Orange Order march highlights delicacy of enduring sectarian issues for Scotland

Edinburgh to see a huge pro-union orange march on Saturday. David Farrer, CC BY-SA

An Orange Order march in Edinburgh on Saturday in support of the Union has been widely viewed as likely to be counter-productive and to provide a further boost to a currently buoyant Yes campaign.

Commentators have noted the apparent recent breakthrough by the pro-independence side in the ranks of Labour voters. An Irish Times report on a gathering of such voters of Catholic Irish background revealed that the vast majority declared themselves Yes supporters at the close of the event despite the best efforts of a former (Labour) Glasgow lord provost and a distinguished academic with a Donegal family history.

The spectacle of an Orange parade, so close to polling day, invites the thought that more such voters from this slice of the electorate could be nudged into voting against their tribal foes and thus, conceivably, tip the balance of what is now shaping up to be a constitutional cliffhanger. And the death of unionist leader Ian Paisley on Friday will guarantee maximum coverage of the event. The 2,000 or so participants who are expected to come to Edinburgh from Northern Ireland tomorrow may want to salute his memory in some way, though he was admittedly a divisive figure even among unionists.

Not better together with everyone

With the stakes so high it is no surprise that efforts have been made by the No camp behind the scenes to persuade the Orange Order to call off the march. They have been warning that such an event could attract trouble that would bring bad publicity to both the order and the No cause regardless of who actually was responsible for it.

Thus far, Better Together has shunned Orange offers of campaigning assistance and publicly dissociated itself from the organisation. From one angle, of course, this merely underlines how politically feeble and lacking in influence the Orange Order is in Scottish public life – and, indeed, has been for many decades.

No campaign has been pushing to have the march cancelled. David Farrer, CC BY-SA

But in a display of defiance redolent of their brethren in Northern Ireland, the Orange Order seems determined to make its mark on the historic debate, one way or another. Better Together’s dismissiveness has clearly stung the order into retaliation in the form of a reminder that few other organisations in Scotland have the same capacity to bring thousands of people on to the streets, and that this body still matters in the cultural tapestry of the west of the country (and other parts to the east), particularly in some of its worst socially deprived areas.

If the referendum has, among other things, put the concerns of the working class firmly back into the spotlight and become a battleground for their votes, the Orange Order’s intervention serves to highlight the complexities and ambiguities surrounding working-class identities and allegiances in contemporary Scotland.

Labour’s balancing act

From at least the 1960s until the mid-2000s the Labour Party in Scotland enjoyed dominance that drew, in part, on its ability to appeal across the sectarian divide. Labour’s stress on bread-and-butter issues had considerable success in keeping Orange and Green passions in check, and largely confined to football and shows of solidarity with the respective sides in the Northern Ireland conflict.

The memoirs of Dennis Canavan (a leading Yes in the current campaign) and Tam Dalyell (the legendary No champion of the 1970s) are informative in this regard. In certain constituencies in west-central Scotland, the Labour party could play to the Irish Catholic gallery. For example in 2001, Labour MP Frank Roy was at the centre of the storm of controversy for warning Irish taoiseach Bertie Ahern not to attend a Lanarkshire memorial service for the Irish potato famine for fear of stoking sectarian tensions. In the end the taoiseach cancelled the trip. Roy was a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), the Catholic equivalent of the Orange Order. Yet in other electoral areas, Labour would not risk putting up Catholic candidates. The party’s balancing act required careful compromises, trade-offs and many unspoken understandings.

The referendum has changed this picture along with much else. The outcome looks set to leave a considerable amount of Labour’s traditional Catholic support estranged from the party, whether the outcome is Yes or No. This was something the 2011 Scottish election perhaps foreshadowed.

As for the Orange Protestant vote, if the result is No there may be an incentive among this group to shore up Labour at the expense of the SNP to head off further independence manoeuvres. But if it’s Yes there’s a danger that some will refuse to identify with the politics of the new state, since no mainstream party would likely be offering a platform of retrieving the union or even upholding Britishness.

It could be unwise for mainstream Scotland to disparage the Orange Order: as in Northern Ireland, it might be said to operate as a safety valve, allowing potentially extremist and disaffected elements a channel for their resentments without falling into the arms of paramilitaries and far-right groups.

Sectarian safety valve? David Farrer, CC BY-SA

It would certainly be wrong to think that sectarian views have become negligible in modern Scotland. Only a couple of weeks ago, a Belfast tabloid related how an ongoing loyalist feud was being stoked by people resident now in Scotland. If the Orange Order is seen to be driven from the streets or singled out for blame for any trouble, its ability to hold the line in this respect will be severely tested.

It should not be forgotten that the determination of the order to express its support for the Union rests largely on its wish to continue to show solidarity with its Ulster cousins. It seems now that its sense of obligation to “the cause” in Northern Ireland has finally come up against the Scottish national question after a long period of relative constitutional stability with little evidence of any fatal rupture to the Union serving to keep the issues politically apart.

There also appears to be an ominously similar narrative emerging in Scotland to that heard over recent years regarding the working-class loyalists in Northern Ireland – namely that of a community feeling that it is losing out in terms of territory, recognition, cultural and political capital, identity matters and a range of social and economic disadvantages. In the current climate of self-congratulation in Scotland among the political classes about popular enthusiasm and engagement with the indyref debate, such awkward realities should be kept in view.