IT was perhaps fitting that the sickening video inside an Orange hall of some brethren singing a song celebrating the murder of young bride Michaela McAreavey was filmed on the day of the Northern Ireland Centenary parade.
Because for the 100 years of partition the Orange Order has been a massive barrier to peace and reconciliation in the six counties – and indeed in the 100 years-plus of the loyal order’s existence before that.
The most cursory look at the history books reveals that at times of great stress and tension, not only has the Orange Order been caught up in the violence and unrest that marked the British presence in Ireland – it has been to the fore in instigating and continuing community tensions.
It is a positive thing that the shocking incident could well be a catalyst in bringing about the kind of root-and branch change that the Orange Order has needed for the entirety of its existence. But it has to be said that such progress – if indeed it comes along – will happen at great emotional cost to the Harte and McAreavey families.
Whether the will to make the change required will be there among the brethren when the current furore subsides is open to question, not least because a large part of the organisation’s very raison d’etre is to “opppose the fatal errors and doctrines of the Church of Rome” and to avoid taking part in acts of “Popish worship”. Taking away that founding aspect of the Order’s ethos will most likely prove a march too far for some of the more fundamentalist – and, yes, sectarian – of the Orange Order’s members. Which is where the media comes in.
It has done a good job in both highlighting and reflecting the deep sense of disgust which has not only swept this island, but has caused revulsion across the water and across the world. But in the recent Stormont election senior Orange Order members were interviewed as representatives of political unionism, as spokesmen for a plurality of the PUL community. In fact, they represent a diminishing number of more hardline Protestant opinion.
The political mainstreaming of a niche ‘Christian’ organisation, particularly by television and radio stations, is not something that is seen – or would be countenanced – in any other part of these islands and it is high time it was brought to an end.
For its part, if it is to undo even a small part of the massive damage caused to its already battered reputation, the Orange Order must as a first step end its ban on members entering Catholic churches and its ban on members marrying Catholics. And it must decide whether it is a religious and cultural organisation or – as it is increasingly viewed – a hardline political lobbying group. And if the Order decides that it wants to continue riding two horses, then those public bodies providing funding for various Orange Order activities will themselves have to make a choice.
Make no mistake – this is a moment of truth, whether the Orange Order agrees or not.