The Orange Order: Subverting Class Unity [From An Spréach Issue 2]
The Orange Order marching season is an extremely challenging annual fixture for Scotland for obvious reasons – principally, it ignites tribal loyalties which often split communities and occasionally even families into polarised sub-groupings. Most Scots correctly identify the Orange Order as being a protestant institution originating across the Irish sea, but less known is the reason for their foundations and how directly this ties into working class struggle.
The organisation was officially formed in Ireland 1795 by a ruling class of conservative elites intent on preventing Protestant workers from identifying with their Catholic neighbours and in direct opposition to the Theobald Wolfe Tone’s socialist image for Ireland’s future. Since then, the organisation has always appealed to sectarian allegiances in an attempt to divide the working class. The banners, bonfires and regalia furiously demand the same question of every Protestant: which side are you on? The politics of identity were placed at the forefront as people who joined were initially rewarded with property rights and opportunities to meet landlords and prestigious employers. The message – 'buy into our right to rule and we will reward you with the life you wish to lead' – isn't miles away from that employed in fascist regimes during the 20th century.
Protestants who rejected their sectarian calling were discriminated against, labelled traitors and ‘Catholic sympathisers’. Indeed, the Orange Order’s success in splitting the working class through sectarian loyalties was one of the key reasons Wolfe Tone’s socialist campaign failed. Appealing to Protestants by bestowing them with civil and religious liberties provided a sense of false community and gave many reason to question why they should fight for a better future for everyone when they now could obtain security for themselves through concessions from a dominant bourgeois elite. This was the epitome of divide and rule – institutions like Orange Order divided the Irish working class at a vital time and deterred a majority from embracing socialist thought. To this day, it remains a key parliamentary asset for the ruling class.
Their success prompted an emergence of the same tactics around the globe as the British Empire began to realise the way to successfully uproot capital and maintain their imperialist ambitions was to divide populations based on sectarian allegiances to nullify socialist theory from taking root. The Orange Order itself was shipped to Scotland directly after Wolfe Tone’s 1798 rebellion. Scottish soldiers who had assisted in the British effort to maintain bourgeois control came home with stories of the division which had been sown among the Irish.
Its growth in sections of Scottish society has become arguably even more enthusiastic than that in Ireland; membership could achieve similar rewards as those who had joined the ranks in Ulster, which has culminated to today’s staggering totals of over 800 Scottish lodges and 50,000 members across the country. A false sense of fulfilment, achievement and opportunity has even led us to the point where there are more Orange marches in Scotland than in Ireland. Increasingly, members of Scottish lodges even eclipse the numbers of local residents participating in parades in Ireland's traditional hotspots.
What are the lessons we can draw? First and foremost, building a resistance to the Orange Order is crucial to building working class solidarity in Scotland. The alternative that needs to be built is a common identity between Protestant and Catholic workers which asserts their class position to successfully tackle issues relevant to both communities. Zero hour contracts, rising private rents due to a society driven by competition, the continuing pressure of underfunding key public institutions like the NHS, and the continuing cuts to local council budgets to improve community leisure facilities are as relevant to the Protestant community as they are to Catholics. They affect Celtic supporters and Rangers supporters. They affect those who line the Orange parades in Bridgeton, Kinning Park and the working class towns of Ayrshire and Lanarkshire.
And these grievances will continue as long as we cling to sectarian identities that emphasise these divisions – and that goes for all of us. Stirring the sectarian pot nullifies the effect of trade unions and other worker solidarity groups. It allows the ruling class to intensify austerity measures whilst tension arise among the working class throughout this period of the year. Such tactics have been employed in Scotland for a century and beyond: it’s no accident that an Orange and Protestant political party was well publicised by Motherwell and Wishaw local media in 1923 while a Communist held a seat in the area. It's no accident either that the Bridgeton ‘Billy Boys’ were rewarded for their role in breaking up Glasgow’s general strike movement in 1926. It's a useful distraction for politicians to this day – cuts to public services fall off the news agenda when the fifes and drums of the lodges are being dusted off and assembled for another year.
More than that, though, we must recognise that these parades aren't just an emblem of an outdated and bigoted culture; they are a reactionary effect of the posing austerity Scotland so visibly faces. As wages crunch and bills soar, people actively demand scapegoats. Orange Order parades have become an intimidating outlet for protestants to voice angers and frustrations against supposed villains for the daily troubles faced by their community. In a society built on competition and individual success rather than community spirit, there's a sense of identity in affiliating with the Orange Lodge and labelling immigrants as welfare-cheats, depicting Muslims as ‘invaders’ hell-bent on destroying the ‘way of life’ in Scotland and displaying racist opposition to the change of demographic in Scottish society.
The Orange Order is in many ways an all-class alliance – in the past this led to concessions for those down the pecking order but these have not been enough to assure working class protestants, hence the escalated racism and scapegoating of others in recent marching seasons. Again, this hasn't gone by the ruling elite of this country. Politicians now proudly join Orange Marches safe in the knowledge that xenophobic right wing sentiment is being whipped up in sections of the Scottish print media. Support for the Orange Order is labelled as ‘Protestant culture’ as a means of continuing the effort to divide communities and capitalise on sectarian division.
Socialists must remain wise to this campaign and expose the truth: the Orange Order is not a cultural organisation. History shows it can be described as nothing more than nakedly sectarian. It's not an organisation has not been established to represent a marginalised working class group but to maintain the powers of others, specifically elites. In a country where a mere 0.025% of Scotland’s population owns 67% of the nation's land, the Orange Order’s sectarian ethos presents an even more profitable asset for a ruling class elite here than in Ireland to maintain such a gulf in equality.
Opposing the marching season is not anti-Protestant but positively anti-sectarian. The purpose of the Orange Order is to manipulate Protestants into becoming an insular community so as to nullify socialist thought; asserting sectarian unity destabilises community solidarity and actively harms a worker’s fight for progressive change. We must remain secure in our opposition to the organisation on the premise that class-conscious politics are the only way to give confidence to every person who looks at today’s intimidating global situation with despair and trepidation.
Stigmatising working class loyalists is not the answer, but it's essential we appeal to them through unions and by using the language of class politics. If we truly want to create a better society, we must put aside sectarian loyalties and create genuine people-power movements which pressurise those who slash and burn our public services. We need to prepared to fight and get our hands dirty. Let's tackle sectarianism head on and unite under one banner of class solidarity to influence the society we want to see.
By David Swanson, carried in Issue 2 (Oct-Dec) of An Spréach Magazine