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The historical role of Orangeism

Michael Morgan

14th March 2005

Outside observers tend to focus on Orangeism’s historical quirkiness, its addiction to a 17th Century Weltanschauung long since abandoned everywhere else. We see the symbols but not their meaning. Orangemen are just bowler-hatted cranks who desperately need to re-assert their supremacy over their Catholic neighbours. Who cares who won the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, or gives a toss about the ‘Protestant Ascendancy’ of yesteryear? The simple answer is: they do. But beyond the superficialities lurks another reality, of power and patronage, of economic and political survival. Much more is involved in Orangeism than the celebration of remote historical events.

For example, the term ‘Protestant Ascendancy’ is a concept which has changed in meaning throughout the centuries. In the late seventeenth century the Protestant ascendancy referred to the new land-owning elite who had vanquished and replaced the earlier Catholic aristocracy. Land, not religion, was at the heart of political struggle in seventeenth century Ireland. Conflicts then were fought between rival elites, not peoples. The very idea of conflict fought between organised masses and communities was, as yet, unknown.

Orangeism, as a popular, mass-based political movement, dates from the end of the eighteenth century. In its revised interpretation Protestant ascendancy now refers to a populist division between entire blocs of population. The key word here is popular, part and parcel of a distinctly ‘modern’ approach to political life. Whereas the original definition was intended to strengthen the hold of the new land-owning elite by creating a narrow oligarchy, the second was intended to create a mass-based power structure. The relationship of Orangeism to the seventeenth century is thus primarily ideological. Orangeism might surround itself with imagery drawn from the seventeenth century but its real roots lie in the particular conditions of late eighteenth century Irish economic and political life.

In keeping with the European model of capitalist development, the late 18th century in Ireland witnessed a new economic vitality that we now define as the beginnings of capitalism proper. A spectacular growth in rural population, combined with the development of specific, rurally-based industries (especially linen), provided the ‘trigger’ factors for the emergence of an early, though still recognisable capitalist economy. This preceded the later, urban-based industrial expansion in the next century. ‘Proto-capitalism’ is the term usually given to this specific period just before the emergence of urban-based industrialism proper.

Capitalism is not just an economic system, but carries with it new types of social relations, of pressures towards novel forms of class formation based on market position. Capitalist class formation can be seen as a sort of ‘levelling’ pressure, where economic market position determines social identity, undermining any previous religious, ethnic or secular relations. It is a society, Karl Marx famously wrote in the Communist Manifesto, characterised by the ‘cash-nexus’, of unrestrained economic competition between all. But it is also a world of uncertainty, fear and loss. According to Marx’s analysis the dynamics of capitalist development would produce a unified proletariat – the gravediggers of capitalism. This however has proved much too simplistic, overlooking an alternative course of class formation that the same dynamic could unleash. For it may as well be the case that in equivalent conditions of intense economic competition, previous religious, ethnic or secular relations are either reasserted, or simply ‘invented’, as a means of protection against market forces, and to ‘reserve’ sections of the economy for the particular ‘ethnic’ group. Both left-wing radicalism and right-wing radicalism may flow from the same source. Within the Marxist tradition not nearly enough attention has been paid to the reactionary right, the structural forces which tended to produce new social formations based on ethnicity rather than class. Neither does it matter in a deeper sense if this ethnicity was bogus or real. The key point is rather how it functioned in economic terms, as a barrier behind which an ethnically stratified economy could develop.

To move from the abstract to the real. The latter half of the 18th century in Ireland saw the formation of a whole myriad of rural secret societies, of  ‘Whiteboys’, ‘Steelboys , ‘Peep O’Day Boys’ and the like. Most were purely economic, formed to exert pressure on isolated landlords as well as perceived outsider groups, but some combined economic and political ends. Religious differences between Protestant and Catholic, combining a social division which was wide at the top but, significantly, becoming less and less at the bottom, were, of course, a ready-made source of division. Within Ireland, Co. Armagh held a unique position as centre of religious and social tension. All the economic pressures outlined above - rural industrialisation, a rising rural population, increased competition for farmland (a period of long term land-lease renewals pushed competition for land to new heights) concentrated themselves in this one small area during the early 1790s, sparking off the first cycle of large-scale sectarian violence.

