Over the years I have shocked many friends and acquaintances with my forthright opposition to the Orange Order and the scorn I have poured on Orangefest and the like. I think it’s sometimes been perceived as a failing on my part rather than a reflection on the organisation itself. But I have continued to insist that the Order as currently constituted cannot function as a non-sectarian organisation, taking part in jolly cross-community events funded by the taxpayer.
As Dominic Bryan says in his book ‘Orange Parades’ (2000):
There are a series of laws governing the relationship an Orangeman should have with members of the Roman Catholic Church. Marriage to a Roman Catholic and attendance at a Roman Catholic service can both lead to a member being expelled. In practice the use of these rules tends to vary among lodges. On more than one occasion, debate has taken place...over a member who has attended the funeral of a Catholic (p.106).
Bryan gives the example of a previous case which caused criticism, when David Trimble attended the funeral of Catholic victims of the Omagh bomb in 1998.
And now, the St Simon’s Church Total Abstinence LOL 821 from Sandy Row has caused red faces (nearly) all round by its utterly disgusting complaint about the conduct of two Orange Order members, also senior members of the Ulster Unionist Party, for attending the funeral of Constable Ronan Kerr, who was assassinated by dissident republicans last April. Initial coverage implied that particular offence had been taken because the men had attended the funeral mass, and some comments on web sites and the radio distinguished between the two, saying that it was fine to pay respects at a funeral but not to attend the mass. When you are in a hole, it’s really best to stop digging, and think about what you are doing looks like from outside the hole.
It is important to remember that the complaint has come from only one Lodge out of 1,200. It may, of course, be prompted by an ulterior motive connected with party politics within unionism. It is becoming increasingly clear that the complaint is not supported by many Orange members and Lodges. However, the situation was able to arise because the organisation’s membership qualifications are not limited to supporting Protestantism, which I think can be justified, but include the denigration of another religion, which cannot.
Hopefully, the incident will prompt debate about how that might change in future. Until then, the Orange Order has nothing to contribute to the new Northern Ireland.