Analysis: Orange Order damaged by lack of a plan

12/7/13 PACEMAKER PRESS BELFAST. Heavily armed riot squad PSNI officers stand firm as serious trouble broke out this evening as Police enforced the Parades Commission's ruling that Orange bandsmen could not return past the nationalist Ardoyne area after the 12th of July annual parade. Picture Charles McQuillan/Pacemaker.
12/7/13 PACEMAKER PRESS BELFAST. Heavily armed riot squad PSNI officers stand firm as serious trouble broke out this evening as Police enforced the Parades Commission's ruling that Orange bandsmen could not return past the nationalist Ardoyne area after the 12th of July annual parade. Picture Charles McQuillan/Pacemaker.
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The ineptitude of the north Belfast protest on the Twelfth night is encapsulated by the fact that the biggest impact they made was in injuring the North Belfast MP and Orangeman Nigel Dodds.

The violence against police lines reached such a level that, within hours of the parade having been stopped at Woodvale, the Orange Order was appealing for an end to the protests.

The Order had been careful to call for peaceful protests and that message had been reinforced by senior unionist politicians, including Peter Robinson.

But details of the protests’ location and what form they would take were hazy right up until bands and lodges were heading towards police lines.

When asked on Thursday whether the Orange Order had a plan for how to handle the Parades Commission’s ban on a return parade past the Ardoyne shops, Grand Chaplain the Rev Mervyn Gibson told this newspaper: “Of course there is a plan. There is always a plan – a, b,c and d.”

Statements such as that led many to believe that there must be some Orange strategy to register its displeasure at a Parades Commission ruling which had baffled and angered even some critics of the Order.

But as the lodges approached police lines, there seemed absolutely no strategy. The reaction of Orangemen, bandsmen and supporters indicated that they had almost expected that the police would not enforce the determination and were shocked to find their way barred.

In the serious rioting which ensued, it became increasingly clear that neither the few Orangemen who hung around watching nor the unionist politicians present had any control over the crowd.

It also seemed that some of those involved in the disorder had been prepared for trouble.

On the loyalist side of police lines on the Woodvale Road, I observed one boy probably aged little more than 10 wheeling a bin filled with broken masonry up the road to throw at police.

Others had large bags of bottles which were brought and emptied in the road as ammunition to attack the police while teenagers in the side streets were lighting petrol bombs.

The Orange Order did not call for such attacks and, in calling off the protests so quickly, it clearly demonstrated opposition to what was taking place in its name.

Yet the refusal of senior Orange figures to do interviews over the weekend indicates that the Order is feeling under pressure over its handling of the situation. Having called protests and promised a series of plans for how to deal with various outcomes, the Order’s silence will fuel suspicion of a split in the ranks or an absence of strategic thought.

Many rural Orangemen are likely to be dismayed by what is unfolding in Belfast after one of the hottest and most peaceful Twelfths in recent memory, including a successful Londonderry flagship demonstration as part of the City of Culture celebrations.

But, nearly two decades on from Drumcree, it is extraordinary that some Orange leaders did not realise that parading to police lines for an unspecified protest will, if it turns violent, inflict irreparable damage on the Order.

The Order now finds itself in a wearily familiar position. But, with undoubted unionist anger towards the Parades Commission, perhaps the time has come for the Order to propose what should replace the commission and attempt to lead debate, rather than see itself repeatedly damaged by the fallout from its decisions.