The uruk hai in crimplene

Sunday National, 19th September 2021.

From Kelvingrove Park to Cathedral Square, it tallied 53 separate marches, closed some 32 streets, and called for 800 police officers drafted in to keep public order. Yesterday in Glasgow, the Orange Order and sundry other fraternal protestant brotherhoods took over much of the town, snaking from their districts across the city in noisy cavalcades of union flags and phoney military costumes, bowler hats and white gloves – the uruk hai in crimplene. According to the Orange Lodge, “no other voluntary organisation can match them for colour, music and crowd appeal.” Tell that to most locals.

I know nobody in the city who greets the prospect of yet another “marching day” with any enthusiasm. You bunker down, you cancel plans, change routes, avoid public transport, do you best to dodge the pissed and the angry, the riled up and the sweary –  and if you have any sense, just stay home until the walks walk themselves out of town. It can feel like a civic hostage situation, watching great swathes of your city shut down to allow some of the most reactionary people in Scotland to play out their prejudices in public, while denying any responsibility for the disorder and general atmosphere of intimidation they generate.

I can’t have been alone feeling my heart sink on Saturday to hear the distant twittering of the flutes and chunter of drums again as the colour parties dragged their gussets through central Glasgow, trying to maintain respectable expressions and remember that the official line is that these are joyous cultural celebrations, and definitely not a mardi gras of intolerance whose principle purpose is to allow parts of the population to pull on their campest costumes, polish their boots, and express their hostility towards Catholicism in a plausibly deniable way. “Whose streets? Our streets” these marches say. This is west central Scotland at its most abnormal – and somehow we’ve largely normalised it.

Jim McHarg, who is Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland, told BBC Scotland this weekend that his organisation “most certainly” isn’t anti-Catholic. Indeed, he suggested that “we are not an organisation that is anti-anything.” This might come as a surprise to a significant percentage of the crowd who turned out to watch the cantaloupe crowd swanking up Saltmarket yesterday.

“What exactly is the intention and purpose of these processions, a hundred strong, marching in rank and file through Glasgow’s east end, each passing the front door of the same Catholic Church, accompanied by the thunderous roar of drum, fife and flute?” Sheriff Stuart Reid posed this question in Glasgow Sheriff Court back in October 2019, in one of the sharpest judgments of the courts on these loyalist processions in recent years.

What’s your march for? The advocate instructed by the Bridgeton branch of Apprentice Boys of Derry couldn’t tell him. The Apprentice Boys brought the court action in 2019 along with three other loyalist organisations, challenging a decision by Glasgow City Council to reroute their marches away from St Mary’s Catholic Church on the Calton.

They weren’t happy, arguing the city council had violated their rights to free expression and free assembly. The decision was irrational, they said, and unreasonable too. There was “no adequate evidence of any disruption to the life of the community” to justify routing them away from the church. They also claimed the reasons they’d been given by the police and local authority to justify their new route weren’t good enough. Their case was simple: they had a right to march whenever they liked, down whatever street in the city they liked, and the local authority had no right to stop them. To describe this legal position as humbug barely does it justice.

You may remember the history here. The police expressed concerns about potential public disorder if the parade was allowed to pass this particular church in this particular part of the east end. Why? Because St Mary’s isn’t far from St Alphonus Church on London Road. Canon Thomas White served as parish priest to both congregations. You might recognise that name too. On the 7th of July 2018, one of the “members of the public associating themselves” with an Orange March spat on White, accompanying the gobbet with a spray of sectarian abuse, combing anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment. Police officers took the Canon’s vestments away from analysis, and DNA evidence identified the bigoted reprobate, who got 10 months when he pled guilty to assault aggravated by religious prejudice. Just one year after this disgusting incident, the congregation at St Alphonsus took another earful from the Dalmarnock Orange and Purple crew, who barked “paedo” and “Fenian” at the church as they trooped by.

Perhaps this is why the Apprentice Boys of Derry couldn’t explain to Sheriff Reid what they were marching for – because it is impossible to interpret this determination to march past Roman Catholic buildings as anything other than a provocation. I mean, what kind of free expression is it if you can’t tell a court what values you want to express? What kind of free association is it, if you can’t answer a straightforward question from the bench about what the common objectives of your association are? Cat got your tongue?

Public processions are part of civic life across Scotland. Some you will sympathise with, others may embody causes with which you disagree. The borders has its Common Ridings. There are New Year fireballs up in Stonehaven and Up-Helly-Aa in Shetland. Towns and cities across Scotland have played host to pro-independence rallies and remembrance parades, pride marches and climate change protests. If the organisers of any of these events found themselves up in court challenging the council’s decision to send their march down an unfavoured route, they’d have little difficulty in giving a good account of what they were about and the basic values or political ideas their processions were promoting.

But the Apprentice Boys of Derry came up mute when asked to explain why they were so keen to go swaggering past St Mary’s in 2019. I think we know why. This sense of entitlement has no basis in law. Yes, you have a right to free expression. Yes, you have a right to association. But neither of these rights entail the right to say anything you like, wherever you like. The rights and freedoms of others matter too. That’s why rerouting these marches away from Catholic churches is the least Glasgow city council should do.

The Apprentice Boys may have struggled to give a defensible account of what their marches are about – but I think most of us understand exactly the kind of values they express. As Sheriff Reid pointed out, the “historical genesis and constitutional raison d’etre” of these organisations “lie in a vigorous celebration of historic triumph in battle over Roman Catholics and opposition to their faith.” There’s no point pretending otherwise.

Are we supposed to believe it is a tragic accident of chance that so many of the Orange Order’s camp followers find their mouths full of obscenities about “Fenians” and the Pope of Rome when they go traipsing past Catholic churches? Are we supposed to believe that the “crowd appeal” of these marches is driven by admiration for all the pretty costumes and smoking beats, rather than the much more obvious interpretation that Orange walks are only a superficially respectable way of reminding parts of the population, to borrow a phrase, that “we are the people” and they aren’t?

Is it an unlikely coincidence that the night streets of Glasgow yesterday are likely to have heard their share of anti-Catholic and anti-Irish songs? Are we meant to believe that all these people who seem to believe the Orange march is principally a sectarian holiday are mistaken? However brightly you polish your buttons, we know exactly what you’re walking for.

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