News » Roundup » Articles »

Fermanagh's 'different breed' that sets the Orange Standard

Published: 17 Apr 2014 17:01

Let me get the amateur sociology out of the way first: ‘Out-group homogeneity’. It describes a bias that any group of people are prone to have.

Warren Little

They see the diversity of views within their own group but assume that people within other groups all share exactly the same views. It’s a sentiment summed up as ‘they’re all alike; we’re diverse’.

It’s a phenomenon to bear in mind when assessing any group in Northern Ireland, but particularly the Orange Order. Last week saw the launch of an unprecedented ‘audit’ – a survey to you and me – of the organisation in Fermanagh. It was undertaken under the auspices of the Good Relations wing of Fermanagh District Council and the local leadership Grand Lodge themselves. It was a brave and ambitious project that has blown the lid on a society frequently misunderstood, sometimes unfairly maligned and suffering relentlessly from chronic tarred –brush syndrome.

Among the facts, figures and viewpoints obtained through the survey of Fermanagh’s 1800 Orangemen, a very diverse range of opinions is evident. The Maguiresbridge-based management consultancy Green Hat has undertaken a painstaking collation to assess the main thrust of attitudes coming directly from the local lodges.

Three quarters of our Orangemen are active in their local church (which for the vast majority means the Church of Ireland). This might not seem a particularly surprising statistic for a religious organisation, but it indicates a majority adherence to traditional Christian values that might not be so prevalent amongst some of the Belfast lodges. As one member puts it, ‘The Orange Order in Fermanagh is like a totally different organisation to the Belfast crowd; a different breed altogether’.

Significant numbers are involved in community-orientated activities - Sunday school, youth clubs, charity fundraising, music groups, credit unions, scouts and history groups. Those in bands enjoy a diversity not seen in Belfast – silver, brass, pipe, accordion, melody; the so-called ‘blood and thunder’ flute bands don’t dominate the scene.

However it is an organisation still showing signs of a certain siege mentality. Whilst nine out of 10 say they have good relationships with their Catholic neighbours more than half thought some Catholics were suspicious of them. The feeling is mutual, since two thirds are suspicious of some Catholics too and only a third are currently involved in cross-community activities. One voice from the outer fringes said ‘…until the Roman Catholic leave us to carry on, stop bombing, burning and killing us.’ Another opined, ‘Roman Catholicism is a totalitarian system and has over the centuries… suppressed civil and religious liberties.’ That might be construed as sectarianism, except that 40% of the Orange were also suspicious of some Protestants. Some were even suspicious of the survey itself. The media comes in for criticism, with many feeling that it exhibits a republican bias and selective blindness to the good work of the Order.

Some of the siege mentality is justified. According to the PSNI between 2007 and 2010 there were 41 ‘sectarian motivated hate crime’ attacks against our Orange Halls, with border areas being particularly vulnerable.

Much of the membership’s angst is founded in the general public’s ‘abysmal ignorance’ of the organisation and there is a healthy honesty about some of the causes. A common thread is a yearning for the principles of the organisation to be honoured and for discipline to be adequately administered: ‘If the policy of live and let live was strongly upheld and any members who did not carry out and agree were expelled the Orange Order would be a much more respected organisation’, said one member. ‘The Orange Order leaders don’t come out quick enough to condemn the louts that riot and give us a bad name’, said another. ‘Youth often misbehave for fun. Alcohol a problem.’ ‘Keep control of the rowdy bands as they are a disgrace to the Orange Order.’

Contrary to common misconception, there is a prevailing push amongst our Orangemen for more cross-community engagement. Only a quarter want to maintain a ban on attending Catholic church services, to resolve the awkwardness that rule presents on the occasions of their neighbours’ weddings and funerals. ‘We must change our attitudes and lectures about Roman Catholics and the Church of Rome if we are to move on and strengthen as an organisation. We live in 2013 and Popery is not our enemy.’ There is more support than opposition for shared education (standing starkly against the separatism of the Catholic Bishops) and rightly a pride in the role the local lodges have played in diverting young people away from loyalist paramilitaries.

By its own members’ admissions the Orange Order in Fermanagh is not a paragon of organisational health. And the ‘out-group homogeneity’ will always make outreach for them difficult and restrained by suspicion. However it is clear that the local lodges are also victims of a lack of understanding. For while the ‘No Surrender’ cries (and there was one) will continue to grab headlines, and the Belfast lodges’ refusal to enforce discipline blackens the whole Order, the central bulk of Fermanagh Orangemen are peaceable, progressive and, that characteristic most critical to our enviable social cohesion, neighbourly. May their voices be heard within and without.

Jump to first paragraph.