Protestant ‘Peep O’Day’ gangs (or fleets) attacked isolated Catholic farms and Catholic ‘Defender’ gangs (fleets) retaliated in kind. This cycle culminated in the ‘Battle of the Diamond’ (in reality a particularly vicious rural riot) near Loughgall in the summer of 1795 and the formation of the Orange Order immediately afterwards.

The Orange Order which emerged from the Peep O’Day Boys was initially a small-scale rural terrorist gang, organised to drive Catholic tenant-farmers out of their homes and so reserve an economic advantage for Protestants. Quite possibly Orangeism might have remained as it started, a localised terrorist gang, symptomatic perhaps of the rowdy beginnings of capitalism in late 18th century Ireland. It was a reaction against new types of social relations determined by market position that this entailed, but nevertheless of little long-term significance.

There were however two main factors which transformed its fortune. The first was its ideological character: by appealing to all Protestants, and ritualising that appeal through ‘traditions’ dragged up from the 17th century - ‘the Battle of the Boyne’, ‘the Siege of Derry’ etc., the Orange Order established itself as a solid basis for a pan-Protestant class alliance. The second factor was directly political. The formation and growth of the Orange Order in 1795 and after was also caused by the intense political crisis throughout Ireland. It was ultimately because of the key role which it was to play in this crisis, that the Orange movement became a truly national force within the next four years.

Late eighteenth century Ireland is of critical importance because it was the period which saw the emergence of a recognisably ‘modern’ Ireland, during which the power structures and ideological forms of Irish politics and society that we now term ‘modern’ were first laid down.

The American revolution of 1776 provided the first, great stimulus to the Irish political imagination at home. The significant feature was the development of a mass extra-parliamentary political movement, based on military organisation but bursting into the political arena as an independent, and radical, force. Ostensibly formed as a self-defence force against possible American invasion (an improbable scenario, despite John Paul Jones’s surprise raid at Carrickfergus in 1778), the volunteers quickly became an overtly political movement, and played a leading role in the winning of legislative independence in 1782. In a sense, the most immediately significant result lay in political organisation. Volunteering demonstrated how quickly and easily military organisation became translated into political power, and this affinity between military and political organisation was to re-emerge at the end of the century with the United Irishmen, and, conversely, the Orange Order.

The French revolution, beginning in 1789, accelerated the radical movement in Ireland, as elsewhere, and transformed its limited aim of parliamentary reform into a drive towards full, popular democracy. This saw the formation of the United Irish movement in 1791 which spread throughout the country. Its programme of full, popular democracy, of government based on popular sovereignty and legitimated through ‘the people’ was radical but its alliance with France proved revolutionary. In Ireland it aimed at the creation of a single ‘nation’ without existing ‘unnatural’ barriers of creed - though economic class (a ‘natural’ barrier) was a different matter. The United Irishmen were meritocrats, not early socialists. Equality meant equality between ‘Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter’ in Wolfe Tone’s famous phrase, not, as we sometimes like to think, between economic and social classes. 

War with France in 1793 signalled domestic political repression. The United Irishmen were republicanized through repression, and soon re-emerged as a clandestine revolutionary movement organised in a paramilitary structure.

The crisis now facing the British and Irish authorities, in particular the new Viceroy, Lord Camden, was how to face this well-organised revolutionary threat. There were very few regular British army troops in Ireland (most had been siphoned off to fight in mainland Europe), and the loyalty and reliability of the Irish militia was highly suspect. Camden’s solution was to create a new force, a Yeomanry Corps, and to deliberately incorporate the newly founded Orange movement in it. By 1796 the Orange Order was the only force that could be relied on to maintain British rule in Ireland, the only - and therefore necessary - bulwark against revolution. While Camden may have expressed his personal distaste at Orangeism, he did so in private. Under the favourable conditions created by government official and unofficial patronage, Orangeism mushroomed from its localised origins, becoming a major force at first in Ulster, then nationally as well.

1796 was the high-water mark of United Irish organisation, the last time a truly national revolution would have been successful. Under the impact of government and Orange repression, the United Irishmen went into decline throughout 1797. In fact, the most serious threat to stability and order now came from the government’s own forces - in particular the Yeomanry. By 1798 they were completely out of control. General Abercrombie, called in to install at least some discipline and restraint in late 1797, resigned in disgust after issuing his famous general Order of February 1798: ‘...the army...(are) such a state of licentiousness that makes them formidable to everyone save the enemy’. The conflagration that consumed Ireland in the summer of 1798 was the direct result of this Orange terror which had been unleashed against an unprotected population. Real and rumoured Orange atrocities sent shock waves throughout Ireland. Mass panic stimulated localised and ineffective risings which were in turn suppressed with unparalleled ferocity. The total death toll during the rebellion is estimated at 30,000.

