BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in:  UK: Northern Ireland
Front Page 
Northern Ireland 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Wednesday, 4 July, 2001, 15:18 GMT 16:18 UK
Profile: The Orange Order
An Orange lodge marching in Northern Ireland
Orange Order: Steeped in history
The Orange Order is the largest Protestant organisation in Northern Ireland with at least 75,000 members, some of them in the Republic of Ireland.

Its origins date from the seventeenth century battle for supremacy between Protestantism and Catholicism.

William of Orange, originally of the Netherlands, led the fight against Catholic King James.

He took the throne in England and his final victory over James at the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland 1690 sealed the religion's supremacy in the British Isles.

In 1795, a clash between Protestants and Catholics at the "Battle of the Diamond" led to some of those involved to swear a new oath to uphold the Protestant faith and be loyal to the King and his heirs, giving birth to the Orange Order.

Since then, the Order's principles and aims, and those of similar organisations it is related to, have changed little.

Civil and religious liberty

It regards itself as defending civil and religious liberties of Protestants and seeks to uphold the rule and ascendancy of a Protestant monarch in the United Kingdom.

An Orangeman walks along with his baby daughter in his arms
12 July: Family affair for Orangemen
The only membership criteria is that an applicant is Protestant.

The order is organised into "lodges". Lodges are created where and when members wish to set them up - William Craig, Northern Ireland's first prime minister, established a lodge at the House of Commons and there have been many linked to British military postings.

Orangeism is also active in former British colonies - principally Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the two west African countries of Togo and Ghana.

Today, the annual 12 July events across Northern Ireland, the most important date in the Orange calendar, commemorate that victory (regarded by the order as a victory for liberty) and the Protestant faith.

At the heart of Orangeism is the right to parade - and the argument about what those parades stand for.

Orangemen and women say that the parades are intrinsically linked to their culture and community, be it a public statement of faith, a commemoration of those who gave their lives in war or the annual colour and festivities of the Twelfth of July.

They stress that for decades there was no dispute from the Catholic community over routes and timings of parades.

Opponents of the organisation say the parades stand for bigotry and sectarianism and symbolise a Northern Ireland organised to uphold the rights of only one part of the population.

They argue that opposition to parades has grown as the Catholic community has asserted its right not to be subjected to the whims of one section of the community.

Religious and political

The Orange Order has never been simply a religious organisation.

When the Home Rule movement emerged in the nineteenth century, the Orange Order steadily moved towards the unionist position.

The Portadown Orange Lodge march at Drumcree
Drumcree: Clash of conflicting interests
The organisation opposed Home Rule and partition but concluded that the newly created Northern Ireland would be the defender of its cultural, civil and religious rights.

The first unionist Members of Parliament were drawn from the ranks of the loyal orders.

Almost every minister in the Northern Ireland government from 1921 until the imposition of Direct Rule in 1972 was an Orangeman.

As the violence of the Troubles deepened, the Orange Order supported the security forces against republican terrorism and its members opposed any political agreement seen as ceding ground to republicans or giving Dublin a say in Northern Ireland affairs.

During the early 1990s republicans began attacking rural Orange halls, particularly in County Armagh, raising fears among the organisation that its members were threatened with being forced out of areas.

But at the same time, the Orange Order has faced its own fair share of scrutiny with some members displaying an ambiguous relationship towards loyalist paramilitaries and their activities.

Early in the 1992, loyalist gunmen killed five Catholics who were in a betting shop on Ormeau Road in Belfast.

Months later, a parade along the road sparked fury when some of the Orangemen present made "five-nil" hand gestures as they passed the murder scene.

The then Northern Ireland Secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew accused those responsible for the taunts of behaving like "cannibals".


The decision to reject the Good Friday Agreement placed the organisation closer to the Democratic Unionists then the pro-agreement Ulster Unionists and led to some members questioning whether or not the institution had become too political.

A no-entry styled sign with the figure of an Orangeman on the end of a Catholic home in Belfast
Opposition: Catholic residents have opposed some marches
Nowhere has this polarisation been seen more than at Drumcree in Portadown.

The route of the march, one of the oldest annual parades by the Order, has taken on a symbolic meaning for both communities out of all proportion with its actual importance.

The now annual stand-off over the route has not only put the organisation at loggerheads with the Catholic community - but also with the forces of law and order which it, ironically, saw as one of its closest allies. The Orange Order, however, has accused the authorities of bad faith.

It says that in many areas where a route has proved contentious - generally because of demographic changes - it has modified marches to take into account the wishes of local residents.

This, it says, includes playing hymns also known to Catholics or even stopping the music at certain points.

Recent controversies

But in 2000, one senior figure said that the Orange Order was losing moderate members because it was increasingly dominated by politics, "ignorance and malevolence".

Images of protesters blocking traffic while brandishing Orange regalia with loyalist paramilitary figures in the background are causing a drift away from the Order, he said.

Other members have traced the change to the summer of 1998 that witnessed some of the worst violence associated with Drumcree.

At the march held in 2000, Portadown district lodge master Harold Gracey sparked controversy among members when he said that he would not condemn any violence linked to Drumcree protests because Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams never condemned republican violence.

When the loyalist paramilitary Johnny Adair, turned up at the protests, it did little to dispel the accusation from Catholic critics that the organisation was flirting with the paramilitaries.

See also:

07 Jul 00 | Northern Ireland
Orange leader 'won't condemn violence'
15 Jun 00 | Northern Ireland
Orangemen desert Order warning
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Northern Ireland stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Northern Ireland stories