Coagh and the Twelfth: A snapshot of Orangeism in Northern Ireland

One of Brisbane’s lesser known organisations is the “Somme Memorial – Brisbane” which meets every month in the city. It is a meeting of Orangemen, a Protestant fraternal order which takes its name from the Dutch-born King William III. The marchers gather at the Anzac War Memorial to commemorate the thousands of Ulster casualties in one of the First World War’s bloodiest battles. Wearing the sash and playing the fife, they follow an older tradition active in Australia since the earliest colonial days.

A sense of history is crucial to Orangeism and this applies as much to far flung followers in the Sunshine State as to its heartland in Northern Ireland. Brother William Wright, the former Grand Master of Australia, was in Northern Ireland this week to celebrate the Orange Order’s biggest day. Sunday was July 12, the 319th anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne which destroyed King James II’s hopes of ending William’s stranglehold on the British Crown. Because the battle took place near Dublin and James was a Catholic the event is primarily commemorated as a victory of Protestant supremacy in Ireland.

July 12 is a public holiday in Northern Ireland and a flashpoint for the tenuous relations between the religions in the province. This was true before the Troubles and as events in Belfast showed is still true today. Elsewhere, the event passed off peacefully. On Sunday, Brother Wright joined 10,000 people who lined the streets of the tiny market town of Coagh, Co Tyrone for the Orange Day parade. It was the first time in seven years the Twelfth of July parade had come to Coagh. It was the largest in the county with fifty-four bands, and an Ulster-Scots concert swelling the village of 500 inhabitants.

It was a welcome change of fortune of a town that has seen its fair share of murder during the 30 year war. All sides suffered. In the 1960s, Coagh gave an ominous hint of what was to follow. In the winter of 1965 Northern Irish Prime Minister Terence O’Neill was keen to establish détente with the regime in Dublin. He caused consternation among hardline Protestants when he invited Taoiseach Sean Lemass to visit Stormont (among those offended was a rising star named Ian Paisley who threw snowballs at Lemass’s car). When Mid Ulster MP George Forrest addressed the Coagh July 12 march in 1967 he was jeered as he paid tribute to O’Neill. The indignant Forrest threatened the crowd with his chair only to be dragged off the platform, kicked and left unconscious.

When full-scale violence did erupt a couple of years later, it wasn’t long in coming to Coagh. In 1972 the Official IRA had declared a ceasefire but continued attacks against the British for another 12 months in a “defensive action”. In October two veteran members John Pat Mullan and Hugh Herron were stopped at a British Army checkpoint in Ardboe near Coagh and arrested. According to IRA reports, the RUC told the Army the men were dangerous and should be “eliminated”. Herron was shot dead at point blank range and Mullan was shot while trying to escape.

The war mostly passed Coagh by for the next 17 years. On March 7, 1989 the peace was rudely shattered. Motor mechanic Leslie Dallas was at work in his garage in town talking to two men. Dallas was the closest thing the town had to a celebrity. He was a former European hot rod champion and an active participant in the local hot rod circuit. His two visitors, a 72-year-old pensioner and a 61-year-old retiree, were chatting to Dallas about his second place finish in Ballymena that weekend. A motorised IRA unit shot all three dead. The shocking attack wasn’t completely random. According to Brendan O’Brien’s “The Long War”, Dallas had a shady alter ego as a senior leader in Protestant paramilitary group the Ulster Volunteer Force. The pensioners were collateral damage.

The UVF retaliated six months later. The Battery Bar is a quiet pub near Coagh at Moortown, the haunt of IRA member Liam Ryan. The UVF ambushed the pub on November 29 and shot dead Ryan. A Catholic civilian Michael Devlin was standing too close to Ryan and he died of gunshot wounds.

More bloodshed followed in 1991. Three IRA members “on active service” (as a pro-IRA site chillingly describes it) were driving towards town when ambushed by an undercover British Army SAS operation. By then the technology, surveillance and undercover operations of the secret 14 Intelligence Company known as “The Det” (for detachment) was undermining IRA capability. The SAS were expecting the IRA men in Coagh. They fired 200 rounds of ammunition into the car. All three died.

Incidents such as Coagh were instrumental in finally bringing the IRA to the negotiating table in the mid 1990s. The end result was the Good Friday Agreement and the remarkable sight of a snowball-less Ian Paisley sitting down in government with IRA members. But while political progress has been astounding, it takes longer to bring the community out of years of hate. The Orange  Order’s strident triumphalism remains a lightning rod for Catholic rage. Coagh’s Orange Hall was badly burned in an attack in November last year.

But perhaps cultural change is coming. There are attempts to rebrand the marches as a tourist friendly “Orangefest”. Drew Nelson of the Orange Order of Ireland told The Independent that they wanted to turn it into a community festival. “We went to Notting Hill Carnival, to learn from that,” he said.

Writing in the Belfast Telegraph yesterday Ed Curran called Orangefest a step in the right direction. He asked who would have believed five years ago the EasyJet inflight magazine would promote the 12th as one of the Belfast’s attractions. “We need to leave behind the Julys of confrontation,” he wrote. “And, if we can, perhaps future Twelfths will be promoted in not just one airline’s travel guide but in many other international tourist brochures.”

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