Calling it out
The decision of Glasgow City Council to allow an Orange Parade to pass St Mary’s church in Glasgow’s east end last weekend caused much debate online. Two schools of thought seem to be prominent when people discuss such events. The first is that in a city with over 2000 streets why do they want to march down one of just over 60 streets with Catholic churches situated in them? Some feel they deliberately choose these routes to intimidate and show the Catholic community that they are still a force to be reckoned with; it’s triumphalism flavoured with bigotry in the eyes of many. For others, a minority it has to be said, they are nothing more than a peaceful organisation exercising their civic right to walk the streets and celebrate their history and culture.
There was also a bizarre episode recently when a dozen or so Orangemen and their supporters stood outside Glasgow city chambers to protest about the infringement of their civil liberties following the re-routing of a march away from St Alphonsus church in Glasgow’s east end. This was the church you may recall where the Priest was spat upon and parishioners verbally abused by hangers on following a passing Orange walk. The spokesman for the small group outside the city chambers, an inarticulate man who seemed ill at ease throughout, stumbled through a poorly worded and frankly nonsensical statement the gist of which suggested they were a persecuted minority being harshly treated by the SNP ruling group in the council and denied their civil rights. The truth of course is that the Police had a major say in the rerouting of their parade as they feared there could be disorder.
As I watched this stumbling performance on social media I honestly tried to see things from their perspective thinking of that quote from the book ‘To kill a Mockingbird’ which states…
‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.’
There seemed a real disconnect between how those folk perceived their organisation and its parades and how the majority of Scots of all faiths and none see them. To most they are an anachronism, a leftover from days long gone and in truth something of an embarrassment. No one would deny the right to practice and celebrate religious faith but is that really what we are seeing when these parades are stomping through our streets? There is precious little Christian humility and piety on display when the drums are thumping.
During my student days in the late 1990s, I completed my final thesis on the future of denominational schools in Scotland. During the research part of the process I interviewed a diverse group of people from Cardinal Winning to the Grand Secretary of the Orange Order to gauge their opinion on such schools. The latter was a strangely old fashioned man who informed me that his organisation’s role was to ‘uphold the Protestant view and preserve the union.’ He predictably thought that Catholic schools had no place in Scotland and that Cardinal Winning had the Labour Party in his pocket and thus preserved them. He seemed blind to the role his organisation played in polarising communities and offering a fertile breeding ground for petty hatreds to grow.
I remember thinking that his views were so outmoded that it was like listening to someone beamed forward from the 1930s. As a student teacher at the time of the interview, he informed me in serious tones that modern religious education in schools seemed to be more interested in telling children about other religions rather than their own and that this was treason against Christianity. I wondered if he included the Catholic brand of Christianity in that opinion. It was as if Scotland he knew growing up had changed without him noticing; as if the arrival on these shores of people from a variety of backgrounds and faiths hadn’t occurred.
He was careful what he said when the tape was running and was adamant that they were not a sectarian organisation. Indeed I had a glimpse into his world view and how it jarred with reality, when he said, ‘You can stand for something without necessarily being against something else.’ This line of thought was at odds with my experience of Orange Parades in my home city which tended to be triumphalist and intimidating spectacles where drunkenness, violence and sectarianism were common. In recent years walks in Glasgow have included banners depicting a convicted terrorist who set off bombs in Irish bars in Glasgow in the 1970s. We hear the ‘Famine song’ being played by bandsmen who know exactly what they’re doing when they play it. Despite this, I was assured by this chap that the order was a law abiding and peaceful fraternal organisation. Ironically the man telling me this was dismissed from his post by the Orange Order a few years later for suggesting that any moves towards Scottish independence would see…
‘The Orange Lodge become a paramilitary force, if you like. It obviously implies recourse to arms. We’d have a group of people who would be pro-union.’
The mind-set which views Scotland and its place in the union through the prism of orangeism is at odds with the views of the vast majority of Scots who would not contemplate the ‘Ulsterisation’ of Scottish politics. Whether Scotland chooses to exercise its right to self-determination or not there is no correlation here to the events we’ve witnessed in the north of Ireland over the past 50 years. Orangeism might have found a new bogeyman in the shape of a resurgent Scottish nationalism but they were marching through the streets in the days when the SNP were getting a few hundred votes in elections. They are at heart a relic from a bygone age when petty privilege and keeping people ‘in their place’ were important.
Today we are seeing the first real stirrings of opposition to Orange Parades and their insistence on marching past Catholic churches. Groups such as ‘Call it out’ are organising what have so far been peaceful and dignified demonstrations to protest at the routes parades are taking. They have not called for the banning of parades or any draconian measures, merely that they are routed away from Catholic churches. Hatred comes in many forms and it’s the job of all good people to call it out.
Some reading these words will of course think my own bias on this subject is apparent. They might even recall Harper Lee’s other quote from ‘To Kill a Mockingbird: ‘People generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for.’ I try to be objective but since childhood my experience of orange parades and the behaviour of some (not all) attending them has not been positive. One of my earliest memories of them was being in the religious shop in the High Street with my mum as a parade passed. Some of you may recall the shop; it sold statues, devotional items and religious literature. As I waited with my mum for it to pass I couldn’t help but wonder why grown men would be banging the grill and spitting on the window. The adults in the shop simply locked the door with a resigned look and waited for the storm to pass. I reflected years later that had such things taken place against Jewish or Muslim stores something would be done. Scotland seemed to have a blind spot when it came to anti-Catholic prejudice.
The numbers attending these parades is continuing to diminish and the age profile creeping upwards. The wider organisation has in fairness tried to distance itself from the wilder spirits which attach themselves to it and even attempted a rebranding exercise which was something of a PR disaster when their cartoon superhero ‘Diamond Dan’ was discovered to have been plagiarised. At heart though, orangeism is struggling for relevance in the modern world and as Scotland continues to be a more inclusive and secular land, that is unlikely to change.
I look forward to a day when displays of colour and music on our streets become an inclusive event which we’re all able to enjoy. Those who spread hatred do no one any good, least of all themselves. There should be a place for everyone in a modern country but there should be no place for creating false boundaries and divisions between people. We all want a better land for our children and the best way to do this is to work together to create it. As Harper Lee said in her classic book…
‘I think there’s just one kind of folks; folks.’