The bloody events of 1798 seared across Irish politics and society, leaving an indelible mark in its wake. The division of Irish society into two populist blocs, of sectarianism in its modern sense, dates from this time. This division was very apparent to observers at the time. When Cornwallis arrived in May 1798 to take over as the new Viceroy, he immediately noted that the reductionist Catholic-Protestant interpretation was in use ‘everywhere’ and that ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ had become key political terms in a way they had not been before. Another observer expressed astonishment at how Belfast, the centre of Republicanism in Ireland throughout the 1790s, had now become the centre of Orangeism almost overnight.

Most of the population then living (at least up to 1797) would have been optimistic that religious rivalry was an ‘outmoded superstition’, a leftover from a different world, and now in decline. It required the enactment of truly ‘modern’ forces – the pressure of economic competition, and the political crisis of the 1790s, which culminated in the bloodbath of 1798, to transform this original situation into a new, and lasting, political structure and social framework. 1798 thus marks the division between ‘old’ and ‘modern’ in Irish political life.

After 1801, Orangeism went into decline as a mainstream political force, although still retaining its virulence within the rural communities within which it had first emerged, and where conditions of economic competition ensured its continued survival. As before, vicious rural riots were translated, via folk-memory, into famous engagements and conflicts of an almost mythical significance, such as at Dolly’s Brae in 1849, while real historical events, including of course the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, were similarly mythologized into collective ‘Protestant’ victories. Continuing patronage by local state functionaries (such as Lord Roden at Castlewellan who had encouraged the Orangemen at Dolly’s Brae) helped create the conditions within which Orangeism flourished in the countryside, and, increasingly, in the towns.

By the mid-nineteenth century Belfast was undergoing a transformation as a centre of industrial expansion and urbanization. By the 1860s factory based weaving became firmly established, and in the 1880s engineering and shipbuilding had given the city its distinctive character. However, employment in the new industrial economy remained as insecure and haphazard as before. Unemployment was a regular feature of working-class life, and recurrent slumps in economic fortune brought thousands onto the streets. As had happened before in the countryside of the 1790s, conditions of economic competition and class ‘levelling’ stimulated ‘ethnic’ division within the new proletariat aimed at the establishment of reserved labour markets. As before, ‘ethnicity’ became an ideological wrapping for what was, in reality, economic competition. By 1851 there were 35 Orange lodges with 1,333 Orangemen in Belfast; by 1880 there were 135 lodges and over 5,000 Orangemen.

Already by the 1860s the outline of sectarian stratification in the industrial economy of Belfast had become apparent. In 1861 the proportion of Catholics in Belfast peaked at 1/3 of total population - and decreased thereafter as Orangeism and exclusive practices in the economy forced them into more marginal sectors. Riots had become a regular feature of life; in 1857, 1864 (lasting for over two weeks, with twelve dead), 1886, 1895, 1900, 1912, and 1920. And each time Orangeism strengthened its hand in securing mass expulsions of Catholic workers from core industries, especially the shipyards: 2,000 in 1912, 5,000 in 1920.

In this way the sectarian structure of the contemporary Northern Ireland economy was laid down, its distinctive features already intact. Orangeism at this level was a protective mechanism, an attempt to retain a relative economic advantage in a situation of rapid proletarianization and class levelling consequent on capitalist development. Its success lay in inserting itself into the structure of the Northern Ireland economy, as a means of protection (often inadequate) against the vagaries and insecurity of industrial employment. Regular, as well as irregular, cycles of economic growth followed by stagnation, of boom and slump, kept the employment market in a constant state of flux; unemployment was an ever-present fear, and this was especially true in Northern Ireland given the precarious hold of industrialisation there. In essence, reserved labour markets are about fear: fear of unemployment and poverty, and the evils associated with them. The supposed ‘differences’  which are held to justify the division - whether ‘ethnic’, ‘national’ or ‘racial’ - are, more often than not, bogus. Orangeism offered protection for Protestant workers, and for that reason grew in strength and spread throughout the industrial base.

