Ian Wilson, a former Grand Master of the Orange Lodge in Scotland, addressed the annual Orange parade in Broughshane, Co. Antrim, on 12 July. After describing Martin McGuinness’s handshake with the queen as ‘a humiliating surrender’ for Sinn Fein, Wilson turned his anger on a ‘more cuddly and user-friendly’ nationalist: Alex Salmond. ‘The ultimate aim of Mr Salmond is precisely the same as Mr McGuinness – the destruction and break up of the United Kingdom,’ he said.
The Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland is not the political force it once was – in the 1920s it had hundreds of thousands of members, including the secretary of state for Scotland, John Gilmour – but there are still more than 180 lodges in the Glasgow area alone, and around 8000 people attended July’s annual Orange Walk in the city.
The order was traditionally aligned with the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, but that’s changed with the electoral demise of the Tories north of the border. Many West of Scotland Orangemen are now solid Labour supporters. According to the current Grand Master, Henry Dunbar, the Order even encouraged members to vote SNP in the 2011 Holyrood elections in protest over a Glasgow City Council policy to reduce parades. The SNP won a number of Labour strongholds in Glasgow in its landslide victory, though it’s not clear what, if anything, the ‘Orange vote’ contributed to that.
The Order’s putative flirtation with the nationalists didn’t last long. Before May’s local elections, the Labour group leader in Glasgow, Gordon Matheson, appeared at an Orange Lodge hustings, apparently telling members that the council’s parading policy was ‘flawed’. TheOrange Torch praised Matheson for his attacks on the SNP – ‘the kind of bullish talk we need to hear more of from unionist politicians’ – and claimed that Labour held control of the council thanks to the help of ‘thousands of Orangemen and their families’.
The possibility of Scottish independence has given the order ‘a new imperative’, Wilson said when I interviewed him recently. He has been appointed head of an internal strategy group to co-ordinate the Orange Lodge of Scotland’s response to the referendum. At present, the Order is not involved in Better Together, the official ‘No’ campaign supported by Scottish Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.
In 2007, the Order sent out a press release calling for undefined ‘direct action’ against the ‘threat’ of independence. It was quickly retracted and the member responsible disciplined. ‘This is not Northern Ireland in 1912, we are not Edward Carson,’ Wilson said. ‘The Lodge has to be careful not to queer the pitch – we do have our fans but a lot of people don’t like us. There is nothing to be gained from having a negative impact on the campaign.’
This piece originally appeared on the London Review of Books blog.