It’s funny the ways people react to the smallest things. Yesterday I took the train down to Dublin and tweeted about passing the wet flat glow of Malahide and the pleasure I felt in just looking at it. Any number of people responded positively to those few words. Later yesterday, I picked up on a report in which the Orange Order expressed its strong disapproval of the Parades Commission for allowing a republican march, and condemned the notion of commemoration “or even celebration” of events involving physical violence. My tweet quoted the Order’s comments and asked what the Boyne and similar commemorations were about. Among many reactions, two stick in my mind. One correspondent pointed out that Orangeism was an irony-free zone so I could forget it. The other told me I was engaged in “whataboutery” and should be more positive than that.
Regarding the first, I suppose a case could be made that the Orange Order is irony-proof. In the twenty-first century, to see men dressed in bowler hats, carrying ornamental swords and banners, you’d have to conclude they are unaware how incongruous such a sight is. Even more ironic is the fact that they argue they are parading in the name of religious freedom. It’d be fair to say that about half the population in this state are tempted to burst into laughter at that claim.
What about whataboutery, then? The late, respected David Dunseith, when presenting Talkback on BBC Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh used to cite ‘whataboutery’ as an indicator of our inability to address issues. Certainly there was truth in that. But if a drunken man urges on you the virtues of sobriety, it’s not unfair to point out that he should practice what he preaches, If a Tory minister is caught with his trousers down (as often happens, and literally), it seems reasonable to point out that the minister is a leading figure in a party that preaches family values. At the heart of the criticism is a rejection of what must be either willful blindness or hypocrisy. How can an organisation that commemorates/celebrates a range of bloody battles condemn a parade because it believes it commemorates/celebrates physical violence? The most convinced pacifist would see at least the irony in such a stance and maybe the hypocrisy as well.
Many Orangemen claim that the Twelfth of July (and lots of other dates) are simply a family day out, an occasion for getting together with neighbours and old friends, eating a sandwich or ice-cream, maybe having a beer or two. I have a lot of sympathy with the view. It’s even arguable that that is what motivates most Orangemen to parade/march on the thousands of occasions they do. Unfortunately, this peaceful-day-out attitude ignores how the Orange Order was created (out of a sectarian clash in which at least thirteen Catholics were killed), its history (time and again, as Andy Boyd’s book Holy War in Belfast indicates, violence and Orange Order parades marched hand in hand) and its rules (no Catholic members allowed, no member allowed to be married to a Catholic, no member to attend a Catholic religious ceremony. And to defend these rules on the grounds that the Order is a Protestant religious organisation and so cannot have Catholics is embarrassing in its weakness). All that seems far away from the peaceful father or grandfather seated on a sunlit hill with his family enjoying refreshments. But a moment’s thought should make the family on the hillside feel a degree of shame that their organisation has such a history and such rules. And to the extent that non-Orangemen shrug their ach-sure shoulders and ignore the grubby overarching features of the organisation, they share in that shame.