Towards tolerance

Less than a year after being elected Grand Secretary of the Orange Order, Mervyn Gibson reflects on July parading, his aim to increase tolerance of the institution and building on collaboration with the business community for future economic growth in Northern Ireland.

Mervyn Gibson acknowledges a correlation between the changing dynamics of society and declining membership of the Orange Order. “When the caravan came along the number of people attending church on a Sunday fell,” he quips. “The Orange Order is no different to many other organisations, society is becoming more diverse and as a result people are finding different interests.”

“In my late father’s era the Order was the centre of his social life, society has changed so much since then and it’s understandable that people opted to take up different interests away from the Order.”

Among unionists who remain outside of the Order, Gibson believes that public perception is largely sympathetic (a portion of this he puts down to nostalgia), however, he acknowledges that others regard it with more difficulty.

Asked if the Order requires a process of modernisation, he says: “I believe the Order has done extremely well in maintaining its current level of membership. A lot of people still wish to belong to it. We are a conservative organisation and we acknowledge that change comes slow to us. There are some things we won’t change because they are our principles and the foundations of who we are. However, I think we do need to look at how we fit into modern society. 

“What’s important to us is that we continue to reflect the society in which we live. It’s important to remember that the Orange Order didn’t parachute in from outer space and suddenly find ourselves here. Our membership stems from right across Northern Ireland, from the lord to the labourer and the barrister to the unemployed.”

Life away from the Order is never something Gibson has even considered. The east Belfast native is steeped in the institution, having watched his late grandfathers, who both fought with the 36th Ulster Division at WWI, grandmother and parents take part in the annual parades.

“I believe I walked to the field from the age of five. My earliest memory is of watching my parents take part in the Covenant Parade in 1962. Indeed, the Orange has always been a part of my DNA.”

It is these connections that drive Gibson’s aim of increasing the level of tolerance for the institution. “We’re not naïve enough to believe that there won’t be opposition to what we stand for. We realise that, from the republican community for example, there is an open hostility to our British way of life. We don’t aim to change people’s minds about our beliefs but we would seek to encourage people to tolerate us. To live in this country together, for the future, we need to show greater toleration towards each other’s traditions and cultures.”

Gibson outlines his perspective that post-Troubles, the Orange Order and parading became a target for republicans seeking to demonise unionist culture. He argues that while those republicans have now moved on, there remains a legislative-deficit in fair and equal treatment regarding parading.

The Museum of Orange Heritage, Belfast, which opened in 2015. The outreach facility displays a wealth of items and artefacts relating to the history of Orangeism across the world.

“What’s important to us is that we continue to reflect the society in which we live.”

“It’s a myth that we believe we can walk anywhere or that we choose to walk in areas we are not wanted. However, we would like to see every village street, every main street and every city centre thoroughfare considered as a shared space. All members of society use these routes to get to work, school or church; to shop in the local shops, but when you put a collarette on, some roads become no-go areas for orangemen. Toleration is required and it works both ways. Sadly, government hasn’t rectified this discrimination by changing the legislation and we have been left with the legacy of the Parades Commission.”

Asked whether the solution was to overhaul the contentious body, Gibson states that any oversight of parading will remain flawed until legislative changes are made. “I’m not saying there shouldn’t be oversight. Our parades have always had oversight. My father took part in a parade in the early 70s which was banned by Minister of State John Taylor, himself an orangeman. Change in legislation would see some parades stopped, barred or re-routed, but we would take no issue with that as long as it was a fair system.

“The form of the oversight body is not important because until legislative change is made it will not function correctly. Sadly, the appointments to the current Parades Commission have not been the most desirable and they reflect the bad legislation that they are there to enforce.”

Twelfth

Celebrating what has been hailed as the most successful and peaceful twelfth of July in decades, Gibson points to a long-standing and evolving relationship with business communities across Northern Ireland as one of the major highlights. “The Orange Order has consistently worked with a range of agencies ever since we opened dialogue on capitalising on the economic benefits of one of Northern Ireland’s busiest days, over a decade ago.”

A 2013 report looking at the socio-economic footprint of the traditional Protestant parading sector, commissioned by the then Department for Social Development, estimated that the sector was worth around £55 million annually. The report found that through the provision of facilities, community and volunteer work and fundraising for charities, Loyal Orders and bands contribute an estimated £39 million annually. Additional expenditure on things like regalia, uniforms, instruments, bus hire and other services, was estimated to have a direct economic boost of £15 million. Interestingly, these figures did not include expected tourism revenue for the region, which has grown steadily in recent years.

Gibson adds: “In Belfast city centre, the former head of Belfast City Centre Management publicly stated that the Orange Order model is one that should be followed for anyone organising a parade in Belfast. However, we are also seeking to grow these economic benefits, especially in regards to tourism.

“We have been working in collaboration with Tourism Ireland and Tourism NI to not only ensure that the local economy can capitalise on those coming for the twelfth, but also on our offering throughout the year. We’re seeking to grow awareness around our two new Museums of Orange Heritage, in Belfast and Loughall and make these accessible to all. We appreciate that not everyone will come from our background but those are exactly the people who we wish to share our heritage with.”

