can do in terms of community involvement, charitable outreach, and giving members a sense of belonging and development acts as a counterbalance but I know that Orangeism won’t survive if it doesn’t change. Stubbornly or naively I still think that Orangeism can have a future and its destiny is in its own hands but it cannot blame Republicans, Nationalism, the media, the Alliance Party, the parades commission, or any other convenient excuse that it can conjure up for its failures, the reality is that it has nobody to blame but itself.

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