Orange order ramps up response to the Northern Ireland Protocol

The Northern Ireland Protocol is currently the big issue at the heart of Unionist Politics. As Northern Ireland celebrates its centenary year, many unionists view the Northern Ireland Protocol as the biggest existential threat the country has faced in its one-hundred-year history.

 Although there are some unionists who view the protocol as an opportunity. A chance to stimulate trade, within both the UK and EU markets. As well as an opportunity to attract businesses to set up bases within the province. PUP councillor John Kyle expressed this same view whist speaking on BBCNI program ‘The View’ stating that “We are in a unique position that gives us an opportunity that no one else has, and we need to look at ways to exploit that”.

 Despite the views expressed by Councillor Kyle and those like him, the majority view within Unionism is that the damage caused to Northern Ireland’s constitutional status within the United Kingdom, by the protocol is too high a price to pay for increased trade opportunities.

 This was reflected in the joint statement issued by the leaders of the four main unionist parties in Northern Ireland. It stated that “We, the undersigned unionist political leaders, affirm our opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol, its mechanisms and structures and reaffirm our unalterable position that the protocol must be rejected and replaced by arrangements which fully respect Northern Ireland’s position as a constituent and integral part of the United Kingdom.”

 Much analysis has been given to the various ways in which Unionist political parties have responded to the protocol. However, not much consideration has been given to how one of the largest Unionist organisations in Northern Ireland has responded. Namely, the Orange Order.

 The Orange Order was formed in 1795 in Loughgall, Co. Armagh. It was formed to maintain the principles of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 as well as to protect the interests of Protestants living in Ireland. Over the years the institution’s role has evolved with its focus recently shifting towards protecting and promoting Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom.

 In recent months the Orange Order has become one of the most vocal opponents of the Northern Ireland Protocol. On the 6th of September and the 6th of October the Grand Orange  Lodge of Ireland released two videos on its social media profiles calling for the removal of the Protocol. One of the videos described the removal of the Protocol as preventing a United Ireland.

 Additionally, in November they launched a virtual anti-protocol declaration, inspired by the Ulster Covenant. A declaration made against home rule that was signed by 500,000 people in 1912. Orange halls across the country were also opened on the 27th of November in order to give the institution’s members and its supporters an opportunity to sign the declaration in person and with their own signature.

 Underscore Media spoke to Grand Secretary Mervyn Gibson to find out more about the anti-protocol declaration as well as Orangeism’s broader attitudes on the current state and future of Unionism. “We’ve always been against the Protocol, from since it was first introduced. The Protocol lays the groundwork for Irish reunification by facilitating the creation of an all-Ireland economy.” Explaining the creation of the anti-protocol declaration he states “We feel that the strength of opposition to the protocol has been severely underestimated. The media, Downing Street and the E.U have all downplayed the strength of feeling within the Unionist community on this issue. The anti-protocol declaration creates an opportunity for thousands of people to express their opposition to the protocol. As well as to put pressure on those who are keeping it in place.”

 Speaking on the Orange Order’s role as a unifying force within Unionism given the current three way split within political Unionism, Gibson said “Firstly, the Orange Order has always been a Broadchurch. It has also always been in favour of remaining as part of the United Kingdom. Whether it was the whole of Ireland in the past or Northern Ireland in the present day.”

 “As unionists we may disagree on the particulars on how to respond to certain issues. However, there is much we agree on, that’s why we were pleased to see the joint statement of opposition to the protocol made by the four leaders of unionist party leaders on the anniversary of Ulster Day. A statement that was massively under-reported by the media at the time. As an institution one of our core intents is to keep Northern Ireland as part of the U.K. So we will continue to support unionist co-operation.”

 To find out more about what grassroots members make of the institution’s response to the Protocol, underscore media spoke to young Orangeman and treasurer of the Orange society at Coleraine University Steven Mitchell. “As the largest cultural movement in the UK representing unionist values, the Orange Order can bring to the fore a unanimous opposition to the potentially devastating protocol. With unionist parties becoming increasingly divided in terms of how to deal with the protocol I’m proud to be a member of an organisation that empowers unionist voices.”

 When asked if its opposition to the protocol could generate new members, Steven responded “I definitely think this could be the case. We’ve certainly noticed an increase in interest in the society at uni this year. Although its possible that this is unrelated to the protocol, there are many unionists who have become disenfranchised with the political parties so it would make sense for them to turn to the Orange Order in search of representation.”

 As an organisation formed in the late 18th century the Orange Order constantly faces claims from critics that it is no longer relevant and has no place in today’s society. It has also seen its membership decrease by two thirds since 1968. Although senior members such as Mervyn Gibson may see the Protocol as the biggest threat to Northern Ireland’s place in the Union. Ironically, it may also be the Orange Order’s best hope of attracting and keeping young members like Steven. 

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