Culture Shock.

Si Johnston reflects on the usual goings-on in NI in July.

He writes it at an interesting time for us. We are just about to return to make a home and a life again on that side of the Irish Sea. Recently we were visiting the town where we will be spending a fair portion of our time, and the bunting was up and everywhere was decked out all ready for the festivities of the season. It got me thinking.

I’ve been away from Northern Ireland for quite a while now, certainly long enough to have had some things slip to the back of my mind. (I was told of someone having a job interview on the 13th of July, “but that seems a funny day to have interviews.” It was a few minutes later that I realised why it would be a funny day.) Even if I hadn’t been away, even growing up in my ([p/P]rotestant) family my main concern was how the Twelfth would affect everything else - shops closed, people away, later on which roads would be barricaded so which pubs could/should we head out to for a quiet evening and how would we get there and back again.

Since then we have deliberately never been over at this time of year.

And if I were to start to list things that I am unsure or anxious of as we look to return to NI, these things and all that is connected with them will come pretty high up on the list. Nominally this may be my own culture/history/whatever, but I don’t think I can say that it is me. In fact, it’s pretty alien.

Now, I know that Orangeism is not in and of itself necessarily all bad (what’s that I hear you say? faint praise?) - it’s very easy to express prejudice in calling prejudice. I have had my prejudices formed by what I’ve seen on the TV and read in the papers, but then challenged by good and godly men who each wears a collarette.

But for me it remains largely unknown. Perhaps it will be good for me to take the time to look behind what I don’t know, and learn a bit more. It’s certainly good to remember that rarely are the visible and controversial in such a body of people typical of the rest.

One thing I can say is that although for me my faith raises questions about what I’ve seen and heard, I know that for many men and women in Northern Ireland an association with the Orange may not quite be an essential part of being a Christian, but it is certainly closely connected. Of course this assumes a certain flavour of Christianity, but like it or not we all come from somewhere and all hang our hat somewhere.

Set against that is the fact that Jesus wasn’t so much into doing things that upset and intimidated others because that was what he’d always done, and he had a right to do it, it’s a public road don’t you know? Jesus wasn’t above causing a bit of upset, but generally he didn’t do it for the sake of a cultural celebration or a historical commemoration or exercising his rights. As I recall it, Jesus’ approach to his rights was rather different…

That said, none are innocent and grace can go both ways. Some time spent reading over the website of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland gives the impression of an organisation understandably enough feeling under fire. Articles on the BBC and on Wikipedia both also offer some insight. I don’t think anyone doubts that there has been some anti-Orange PR quite deliberately at work in recent years.

The thing is, this is probably an argument that the Orange have lost. For an organisation claiming the role of champions of the Reformed faith, it’s a long time since I’ve heard anyone on this side of the Irish Sea - even those who are decidedly and proudly ‘Reformed’ - say anything positive. Unfortunately, in everything these days whether we like it or not, image is the key. And I’m skeptical that the public image of Orangemen outside their own backyard can be salvaged. Some of that may be self-inflicted, but some isn’t.

(The Grand Lodge of Ireland website does read in a rather more in-your-face fashion than I expected - it may just about state that the order isn’t ‘anti-Catholic’ but that’s not a consistent message from the rest of the site. Perhaps a softening of the tone might help. Then again, is it likely to by now? Any change will be dismissed as deliberately misleading spin.)

But agree or disagree, grace treads carefully with others’ closely-held convictions, whichever direction you’re looking in. I say that to myself first.