For some of the Province’s students, the extracurricular side of university life is an opportunity to make a commitment to Orange culture through membership of Orange societies; these are available for students - male, female, Protestant or those from other denominations if they are so minded, since membership criteria is looser than for the Orange Order proper.
Currently, students can join Orange societies at both Queen’s University, Belfast and at the University of Ulster’s campuses at Jordanstown and Coleraine.
Orange culture maybe isn’t something you would immediately associate with student life, with hedonism or the unfettered freedoms of intellectual enquiry that might be called the mainstays of a university education.
But as these students see it, a celebration of their British identity and showing their commitment to the union through participation in Orange culture matters a lot. We spoke to three students and asked them to explain what being a part of the institution means to them and why they feel on-campus Orange societies have something to offer students.
Alaistair McCracken, 19, from Lisburn, studies sociology and criminology at the University of Ulster at Jordanstown and is incoming chairman of the Orange Society there. Alaistair said:
We have around 50 members of the Orange Society at Jordanstown and see the aim of the society as being about trying to educate people on Orange culture; we also consider our fund-raising and charity work to be very important.
We did a poppy appeal last year for the Royal British Legion and we entered a team in the Belfast Marathon to raise money for the Buddy Bear Trust - an organisation that helps children with Cerebral Palsy and is based in Dungannon.
There’s also a social element to the society - so we organise barbecues and nights out.
Because this is a society and not a lodge it’s open to women too and also to people of other religious backgrounds apart from Protestantism. There’s no restrictions on membership of the Orange Society, so technically Catholics can join too.
We get guest speakers in to give talks on Orange culture.
As we see it, Protestants represent only 32 per cent of the student body at Jordanstown and so doing what we can to promote and celebrate our Protestant and British identity is very important.
Most but not all members of the society are also members of the Orange Order. I am a member of Magherabeg True Blues, LOL 838, based in Dromore, and I intend to be a member of the Orange Order for life.
For me, being a member of the order is more to do with my political commitments and my sense of the importance of the union.
I joined when I was 16 - as soon as I could. I can trace my family’s membership of my Dromore lodge right back to the late 1800s so being a member of the Orange is very much a tradition in my family. I was brought up to embrace the principles that the Orange Order stands for.
My father certainly didn’t force me to join and left me to make my own choice - my brother, for example, has chosen not to join.
For me [being a member if the Orange Order] is about the pride of marching and the pride of displaying and celebrating your British identity and culture. Marching is about demonstrating your proud determination to remain British.
The order means you’re meeting people of all ages and befriending them so someone of 16 could be friends with someone who’s 60, or a bricklayer can be friends with a solicitor - I think the order really brings together people of different social classes.
I go to lots of marches and really enjoy them.
The biggest misconception is that people seem to think that all Orangemen must be bigoted or dislike Catholics. People think Orangemen are intolerant. But we just have a respectful opposition to certain things. Orangemen just peacefully oppose the teachings of the Catholic Church - but we certainly don’t hate it. We don’t hate or dislike anybody. Orangemen are or should be guided by Christian principles.
I can see that an organisation which excludes Catholics could be perceived as sectarian. But you would struggle to find an Orangeman who isn’t friends or doesn’t work with Catholics. There are other organisations that have bars on membership and it doesn’t mean that they are bigoted.
Thomas Halliday, 21, from Portadown, is chair of the Orange Society at Queen’s University Belfast and is in his third year of a degree in history and politics. Thomas said:
The Orange society is all about socialising and educating people about Orangeism, and also about bringing together like-minded people and giving people access to a circle of friends who share their beliefs. We’ve had some interesting speakers come along and talk to the society including Alex Kane and Nigel Lutton.
Sometimes we go to Windsor to watch matches or meet up in each other’s houses.
We have about 20-25 people who attend our events.
The society is there to promote the interests of the Orange Institution on campus, but unlike the lodges, anyone can join. We have a significant number of females in the society.
