There are two ways (at least) of looking at the invitation to the Grand Master of the Orange Order, Drew Nelson, to address the Irish Seanad. One is to go with the argument of Senator Martin McAleese. He believes that to engage with those like Nelson who are “pivotal to the success of upcoming centenaries” will allow the Seanad to contribute successfully to the centenaries and result in reconciliation between the unionist and nationalist traditions. Another, contrasting argument would be that Drew Nelson heads an anti-Catholic organization with a shameful history and rules which make clear that sectarianism is still a strong element in its make-up, and to allow him to address the Seanad is to confer a misplaced honour.
I tend to the second line of thought. It is possible to treat with the Orange Order as though it were a benevolent organization that makes possible an annual day of music and ice-creams. And there is some truth in that view of the Order. For thousands, maybe tens of thousands, that’s what the Twelfth is. But of course the Orange Order doesn’t march only on the Twelfth, there is much more to it than music and ice-cream, and to pretend that its history and ordinances don’t exist or are entirely benevolent is to be one-eyed at best and blind at worst.
However, Senator McAleese is following a path prepared by Sinn Féin. That party has chosen what Gregory Campbell, I believe, describes as “love-bombing”. That’s an inspired phrase. It catches the determination of republicans to turn former enemies into friends, and it pin-points the fear some unionists have that such an approach could prove destructive of unionism. Senator McAleese himself has a good track-record in making friends with people such as loyalist leader Jackie McDonald, which, when you think about it, is an amazing turn-around. It’s also Christianity in action: love your enemies, do good to those that hate you, etc.
There are two ways that all this - Sinn Féin’s outreach to unionism, the Seanad’s embrace of Duncan Nelson and the Orange Order – could end. For the first time in Irish history, the goal represented by the Irish tricolour could be achieved: reconciliation between the nationalist and unionist traditions in Ireland. Were that to be whole-hearted and permanent, political reunification would be a logical final step. On the other hand, it could end as Animal Farm by George Orwell ends. The animals, who thought they were on their way to freedom from human tyranny, peer through the farmhouse window at a meeting of their pig-leaders with the humans. “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which”.
Dissident republicans believe that is exactly what has happened and continues to happen; the rest of us hope and pray they’re wrong.