Attacks on Orange halls are a concrete form of attack on Protestant culture and cause considerable offence, particularly in places such as Londonderry where the Protestant community feels exposed because of its minority status.
But a ‘cultural war’ on unionism, as sketched by the Grand Master of the Orange Order in Ireland, Edward Stevenson, in Londonderry during the Twelfth last year, is less tangible.
That’s according to academic Dr Paul Nolan, whose third annual Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report, was published last week by the Community Relations Council.
In a chapter on ‘Political Progress,’ Dr Nolan said the Grand Master’s statement in Wilton Park that “republicans are engaging in a cultural war to erode all symbols of Britishness” has been widely adopted across a wide cross-section of unionism.
But Dr Nolan rejects the argument stating: “The sense of besiegement is deep and widely-held, but what empirical evidence exists for there being a cultural war on unionism?
“The facts do not align themselves easily with such a proposition. Rather, there is evidence of a loyalist culture that is flourishing and being supported to flourish.”
He points out that loyalist marches have increased to the highest number ever (2,687); that the Orange Order received a grant of £900,000 from the EU to address the legacy of the Troubles in the Protestant community; that over £2m from the EU was awarded to the Apprentice Boys for its new visitors’ centre; that there are more marching bands (660) than ever before; and that Ulster Scots received £2.7m in funding last year.
However, Dr Nolan accepts sectarian attacks on loyal order premises are real.
He writes: “Attacks on Orange halls are a more concrete form of attack on Protestant culture and cause considerable offence, particularly in places such as Derry-Londonderry where the Protestant community feels exposed because of its minority status.
“The number of attacks however has been going down from a peak of 72 in the 2009/10 to 27 in 2012/13, and the expression of the unionist concern on this issue suggest that the sense of a culture war is at the more abstract or symbolic level - the union flag at Belfast City Hall representing the paradigmatic case.
“When a zero sum logic is applied it is easier to see how the balance sheet can show a loss on the Protestant side.”
Dr Nolan suggests the perception of a ‘culture war’ is leading the drive against an Irish language Act.
“If recognition of the Irish language, for example, is seen as a de-recognition of British culture, then unionism could be seen to have lost a number of significant battles in a culture war, and from this perspective it would make it all the more imperative to block an Irish language act.
“This form of zero sum thinking was present as far back as 2008 when the Grand Orange Lodge accused the Equality Commission of being intent on removing Britishness, because it has approved the use of the Irish language in local councils.
“In an open letter, the Orange Order claimed the Commission was engaged in a strategy to wipe ‘the face of Britishness from Northern Ireland’ while ‘ignoring the use of the divisive symbols of Irishness,’” he states.