The latest newsletter from the Church of Ireland’s Hard Gospel Project arrived this morning. The back page has a photograph of a young woman in a church pew giving a sidelong glance at a besuited man wearing an Orange Order collarette.
The picture is posed, but the baffled expression on the young woman’s face probably represents one of a wide range of reactions to the Order. Bafflement is a mild reaction compared to many of the attitudes towards the Orangemen.
The supposed liberalism of many Dubliners often disappears completely when it comes to thoughts on Northern Protestants. Travelling North to a Belfast meeting of a committee, I sat on the train opposite a woman who had lived abroad, who had travelled the world and who had a postgraduate education. A copy of Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Faithful Tribe lay in my briefcase. Seeing the book, my travelling companion commented, “There is nothing good that can be said about those people”. If such comments had been made about any other group, the same lady would have launched into a heated lecture on tolerance and diversity.
Perhaps the Orange Order has been its own worst enemy, perhaps it suffers from falling into the politically incorrect categories of being white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant and male, but the reaction it elicits in some quarters suggests a very illiberal liberalism.
Objections to the flags and symbols of the Loyalist community are rarely balanced by an acknowledgment that there are Nationalist flags and symbols that many Northern Protestants find alienating. I remember being on an Irish ferry and seeing an Irish Tricolour flying from the stern and thinking for the first time that the flag was something other than the badge of those who bombed and murdered members of my community. How readily would the southern liberals give up the Tricolour?
No? I thought not.
The Hard Gospel Project has been a mirror for the Church of Ireland, it has been discomforting and revealing. It has shown us that the warts aren’t only on the faces of the usual suspects, that prejudice and intolerance aren’t just the preserve of those who beat big drums.