I don’t know where nationalism would be today without the orange bigot stereotype. The bonfire story is now a staple of the commercially problematic silly season, when newspapers are a tough sell.
As Mairia Cahill noted last Sunday, “On Wednesday the PSNI confirmed that this year was ‘one of the safest and most peaceful July 12 events in recent memory’.” She goes on to write:
You haven’t heard this on Newstalk.
For too long south of the border, the July 12 holiday has been painted in a special light – David Attenborough-esque; is akin to explaining a different species, one that is inherently offensive to many trade unionists who have no connection to bigotry, but are keen on partying.
To put it bluntly, this portrayal is akin to Irish people being stereotypically portrayed by others on St. Patrick’s Day as drunks with pet pixies. Neither is acceptable.
This year has been not only the most peaceful but also the most popular in years. The suitable weather helped, but the voluntary cancellation of the celebrations on 20 and 21 gave an extra flavor to the event.
Images of Nationalist and Alliance politicians on some bonfires have been condemned as hate crimes by Mervyn Gibson. The truth is that the Orange Order doesn’t hold bonfires, it’s an informal tradition.
As Cahill notes, bigotry and bigotry exist on both sides of NI’s religious divide, but the media generally only focuses on one side. Indeed, there is a remarkable level of hypocrisy on the matter.
In August, anti-internment bonfires will pop up with signs reading “Kill All Huns” and burning Union Jacks, or huge crowds will chant “Ooh Aah Up the Ra” in Féile an Phobail (before that happens , please note that not everyone in West Belfast supports the IRA).
While the trash throwing eejit (maybe it’s mean and there’s a tragic backstory there, who knows) made headlines, it will all pass unrelated. The stereotype will endure.
Gail Walker in the BelTel throws out a note that should be heard all over the island, by anyone looking for a better future for everyone who lives there, our little rock in the ocean:
It is not a dying institution, but further modernization is essential. The fact that it is a unionist or loyalist culture does not mean that it cannot be understood by those of other traditions; but everyone must work at it with the same grace.
No community has a monopoly on toxicity. Those with platforms to voice their opinions should adopt detoxifying attitudes and behaviors. And not just on the 12th or at Easter.
There is no vacation from this. This effort must be made every day of the year – to be bigger and better than what you don’t like or even fear.
A few years ago, Ruth Dudley Edwards wrote with forensic attention to the revealing details of the deliberate demonization of Orange and Protestant culture by one of the island’s most successful nationalist projects:
…as the Provos realized they had to abandon their failed military strategy, they set about undermining Unionist culture and refashioning history to make the culprits victims, the victims the culprits, and all trade unionists bullies and fanatics .
In the 1990s, the goal of the brilliant Republican propaganda campaign was to portray every member of a loyal institution as a demon – provoking them to fury by secretly creating hardline IRA-led resident groups to block the parades while reciting pious rhetoric about terrified Catholics and supremacist Orangemen to television cameras.
Catholic fears of loyalist pogroms were stoked and there were arson attacks on Orange halls and boycotts of Orangemen’s businesses.
In 1996, Mr. Adams’ Falls Road heartland acquired a huge mural with the title “Not All Traditions Deserve Respect”. It featured a hooded Ku Klux Klan rider wearing an orange sash riding through a verdant landscape littered with skulls.
Nowhere these days does it capture the overwhelmingly negative image of orange culture in the wider republican or nationalist history of islanders. The simple [Bigoted? – Ed] the majoritarianism of demographic change, they think, will take care of the unbelievers.
In the meantime, a Sinn Fein TD tweet a famous ‘party song’ at a GAA function welcoming victorious All-Ireland champions Limerick to their hometown with little remark and little controversy.
As political hypocrisy, it’s so commonplace that no one sees it anymore.
It becomes invisible to the average nationalist eye. Yet the inwardly uncontested idea of Orangeism as synonymous with the KKK can also quietly kill moderate nationalism.
Years ago Brian Feeney once said on television that this hypocrisy was a feature of tribal life in Northern Ireland, something to the effect that no one wanted to call it lest “our side” don’t lose face.
What he didn’t say was that it also harms the longer-term ambitions of nationalism in particular, because over time it has forced many people who might otherwise have remained in nationalism to bail out .
Twenty years ago, just before Christmas, Republicans confidently predicted that demographic change would swing things decisively in their favor. They were deeply disappointed when the needle barely moved.
When the proportion of Protestants dropped by 5% ten years ago, they were so delighted to have missed the act that there was a growth of barely 1% of Catholics (who were in the majority in schools for a generation).
Something is wrong with moderate nationalism in particular. Most nationalist leaders (with a few exceptions) have turned their eyes away from what they need to succeed and focused on “other people’s failure”.
It is poor compensation for voters, many of whom turn to the vengeful version of their political philosophy or leave it altogether. How else to explain the failure of the demographic calculation?
Orangemen have learned to live with the unfair stereotypes of their culture. The real and lasting damage is no longer for them, but for those who continue to hold it and try to profit from it.
This impasse over culture does not at all serve the ambitions of 32 counties (which require a widely shared and shareable understanding of what the future entails for the entire population).
My friend John Kellden reduces the genius of democratic Sweden to two words, Smorgasbord and Ombudsman. Of the latter, he notes that it is…
…all about unions trying to make life very difficult for anyone running a business. We also have free education, free health care and trains that run on time, which means it’s not that bad. But complicated. For those of you who code, it’s like cramming everything about a company into GitHub and making it work.
This is the job of true Irish Republicans of goodwill. You can see it clearly in the generous and unconditional gesture of Micheál Martin come to table assortment of the Shared Islands Initiative.
If we can bring ourselves to take off our comfortable green glasses and take up the challenge of our own transgressions rather than our orange neighbours, relatives and friends.
Our fight is not against ethnicity, it is against a culture which strives (contrary to unionist and republican claims) to divide us. We can change that, if we can find the will.
Mick is the founding publisher of Slugger. He has written about the impacts of the internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaker across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty