Saturday, July 05, 2014

'Walking Round in Circles' : BBC Radio 4, Nick Laird, and Orange parades in Northern Ireland

SAM 5561

(Photo above taken at Saintfield last evening.) I'm reposting this from back in mid-April as the radio programme, entitled Walking Round in Circles is being broadcast on Monday at 8pm on Radio 4. Parading - in Belfast anyway -  is once again a big issue. 


A few weeks ago I was asked to be interviewed by the novelist and poet Nick Laird for a BBC Radio 4 programme about Orange parades, to be broadcast in June some time. It wasn’t a wide-ranging interview , but very specific to my own personal experiences and also of the differences between rural and urban (for regular readers here, this is one of my ongoing themes). It turns out that one my wife’s close friends is Nick’s cousin, and the programme’s producer was someone I have known from when we were at school together. We got on well, apart from my dire attempt to make them both coffee. I have no idea how the programme will be edited, or how much (if any) will be used. I hope it comes across as reasonable and non-contentious.

I’m not a ‘spokesperson’ for anybody and so I felt able to answer the questions as honestly and openly as I could. I thought it might be of interest to some readers for me to summarise some of the thoughts and discussion here.


(I suspect that most of my thoughts and experiences of things Orange are very commonplace, shared by thousands of folk, and so not in any way new or unique. I expect that others will criticise. But here goes.)

Almost ten years ago in June 2004 my parents and my oldest son were almost killed in a car crash just outside my front door, they had been leaving 5 year old Jacob back home after a children’s meeting at Carrowdore Mission Hall. Some of you will know of the dire state my mother was left in following the accident, and of her current dreadful health condition.

I made a number of major ‘life decisions’ in the following months. One of these was to accept the repeated invitations I had received from a friend to join an Orange lodge, one with a more Christian and educational ethos than most do. Another decision was to accept the invitation to become Chair of the Ulster-Scots Agency (the previous Chair, Lord Laird, had resigned in April of that year). Another was to plan a path towards self-employment which would allow me more time at home with my family rather than continue to waste the 3 – 4 irreplaceable hours I was spending every day commuting to a Belfast office. There were other decisions too.

Due to busyness and other commitments I'm not able to get to many lodge meetings during the year, but I do enjoy the open meetings where a guest speaker will come; for example, in 2013 there was a talk on the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible; earlier this year a panel discussion; on previous years talks have been on aspects of Ulster history, of Reformation history, of the Williamite Revolution of 1688-1690 and of Great War poetry. The chat after the meetings is always good, a bit of friendly intra-Protestant theological banter, a fine cup of tea and few slices of fruit loaf. I have met at least one man who has, as they say these days, 'come to faith', and who tells me each time we meet that listening to the old Gospel music my brother and I play was a key moment in that awakening. It's not everybody's idea of a good time, and might in some cases be akin to a church committee meeting. But other lodges are not like ours I suspect.

Where I grew up, the thing which is labelled nowadays as ‘community relations’ has always been overwhelmingly positive, in common with many rural parts of the province, but in contrast to some parts too. We had no tradition of Orange membership in our family even in previous generations, but the 12th was one of the big days out every year and we always went to watch the bands and lodges – as enthusiastic spectators, not participants – but we knew many of the participants as friends and neighbours. Huge family picnics made the night before, ice cream in the field, the whole shebang.

‘Community relations’ in normal language just means that we got on well with the people who the textbooks and newsrooms imply are meant to be our historical opponents. Our Catholic neighbours were folk like the men my father worked with on the farm and on building jobs, the elderly woman who had been my piano teacher for umpteen years, and so on. But neighbours first, and that they were in some way ‘different’ was way down our priority list. These are folk we would see in the builders yard, or at the cattle market, or at the post office, or the local shop, or wave at in the car as we passed each other on the road. Not next-door neighbours, but from just a few miles away, all well-known to one other. All of us were from families whose roots are intertwined in this locality down through the generations.

My father’s approach to flags was often to put one up when the holiday started, on the morning of the 11th July, and take it down when the holiday ended on the evening of the 13th, so as not to potentially offend men who might be working around our yard (farm holidays are much shorter than the traditional ‘Twelfth Fortnight’ elsewhere in Northern Ireland). I can also remember him consciously deciding to not fly a Union Flag on some years, but only the white Northern Ireland flag, at times when he was angered by UK government policy in this part of the UK. US readers will understand the emotive nature of flags.

