Union Defenders: but not in 1800
There can scarcely be a body more symbolic of unionism than the Loyal Orange Institution.
In 2014 the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland was to the fore, through a massive rally in Edinburgh, in bringing vigour to the ‘Yes’ campaign for Scotland to remain within the UK.
The Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland is seen as the largest pro-Union body in Northern Ireland, in terms of retaining Ulster’s link with the rest of the United Kingdom.
And, you might be tempted to say, it was ever thus.
Which is where you would be wrong.
There were at least two occasions in the history of the Orange Order when it vocally opposed the Union. Indeed, one prominent Orange leader, Lord Cole of Fermanagh was quoted as saying that he would oppose the Act of Union “while he had life”.
Two other Orangemen, both members of the old Dublin parliament which was about to be swept away by the Union, told colleagues in a debate that they deeply opposed the Union; George Ogle, who had been a member of the parliament for Dublin City, said that the Union was ‘a measure fraught with every ill to Ireland and Great Britain.’
John C. Beresford, also from Dublin, was quoted as having said “I am convinced that no alteration in the Legislature, by which the Parliament of Ireland is to be incorporated with that of England, could be of service to us…Proud of the name of an Irishman, I hope never to exchange it for that of a Colonist, or to see my country governed by laws enacted by a Parliament over which she can have no control.”
Individual Orange lodges also issued resolutions opposing the Act of Union of 1800, which had flowed on from the ill-fated 1798 Rebellion in Ireland.
The British statesman Walpole remarked that “The most violent of the Anti-Unionists were the very people who had supported the Government through the recent troubles – the Protestant nobility and gentry and the Orange lodges, amongst whom prevailed universal horror and disgust at the idea of a Union.”
That this was so was largely down to a sense of betrayal. As far as those Walpole described were concerned, they had stood up against insurgency and been rewarded by the loss of political power. The Act of Union which came about in 1801 swept away the old Establishment Parliament in Dublin (to be a member one had to be a member of the Church of Ireland; thus Roman Catholics and Presbyterians were excluded).
The old Irish Parliament in Dublin
The Orange Order at the time was also dominated by Anglican figures and while there were undoubtedly Presbyterians and other non-comformists among the membership, those who were in positions of power were often, it would appear, from the religious and political establishment.
There was an irony in the fact that many of the northern Presbyterian leaders of the rebellion would welcome the Act of Union (because it swept away the corrupt parliament in Dublin in their eyes), while Church of Ireland figures would oppose it.
One of the factors which may have influenced some Roman Catholics in not seeing the Union as any bad thing aside from the clear demotion of the Established Church figures was the fact that the Union was cementing order whereas the United Irish Rising, with its rather rose-tinted views of the French Revolution, had potentially threatened the position of the Church.
There were divided opinions with the Orange Institution, however, as is evidenced by an order from the Grand Lodge for silence to be employed in response to the issue of Union.
Orange historian R. H. Sibbett, writing in 1939, says that the action of the Grand Lodge saved the Orange Society from disruption.
Nevertheless, some continued to make their views on the Union known. Members of LOL 500 in Dublin held a special meeting and issued a resolution which pulled no punches as far as the Grand Lodge was concerned: “We cannot think it the duty of an Orangeman to submit implicitly, in all cases of the utmost moment, to the directions of a lodge which is principally composed of persons who are under a certain influence, which is exerted against the rights of Ireland; and while a lodge under such influence shall give the law to all Orangemen, we fear that our dearest interests will be betrayed.”
The resolution went on to make further interesting comment: “We consider the extinction of our separate Legislature as the extinction of the Irish nation…” and it called on the election of a new Grand Lodge which would defend ‘the independence of Ireland and the Constitution of 1782’.
It is clear from Orange annals that not all members or lodges would have agreed with the sentiments, and it was this division which probably prompted the edict from the Grand Lodge which had so annoyed LOL 500 in the first place.
The Act of Union did, of course, come about, and would continue to excite debate and controversy throughout the 19th century.
It was voted through in both parliaments, London and Dublin, an initial complication in the Irish House of Lords being settled by the offer of peerages and honours for critics in order to obtain their votes, changing a 109 to 104 defeat for the Act to a second vote of 158 to 115 in favour in 1800.
The debate would continue. Initially the Roman Catholic hierarchy was supportive, believing that rapid reforms would follow. But this proved difficult and reform had to be fought for, Catholic Emancipation (the right for Catholics to sit in parliament) only being granted in 1829 after the election of Daniel O’Connell in the County Clare by-election.
Daniel O’Connell’s Irish Round Tower memorial dominates Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin
It was the first time since the Reformation that a Roman Catholic had been elected to Parliament. A loophole in the law said that Roman Catholics could not sit in parliament, but did not address the fact that they should not stand for election in the first place. Refusing to allow O’Connell to take his seat would, it was feared, result in others being elected and a de facto separatism to develop – much in the manner of Sinn Fein MPs elected in 1918 who formed Dail Eireann and refused to sit in the Union parliament in London.
During the century there were efforts to address majority grievances in Ireland, and they included Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869, the special position of the Anglican Communion having been a cause for annoyance to Presbyterians and Roman Catholics, who had to pay taxes to a church they did not attend or wish to attend.
But when Disestablishment came about in 1869, there was an angry response again from the Orange Institution.
The Grand Lodge meeting in December 1869 heard a resolution that “this Grand Lodge having expressed its conviction that the passing of the Irish Church Act was a direct violation of the Act of Union, and adhering to that determination, it is now resolved that the obligation to maintain the Legislative Union should no longer be continued as binding upon the members of the Institution and that the statement contained in the ‘Basis of the Institution’ and all provision in the Rules and Rituals and other forms of the Institution, imposing or recognising such obligation be expunged therefrom.”
There was, according to the Grand Lodge report, “an animated discussion” after the reading of the resolution. An amendment was proposed that the resolution be postponed until the next day, with 19 voting in favour and 8 against (there may have also been a number of abstentions, given the low number recorded). On the third day of the Grand Lodge the matter arose once more, and the proposer, W. H. Nunn, was defeated by a resolution from Rev. Hugh Hanna of Belfast (Roaring Hugh Hanna, as he became known) which stated that “While protesting against the action of the Government and particularly on the Disestablishment of Irish Protestantism, this Grand Lodge yet maintains it to be the duty of the Orangemen of Ireland to maintain the Legislative Union between this country and Great Britain.”
The Grand Lodge went further, supporting another resolution as well, which said that any support for Home Rule was “utterly inconsistent with the spirit of Orangeism, and we therefore condemn it.”
Realpolitik had stepped in. The Orange Establishment did not like the legislation which dis-established the Church of Ireland. But it was already becoming clear that, while the Order may not like everything emanating from London, there were potentially worse alternatives.
The fractures which existed within Orangeism did not disappear, continuing to emerge during the 19th and 20th centuries and often based on political liberalism, radicalism and labourism versus the dominant conservatism within the Order.
But the opposition to legislative union with Great Britain had largely gone, as Orangemen witnessed the rise of political nationalism combined with Roman Catholic support for Home Rule harnessed particularly by Daniel O’Connell and his movement for Repeal. O’Connell mobilised and organised Irish Catholics in a way not seen before and in a way which would lay foundations for political developments long after his death.
And while he had famously toasted Repeal with Boyne Water, attempts to re-visit the Orange opposition to the Union of 1801 were ultimately to fail…