Thursday, July 07, 2005

Orange Order public relations disaster

Danny Morrison:

On June 27, 1970 in Belfast, the Orange Order planned to march past Hooker Street on the Crumlin Road, where Catholics homes had been burned down, and up Cupar Street past Bombay Street in the west, which had been similarly razed to the ground.

We know from documents and records that both the British and unionist governments were told by their own advisers that these marches were provocative and would lead to widespread trouble. But we also know that Sir Ian Freeland, the General Officer Commanding of the British army in the North, made the following remark to the joint security committee:

“It is easier to push them [Orange marchers] through the Ardoyne than to control the Shankill.”

It spoke volumes for a mindset that still persists among many in the PSNI and the British administration. It explains why loyalists have been allowed to march past Ardoyne and feel no compulsion to negotiate. But it is an issue, like Garvaghy Road and the Lower Ormeau, that ultimately damages the cause of those the marching is meant to placate. Such pandering postpones the day of a settlement based on the rights of residents and marchers alike.

As predicted, widespread rioting broke out on June 27 and ended up in gun battles and loss of life in various parts of Belfast. In Ballymacarrett, a loyalist attack on St Matthew’s church was repelled by members of the “Provisional IRA” after the British army had refused to intervene. Paddy Kennedy MP approached a British patrol for help and was told: “You can stew in your own fat.” Several men died, including the Catholic defender Henry McIlhone, while the senior IRA figure Billy McKee was wounded.

The Stormont government took no responsibility for what had happened and blamed republicans. At the next meeting of the joint security committee, on July 1, it was decided that the authorities had to “restore the military image” and put down trouble “with maximum force”.

This explains the Falls curfew one week later and the raid and seizure of arms that had never been used against the British army but were there solely for the protection of people who had experienced terrifying government pogroms just ten months earlier.

The curfew, by alienating and politicising a huge swath of nationalist opinion, was to dramatically change the political context. When the British army first came onto the streets in 1969, it was welcomed by the majority of nationalists as their protectors. Over subsequent months, this benign image rapidly changed as the Brits became a mere tool of unionist repression, then later the enforcers of British direct rule.

Stormont had also been dragging its heels on introducing reforms. Many nationalists — particularly among the working class — were coming round to the republican view that they could not get their civil rights until they had got their national rights and that this would involve an armed struggle against the government and the system.

It was this mood that the republican movement tapped into and it was after the curfew that the IRA slowly began its campaign, beginning with sabotage operations against key installations and using incendiary devices timed to go off at night in large downtown stores. All of its first military strikes were initially described as “reprisals” for specific British army or RUC attacks on nationalists. There was no military blueprint. The campaign in its early days was largely a matter of improvisation. By the time the campaign was full-blown, republican military structures were still only being put in place in many areas.

Orange marches (and, indeed, other protests such as those at Harryville and at Holy Cross) were to play their part again and again in influencing national and international opinion about the sectarian nature of unionism. But it was the Drumcree protest and the demand to get marching down the Catholic Garvaghy Road that probably did most to hurt the Orange Order, as well as demoralise its members over their failure. Supporters of their cause burnt three children to death and shot dead a Catholic taxi driver out of spite.

Yes, the Orange Order — whose purpose was to galvanise Protestantism and unionism — has certainly undermined the cause it espouses, though few of its members appear to appreciate this.

The Orange Order is truly a public relations disaster.

Orange Order public relations disaster


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