Dani Garavelli: Orange flare-up

LABOUR’S offer to review policy on parades has been attacked as a cynical ploy to win votes and has pitched the issue back to the top of political debate

It was the moment the police officer had been dreading. As the Orange Order parade passed by the Catholic church, the band struck up, The Sash My Father Wore. “There was a funeral mass going on inside, and I’d made it clear there was to be no playing of music, so I gave the instruction for people to be arrested,” he recalls. “There were complaints lodged against me later, but I was adamant there was no grey area – that kind of behaviour could not be tolerated.”

Later that day, on the last leg of the parade, the same officer found himself bombarded by missiles as the marchers were ambushed by anti-Orange protesters. “It was like the exit scene from Black Hawk Down,” he says. “They were coming at us from all sides, we were penned up in this narrow street in the east end of Glasgow.”

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For many years such scenes were, if not commonplace, then at least unexceptional. In August 2009, scores of police cars converged at Glasgow Cross after an Orange parade clashed with Celtic supporters and rival yobs traded blows. The following month, Strathclyde Police produced a report which catalogued a succession of incidents during two parades in July and suggested breach of the peace offences rose by 75 per cent on those days.

It was to offset such disturbances – and reduce the £1 million plus the marching season costs the police – that Glasgow City Council drew up its Code of Conduct on Public Processions, a pioneering document which aimed to balance the rights of all groups to free assembly with the rights of ordinary people to go about their daily lives.

Though at first criticised as “an affront to human rights” by the Grand Orange Order of Scotland, which believes its members’ freedom to celebrate their Protestant heritage is being systematically destroyed, it was lauded by Strathclyde’s Chief Constable Stephen House as a template for other local authorities.

Some predicted the measures it introduced – such as greater restrictions on when and where music could be played, a reduction in the number of “return” parades and tighter controls over parades passing through the city centre – would lead to a rush of court challenges. But last year – the only year the code has been in force so far – saw a reduction in the overall number of marches and most issues over routes and timings resolved by negotiation with the groups involved.

Yet now, as the marching season begins once more, the code is the focus of fresh controversy. Glasgow City Council leader Gordon Matheson stands accused of currying favour with the Orange Order by pledging to review its provisions, and concerns have been raised that parades might once again be allowed to play their music outside places of worship.

The controversy began in the run-up to the council election – which some predicted would see Labour lose its grip on Glasgow – when Matheson appeared at an Orange Order hustings. To loud applause, he is said to have told members he was prepared to “hold his hands up” and admit that the code – brought in by Labour – was “flawed”. He stressed he could make no promises about specific outcomes. But, if Glasgow voted Labour, the council would look at it the issue afresh.

Later, in a letter sent to SNP MSP Humza Yousaf, he outlined the areas of the code that were likely to be scrutinised; these are said to have included restrictions over the playing of music.

Since the allegations surfaced, Matheson has pointed out a review of the code had always been planned. He insists Glasgow City Council remains committed to reducing the overall number of parades, which include around 20 Republican marches a year and a handful of demonstrations by environmentalists, anti-capitalists and the Scottish Defence League.

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However the row is refusing to go away. With several Orange Lodge-organised Jubilee street parties receiving council funding, and the parade season already under way, concerns have been raised that Matheson was trading a climbdown on its policy on marches for much-needed votes.

Yousaf – himself a young veteran of anti-war marches – is seeking assurances that there will be no watering down of the code, which applies equally to all processions, in the light of Matheson’s comments. But the controversy has raised wider cultural questions. With polls showing around two-thirds of Glaswegians would support a reduction in the number of parades and 50 per cent would support an outright ban, should councillors be contemplating any softening of their current stance? Or in an increasingly multicultural society, where diversity is celebrated, should we be more tolerant of a centuries-old institution which wants to express its own identity in a traditional way? There is no doubting members of the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland feel they are under siege. At its Glasgow HQ, Most Worthy Grand Master Henry Dunbar, a Church of Scotland elder, is at the heart of attempts to improve the institution’s image. And yet, he insists, the last few weeks has seen an onslaught of misinformation aimed at making it look bad. The stories about the 22 “Jubilee” marches were nonsense for a start, he says. “Those parades, which were inclusive of small feeder parades, involved members of the districts of the County Grand Lodge of Glasgow parading to church for their annual Thanksgiving Divine Service, which takes place every year on the first Sunday of June.”

More generally, Dunbar believes the Orange Order’s “pariah” status gives the lie to former First Minister Jack McConnell’s boast that Scotland is “One country – many cultures”.