Ironically, the most important single determinant of domestic Irish politics in the nineteenth century was an external one. The 1801 Act of Union tied Ireland directly within the British political system, and so developments in the British structure were automatically translated within the Irish polity. Nineteenth century British domestic politics were dominated by franchise extension and ever-widening of the electorate, creating a ‘mass-based’ political system in consequence. But in Ireland this meant a continual changing of the ground rules within which the struggle between ascendancy and nation was fought. 

Mapping together population data (census of Ireland: 1821-1911) with recorded electorates at each general election in Ireland (to the Westminster parliament: 1832-1918) allows us to gain a rough approximation of how the franchise was extended throughout the nineteenth century, and this in turn gives us an indication of how increasingly larger sections of the population came to play a direct role in political life. In 1832 only about 2% of the Irish population were directly involved in politics - the same proportion as in the 1790s. By mid-century, 1852, it was still under 5%, and by 1874 had risen only to 7.6% then, in the mid-1880s, it jumped to 26.5% and by 1892 stood at 28.4%. Universal suffrage came in 1918 when the proportion of Irish people with a vote reached a massive 74.8%. Moreover, what these figures mean is that not only are the number of people politically involved on the increase, but that different socio-economic classes were also coming onto the political stage. If this process was slow in starting, up to mid-century and beyond, it accelerated in the last eighteen years of the nineteenth century and peaked in the early twentieth.

This gave a tremendous impetus to the development of popular politics in Ireland, and a distinctively ‘modern’ structure of political organisation. Political power in nineteenth century Ireland depended on representation in the British parliament at Westminster. This, in turn, depended on the mobilisation of ever-widening electorates at home, and this mobilisation of often divergent classes and interest groups into a single unity was achieved through the promotion of ‘class alliances’, resting on commonly held, popular senses of ‘community’. In most of Ireland, nationalism - the ‘imagined community’ of all Irishmen and women regardless of internal differences - was welded together by these forces. The same process developed Orangeism as a counterweight to nationalism, the idea being of a common link between Protestants of all classes. Just as the Protestant ascendancy elite had used Orangeism as a ‘bridge’ to extend its own power base and so strengthen its hand in the power struggle with the United Irishmen in the 1790s, so also did their descendants – Bourgeois, Plebeian and Aristocratic - use it to forge a popular Protestant class alliance in order to maintain their power within a changed, and changing, political structure.

There can be no doubt as to the power of this new political structure. It successfully mobilised hundreds of thousands in the Unionist campaign against Home Rule, firstly in 1892, and on into the early twentieth century.  What was initially a response to changing contingencies soon became a drive towards separation, whose logical outcome was statehood. Unionism developed a paramilitary structure in the third Home Rule crisis of 1913, and in 1920 achieved success with the partition of Ireland and the creation of the Northern Ireland state. Further proof of the genesis of Unionist politics in modern political structures lay in the fact that electoral considerations, not geographic boundaries, were paramount in the shaping of the new state.

Orangeism occupied a central position within this power structure, as the very stuff of internal Protestant unity, permeating and guiding external forms of unionist and loyalist politics. It became not just a political ideology, but a cultural entity as well, creating as much as refining the sense of a separate idea of the ‘Protestant people’ and distinctive ‘Protestant way of life’. History, as is often the case, was used as a resource-pool, as a stock of ready-made collective myth whereby this modern reality of Protestant power could be rationalised, reinforced and legitimated. On the shadow-side, Orangeism promoted a negative sense of identity among Protestants. It was vehemently anti-Catholic, and while Orange leaders might draw a distinction between the Catholic Church and its institutional forms on one hand, and the Catholic population on the other, this distinction was as often as not lost among their own supporters. Even mainstream Protestant attitudes betray a general anti-Catholicism that often verges on racist perceptions and has often spilled over at its proletarian edges into outright sectarian hatred: the ‘pogromist tendencies’ of the Protestant working class, as one commentator quaintly put it.

The strength of this structure lay in its very simplicity. Orangeism reduced political issues, no matter how complex, into one of basic sectarian opposition. Irish nationalism was opposed because it was presented as Catholic Irish nationalism; ‘Home Rule’, as the famous rallying cry put it, meant ‘Rome Rule’, and so on. A more modern example can be seen in the UWC strike of 1974, the most recent, but also probably the last, full-scale mobilisation of Protestant power. According to one well-informed Unionist observer, what mobilised the Protestant masses was not merely political objection to Sunningdale, but the simple, sectarian fact that there were Catholics in government. This ability to reduce political issues to a basic core of sectarian opposition gave tremendous strength to the principally electoral alliance - but it also revealed an inherent weakness and vulnerability which would become apparent as the twentieth century went on and, eventually, led to collapse of the Unionist polity in the 1960s and 1970s.

