By Shaun Morris, Glasgow Marxists
The shadow of sectarianism loomed large this summer, as the annual Orange Order marches drew criticism and outrage. In Belfast and other parts of the North of Ireland, loyalist mobs clashed with police and intimidated nationalist communities when bonfires were removed on safety grounds. In Scotland, a Catholic priest was spat on by a passing Orange parade.
Every summer around the 12th of July, and often all year round in many places, the streets are taken over by the “ancient tradition” of Orange marches. To most people, they are either a nuisance or an offensive display of religious backwardness. This year’s excesses provoked much discussion, among socialists and wider society, about what role the Orange Order plays in 21st Century Scotland.
While the Order defends itself as a Christian fraternity established to defend the tenets of the Protestant faith, giving to charity and bringing music to the streets, the real “traditions” of Orangeism are plain to see. Religious bigotry and sectarianism, racism, sexism and every form of reactionary thought can be found in the Orange Order.
The entire purpose of the marches is to celebrate the oppression and slaughter of Irish Catholics — “defending the Protestant faith” by singing about the Irish Famine while militarily parading through Catholic neighbourhoods.
The Orange Order is also a staunch ally of reactionary politics. Their association with the DUP in Ireland is now well-known to most people thanks to Theresa May’s reliance on their support at Westminster. Several Scottish Tory and Labour councillors have also been exposed for their dealings with the Order. Even some of the Labour right-wing PLP has been all too friendly with the Orange Order, such as anti-Corbyn MP Kate Hoey.
These opportunistic alliances between the Tories, Labour right and the Orange Order are no surprise in Scotland, where both parties compete to be the greatest bulwark against Scottish Independence (to Labour’s detriment). The Orangemen are a natural ally, being the most ardently Unionist force in Scotland and historically being a reliable tool of the ruling class.
The real history of the Orange Order doesn’t start with the Protestant Reformation, nor even with the Battle of the Boyne. The Loyal Orange Lodge, as it is known in Ireland, was founded to break the unity of striking Protestant and Catholic workers and to act as the vanguard of the counter-revolution in Ireland.
It is believed that the Lodge was first heard of in Scotland in the stories of Scottish soldiers returning from Ireland in 1798. That year, the United Irishmen — a revolutionary nationalist organisation of Irish Catholics and Protestants — organised an armed rebellion, seeking to overthrow British colonial rule and create an Irish Republic. Their Presbyterian leader, Wolfe Tone, sought to create an independent Ireland, with equality for Catholics, Protestant dissenters and “the men of no property”: the poor and working class.
Scottish soldiers crushed the United Irishmen alongside Orange militias, who impressed on them a fierce belief in Protestant supremacy. The Lodge would from then on act as a reactionary bulwark, taking up arms against the struggle for Irish independence and supporting the oppression of Catholics. In 1831 they allied with the Tories to oppose Catholic emancipation and the expansion of the voter franchise. This alliance would continue as the Tories opposed the Liberals’ plans for Home Rule in Ireland, up to the point of supporting open armed rebellion against the Government, threatened by the foundation of the Ulster Volunteers in 1912.
The same year in Scotland, the Tories, Liberal Unionists and the Orange Order founded the Unionist Party, which served as the main representative of the British ruling class in Scotland until 1965. On the fringes, viciously sectarian Orange parties such as the Protestant Protection League and Orange Protestant Party formed with the same mix of reactionary, imperialist and unionist politics. In 1923, a loyalist strikebreaker unseated Motherwell’s Communist MP with the help of the Orangemen.
It is clear from the history of the Orange Order that it is a reactionary force. Its basis is pernicious religious sectarianism, a tool of the ruling class to divide and rule the working class.
The Orange Order was not only used to divide Irish Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, but also in Scotland. After the Great Famine there was a mass increase in Irish immigration to Scotland. These low-skill, manual labourers were exploited by Scottish capitalists to undercut the wages and conditions of Scottish workers, producing resentment. When Irish Protestant immigrants arrived in later decades of the 19th Century, they sought to differentiate themselves from their Catholic countrymen, which grew the ranks of the Orange Order.
Like in Ireland, the Protestant workers were given privileged pay and conditions over Catholics. When these privileges were threatened by capitalist crises, Catholic workers served as a scapegoat. This applied not only to Irish Catholics, but Lithuanian and Polish immigrants as well.
Turning the working class against itself, through resentment based on race, gender, origin or religious affiliation is essential for the bourgeoisie to maintain its power. This is the role that religious sectarianism still plays in society, and the reason for the Orange Order’s existence.
Irish workers were only able to successfully fight back against the exploitative landlords in the East End of Glasgow by putting their religious differences aside, and uniting on the basis of their class. The same is to be said of Lanarkshire miners, who eventually welcomed Lithuanian Catholics into the ranks of their trade union. What the capitalist class fears above all else is the united strength of the workers, which is why they will stop at nothing to break it.
The great Scottish revolutionary John Maclean never missed an opportunity to speak out against sectarianism or the clearly reactionary alliance of Orangeism and British imperialism, in Ireland and Scotland. On many of his greatest rallies, such as May Day 1918, Irish republican flags flew among the sea of red.
Marxists in Scotland and Ireland today must do the same, rejecting the reactionary poison of the Orange Order and explaining its role in bolstering capitalism. We must also be organised against them, building the broadest unity of the working class around the programme of Marxism and the revolutionary party. Only with this can we rid the world of sectarianism once and for all.