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I’VE just realised the game is finally up for the Orange Order as we know it.
It happened during a “water cooler” conversation with a work colleague about the news stories covering the rioting in Ardoyne. I should explain a little. I’m a Protestant from east Belfast and have been living in America for the past 25 years.
I work for one of those peculiarly Washington institutions, a think-tank where scholars study politics and government policy.
The think-tank in question, the American Enterprise Institute, is a conservative one, and the colleague in question an economist. But these facts are not significant in themselves. The significant part is the conversation.
“I see there’s trouble in Belfast again,” he said.
“Yes,” I told him. “It’s the marching season.”
“I can’t believe that’s still going on,” he replied. “Why those Orangemen make a point of marching through neighbourhoods where they’re not welcome so they can ‘stick it’ to the Catholics, I’ll never know.”
That’s when I felt the temperature rise, just a bit. And I took a deep breath.
I thought about explaining that there had been a recent upsurge in activity by dissident republicans, that outsiders had been coming in to stoke up trouble, that Sinn Féin – Sinn Féin! – had been trying to keep a lid on things.
About the use of children as young as nine as a buffer, about the violence being orchestrated by a group of just a dozen or so ringleaders, and with gunmen in the background, about the notion of “recreational rioting,” residents’ opposition to the rioters and riots in areas where there had been no Orange parades at all. About the marches being historic routes, typically Orange Hall to church, through neighbourhoods and along roads that may have once been Protestant but now were Catholic, about religious liberty and constitutional rights. About the fact that these were disturbances (unique in the world?) in which police officers seemed to be suffering all the casualties. Then I exhaled. What’s the point? I asked myself. There was none. To the world, it looks like a KKK march through an African-American neighbourhood, designed to do nothing more than provoke. No one is going to look any deeper than that – not even a well-educated academic at a “hawkish” policy organisation.
Some Orangemen will say – “So what?” (The order is famously dismissive of PR, caring little what London, Dublin, Washington or Brussels thinks). But from the outside looking in, this doesn’t help the union. It can’t go on. The cause is getting weaker every year. That’s the “so what?” I’m just saying.
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