Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin discusses Patrick Costello’s call to make July the 12th a public holiday in the South, arguing that the shallow form of unity being pushed by the establishment will not help us to overcome sectarianism.
On Monday, Green Party TD Patrick Costello issued a statement calling for July the 12th to be made a public holiday in the South of Ireland. Citing the new article 3 in the constitution which states that the state will work “to unite all people who share the territory of the island of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions”, he said he believed his proposal “would see us living up to our constitutional obligation”.
Costello went on to tout the “huge untapped potential relating to the Williamite-Jacobite war”, before concluding that, “if the Irish state truly aspires to unite all peoples of this island, then all those people need to be represented and included. Designating the 12th as a public holiday would be a major step in that process.”
Costello’s suggestion has been met with derision by many people, including people from nationalist communities in the North who leave their homes every year around the 12th of July to avoid the marches, the sectarian slogans and the burning of effigies and tricolour flags on bonfires – many of which are still controlled by loyalist paramilitaries. The statement comes mere days after the Orange Order once again pushed to be allowed to march down the Garvaghy Road, 25 years after they were banned from doing so. The ban came as a result of a sustained campaign by local residents to stop the triumphalist march through their community. For the vast majority of people, this is a settled matter, but not for the Orange Order. They want to continue to push their “tradition” – even where they are not wanted.
Roots of the Orange Order
Today, Unionism, Loyalism and the Orange Order are presented by the establishment, North and South, as immutable “identities” and part of a separate culture. But the origins of the Orange Order are rooted in politics – the politics of British imperialism. The Order was set up in response to the growth of the United Irishmen, who, inspired by the American and French Revolutions, sought to win freedom from Britain. The United Irishmen were historically progressive and wanted to bring about unity between Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter.
The Order was formed in 1795 as a reactionary institution that sought to destroy Catholic-Protestant unity. Described by General John Knox as “the only barrier we have against the United Irishmen”, it drove 7,000 Catholics out of Armagh in the year of its formation.
Since then, it has served as an institution of division. After Ireland was partitioned in 1922, it was used by the Unionist Party to further the interests of wealthy landowners and capitalists. It did this by integrating and disciplining Protestant workers in an all class alliance, mobilising whenever Protestant workers seemed to be moving to the left or showing signs of unity with Catholic workers. In 1932, for example, when Protestant and Catholic workers united and went on strike to demand better wages for Outdoor Relief Schemes, the Orange Order declared:
“We desire to impress on all loyal subjects of the King, the vital necessity of standing against communism.”
They demanded that Protestants should employ Protestants and sparked a sectarian campaign which resulted in nine deaths and three hundred Catholics being driven from their homes.
Although Protestant workers received marginal privileges under the Unionist state when it came to housing and jobs, all workers in the North lost out overall. The divisions driven by the elite ensured that all workers were kept down. Even since the Good Friday Agreement which set up the power-sharing arrangement between Unionists and Nationalists, workers in the North earn less on average than workers in similar jobs in the rest of the United Kingdom. Wages are now largely equal between Catholics and Protestants, but this is nothing more than an equality of poverty.
Pandering to Sectarianism
“I think we need to move beyond sectarianism if we’re going to have a shared future together”, Patrick Costello told The Tonight Show on Virgin Media on Monday. But celebrating the 12th of July is not a step away from sectarianism – it is pandering to it. It represents a shallow version of reconciliation that is being pushed by the establishment.
The establishment can see that a United Ireland is looking increasingly likely. Their talk of a “shared island” is a recognition of this – an effort to steer the discussion away from any kind of radical change, where the fundamental neoliberal structures embedded in both states are preserved in the event of reunification.
Orangeism, a supremacist political ideology that has been used for centuries to divide workers and keep them down, is therefore presented as a “culture” or an “identity”. This masks the fact that the Orange Order remains a sectarian organisation, open only to protestants, opposed to mixed marriages, opposed to allowing its members to enter a Catholic church, and still seeking to march in areas where it is not wanted.
This has nothing to do with identity. Nor is support for Orangeism fixed and immutable. As Jim Larmour and Hannah Kenny put it, “many young working-class Protestants see the politics of division and reaction as something representing a bygone age, out of touch with their day-to-day experiences. And they are no less affected by issues like the climate crisis and equality for women, workers, and the LGBTQ+ community, which are relegated by political unionism.”
For anyone who wants a progressive vision of a United Ireland, where these issues are tackled head on, July the 12th and the sectarianism it represents must be challenged, not pandered to.
Instead, we could celebrate the radical Protestant tradition that was suppressed by the Orange Order – from the tradition of the United Irishmen to the forgotten history of ‘rotten prods’, to the shipyard radicals of 1907 and 1919, to the Protestant socialists who took inspiration from James Connolly in the 1930s. There is a ‘shared past’ here worth remembering and celebrating – one that doesn’t accept that the Orange Order is hegemonic in representing all protestants.
This – a different kind of ‘shared past’ – could provide great inspiration for the kind of new Ireland that we could all be proud of. Which is precisely why the establishment has no interest in it.