I’m from Portadown and although I was brought up in the Protestant faith there wasn’t a huge emphasis on Orangeism or unionism when I was growing up. I became interested in joining when I read into the history and found out more about the culture.
I find it offensive when people say the Orange Order is sectarian; I won’t go as far as saying I find it hurtful but it does annoy me.
I hope that the Orange society at university goes some way towards challenging certain negative ideas people have about the order and what it represents.
A lot of people believe that the order is anti-Catholic. I’d simply say we don’t profess the Catholic faith and take pride in our Protestantism but that doesn’t mean that we don’t like Catholics or think that we shouldn’t be friends with them.
I’m friends with plenty of people of different faiths and from different backgrounds at university.
I certainly wouldn’t just meet people and immediately start trying to convert them to Orangeism but if people ask me about my political interests then of course I’ll tell them I’m a member of the Orange and proud to be so.
Some people who aren’t familiar with the Orange institution and who just see different negative things in the media will have the wrong idea of what we’re about. It’s important that people of different traditions and beliefs can learn to respect one another.
Taking part in parades is important although it always has to be in a dignified and legal manner.
I marched on the Twelfth this year in Newtownhamilton.
Marching makes me feel happy and proud, but it certainly doesn’t make me feel that I’m walking over anyone’s rights or anything like that. I simply see this as an expression of my heritage and culture as a Protestant and as a Christian.
I think it’s important for the Orange Order to separate itself from political arguments. The unionist family is a broad spectrum.
The Orange Order was founded on Christian principles and sometimes I think the political allegiances that have been formed between the order and certain political parties can be damaging.
Orangemen should have a relationship with God and when I saw footage of what happened in Ardoyne this year I just felt sad and disappointed. I don’t think it helps our case as a Christian organisation when people decide to attack the police with swords and masonry - that kind of behaviour is something that would never be endorsed by the institution. This year the Orange Society is hoping that the Reverend Mervyn Gibson will come along and give a talk and perhaps address the issue of how the order can do more to avoid the kind of situation that we saw in Ardoyne this year.
Aaron Platt, 23, is from Garvagh. He founded the Orange Society at the University of Ulster’s Coleraine campus and was a member for three years until graduating with a degree in business and marketing this July. Aaron said:
I thought it was important that we would have an Orange Society on the campus because I think people often assume members of the Orange Order are bigots and I think the way to counteract this is to educate people on what Orange culture is about.
Our society did things like visit Schonberg House to find out more about the history of the Orange Order; we also made a trip to Stormont and went to see an exhibition on the Ulster covenant.
I think it’s really important that Orange societies are open to everyone rather than only Protestants.
I am a member of the Orange Order too - Garvagh LOL 359 which I joined when I was 18. I do think there are some traditions within the order that are outdated - for example the way women have a limited role.
I think the kind of feedback we can get through Orange societies at universities can only help the order in modernising itself.
Being a part of the Orange is something I grew up with; my father was a member and he encouraged me to join as well.
I felt it was important to join because I think it’s a tradition that should be upheld and respected. I felt it was important to do my bit to ensure the order keeps progressing.
One of the best things about the Orange is the sense of community it provides; on the Twelfth of July I see people who I might not see again for another year.
I feel my membership is definitely allied to my Christian outlook. When I was younger I was in the Boy’s Brigade and I felt like joining the order was a natural progression from this, especially for someone of my background and faith.
I can understand why some people see the order as a sectarian organisation because you have to be a Protestant to join; but on the other hand Protestants in Northern Ireland don’t always feel like they can join organisations like the GAA, for example.
I was saddened by what happened on the Twelfth in north Belfast and I do think the order’s image suffered as a result. I think if the order listens to students it might get some good ideas on how to stay modern and current.
Sometimes at university I didn’t really feel like I could always tell people about my membership of the Orange because people are always making the wrong assumptions and just assume you must be a bigot - which is really unfair and untrue.