Orange Myths

It is Sunday 7 July. In Portadown this morning a riot took place and working people, including policemen, were hurt; some were arrested. Another battle  . . . another myth . . . another contribution to the bitterness and hatred that divide the working class in Northern Ireland.

The government and police and wanted to ban this morning’s march through the exclusively Catholic Obins Street district. The marchers, Orangemen going to church accompanied by bands playing sectarian tunes and flaunting sectarian symbols, refused to obey the Government, the police and the law despite their vociferous protestations of loyalty to all three. The police – probably working on the assumption that they could cope more easily with the Catholics than they could with the loyalists – gave in and the march took place. The holy men of the Orange Order marched defiantly through Obins Street to communicate with their god.

The Orange Order intend repeating this exercise on the twelfth and thirteenth of July. The police have issued a notice proscribing these marches and – to compound this lunacy – the Catholics have announced their intention of staging parades at the same time and on the same date.

Paisley and several other loyalist politicians and hate-mongering clergymen have let it be known that they will defy any Government order banning the march. In their eyes the issue is sufficiently serious to justify a civil war. Serious enough to endanger the lives, homes and liberties of working people, for, make no mistake, it is workers who would be asked to slaughter one another. Not because they suffer poverty or live in slums; not because they endure the miseries of unemployment or have mean lives. No. Paisley, who has used bigotry and hatred to become one of the best paid politicians in Europe, and his friends don’t experience these things. What they are asking Protestant workers to spill their blood for is something really wholesome and important: the right to march through avenues of Catholics reminding them that their forbears were defeated in 1690!

We would ask our Protestant fellow workers to examine some of the historical facts that make up the myths and damned lies for which their leaders want them to kill and be killed. We have, many times, in the past, exposed the myths that make up the “principles” behind the IRA murder campaign and the fallacious reasoning used to inveigle Catholics into support of Irish Nationalism, so it cannot be said that in exposing the lies and deceptions underlying Unionism we have any sympathy whatsoever with nationalism or republicanism. Our purpose is to disabuse workers on both sides of the notions and fictions that keep them divided; to show that neither Unionism nor nationalism have anything to offer the working class and, to bring them to an examination of the cause of their real, common problems.

King James and King Billy

James II succeeded to the throne of England following the death of his brother, Charles II, in 1685. A convert to Catholicism and a sickly pious man – following a life of profligacy and sexual abandonment – he was determined to re-establish the power of Catholicism in his kingdom. Within three years of becoming king, James’ policies had provoked fierce opposition in England and fear and distrust among the Protestant population of Ireland. In 1688 seven members of the English parliament petitioned James’ son-in-law, William, Prince of Orange, to become king of England. James reacted by allying himself with the French king, Louis XIV, who manipulated the situation to his own advantage by making England a semi-dependent of his own kingdom.

According to Orange fiction, James was the agent of Rome and popery. Nothing could be further from the truth. In seeking the help and support of Louis XIV, King James was allying himself with the pope’s bitterest enemy. Louis, bent on European domination, had made Lorraine a subject state, had attacked Genoa and attempted to sack Rome. The pope of the period, Innocent XI, was outraged and humiliated. In 1686 some of the European powers, alarmed at the strength and ferocity of the French, entered into the Treaty of Augsberg. This Treaty, established specifically to resist the marauding armies of Louis XIV, was subscribed to by the king of Spain, the Emperor of Germany and by William, Prince of Orange. The nominal head of the Treaty powers was Pope Innocent XI.

So, rather than being an enemy of the pope, as Orange mythology asserts, “King Billy” was the pope’s ally when, in November 1688, he invaded England and his armies were partially provisioned and equipped by the powers of the Augsberg Treaty – and he had the official backing of the Roman Catholic church! Contrary to myth, when they fought in the Battle of the Boyne on 30 June and 1 July 1690, King Billy was an ally of the pope and King James an ally of the pope’s most bitter enemy, Louis of France. Indeed, when news of King William’s victory over King James at the Boyne percolated through to Rome the pope ordered the singing of a special Te Deum in St. Peter’s and similar celebrations and rejoicings were held in Catholic churches in Madrid, Brussels and Vienna.

James was a Catholic, of course, and William a Protestant but, as always, the politics and economics underlying their conflict rose above religion.

Religious liberty

What about the notion that King Billy established religious liberty in Ireland and saved the Protestants from persecution? Again, Orange fable stands historical fact on its head.

It was James, as the legitimate incumbent of the English throne, who signed the Acts of the Dublin Parliament, giving freedom of religion to all citizens. King Billy, too, when he agreed the Treaty of Limerick in October 1691, accepted that the various religious denominations should continue to enjoy the freedom of religious worship established in the reign of Charles II and under the Acts of the Dublin Parliament agreed by James. Later he established the Episcopalian Church and effectively outlawed not only Catholicism but Presbyterianism –  the religion of the great majority of Protestants in Ireland.

A Presbyterian clergyman in 1691 was liable on conviction of delivering a sermon or celebrating the Lord’s Supper to a term of imprisonment and fine of £100 and they were similarly punished for performing marriage rites. There are many recorded convictions for these “offences” during the period, especially in the counties of Antrim and Down. In 1694 the Williamite government passed a Test Act which effectively precluded Presbyterians from offices under the Crown and a further Act of 1713 set a punishment of imprisonment for Presbyterians convicted of school-teaching and banned the marriage of Presbyterians and members of the Established church.

The History of Irish Presbyterianism gives the political and economic reasons for the persecution thus:

    “Presbyterians, having no political power, had to submit to political persecutions. The feudal system which transferred ownership of the soil from the toiler to the landlord was one of many evils introduced by the power of England.”

King Billy was the chief agent of that feudal power which persecuted, viciously and equally, both Catholic and Presbyterian in Ireland.

Driven out of Ireland

Such was the “civil and religious liberty” enjoyed by the then, as now, numerically strongest Protestant denomination in Ireland that, in the first half of the eighteenth century, almost a quarter of a million Ulster Presbyterians were driven out of the country. These went mainly to America, where many played a distinguished role in the war of the American colonists to gain political and economic independence from England.

On both sides of today’s sectarian divide it is ordinary working people, usually the very poorest, who are the victims of both the republican and loyalist myths. The hate mongers and fable peddlers don’t live in the slums and are rarely victims of the violence they so actively promote.

When Presbyterians march to celebrate the Battle of the Boyne on “The Twelfth” and the victory of King Billy over his equally degenerate father-in-law, King James, they are commemorating a victory which was as opposed to the interests of their forbears in 1690 as it is to their own class interests in 1985.

Richard Montague

Belfast Branch WSP