MEMBERSHIP of the Orange Order is now “about 34,000”, one of the Institution’s most senior figures has said.
Grand Secretary Drew Nelson said that although numbers had fallen, they had not slumped to the same extent as those of other mass membership organisations such as political parties or trade unions.
The last time that the News Letter reported Orange membership figures was in 2006. Then the Order claimed to have 35,758 members, meaning that there has been a fall of almost five per cent in six years.
In an in-depth interview with the News Letter, to be published in full in Monday’s paper, the Dromore solicitor also took a swipe at the broadcast media, claiming that broadcasters have “a republican bias”.
In its heyday in the 1960s the Orange Order claimed more than 90,000 members in Ireland.
When asked about the Institution’s current membership, Mr Nelson said: “Membership is about 34,000. That’s been broadcast before so it’s not a secret.
“It’s pretty stable over the last 10 years but if you go back it peaked in the 60s in the days of mass membership organisations, and when the Conservative Party had 1.5 million members and trade unions had millions upon millions of members.”
Mr Nelson acknowledged that the Order’s decentralised nature made it difficult to impose discipline and to present a united front, but added that it gave the Institution the “massive advantage” of sustaining itself, something he said was evidenced by the fact that it has remained a mass-membership organisation for more than two centuries.
“Our membership has reduced but not as much as membership of political parties or the churches in British society. So from that point of view, I think the Orange Institution is in a strong position.
“We still have the loyalty of a very substantial proportion – not all obviously – but a very substantial proportion of the Protestant community; we are providing 800 venues for meetings for about 6,000 groups, those are provided free of charge without any charge whatsoever to the Government except for the rates relief on the halls.
“That contribution to society, I think, is taken for granted.”
Mr Nelson, who has been the key modernising influence at the top of the Orange Order over recent years, acknowledged that the summer disturbances surrounding several parades had been damaging to the Order.
But he claimed that there had also been “bias” in the media, especially in the case of the Young Conway Volunteers (YCV) band who played a sectarian song while marching in a circle outside a Catholic church in Belfast.
“Within the media, News Letter excepted, I think we’ve been unfairly treated this year. In particular, in relation to what happened outside St Patrick’s on Donegall Street on the Twelfth with the band. That was shown, I understand, by the broadcast media, five nights in a row.
“Now, with all due respect to them, that was complete overkill. If there had been three murders on the Twelfth day, it wouldn’t have been shown for five nights in a row – it would have been a couple of nights and then off.
“I still have no doubt that there’s a republican agenda within a lot of the broadcast media that came to the fore and had a field day in the five days after the Twelfth, and I must say that I’ve been disappointed by their attitude to it.”
Some in the Order say that it makes its critics’ job easy – for instance investigating a complaint against Tom Elliott and Danny Kennedy for attending the funeral of Ronan Kerr but seeming to take no action over the YCV band’s conduct.
Mr Nelson said that there was “an internal investigation going on about the band” but claimed that the disciplinary action over the funeral was an example of media bias as a broadcast journalist had asked on the day of the funeral “whether the Orange Order would discipline them for going into a Roman Catholic church when no one in the Institution had raised it. Why did that broadcast media organisation see fit to raise that as an issue when no one in the Institution had raised it? I think that the example you have given is proof that there is a republican bias, I believe, within the broadcast media in Northern Ireland”.
Was it not legitimate to raise the issue as David Trimble had faced a similar Orange investigation in 1998 when the then UUP leader attended a funeral mass for Omagh bomb victims?
“No, I don’t think so. They weren’t there in their capacity as members of the Institution. They were clearly there as political leaders of Northern Ireland and I think it was inappropriate for that to have been raised and so it led to the broadcast media setting the agenda for the Institution.”