As the Orange Order takes to the streets of Edinburgh in defence of the Union, Chris Bambery looks at the roots of anti-Catholic sectarianism
Imagine if the streets of Scotland’s capital were filled with Muslim men in uniform marching in military formation. The media and our political leaders would be apoplectic. Yet somehow it’s acceptable for Protestant supremacists to do this. Each summer Scotland suffers from brazen displays of naked sectarianism.
Let’s not fool ourselves. Orange marches are not a benign display of a Scottish Protestant identity, but rather an expression of anti-Catholic hatred, as has been the case since the Orange Order was formed in the North of Ireland at the close of the 18th century.
The Order was formed by Protestant landlords and farmers, many holding land expropriated from the native Irish a century and a half before. They were concerned with growing agitation among mainly – but not exclusively - Catholic peasants demanding land, and with the rise of the republican United Irishman, as inspired by the French Revolution. Based initially among Belfast Prebyterian radicals, the Order was one of the building blocks for the militias raised to suppress the 1798 United Irishman uprising.
The first Orange Lodge was formed in Scotland by Ayrshire militia men fresh from service there. As I stress in my A People’s History of Scotland, the development of sectarianism was linked to Scotland’s involvement in the colonisation of Ireland and the horrors wrought upon that country. The military connection was structurally mirrored by the close harmony which obtained between the development of Clydeside industries (reliant on British orders, capital and markets) and those of Belfast, the one industrial area in Ireland.
Of course sectarianism could draw on an older hatred of Catholicism dating from the Reformation and the religious persecution of hard line Calvinists in the 17th century, but what was central to its resurgence and the rise of the Orange Order in the 19th century was the anti-Irish racism which emerged as a rationalisation and justification of the colonisation of Ireland.
Industrialisation in Scotland in the late 18th and early 19th centuries brought Irish migrants, but numbers soared with the Great Famine of 1845-1851. Potato crops failed across Europe, but while the British government intervened in the Scottish Highlands, the Irish were left to starve.
Employers in the steel works and coal mines did use Irish migrants to reduce wages and even scab, but competition for jobs and homes among the unskilled created conditions in which the Orange Order could grow. Divide and rule was seized on by employers in Lanarkshire and Ayrshire.
But the big transformation in the Lodge’s fortunes came with the Home Rule crises of 1886 and 1893. Twice a Liberal government dependent on Irish nationalist MPs for its majority tried to push through devolution. Twice it failed because pro-imperialist Liberal MPs and peers saw it as threatening the Empire and voted with the Tories. On the second occassion they split to form today’s Conservative and Unionist Party, which entered into a long running relationship with the Orange Order.
Sectarianism is usually associated with the West of Scotland and certainly not genteel Edinburgh, but the worst sectarian incident took place there in 1935 with a virtual pogram after the Catholic church held a religious festival there. The city’s Protestant Action had a greater electoral presence than its western counter-parts. In contrast Dundee and Aberdeen have been relatively free of sectarianism.
Interestingly, when the biggest Home Rule crisis broke in 1912-1914 as the Belfast Unionists, backed by the Tories, threatened civil war against a Liberal government reliant once more on Irish nationalist votes, the Unionists contrasted the size of their rallies in Liverpool with those in Glasgow. One reason may be the rise of the left and the unions on Clydeside.
Discrimination was a reality across much of Scotland until shockingly recently. The Scottish “identity” was for much of our modern history based on Calvinism (and militarism) with Catholics excluded from the nation. The scars of sectarianism are sadly all too visible.
There are some who are quick to point to anti-Irish elements in the early SNP and to the history of sectarianism as reasons to oppose independence. They ignore Tory involvement with the Orange Order which was far more significant.
The Scotland in which I grew up, where swings were chained up on the eve of the Sabbath and Rangers was effectively the national team, has all but gone. The vitality of Scottish culture and the intensity of the independence debate point to a new Scotland where sectarianism is viewed as a disease.
It points to a Scotland which could create a new friendship with Ireland based on respect and a recognition of what we inflicted on them. Perhaps that why Ireland is cheering for Yes, aside from the Unionists for whom independence sounds the death knell.
A Scotland in which Edinburgh could honour its finest son, James Connolly, with a statue on Princes Street.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.
More articles from this author
- Sails and Winds: A Cultural History of Valencia - book review
- Imperial calculations: why World War Two was declared 80 years ago today
- Westminster is broken, it's time for Scotland to quit
- Defending the Indefensible: the British Army in Northern Ireland, 1969
- Labour Country: Political Radicalism and Social Democracy in South Wales 1831-1985, and Stories of Solidarity - book review
- How we should remember D-Day
- Spanish election: the left win but society polarises