However, this year’s celebrations of unionist culture were not without blemish. A selection of bonfires across Northern Ireland dominated media headlines because of the burning of effigies, reported to the police as hate crimes. A small number were also highlighted because of their proximity to, and damage caused to, local homes. 

Gibson says: “The Orange Order does not build bonfires and they are not our responsibility but we have to accept that they are part of the unionist culture and part of the background of our local communities. My community isn’t just the orange community. My community is also the unionist and protestant community, new immigrants and my nationalist neighbour.

“There were a lot of bonfires across Northern Ireland that did not make the headlines, but as with any aspect of society, the focus falls on the small negatives and not on the many positives. As a community we will work together to try and resolve these ongoing issues

The Presbyterian minister succeeded the late Drew Nelson as Grand Secretary of the Loyal Order last December 2016.

“I am on record openly condemning the putting of posters or effigies on bonfires. With regard of the building close to homes, that’s where sensitive negotiations need to be had with local people. Nobody wants to see any community endangered by a bonfire built on their doorstep.”

PSNI

As a former police officer, before retiring from the force and taking up his role as a Presbyterian minister, Gibson believes a good working relationship with the PSNI is ensuring that twelfth celebrations remain largely trouble free.

However, one long-running issue, centred around notifiable membership, has been brought back to the forefront after uniformed PSNI took part in Belfast Pride for the first time in late July.

Although it is not compulsory to declare Orange Order membership when joining the PSNI, the Order is listed, along with some other organisations, as part of a question put to incoming officers. The Order has maintained that inferring membership would in somehow influence decision-making is discriminatory and have lobbied for change.

“I don’t know if the PSNI’s attitude to notifiable membership will change following their participation in the Pride parade because it appears to be a change in stance in terms of getting involved in something that is political.”

Pressed on why he views Pride as political, Gibson adds: “The issue for me is not a gay one, I know many gay people who simply want to integrate into the community. I believe that within Pride there is a lobby for equality of marriage and there is a quite a significant number of people in this country, not just the Orange Order, who believe that would be wrong.

“So, you have two competing opinions. Democracy will decide whether it comes to this country or not. However, the PSNI by taking part in this particular parade, which is a protest parade, sided with one side in our view. That’s wrong. The issue is not specifically against the parade but that the PSNI were in uniform and identifying with something that was overtly political.”

Politics

The Orange Order played a leading role in the formation of the Ulster Unionist Council. It maintained its link with the Ulster Unionist Party up until 2005, when it was agreed that membership support for different unionist parties meant that the formal link should be severed. Although every leader of Northern Ireland up to Peter Robinson was a member of the institution, Gibson downplays its political influence.

“We see our institution as a lobbyist group, trying to bring our influence to bear. The churches do that, as do businesses and sports groups. Theologically and politically the Order is a broad church and because we represent all shades of unionist opinion in our ranks, we must reflect this.”

This scenario raised interesting questions around Brexit. The Order holds firm “Northern Ireland’s cherished position within the United Kingdom”. However, unionism as a whole was split over the referendum on whether the UK should leave or remain in Europe.

Gibson explains that it was for this reason that the it did not take a stance, however, stresses that this does not mean the Order does not require input: “If there is anything done to damage our position within the UK or that we are treated separately from the rest of the UK then that’s where we will have an opinion.

“We will have an opinion if it weakens the border with the UK in any way. I’m advocating for a soft border but not one at the expense of our sovereignty. The referendum result presents challenges to the union and that’s why we have to watch the situation closely and work with our politicians and other stakeholders.”

Quizzed on improved relations with the Republic of Ireland’s government in recent years, Gibson confirms that the Order is active in building good relations and encourages them. However, he did issue a warning to new Taoiseach Leo Varadkar over his recent Brexit comments: “I frequently meet with members of the Republic of Ireland Government and wouldn’t want to see those good working relationships damaged, but equally we wouldn’t want to see those abused. Some of Varadkar’s comments have been politically insensitive and I would urge caution so as not to alienate or destroy the good work that has been done over the years in terms of relationships.”

Gibson confirms that while the Order is in regular contact with the political sphere, issues remain in working with Northern Ireland’s second largest political party, Sinn Féin. “There would be difficulty there because of their past. The Order suffered a large loss of life at the hands of republicans and I believe the families of those lost would feel enormous hurt if we were to directly engage.

“Equally, we are realists and understand that members of Sinn Féin were in the government of this country. They held office and we are not going to opt out of working with government because they are there. I’m a great believer that, whoever is on the platform, that we share that platform and give our perspective.”

Concluding by outlining the major challenges facing the Order moving forward, Gibson says: “There has been a propaganda campaign pitted against the institution over the years, and it has been a successful one. Our challenge is to respond to the press in positive way.

“I think it’s a challenge to help the business and commerce sector understand that the Orange Order contributes actively to society and that its members should be accepted and treated no differently to any other organisation membership. 

“Like everyone, without exception, we have had a chequered past at some stage but we are where we are today. We want to make Northern Ireland a more prosperous, safe and secure place for all its citizens in the future.”

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