By Jack Holland
As the great Orange philosopher Renee MacDescart put it so memorably: "I march therefore I am." (He did not say, "Duco ergo sum" because being a sound Orangeman he would never use the obscurantist language of the papacy.)
Marching and being may well be closely linked in Orange philosophy. But marching and thinking are not. In fact, sometimes, usually at about this time of year, I have the distinct impression that they are mutually exclusive activities.
Of course, not all marching excludes thinking. Many people over the years who have set out to march have done so only after giving it considerable thought. I am not referring to military endeavors, which always require a lot of planning. Civil rights marches, for example, are aimed at drawing attention to a political problem in the hope that it will be addressed. Black Americans and their civil rights supporters in the U.S. had mulled over the problems they faced for years before setting out in the footsteps of Ghandi and Daniel O’Connell. It was a momentous decision and it helped change the nature of U.S. society.
Likewise, Northern Irish Catholics, following suit, in 1968, pondered the consequences of taking that first step along the road of protest. None of them realized fully what those consequences would be. But it was not through any lack of thinking. It was just that they underestimated the depths of Northern Irish sectarianism. Which brings us back to the Orangemen and their marching.
I remember on my return to live in Belfast in July 1991, after a long absence, I ventured down to the Lisburn Road on the 12th, bringing along my wife, who is an American. I had not been in the city for a 12th celebration in more than 20 years. We stood watching the parade and scrutinizing the faces of the marchers, occasionally dodging into a shop doorway to avoid the "intermittent showers" (in the jargon of the British weather forecasters). One thing was obvious among the many crumpled visages on display under the bowler hats. These were not the faces of heavy thinkers. In fact, they looked like the faces of men almost entirely devoid of curiosity. Their expressions ranged from grim and determined to smug and self-satisfied. It was, as well, one of the most horribly male occasions I had ever experienced.
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My wife was appalled. She had been on enough marches in the early 1970s, when she lived in Paris, but she had never seen anything like these mostly middle-aged men strutting down the street flanked by soccer hooligans — for that indeed seemed to be the make up of the parade. The nearest thing she could think of were gatherings of the semi-fascist right in France. Except of course, the French (right wing or left wing) were far better dressed.
The soccer hooligan element I had not seen before. The last Orange parade I had watched had been in 1970. There was a sprinkling of boot boys, but it was a relatively civilized affair. In contrast, on July 12, 1991, there were hordes of shaven-headed drunks staggering along the pavement trying to keep up with the march. Now and again, they would pause to vomit, before chugging back another liter or two of cheap cider.
I thought of all those revisionist intellectuals at Queen’s University who spoke in terms of the 12th as a "cultural" event. To me, it looked more like a cross between a biker convention and a fascist rally, with the atmosphere of a Celtic-Rangers match thrown in. It was also an environmental disaster, as became clear when the crowds had gone. Behind them, littered among the trails of puke, were huge knee-deep drifts of empty cider bottles and lager cans, mountains of Styrofoam containers, and slicks of squashed chips (that is, French fries).
That is, it was not a happy occasion. But then Orange marches aren’t meant to be celebrations of joy, music and life. They are resolute, determined affairs, frequently with an air of seething aggression. They have something of a quasi-military mood, only hinted at by the ceremonial swords and the flags and the drums. This is not surprising, since the marches are about territory, and staking claims to territory. When an Orangeman marches down the queen’s highway, it is because he has a right to, and he has a right to because, ages before, his ancestors conquered it, colonized it, and settled it. It is about defining borders and boundaries. All the problem areas that are currently flashpoints in the North have to do with the fact that the Catholic population is expanding into areas that were once predominantly Protestant. The borders of Protestantism are contracting and the Orangemen are effectively the frontline troops trying to roll back the enemy’s advance.
The peace process and all the rhetoric about "parity of esteem" has done nothing to change that basic mentality.
In the meantime, there has been much talk about rerouting contentious Orange marches away from protesting Catholics. Here are a few suggestions as to routes that might be used.
The Khyber Pass: From Afghanistan into Pakistan, a nice little dander that would be guaranteed to take our Orange brethren away from troublesome Fenians.
Berlin to Moscow: To be effective, this route is best undertaken beginning in late June, so that by the time the Orange men reach Russia, the first heavy snows of winter will, hopefully, have fallen, thus giving the marchers the chance to prove they have lost nothing of that determination that has made them famous. This would give them a chance to outmarch Napoleon and Hitler.
The Great Wall Of China: A nice long march this, along the parapet of the only man-made structure (so they say) that is visible from space. The Orangemen should like this one as it is a wall, larger than the peace wall and Derry’s walls put together.
The DMZ between North and South Korea: I think this would be especially appropriate, since it is in a partitioned country, which would remind them of home sweet home.
Finally, for the culture vultures among the loyal brethren, the inside of the crater of Vesuvius: The Orange Order has often promised us a long, hot summer. Well, this should be just the ticket for those who want a good tan (not Black and Tan, mind you).