January 2016        

When the British government banned the Orange Order

Dónall Ó Briain

Not many people today know that the British government made the Orange Order illegal—twice. How different Irish history might have been if it had remained so!
    The Orange Order was founded in 1795 following a sectarian fight in Armagh. It spread rapidly, cultivated by landlords and the British army as a means of attacking Catholic tenant-farmers, of opposing the Relief Act (1793), which gave limited civil rights to Catholics, and of opposing the United Irishmen, whose democratic principles were anathema to the British state.
    Religious bigotry was a useful weapon for dividing the people and for creating an ideological bond between Protestant tenants and their landlords and later between Protestant workers and their employers.
    Despite its usefulness in the suppression of the 1798 Rising, Orangeism was an unpredictable ally and a constant threat to public order. The British government responded with the Unlawful Societies (Ireland) Act (1825), which ordered secret religious societies to dissolve. When this act lapsed, the order was revived in 1828 by Ernest Augustus Hanover, “Duke of Cumberland”—the king’s brother—as a weapon to be used against the demand for Catholic emancipation.
    Alarmed at sectarian fighting instigated by the order, and concerned at Orange infiltration of the military, the government responded again after a parliamentary committee reported the extent of infiltration and subversion. Under government pressure, in 1836 the order was compelled again to disband.
    But its usefulness to sections of the British ruling class in whipping up sectarian bigotry and division could not be ignored, and in 1845 it managed to re-establish itself, though on a smaller scale. In 1867 it succeeded in defying the Party Processions Act (1850), which had banned demonstrations that “tend to provoke animosity between different classes of Her Majesty’s subjects” and specifically banned parading the public highway while displaying any emblem or colour, or playing any tune, that could be identified with a particular party. The enemy now was the Land League, and landlords now actively promoted the order.
    In the early twentieth century the order reached the height of its influence in opposition to the movement for national independence, resulting in the setting up of the sectarian colonial entity in the north-east of Ireland. In the 1930s Orangeism was able to use religious bigotry to defeat the non-sectarian workers’ movement and in the 1960s and 70s in attacks on the civil rights movement.
    The Orange Order is a vicious reactionary organisation whose function has been to dupe the most backward small farmers and workers and to fill their minds with ignorant falsehoods and religious bigotry. For 220 years it has been used to persuade them to support their landlords and employers and to hate their Catholic neighbours and deny them their civil liberties.
    This is the organisation that now calls itself a “Protestant fraternity” and that some misguided people say represents a distinctive “culture” that deserves to be respected. The British government knew better and only lacked the courage to deal with it as it deserves.

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