For the enemies against whom Orangeism mobilised popular Protestant power were not in fact ‘at the gates’. Division was laid down within society, creating a permanent hostility between Protestant insiders and Catholic outsiders within the same overall living-space, which periodically exploded into communal violence. Discrimination was written into the structure of Orange politics from the start: a political community defined by Protestantism must, as a condition of its own existence, be exclusive towards non-Protestants, - Catholics. The very structure of Protestant power defined Catholics as powerless. All communities that are mass-based exhibit common characteristics of social solidarity, of division between those inside and those outside - of ‘us’ and ‘them’. All such communities constitute themselves as powers by maximising internal unity, and this is done through exclusion of the outsider group, often through heavily ritualised activities laden with political symbolism. Provocative Orange marches through Catholic ‘areas’ is a case in point, as is the designation of territorial areas as ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’ in the first place. Anti-Catholicism is not therefore a secondary, and unfortunate, aspect of Orangeism: it is the very means through which internal Protestant unity (and, with it the overall power structure) is reproduced. Internal unity is therefore functionally related to external exclusion. The very system militated against reform and hastened its own destruction.

Orangeism and the Protestant power structure which it has created, is a ‘democratic’ movement in that it has been moulded and shaped by liberal and democratic forces emanating from the British state in the 19th century. This was the classical period of parliamentary reform, of franchise extension and popular politics, signifying the advancement of representational democracy, and, within that, a system of adversarial politics. Orangeism is a localised, and parasitical, growth of this. In a context where political power depended on electoral victory, and stimulated by the challenge of maintaining control in an age of popular politics and ever-widening electorates, Orangeism offered the basis on which a popular, ‘Protestant’ class alliance could be built. It is ‘democratic’ only in the limited sense that sees democracy as little more than electoral competition. The aim of the Protestant power structure is majority rule, or ‘majority dictatorship’ as one political scientist has more accurately termed it. Orangeism ‘managed’ ever-present and potentially divisive Protestant insecurities by translating them, via Orange ideology, into anti-Catholicism, anti-nationalism and anti-socialism. In particular, possible class conflict within the Protestant bloc was subsumed, redirected, and eventually ‘smothered’ by Orangeism. Having to respond to these popular pressures meant the internal workings of the Northern Ireland state were anything but democratic.

Change occurred when there was a shift in British state policy after the ending of the Second World War, towards a functional democracy. The state itself was now committed to an extensive policy of social and economic intervention, with programmes in education, housing provision and personal welfare. This was based on a system of consensus politics, of collective commitment to commonly held values. These were the outcome of wartime experience within British society. Northern Ireland internalised the post-war reforms, but couldn’t cope with the shift in legitimacy that this entailed. The Catholic community was drawn increasingly into the (Protestant) state system - and reacted immediately, concentrating on the gulf between the formal espousal of social democracy and the continuing sectarian realities of Northern Ireland life. The Civil Rights Movement focused on this legitimacy gap to bring about the partial collapse of the system in 1969. British attempts to restore Unionist state authority (albeit a ‘reformed’ one) led to open conflict between the British army and the now fully insurgent Catholic community. A renewed IRA campaign helped destabilize the system further, until escalating military and political costs forced the British to close down the Unionist government at Stormont in 1972. 

Identity is normally regarded as primary in political organisation, rooted in a cultural sense of communality, which transcends - and determines - the narrowly defined political sphere. A major theme of this paper, however, has been conversely to demonstrate how identity and its associated forms - ‘sense of community’, ‘traditions’ etc. - are historically contingent and rooted in past power struggles. The seemingly a-historical becomes very much historical. Orangeism originated in conditions of economic competition between similarly placed rural groups. It became a major movement under state patronage, when it was virtually enlisted as the attack-dog of the Protestant ascendancy and incorporated into the state machine to suppress the United Irish attempted revolution. During the nineteenth century Orangeism was again taken up as the ‘social cement’ on which a broad, primarily electoral, Protestant class-alliance was built. Its greatest success came with the establishment of the Northern Ireland state in 1921, but soon revealed its inherent weakness as a base for mass legitimacy. Unable to accommodate itself to the shift in state legitimacy following the ending of the Second World War, the system went into crisis, and eventual collapse.



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