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Wednesday, July 15, 1998 Published at 20:45 GMT 21:45 UK

Cracks in the Orange Order

Recent events have undermined unity

The violence that has accompanied the stand-off at Drumcree has come as a blow to the Orange Order, an organisation that prided itself on presenting a forceful and united front for Northern Ireland Protestants.

BBC Northern Ireland Correspondent Gary Duffy reports on internal wranglings among the "brethren".

These have been unhappy days for the Orange Order, with its divisions on open display for all the world to see.

The organisation's chaplain in County Armagh, who publicly called for the stand-off at Drumcree to be brought to an end, was heckled by other Orangemen, a scene that was swiftly followed by scuffles between men who normally prefer to address each other as "brethren."

David Trimble, the First Minister of Northern Ireland, and himself an Orangeman, has faced accusations of betrayal after appealing for an end to the protest.

It is clear that a significant number of rank and file members of the Orange Order are deeply unhappy about the violence which has flowed from events at Drumcree. In particular, the sectarian murder of three young boys at Ballymoney in County Antrim caused deep unease.

Standing firm

It is all a far cry from the image the Order would like to present as a self-confident body representing a cross-section of Protestants from across Northern Ireland, and to a lesser extent in other parts of the world.

[ image: The order is nearly 200 years old]
The order is nearly 200 years old
The Orange Order was founded in September 1795, following a clash between Protestants and Catholics in County Armagh, which became known as the 'Battle of the Diamond'.

The organisation has always been at its most visible during the annual "Twelfth of July" demonstrations to mark the victory of the Protestant William of Orange over the Catholic King James at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

An exclusively Protestant organisation, it has attracted frequent criticism from the Catholic community in Northern Ireland, who tend to regard it as sectarian, and who generally consider its many parades to be unnecessary triumphalism.

The order's response to this is that they believe in the same freedom and religous liberty for others as they would like to enjoy themselves.

Cross section

The Orange Order has through most of its history spanned all sections of the Protestant community, providing a coherent and unified voice to defend Northern Ireland's position within the UK.

[ image: Attitudes within the order are also changing]
Attitudes within the order are also changing
But recent divisions over the parades issue threaten to undermine status of this once monolithic organisation. Increasingly in recent years Catholics have begun to challenge the right of the Order to march through nationalist areas, even where these have been the scene of traditional parades.

In response, hardline groups have emerged among rank and file Orangemen such as the Spirit of Drumcree, led by Joel Patton.

They have argued that the order has the right to march wherever it wants within Northern Ireland, and have resisted calls for dialogue with local residents groups, especially where spokesmen for those organisations have links with the republican movement, and Sinn Fein in particular.

Leadership under strain

The leadership of the Orange Order has until recently presented a united front in resisting demands for parades to be rerouted, although there have been occasional compromises. But the stand-off at Drumcree, and the violence which has followed has sorely tested that unity.

[ image: Some people are asking if the march is worth it]
Some people are asking if the march is worth it
The scenes this year, with a gunman running in among the ranks of Orange protestors opening fire at the police, and the sectarian murder of three children at Ballymoney, have caused influential voices to reconsider whether a point of principle has been taken too far.

With opinion among Orangemen divided, the police and army have enforced a ruling from the Parades Commission that the Portadown parade should not pass down the nationalist Garvaghy Road. Having made a very public stand the order must now deal with the consequences of having failed to get their way.

The Orange Order opposed the Good Friday Agreement and some people even thought the organisation could provide the political muscle to resist those aspects of the deal most despised by rank-and-file Orangemen.

[ image: Decisions may have to be made in these uncertain times]
Decisions may have to be made in these uncertain times
But the uncertainty of recent days raises questions about just how effective the order can be in the future. Power within the organisation rests with individual lodges, making it difficult for the leadership to enforce discipline.

Even if it had the will, that leadership has appeared deeply unsure of itself in recent times. These are changing times in Northern Ireland, and for the Orange Order the months and years ahead appear equally uncertain.

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