“The institution’s members, families and friends, who number tens of thousands in and around Glasgow and hundreds of thousands all over Scotland, think differently. We feel very much as if we’re being treated as second-class citizens and that we’re being discriminated against,” says Dunbar.

“We have over 50 halls around Scotland and most of these halls are used by all people within the communities – all different faiths and cultures,” he says. “We also raise hundreds of thousands of pounds annually in our 600 lodges for various charities but no-one ever prints that.”

When the code of conduct was published, Dunbar says, the Orange Order was annoyed that, though all stakeholders were asked to submit written responses, there was no round-the-table consultation exercise. In truth, the code of conduct was always going to be something of a fudge; the law, after all, is explicit in giving all groups an equal right to march or demonstrate, with policing costs to be met from the public purse. Previous attempts to ban marches – including West Dunbartonshire’s attempt to prevent the Provincial Grand Black Chapter of Scotland parading through Dumbarton in 2009 – have been overturned in court.

The council may have been keen to cut the number of marches, but it didn’t want to end up facing a litany of expensive (and possibly unsuccessful) legal battles, so compromises had to be made. As it stands, the code restricts the hours in which music can be played to between 9am and 6pm and insists that – when the number of marchers exceeds 1,000 or the event is judged high-risk – those involved need to assemble in and disperse from a park or other agreed public space.

After its introduction, the total number of marches dropped from 440 to 362, with many ending earlier than in previous years. The biggest Orange parade in Glasgow, which takes place on the first Saturday in July and last year involved 8,000 marchers from 182 lodges, ended four hours earlier that in previous years, which meant it could be covered in one police shift, yet arrest figures remained more or less static.

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Despite the furore which accompanied the code’s publication, only a handful of applications went before the public processions committee (which makes a judgment on cases that cannot be resolved by the parties involved) and none ended up in court.

The Orange Order would argue that – to a large degree – this was down to its willingness to make concessions. In particular, Dunbar says, the institution embarked on a programme to train thousands of its own marshals, many of whom were employed to help keep order at the 2 July event.

Conscious its reputation has been unfairly tarnished by hangers-on, the Orange Order has also done its best to dissociate itself from those non-members, who latch on to the bands specifically to cause trouble.

“Last year, I made a statement with the then Assistant Chief Constable Campbell Corrigan – and this year I’ll making a statement with Assistant Chief Constable Bernard Higgins saying ‘we do not want the blue-bag brigade here’. If people don’t want to follow the parade quietly and with respect then we want them to stay at home.”

What the Orange Order is looking for from the review – according to Dunbar – is merely minor adjustments to the code. It is not, he insists, asking to be allowed to play music outside places of worship while services are ongoing – “We would never tolerate that,” he says – but they’d like a little more flexibility, particularly where places of worship are very obviously not being used. He would also like to see an easing up of restrictions over the hours in which music is allowed to be played to accommodate feeder parades which have to set off before 9am if they are to reach the fixed assembly points before 10am.

“We do feel we have given a lot up and are getting very little in return,” he says. Put like that, the Orange Order’s demands don’t seem to be so unreasonable. But for those for who have experienced the ugly side of the marching season, any perceived easing up of restrictions is unwelcome.

Retired chief inspector Les Gray, who policed several Orange marches, says, “Orange parades are not a pleasant place for police officers to be. We tend to be piggy-in-the-middle, with abuse hurled at us from all sides. The marchers swear at us for trying to keep them within the white lines – and the protesters swear at us for trying to keep the marchers safe.

“Of course, like everyone else, the Orange Order has the right to march, but people also have the right to go about their daily business –anyone who has ever sat in a taxi, watching the meter go up and up, knows how frustrating being stuck behind a big parade can be.”

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As far as Gray is concerned, the council should be doing all it can to reduce the number of parades. “To be honest the fewer parades the better in my view because it’s an obscene waste of public money. There are parades now for the sake of parades.”

Far from supporting any relaxation of the code, Humza Yousaf would like to see it beefed up a bit. “If there’s any problem with it it’s that some of its rules are not as well enforced as they should be,” he says. “For example, I heard recently from a chapel in the east end of Glasgow that bands are still sometimes playing as they pass and nothing is being done about it. I would welcome change if it was going to make the code of conduct more robust – but somehow I don’t think that’s what prompted all the applause for Gordon Matheson at the hustings.”

As for the council leader himself, he was, this weekend, tied up with another, somewhat less controversial parade – that of the Olympic torch as it wended its way along Fenwick/Kilmarnock Road towards the city centre on Friday night.

As the cauldron was lit in George Square to mark the occasion, he would be forgiven for hoping the flame ignited by his alleged hustings pledge would soon be extinguished. «