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By Jason Michael
In 1688 William of Orange’s unionists were loyal to the Union of the Crowns while there was no Union of Parliaments. As we see in Canada and Australia, there is no reason why the unionism of the Orange Order cannot support Scottish independence.
Adding some much needed comic relief to the end of the last Scottish independence campaign, the Loyalist Orange Order marched on Edinburgh. We all remember this is as a moment of supreme awkwardness – for us in the independence movement as much as it was for our unionist counterparts in the UKOK Better Together camp. Here was the auld bedrock of unionism, long encouraged by the British establishment to maintain Protestant loyalism and unionism in Ireland – then Northern Ireland, turning up to put its weight behind the final push for a No vote.
It was the very last thing our imperial masters wanted to see; the outrageous embarrassment of Ulster’s faithful few doing their bit for Queen and country here on the mainland. Yet, unlucky for the manufacturers of Project Fear, this was a case of the crows coming home to roost. While many brethren and sistren did travel over from the Wee North, the majority of people taking part in this unwanted intervention were loyalists from well-established Scottish Orange lodges and associations. Between July and October every year there are more Loyalist Orange parades throughout Scotland than there are in Belfast and Derry combined. This old style of unionism is as much a Scottish phenomenon as it is Irish. In fact, it would be true to say that the Orange Order was the Better Together campaign of the 1790s that refused to die.
We’re not dredging all this up, as some might think, in order to ridicule these old school loyalists or to stir up outdated and completely pointless sectarian feuds. That would serve no purpose. No, we want to talk about this loyalism because – while it is to all intents and purposes the historical appreciation society of the roots of modern unionism – its lore offers some surprising avenues for the independence movement into this unique unionist community.
No matter where we are positioned vis-à-vis the Orange Order, let’s dispense with the idea that Orangemen and like loyalists are bad people. They are nothing of the sort. Of course we are presented with a Loyalist Orange Order that comes with a lot of baggage; institutional religious intolerance, the Troubles in Ireland, bigotry and sectarianism, and so on, but it is more complicated than this. The Orange community is the inheritor of a tradition and a set of religious and cultural sensibilities that purport to come from the period of Britain’s Glorious Revolution, the 1688-90 Williamite Revolution when the last Stuart, James II, was ousted and the Protestant Settlement secured.
As the defenders of the Crown and the faith, then, they are truly the original unionists – diehard UKOKers before Ruth Davidson made it cool. But their unionism, passed down to them in tradition and lore as it is, is the unionism of a very different time. To begin with, other than its name, Orangism has no connection to William III – that is “William of Orange” – and the 1690 Battle of the Boyne whatsoever.
What is least known among its brethren is that their organisation is quintessentially Hanoverian in origin, dating to no earlier than about 1795. Proto-Orange gangs emerged within the context of rural agitation in the north of Ireland when dispossessed Catholic tenant farmers – inspired by the ideas of French republicanism among other things – began to harass the Protestant farmers and landowners who were rapidly colonising Ulster. These “peep o’ day boys,” as some were known on account of their early morning raids, presented a growing threat to the Plantation of Ulster and so Protestant youths banded together to form militias and vigilante gangs to protect their new land.
By 1798 these groups had largely consolidated over Ireland and, with some moneyed and aristocratic support, the first Grand Orange Lodge was convened on Dawson Street, Dublin – not Belfast or Derry – on 9 April of that year. Just over a month later the agitation in Ireland reached its climax with the 1798 Rebellion, a largely Protestant led republican revolt against British rule in Ireland. In the aftermath of the crushing of the rebellion the Orange Order and Orange popular sentiment became the main force of unionism on the island of Ireland.
All of this makes the Orange Order unionist in a modern sense; defence of the Crown and the union of parliaments, which included Ireland as a consequence of the ’98 Rebellion in 1801. But, alas, this history is neither the tradition nor the lore of modern Orangism. As the name suggests, the Loyalist Orange Order puts more stock in the myths of its connection to King William III of Orange than it does in its more prosaic and rustic beginnings – and it is these myths that make space for quite an interesting dialogue regarding Scottish independence.
Orange mythology or lore – more imaginative folktale than history – rests on the idea of British divine election and exceptionalism, stemming from the Henrician, Elizabethan, Calvinist, and Jacobian Protestant reformations – plural. James I, as we know from the King James Bible, made God speak the King’s English, giving rise to the pseudo religio-political notion of England as a New Israel – a precursor to the American colonial idea of manifest destiny. Here the Ulster planters have much in common with the English colonists in North America.
With the development of the political ideologies of the modern nation state William III, who cements the Protestant succession in England, is seen as a saviour – a Protestant messiah who finally banishes the evils of Catholicism from Britain. Of course, as a nation-building myth of a colonial-settler Protestant community surrounded by really angry Irish Catholics, none of this is true. William of Orange’s first action as the invitee to the throne of England was to put paid to the supercilious belief that God has protected “this Sceptred Isle” from invasion by a foreign army since the 1066 Norman Conquest. William arrived with a fleet twice the size of the Spanish Armada and invaded England with a joint Dutch and Danish army in what amounted to an English coup d’état.
Other than being all about England, the real context of this was the fear across the whole of Europe of French expansionism under Louis XIV. In this context it wasn’t even about Protestantism, but about absolutism and imperialism. So afraid was Pope Innocent XI of the French that he funded William’s Glorious Revolution. Ironic!
More to the point, the England into which William and Mary – who, as the daughter of James II, was the actual invitee to the throne – arrived was not yet in union with either Scotland or Ireland and would not be for the rest of either of their lives. Thus the golden age of Orange loyalism is a loyalty only to the Crown – a unionism that cherishes in its most sacred lore the 1603 Union of the Crowns and not necessarily the later unions of the parliaments.
It is then perfectly acceptable for Orangism to accommodate itself to independence. Interestingly this is already so much more than a future possibility – as is apparent with the presence of thriving Orange Lodges and loyalist communities in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and in the northern counties of the Irish Republic. Given that the unionism of loyalism is not exactly the unionism of Toryism, there is no reason why this case cannot be put to proud members of the Scots Orange Order. It is certainly possible to be a good Orange loyalist and a supporter of Scottish independence. William of Orange – as King of Scots – certainly was.
Orange Order rally in Edinburgh ahead of referendum vote