DERRY – The Orange Order, the largest non-religious Protestant organization in Ireland, has severed its century-old formal link to the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), adding strength to the claim that moderate forces in Northern Ireland have been put on the defensive.
At a Saturday meeting of the Order’s ruling council, or Grand Lodge, the organization decided that political change meant that a link with any political party was no longer in its interests.
Speaking after the meeting, Orange Order Grand Master Robert Saulters said: “The Loyal Orange Institution will continue to lobby for the unionist cause as events require and we will seek to establish good relationships with all those engaged in the political interests of the unionist people.”
The Orange Order has typically provided unionism’s main political leaders and functioned as a pan-Unionist network for unionist political parties.
The decision will add credence to the claim that moderate trends in Northern Ireland’s political scene are on the defensive.
The UUP, led by David Trimble – who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998 for his role in bringing about the Good Friday Agreement designed to end 30 years of conflict – has been overtaken by Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party as the largest party in Northern Ireland and the main political representative of unionists.
The UUP was the standard-bearer for such political beliefs for the best part of a century. However, unionist dissatisfaction with the 1998 peace agreement increased in the years since its signing, centered on a distrust of power-sharing with nationalists and the failure of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to disarm, led to a groundswell of support for the more hard-line DUP, which opposed the agreement.
Most Unionists – who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, are Protestants who descended from English or Scottish colonies sent to Ireland in the 17th century. The Orange Order formed in 1795 as a response to contemporary sectarian tensions between Protestant settlers and native Irish Catholics. Being a Protestant is the only membership requirement for the 80’000 strong movement.
Later, the Order developed an overtly political stance. As Irish nationalism sought to loosen ties with London, members of the Orange Order founded a political party expressly designed to keep Ireland in the United Kingdom.
That party was the UUP, which celebrates its centenary this year. Celebrations may end up being muted, however, as moderate Unionism struggles to come to terms with the apparent lack of good faith demonstrated by Sinn Féin, whose IRA associates have refused to disarm.
Moreover, Sinn Féin and the IRA have in recent weeks become embroiled in a series of incidents undermining their credibility and that of other political parties prepared to work with them.
Many analysts predict worse to come, with the DUP poised to claim the majority of Unionist seats at the forthcoming British general election, almost certain to be held on 6 May this year.Show