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DONAGHADEE ORANGE HALL, Donaghadee, County Down

The Orange Order is an icon of Protestant culture in Northern Ireland.

 

The small halls where Loyal Orange Lodges meet were once dotted all across the north of Ireland, some poking out from hedgerows on country lanes, others taking pride of place in the main streets of market towns and villages across the province. Monthly meetings consisting of prayer, bible readings, tea and sandwiches were the social fabric that held many rural communities together.

 

After the partition of Ireland in 1921, the Orange Order became synonymous with Protestant supremacy in the newly created Northern Ireland - a ‘Protestant state for a Protestant people’. While membership rapidly declined in the ‘Free State’, the Order held significant political power in Northern Ireland’s Stormont government.

 

By the 1970s Protestant discrimination of Catholics led to ‘The Troubles’  - a 30 year sectarian battle between British Protestants wanting to retain the union with Great Britain, and Catholic nationalists seeking the reunification of Ireland. Orange Halls became a symbolic target for violence, with graffiti, paint attacks and arson commonplace. In response, many Lodges fortified their halls, reflecting a culture defiant under attack. After a series of contentious and violent parades in the 1990s Lodge membership became increasingly associated with paramilitary organizations, reflecting the ‘no surrender' attitude of the early days of the Order.

 

100 years after partition, the demographic changes in Northern Ireland are apparent in the halls.

 

As a once-rural population moves into expanding market towns and villages, many halls have become surrounded by new housing developments or isolated as county roads become arterial routes to urban centers. A growing secularisation has brought a steep decline in Lodge membership, with many halls falling into disrepair.  Areas that were once predominantly Protestant are now becoming diverse, as census data shows a growing Catholic population now in the majority.

 

25 years after the Good Friday Agreement brought and end to ‘The Troubles’, cultural and political identites in Northern Ireland are changing. 30% of the population now identifies as ‘Northern Irish’ , rather than the traditional ‘Catholic’ or ‘Protestant’.

 

Yet the Order maintains significant political power. Brexit has created a ‘Sea Border’ where Northern Ireland is now constitutionally part of the United Kingdom, but economically aligned with the Republic of Ireland in the EU. In response, the Order has said it ‘will not be found wanting in defense of the Union’, and has refused to rule out civil disobediance.

 

While some dismiss the Orange Order as a relic of the past, it’s political and cultural power still has influence as Northern Ireland decides it’s future.

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