Thursday 22 March 2018

Does the Orange Order face 'total bigotry' in the North?

Eoghan McNeill and Joseph Conroy

"A few years ago, there were a few slogans painted on the road. IRA stuff. They used cheap paint and drove straight through it after they’d finished. Jesus, they made some mess. You could barely make it out. I’d say the car was in a wild state," says Jamie Timoney.

Standing outside the Sandhouse Hotel on a break from a bar shift, Jamie is recalling the rare, feckless protests to the Orange Order’s annual march in Rossnowlagh, County Donegal.

Held the weekend before the twelfth of July marches across Northern Ireland, the event is the Order’s only parade in the Republic.

Rossnowlagh is a small village comprising a handful of hotels, bars and B&Bs, a surf club and school, and Belall strand.

Throughout summer, German estate cars and 4x4s with northern registration plates sit outside holiday homes dormant most of the year. Surf schools from the village and nearby Bundoran bring busloads of tourists to the beach for lessons.

At half-twelve, Orangemen and marching bands congregate at Rossnowlagh Presbyterian church. They then make the short procession through the village, on their way to a field hosting a small stage and fast-food vendors.

On their left, the marchers are flanked by stalls flying Union Jacks and selling goods commemorating the 2011 royal wedding. On their right, children ride the waltzers at Mohan's Funfair, and elderly couples sit outside camper vans in fields turned into car parks for the weekend.

The Orangemen carry flags bearing the insignias of lodges in Donegal, Leitrim, Ballymoney and elsewhere. Pipe and flute bands affiliated with the lodges play traditional marching songs such as Derry’s Walls and The Sash my Father Wore.

Sam Walker of Rathfriland Orange Lodge is marching in Rossnowlagh for the 23rd time. He’s Deputy County Grandmaster of Co. Down, a title he came to hold through "being stupid," and "not knowing when to say no," he jokes.

He says the Orange Order "means everything" to its members: "It’s part of our heritage, our culture, and our beliefs. Particularly our beliefs, because we stand very firmly for the reformed faith."

He says the parade in Rossnowlagh is a "relaxing" one, and that locals are always hospitable. "Most of us here today are from a rural background. We know what it is to live with our neighbour, and depend on our neighbour if anything goes wrong. We don’t question each other and we’re tolerant of each other."

In the North, the Parades Commission has ruled that an Orange march is not to pass the nationalist Ardoyne neighbourhood in Belfast, the scene of both loyalist and nationalist rioting in recent years. The decision has led to unionist political representatives leaving all-party talks being held in Stormont dealing with parades, the flying of flags, and the province’s violent past.

"It’s just bigotry," according to Tommy Anderson of Maghaberry True Blues Loyal Orange Lodge. "It’s people that are anti-our heritage and culture who cause the trouble," he sighs.

Uncrossing his arms to reveal forearms decorated with tattoos of the Glasgow Rangers and Linfield F.C. crests, he illustrates the Orange Order’s proposed route up the Crumlin Road.

"Most of the people who disagree with the parade going up the Ardoyne live at least a mile and a half away from the actual route. If they stayed in their houses, they wouldn’t see the parade, they wouldn’t hear the parade," he says.

He says that republican parades pass by without incident in the North because "you don’t see loyalists…" – correcting himself – "… Orangemen down at the parade giving off. We just carry on regardless."

Paul Smith, also a member of the Maghaberry True Blues, agrees the Order faces "total bigotry" in the North. According to Paul, it’s the absence of this bigotry that makes the march in Rossnowlagh possible.

Holding up two toys, he says: "I bought these two things for my wee sons and that Irish fella said ‘have a lovely day and a safe journey home.’ You wouldn’t get that back home. They’d say ‘I hope your bus fucking blows up.’ Seriously."

"That’s from the republican side. That’s what they would say," interjects Tommy. 

Debra Montgomery from Lisbellaw in Co. Fermanagh is working a stall selling burgers, soft drinks and flags. She’s a member of a flute band, and marches three times a weekend during the season.

Food and drink are the big sellers – the Orangemen are thirsty and hungry after their parade. Children enjoy the toys and flags. An Israeli Star of David flag flies over sausages cooking on the stall’s grill.

The flag has been adopted by sections of Ulster’s loyalist community – former UDA commander Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair has been known to dress his Alsatian in the flag. It flies in UDA strongholds around Belfast.

"It’s just some people in the protestant religion relate to the Israelis in the bible," says Debra.

Lorna Jones from Belfast is meeting marchers and visitors as they make their way towards the site of the afternoon’s religious service. She’s travelled with Agora Ministries, a "small group of Christian ladies."

"We are basically giving the message – the good news – of the gospel." She says her group want "people to know that in these last days they can know repentance, they can know forgiveness of sins."

Three o’clock approaches, and marchers, their supporters and families make their way towards a gig rig on which the day’s service will be conducted.

There are people sitting on deckchairs awaiting the start of the service; others standing further back making small talk, eating burgers and chips.

The Grandmaster of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, Edward Stevenson, was invited to Rossnowlagh as a guest speaker. He invites President Higgins to the event next year, and pledges to mount a "resolute defence of what is right," regarding the march by the Ardoyne.

As the crowd disperses after the service, he stands by the side of the stage as a young band member beats a Lambeg drum.

"The whole thing is controlled by half a dozen members of the Garda Síochána", he says of Rossnowlagh. "I just wish it could be that way right across Northern Ireland."

He explains the flying of the Union Jack in Rossnowlagh: "There might be a few union jacks here today, but there are very few, generally speaking. There’s still an aspiration within many of the Orangemen within the south towards the UK, and possibly that’s why they still fly the Union flag. They’re not showing any disrespect to their neighbours by doing that."

During his speech, he spoke of the "republican threat" to Orange heritage. The heritage being celebrated by those in Rossnowlagh is also under an internal threat.

Bonfires are held across Northern Ireland on the 11th July as part of the twelfth celebrations. At these bonfires in years gone by, masked paramilitaries have fired rifles in the air. Polish flags, and Tricolours with the acronym KAT – Kill All Taigs – have been burned. This year, there are posters of MLA Anna Lo on pyres in Bangor and Carrickfergus.

"Well, we condemn all that, sort of, anti-social behaviour. We just appeal for tolerance and for a few moments to let us walk up the main arterial routes and carry on our traditions that we have been doing for decades and indeed for hundreds of years," says Stevenson.

Online Editors

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News