Orange Order marchers already living in the past

Their numbers may be creeping up again but this is likely a response to the threat of Scottish indep

Orange Order's colourful carnival march may have been the loud cry of a dying animal, writes Seth-Smith [Reuters]

The Orange Order march on September 13 through Scotland’s capital felt like the last stand of a community being left behind. With 15,000 marchers, it was by far the biggest street demonstration against Scottish independence, to be voted on in a few days. Yet, it took place without the blessing of the official no camp, Better Together, who plainly didn’t want it taking place.

Their fears that this mixing of politics and religion by the Protestant Orange lodges, with their history in sectarian conflict, might backfire, may have been justified given the following poll that showed the Yes campaign continuing to push ahead with an eight percent lead. Whether or not it swayed some “undecideds” and Catholic voters to back independence, the march certainly didn’t do the Unionist cause any good.

Why did the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland decide to go ahead? Before the march, a senior figure of the Order made a speech to those gathered.

“Let me remind you that when an enemy came against the city of Londonderry, God’s people famously said there will be no surrender,” he said. “Well, a divisive and evil enemy has risen against Scotland in the guise of false patriotism and the nationalist referendum.”

Listening Post – Scotland votes: Reporting the referendum

Sieging the battlements

Grand Chaplain Henry Williamson was harking back to the 17th century and the Protestant defence of a city now in Northern Ireland against Catholic forces. Today, it is Alex Salmond and the independence movement that is perceived as sieging the battlements, and 2,000 Northern Irish compatriots flooded down in their busloads to join the Scottish and “defend the United Kingdom”.

However, not even the marchers seemed to believe that they would help preserve the UK. I talked to a member of the Brigeton Loyalists Flute Band as he downed a morning pint before the march began.

“There’s been discussion in the community about whether this should go ahead,” he confided. “But we wanted a show of support.”

A restaurant owner from Glasgow, he has real fears for the working class in an independent Scotland.

“The world’s a scary place, and it will be even scarier as an independent small country,” he tells me. “This will be nothing but bad for the working man, it’s us that will suffer.”

The Orange Order claims around 50,000 members in Scotland. The vast majority are Protestant working class from the Scottish lowlands, many of whose ancestors migrated from Ireland to Scotland in the 19th century. The lodges have long ceased to have any real political clout, while their parades often further damage their reputation, through drunkenness, disorder, and scrums between Rangers and Celtic football fans. This summer, a 12-year-old girl was hit by a bottle in the face while watching a march in central Glasgow, strengthening support for City Council plans to limit the number of parades. September 13’s “British Together” march passed off peacefully, but what will happen to this fiercely Unionist community if Scotland goes independent this week?

I asked Graham Walker from the Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies about the possibilities.

“The Orange Order hasn’t wielded political influence for some time, but it’s a channel for certain political frustrations,” he said. “There’s a possibility that people will become extremely alienated and disaffected, they may feel that the Orange Order is not the organisation they can turn to for comfort, and that’s potentially dangerous, as they may turn to other groups.”

Fertile ground for new recruits

Those worried at that prospect have pointed to the presence of the far-right street movement and party Britain First at the Orange Order parade on September 13. There were only a dozen or so of this relatively new force, easily spotted in their paramilitary-style uniforms, but they clearly felt they were on fertile ground for new recruits. On September 12, Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party had held a rally in Glasgow, failing to mention the Orange Order march or his controversial support of an Orange hardliner for a party position.

The Orange Order has its base in communities once renowned for mining, ship building, and heavy industry, where Irish immigrants flocked for work in the 19th century, now some of the poorest areas in Scotland. The majority of supporters have Irish ancestry if not close family, and there are fears that Scottish independence would strengthen nationalists in Ireland. While the political class in Ireland has largely maintained a diplomatic silence, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams has spoken of the “so-called United Kingdom” which is “hanging by a thread”. Only four percent in Northern Ireland want to push for a united Ireland according to last year’s poll and support in the Republic has never been lower, with no desire for a return to the civil war often called “The Troubles”.

Nevertheless, a Yes vote would send a nervous shock through the Unionist community in Northern Ireland, particularly those with close family in Scotland. I spoke to a woman from Fife at the march, Marie McCaughey, who was proud of her Ulster Scots name. Her sister had come down from Belfast, and she pointed to her 11-year-old son, saying he’d been crying that morning about the future of their country.

“We’ve all intertwined through the generations, and a Yes vote will put an end to that,” she said. “It’s dividing the country, dividing families.”

Britain’s family of nations

Alex Salmond has argued that independence does not mean a weakening of ties between Britain’s family of nations. At the same time, higher levels of support for a Yes vote among lower income groups show that the working classes are listening to pledges of more equality and fairness. These arguments won’t reach the community out in force last Saturday, despite many of them coming from Scotland’s most deprived areas. Tom Devine, a leading Scottish historian on sectarianism, sees them as already a relic of history.

“They cling to an Orange identity, coming from the heritage of the past, as they have very little else to cling onto. Their communities are riven by unemployment, by alcoholism and drugs,” he told me. “In a sense they’ve got nowhere to go.”

Over the last half century, Scotland has secularised rapidly. Even the Church of Scotland has distanced themselves from the Orange Order over the years. While their membership has begun creeping up again, this is likely a response to the threat of independence. The colourful carnival march on September 13 with its piercing flutes and deafening drums may have been the loud cry of a dying animal.

If there is a Yes vote on September 18, a community already marginalised in Scottish society may find themselves further sidelined. Like many of the unknowns in an independent Scotland, what outlets they find to express their frustration remains to be seen.

Niki Seth-Smith is an editor for openDemocracy and a freelance journalist. She is also a cofounder of Precarious Europe, a media project on young people, democracy, and nationalism.