The history and future of the Orange Order in Scotland

Chris McQuade

Sectarianism on the streets of Scotland. On a bright, sunny afternoon in July the flutes play along to an adoring crowd under a bridge of loyalism in Glasgow city centre.

The annual orange parades pass towards Glasgow Green as the congregation sing in time to the outlawed famine song. Triumph, glory and grandeur converges into the minds of needy men and women who cling onto the realm of Organism, desperate to play their part.

Spirits rise as supporters’ line streets to pay homage to an event that happened in 1690, but their enthusiasm does not engulf everyone.

The Grand Orange Lodge has come under fire recently following controversial incidents that continue to cause concern for some minority groups in Scotland, predominantly those of the Catholic faith.

Supporters sang the famine song, a song with references to the Great Famine in Ireland where hundreds of thousands of people died – both Catholic and Protestant, as a band played along as part of the annual Orange Order parade in July of this year.

In addition, pictures of Halloween parties held in an Orange Lodge Hall in Airdrie in 2010 and 2013 emerged in July of this year. They showed men simulating sex with a toy wearing a Celtic strip,  whilst another showed a man in a costume depicting the hanging of the Pope.

Despite Police Scotland claiming it received no complaints about the incidents in Airdrie when CommonSpace contacted them, it has since been revealed that an officer who reportedly has 20 years experience is under investigation for allegedly failing to accept a member of the public’s complaint in relation to the pictures.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats condemned both incidents, MP Christine Jardine said: “This behaviour is absolutely sickening. There should be a zero-tolerance approach to sectarianism.”

Despite numerous attempts to contact the SNP and Scottish Conservative Party we received no reply despite being assured we would receive them. The Scottish Green Party left us out at sea claiming many of their members were oh holiday and would probably not respond to our request.

A Scottish Labour Party spokesperson gave us a dry, muted and automated but expectable reply by saying: “Scottish Labour has a zero-tolerance approach to sectarianism.”

So why do politicians fail to respond to comments of serious sectarian behaviour? Is it because they are on holiday or is there a deeper reasoning for their departure from the reality of what’s happening on the streets of their own constituency’s.

Perhaps they feel that by giving an opinion, they would merely fan the flames of sectarianism and by ignoring the problem they will dampen the celebrations of those who commemorate King William of Orange.

Or maybe politicians are fearful of condemnation for fear of losing votes given the rise in Unionism since the referendum in 2014. Their lack of disapproval could be a representation of their lack of knowledge on the subject and perhaps think it best left to others to explain the phenome.

And why did Police Scotland claim to have recieved no complaints, only for someone to demand answers from the force as to why their complaint was not being taken seriously? 

In relation to the pictures revealed in the Sunday Herald, a Police Scotland spokesperson told us in August that they had closed their investigation as “no offence” had taken place.

The said: “This matter has been investigated by Police Scotland and whilst it is clear that the posts could be regarded as inappropriate and distasteful, no offences have been established at this time.

“Police Scotland has not received any complaints in relation to the content of the article.

“Police Scotland takes all reports of hate incidents seriously and will investigate such reports appropriately and proportionately.”

Despite there being video evidence of sectarian singing, no arrests have been made, even though the famine song  has been classified as illegal in this country. Anyone would think they were trying to sweep the matter under the carpet.

When CommonSpace contacted the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland,  they initially condemned the incidents. The receptionist at their offices in Bridgeton has a very welcoming, cheery and warm telephone manner but being put through to Executive Officer Robert McLean was a far colder experience.

Defensive of his organisation, he sounds annoyed at having to repeat his criticism of the famine song and pictures revealed by the Sunday Herald. In a stern but assured voice he told Common Space: “We’ve been quite clear right from the word go on the Sunday Herald article and the famine song calling them “old news.” 

“I’ve been quite clear that we will sit down with the police and assist them with their enquiries.”

But the organisation was quick to attack the Sunday Herald following their coverage of the hallowed parties. The Orange Order released a statement attacking the newspaper’s reporting calling it “skewed” and “at times completely false.”

In addition they failed to condemn the famine song outright, saying it was “just a pop tune” in a statement after a video of the incident was released on Twitter.

The Order denied any of it’s members sung the song. In a statement to the Daily Record, McLean said: “None of our members took part in this. The band played the tune but it was the people on the streets who put the words to the tune.

“There is nothing offensive about playing a tune, only when you put the words to it. If there is evidence to say who was singing then I am quite sure that the police will deal with that.”

Professor Sir Tom Devine is the paramount historian of the Irish in Scotland. Esteemed and respected, he has written many award-winning books on the history of the nation.

Devine believes the condemnation of outlandish behaviour should not be attributed to the Official Orange Order, on the contrary Sir Tom says they have taken greater steps than people realise to discourage such behaviour saying: “If you look at what they (official Orange Order) have tried to do, they have very much tried to control the behaviour of bands returning on the Stena Link ferries from Northern Ireland who have caused disgraceful incidents in the past.

“The difficulty is deciding what is Orange Order activity and what is the activity of; a) the bands, who are not Orangemen and b) this element of onlookers as it where which tend to surface during the parade season.