Every ‘Protestant’ church has its own particular approach to communion, and its own restrictions as to who is permitted to take communion within their services. It’s not a casual issue. There are valid and major theological differences among Protestant churches, never mind between broadly Protestant and Catholic theologies. Free Presbyterians and Non-Subscribing Presbyterians are a universe apart despite their similarity of name. Baptists and Presbyterians have at least one major and possibly irreconcilable difference, and Church of Ireland and Presbyterian have many differences of approach and conviction. You need a letter to even get in to some Gospel Halls, to prove your membership of a like-minded Gospel Hall, never mind to ‘break bread’ with them in communion. I know of men who think that (Protestant) Unitarianism is a greater heresy than any Catholic doctrine. I have no problem with anyone holding to particular distinctives and convictions – but we live in a strange era where difference is presumed to inevitably lead to conflict, and that the assertion of difference is a bad thing. This is nonsense. Point out your distinctives, protect your convictions, engage in debate about them, be a persuader and defender of them - but live and let live. I would not expect any Church, Protestant or Catholic, to allow open access to communion to people not members of their denomination.

I have been to at least one funeral Mass in a Catholic church, as a spectator not as a participant. I would go again if I felt it right to do so, despite the theological differences. I know many other members of Orange lodges who have also done so out of neighbourly regard. Even in areas where ‘The Troubles’ raged and innocent people were murdered, I am aware that funerals were, and remain, a communal time regardless of ‘difference’. But they are private, painful, occasions and should not become a circus for controversy to be picked over by pundits and the politically-minded as to who attended and whether they should have.

Maybe in the city a spirit of neighbourliness doesn’t exist to the same extent as it does in the country, and it’s easier to ‘demonise’ a group of people when you don’t actually know any of those people, or have a life-long relationship with any of them. Parade days in Belfast seem to act as ‘lightning rods’ for ongoing 365 days a year community tensions in particular areas, a focal point for agitation, antagonism and violence, for individuals and organisations to radicalise young people and recruit them to their ‘cause’. Extreme provocation will always cause problems, and is often cynically designed to do so. And it works.

Sometimes the reporting just stokes these fires. The reckless feral unparented urban kids who might vandalise a nearby Catholic church are just as likely to do so to a Protestant one as well. Drive around and see how many have grilles on their windows to try to prevent wanton vandalism. I can tell you many stories of Belfast churches, and churches in the bigger market towns on the edges of Loyalist housing estates, living under regular threat of vandalism from ‘their own sort’ (but who are working hard to 'reach' those children and their families). But this goes unreported as it’s not ‘sectarian’. The same degree of damage provides acres of media coverage if presented as ‘sectarian’, with eager pundits seizing the opportunity to sustain their own profiles.

This is all in stark contrast to the experiences I have had in the country, where parades are colourful musical spectacles and family occasions, attracting big crowds of people of every age group, passing churches of every kind without incident. Behaving the way neighbours should behave.

I have quietly taken part in a good few local parades over the past ten years, and have the family memories and family photographs to treasure. Wheelchair and blindness have diminished my mother’s appreciation of the pre-12th in Saintfield and of the 12th Day itself, but if she’s spared she’ll be out again this year along with the huge family circle we have, smiling and listening and cheering and enjoying the day out as much as she is able. I suspect that, as usual, my father will have a pocketful of Gospel tracts to hand out to whatever people he gets into conversation with. My brother and I have been involved in simple open-air evangelism meetings in ‘The Field’ in the morning before the parades began. And I have no hang-ups about taking the tune of ‘The Sash’ and shifting it a bit with the words of ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’ – for a greater cause than anything that this world can offer, and entirely consistent with ‘… a humble and steadfast faith in Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind, believing in Him as the only Mediator between God and man …’. Three brothers called Wedderburn were doing something similar in the 1520s in Dundee at the start of the Scottish Reformation, taking familiar folk tunes and changing the words. Read old books – you’ll learn things.

It is good to see some in the towns and cities now consciously doing the right thing. Here is one recent example from Lisburn, and here is one from Belfast – small steps but positive nonetheless. There is still a long way to go, on 'both sides'.

I don’t claim to have all of the answers, and the country is not an idyllic paradise. Alcohol and 'hangers on' seem to blight the Belfast occasions, both of which in my experience are rare in the country. Since joining an Orange lodge I have learned many things. But there is a lot going on out in the sticks which the city might benefit from. Attitudes are different here because the circumstances and context are different.

Hopefully the listeners of Radio 4 will be able to make some sense of it all, and like my English in-laws, maybe one day experience (and be a bit underwhelmed by) the low-key normality of a country 12th.


 For those with an interest in theology, Canadian author and blogger Tim Challies has been grappling with some key issues, and again in this earlier article.