Orange Order splits with moderate Ulster party
Saturday, March 12, 2005
Belfast, Northern Ireland — The Orange Order, the major Protestant brotherhood in Northern Ireland, voted Saturday to break its 100-year ties to the Ulster Unionists, the once-dominant party in this British territory.
The historic decision followed years of growing tensions between the moderate leadership of the Ulster Unionists, who have supported Northern Ireland's decade-old peace process, and the conservative leaders of the Orange Order, who have largely rejected it.
The brotherhood's decision-making body, the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, announced the decision but didn't disclose the precise vote. The move ended the Orangemen's right to hold scores of seats within the grassroots Ulster Unionist Council, which wields the power to elect and topple Ulster Unionist leaders.
Orange Grandmaster Robert Saulters said the brotherhood, which has more than 50,000 members in this province of 1.7 million people, had decided to withdraw because the Ulster Unionists were no longer the major Protestant-backed party.
That place today belongs to Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists, whose hard-line views — and, in particular, his hostility to the 1998 peace accord for Northern Ireland — resonate with many rank-and-file Orangemen. The Ulster Unionists have lost substantial support because of their backing for the Good Friday accord, which offered concessions to the outlawed Irish Republican Army and its allied Sinn Fein party.
“When the Ulster Unionist Council was established there was only one unionist Party,” Mr. Saulters said. “That is no longer the case. We feel that arrangements made in 1905 are no longer relevant to the political scene in Northern Ireland in 2005.”
The Orange Order, an anti-Catholic association formed in 1795 to defend Protestant interests in northeast Ireland, mounts major parades each summer that arouse Catholic opposition and sometimes trigger riots.
Supporters of Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, a pragmatist who split his party by pursuing compromise with Sinn Fein, said they welcomed the Orange Order's departure as likely to promote greater stability within the faction-prone party.
Mr. Trimble, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998, had made the Orangemen's removal from the council an early priority when he became party leader in 1995 but quickly dropped it because it proved so controversial.
Though an Orangeman himself who previously championed the organization's right to parade near Catholic districts, Mr. Trimble has been unwelcome at Orange events since 1999, when he narrowly won party approval to form a power-sharing administration in Northern Ireland that included Sinn Fein.
An opinion poll published Thursday in the Belfast Telegraph newspaper put the Ulster Unionists at a historic low level of support of 16 per cent. The Democratic Unionists stood at 28 per cent. The poll had a margin error of three percentage points.