I talk to the Orange Order about their attempt to save the Union
The Orange Order, Britain's most high profile Protestant fraternity, is rarely far from controversy. Its parades through the cities of Northern Ireland - which feature marching bands and banners celebrating Ulster Protestant culture - frequently spark sectarian unrest.
Despite its association with sectarian unrest in Northern Ireland, the fraternity remains determined in its attempts to save the union. To help persuade Scotland to vote 'no' to independence, the Scottish branch of the fervently pro-unionist organisation, the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland, is planning a pro-union march through Edinburgh on 13 September. Some 10,000 Orangemen, many from Northern Ireland, will take part in the organisation's largest gathering of the year. But Better Together, wary that the Orange Order's involvement could alienate catholic voters, has said that the Order will “never” be part of its own campaign to save the Union.
Ian Wilson, past leader of the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland and the coordinator of its referendum campaign, is unrepentant and remains adamant that the organisation can help serve the pro-unionist efforts. “It is not the first time we’ve held marches,” he says. “We’ve had them all over the place - in Edinburgh back in 2007 we had a huge march to celebrate the three hundredth anniversary of the union. So, the Order’s unionist credentials are pretty well-known.”
Local councillors have raised concerns that the potent mix of politics and religion at the parade, just days before the referendum, could result in violence. An Orange parade in Glasgow in July coincided with 18 arrests for disorder offences and one girl was struck in the face by a bottle. Mr Wilson argues that these incidents were not associated with the marchers and that similar violence in Edinburgh is unlikely.
“Dare I say it, that is a very Glasgow thing,” he says of the trouble at the previous parade. “The Order has annual marches in the summer - typically Battle of the Boyne celebrations - and there is almost never a situation in Glasgow when there are no arrests. We have marched in Edinburgh many times in the past and there has never been the slightest problem.”
Despite his fraternity’s staunch Protestant identity, Mr Wilson stresses that the sole aim of the parade is the defence of the Union. He describes unionism as a “broad church”, mentioning the example of one Labour MP who has embarked on a speaking tour around Scotland. “I’m very well aware that Jim Murphy – who is certainly not of my persuasion (he is a season ticket holder at Celtic Park and comes from the Irish Catholic tradition) – is still a very staunch unionist.”
With a recent YouGov poll in the Sunday Times showing a 51-49 percent lead for the nationalists, independence looks a distinct possibility. An article in The Scotsman claimed that senior figures in the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland discussed the idea of forming a political party to represent the group’s 50,000 members in the event of independence. I asked Mr Wilson if there is any truth to these rumours? “No… there is absolutely no intention whatsoever for the Order to get involved in politics,” he says. “At the end of the day, we are thoroughgoing democrats so whatever the outcome we will accept the will of the Scottish people.”
In the event of independence, Mr Wilson says that the Order would “adapt”, but campaign to persuade the SNP to honour its promise to keep Scotland under the crown. A more chilling course of action was raised by Jack Ramsay, a former general secretary of the Orange Lodge of Scotland. In an interview with the Sunday Herald he said that independence could cause the Lodge, in extreme circumstances, to “recourse to arms.” He was sacked for his comments which Mr Wilson says are “hard to explain.”
“During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Order came under tremendous influence from Scottish loyalists – if you can call them that – to get itself involved in the more unsavoury paramilitary elements,” he says. “We worked very hard to convince our members not to go down that road, and we expelled people who got involved in that kind of activity.
"So there is absolutely no sense that the Order would get itself involved in that kind of activity, absolutely none. The era of chucking things at each other has passed.”
Despite the rise in support for the nationalists, Mr Wilson is certain that Alex Salmond will not win. “If you scratch any Scot you will get the Braveheart fighter – it’s just under the surface. But the head tells me that it is crazy, utterly crazy.” He sees the recent YouGov poll as a much needed wake up call for the Better Together campaign, which he bemoans for its “ham-fisted” and “aloof” attitude to other unionist organisations, including the Order’s own campaign group, “British Together.” He also thinks it has been guilty of complacency and less effective than the 'Yes' campaign which has been appealing to emotion as well as the hard facts.
His ambition is to change this: “Saturday’s march will be a direct appeal to the heart – proud to be Scottish, but also proud to be British. We see no contradiction whatsoever.”