On the 16th of February 1886, Lord Randolph Churchill, a member of the troublesome “Fourth Party” backbench faction of the opposition Conservative Party, wrote to a colleague that the “…Orange card would be the one to play” if hardline Tories were to undermine any new attempt by the ruling Liberal Party government to introduce legislation into the House of Commons that promised “home rule” or limited autonomy for Ireland within the then United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In effect, the MP and arch-populist was arguing that violence and the threat of violence by the unionist minority on the island, orchestrated and justified by pro-union sympathisers in Britain, would be key to thwarting the democratic aspirations of the nationalist majority. In a subsequent rabble-rousing campaign that featured tumultuous rallies and fiery speeches in London, Dublin and Belfast the opportunist aristocratic and his allies brought that plan to bloody fruition, sparking an “Orange terror” that he both condemned and encouraged with a remarkable degree of political dissimulation.
By the summer of 1886 the revived belief that there could be some peaceful change to Ireland’s subservient constitutional status within the United Kingdom was squashed through the machinations of the Tory-led imperial parliament sitting in the Palace of Westminster, leaving it to a future generation of men and women to find a more revolutionary answer to the island’s perennial British question. That controversy was well over a century ago. Yet here we are again, watching the UK sink into political turmoil and acrimony as the country argues its future relationship with the rest of Europe while an extremist strand of unionism in its legacy colony in north-east Ulster threatens to unleash a modern incarnation of the Orange card.
The shuffling of the militant deck began in recent weeks when the leadership of the Democratic Unionist Party, the original peace process dissidents, held a clandestine meeting in Belfast with several individuals closely associated with a number of illegal British terrorist groups, notably the infamous UDA-UFF and the UVF, a summit closely followed by threats of imminent action by the loyalist gangs. That sequence of events culminated in the DUP making statements in the House of Commons and the news media predicting, or “warning”, of the possibility of imminent loyalist violence on the streets. And all in supposed opposition to the latest and most hopeful compromise deal reached between the European Union and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to end the lingering impasse over Brexit.
None of this has stopped mainstream politicians, journalists and commentators in Britain from expressing some sympathy with the Democratic Unionists or normalising their aberrant position within Westminster. Instead, the unloved heirlooms from the dark basement of British colonialism have been dragged out into the political limelight to be fawned over and elevated beyond their status in an attempt by the rival factions in London to gain the upper hand over each other. And if the bullet-tattered dead begin to appear in Belfast or Portadown, on the floors of pubs, in the seats of taxis, at the gates of company carparks, in the grounds of sports clubs, or on the roads outside schools, the DUP and those who give them succour, Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem, Leaver and Remainer alike, will issue statements of condemnation, denying any contribution towards the excessive rhetoric, the talk of “enemies” and “traitors”, of “war” and “battles”, that will encourage or justify the taking of Irish lives among those imbued with a murderous surfeit of British loyalty.
If the wheel of history turns in the wrong direction it will be the incompetent engineers of Westminster and Downing Street who will have broken the delicate mechanisms that made peace possible, returning us to an era of conflict that serves no one but the political war-profiteers of Belfast and London.