“It’s very important to point out that they are aware of this division.”

He added: “Here we come to one of the big conundrums of the orange phenomenon.

“It’s clear from the minutes of the grand lodge over the last 10,15,20 years they are doing everything, well almost everything, to distance the official order from what they call a ‘rough element’ who are probably not members of the order at all but they’re sectarian instincts, because they are sectarian, attract them to the parades and its part of a kind of complexity of influences which include obviously a certain football team and the other aspect of course is the annual parades.”

Founded in 1795, The Loyal Orange Institution was set up as a ‘defensive organisation’ to protect the homes of Protestants after the Battle of Diamond in Armagh whilst the first lodges in Scotland were formed in Ayrshire in 1798.

Sir Tom believes the founding principle could be an explanation as to why the organisation attracts the ‘rough element’ and argues that this could be a potential explanation as to why the Orange parades attract such an element.

Just this month, a report in the Scotsman newspaper suggested that half of all hate crimes comitted in Scotland target Catholics or Catholosism, despite just 17 per cent of the Scottish population following the faith.

But Devine believes the official ‘Northern Ireland importation’ has attempted keep it’s own house in order and distance itself from incidents. 

He also suggests the Order is being significantly weakened and was quick to point out how few official members they have, he said: “There’s less than one per cent of Scottish Protestant males belong to it.”

Sir Tom said: “They have no support now in the way they had up until the 1970s from the Conservative Party, they attract opprobrium from the length and breadth of Scottish society both in both the social media and the letters pages of newspapers.

“The point is its shrunk. It reached a peak in the 1980s during the time of the troubles, and its gone into decline since then.”

Grand Lodge officer McLean denied this and told CommonSpace that membership numbers are rising, but refused to give figures. “I would never give that to you, or any other journalist,” he said.

Devine pointed out modern perception of Order members, he said: “The other thing about it is, some people looking at those parades have commented “oh they’re just poor souls” and to some extent that’s a class analysis.”

Traditional stronghold areas for the Orange Order across central Scotland of Bridgeton in Glasgow, North Lanarkshire, and Ayrshire are all areas where the Order retain much of their support. Bridgeton and North Lanarkshire, Larkhall and Airdrie were all once famous manufacturing hubs that were a hive of activity from the industrial revolution.

But today the steel industry of Lanarkshire has ground to a halt, Ayrshire coastal resorts are in massive need of regeneration and the east end of Glasgow hasn’t seen any investment except for the glitz and glamour of the Commonwealth Games for the purpose of television exposure and not much else.

All these areas are where the Grand Orange Order boast many lodges and cling onto support.

Sir Tom also added that the grandeur associated with membership of the Orange Order has been left behind with the changing tides in Scottish society he said: “It’s got hardly any middle-class professional element in it.

“There are a few but very few, and they normally reach the leadership level so they may give a spurious impression of the majority and not only working class but I think the last data I saw which was in 2011 census and the work done by some scholars on it, probably most of the working-class element are unskilled.

“One of the fascinating things to me is, it’s not simply an organisation that is losing members and it is a religious organisation as well, unlike the masons, it is a religious organisation so it hasn’t benefited at all from the general centralisation of Scottish society especially centralisation amongst Protestant people.”

“But the other thing is its been left behind by the social and economic changes of Scotland society. Scotland is now by and large a middle class based society, the old working class is now a minority.

“The old industries are gone. There has been a transformation in relation to finance, tourism, government employment, health service and oil, related industry etc.

“This is the new Scotland and members of the orange order don’t seem to be critically associated with that new Scotland.”

So where do the Orange Order fit in with a modern Scotland? The shifting political sands since the 2014 referendum may haven given the Order a much needed boost. On 19 September 2014, the night after the No vote was delivered, unionist groups took over the base of the Yes campaign, George Square, where ugly scenes of violence ensued into riots and almost civil war between the two groups.

The official Orange Order may not have been present that night, but the rise in unionism may just have injected life into the organisation. That sense of not fitting in with a modern, progressive nation could be a reason for a rise in Tory votes in Scotland.

Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson has gained support in recent years and election results, both in Scotland and across the UK, show a growing support for the unionist vote. Throw into that mix the unsavoury Tory coalition with the DUP and the Order could be on the cusp of a revival, thanks to the rise in Scottish nationalism, to which Devine agrees.

Sir Tom thinks any recovery by the Order would be miniscule, by saying: “It’s basically a form of identity expression. The difficulty is the waves are coming in onto the beach if you like and it’s very hard to stop them.

“The one thing which I do think helps to keep the thing alive is the fact that the Northern Ireland situation is not yet settled and of course Scottish nationalism and the threat to the union has given it a fill up as well.

“It’s quite sad in a way because if it a form of identity formation, which I think it is, and people trying to preserve parts of their heritage, the economic base of that heritage is either disintegrating or already has disintegrated.”

Perhaps Sir Tom is right and the Order no longer has the protection of politicians or holds any sway in Police Scotland’s higher enchelons.

Or maybe he is wrong and there is a deep-rooted problem that allows secterian incidents like the famine song and distasteful images to appear as the perpetrators know they are immune from punishment in modern-day Scotland.