Orange Order display of dunderheadedness

Posted By: March 29, 2016

Fionnuala O’ Connor. Irish News (Belfast). Tuesday, March 29, 2016

President Michael D Higgins told the BBC with characteristic brio – in an acute historical overview – that “ethical sensitivity” marked the state commemoration of the Easter Rising.

Apart from Lurgan’s masked paraders, Ireland north and south marked the centenary these past couple of days with some effort to keep ceremonies dignified, and thoughtful.

Dissident republicans objected that Edward Carson had replaced sacred scenes on the Falls Road and were assured it was a temporary change to mark the moment and the next centenary, Ulster Volunteers alongside Irish Volunteers, Somme alongside Rising.

No such delicacy from the Orange Order, arch-guardian of unionist culture, which chose the run-up to Easter for a display of traditional dunderheadedness. Their website gives the title ‘Fairness and Fear’ to their “investigation of the treatment of Protestants in the NI Civil Service”. It includes 25 statements of grievance which the preface says, a bit pathetically, “were all written by the authors in their own words”.

The order collected these plus answers to Freedom of Information requests to the civil service, we are told, because of complaints from “members and their families” over “the past number of years”.

One consolation is that it took two years to produce this much, and there are no shocking facts to headline. The grievances, undated, frequently second-hand, are not all from members of the order, but collected through family and friends. It would be cheering to think that a wider trawl found many more people who said ‘ah come on now, stop trying to make something out of a few grousers’. Or perhaps even that it was long past time the order recognised that civil servants are no longer functionaries of an exclusively unionist state?

Mostly, the complaints are about working in the Department of Social Development. According to the preface they range from “allegations of outright discrimination…through to complaints about a prevailing Nationalist ethos”. But their essence was perfectly summed up by the Belfast Telegraph headline: “Mass cards, GAA talk, mention of child’s confirmation and ashes spark fear…”

Presumably intended to arouse sympathy, the Orange’s portrait instead revealed people offended by simply having to share a workplace with non-Protestants and non-unionists “open” about their otherness. The style is heavy on ‘I have heard stories…it seems to me…in my opinion…’. Fear of victimisation by Catholic colleagues, and managers, is repeatedly said to rule out making official complaints. Nobody is willing to be identified. Allegations are undated. “Throughout my career there has always been more Catholics than Protestants employed” is a typically broadbrush denunciation. One of the angriest statements midway through admits “I do not have any statistics to back this up…”

A ‘prevailing nationalist ethos’ turns out to mean “open discussion about Roman Catholic religion and associated sports such as GAA and camogie which Protestants rarely play, if at all”.

Objection to Caral Ní Chuilín’s Líofa programme was predictable. But ashes on foreheads, conversation in the office on Mondays about matches the day before are also deemed offensive and intimidating.

Under some Stephen Nolan pressure on air, Orange grand secretary Drew Nelson had the sense to say, contrary to the wording of the relevant grievance, that there was “nothing offensive in talking about a child’s confirmation”. But Orangemen did not feel they could go into work and talk about their parades at the weekend. “A cold house arises when the ethos of conversation becomes overwhelming emanating from one side of the community.”

The most striking figures the order claimed to have extracted from the civil service were that there would be an additional 300 Protestant civil servants if they were represented proportionately in the workforce, and that proportionately more Protestants than Catholics are taking redundancy.

Early fair employment investigations which showed up blatant imbalance in the Protestant-dominated civil service of the past were obstructed for long periods. It was a slow and shaming business, as in the story worldwide of attempts to change unfairness. Unionists practised discrimination, denied it existed, called complainers political agitators, tried to block investigation.

We don’t know the religion of our employees, employers said. Then they moved seamlessly to complaining about reform, insisting that Protestants, unionists, had become victims of practices they had painted as fiction.

Today’s Orange complainers are the last troops in a losing battle, baffled at how the world has turned, childlike in their lack of self-awareness about how their grievances sound. Their best friends should tell them. For unionist politicians that would be overdue revisionism, a massive step towards reconciliation, and ethically sensitive.