by Neil Jarman
Each summer the Protestant areas of towns and villages across Northern Ireland are bedecked with Union flags, red, white and blue bunting, elaborately painted gable end murals and street furniture in the union colours. To the uninformed such representations of loyalty to 'Queen and Country' might suggest that many of these communities are celebrating a royal jubilee each and every year. In fact the decorations are no more than a 'traditional' facet of the marching season, when the Orange Order and other similar bodies parade to commemorate the victories of the seventeenth century that ensured the place of a Protestant king on the throne of Britain and Ireland.
The numerous parades are dominated by large numbers of flags and banners depicting people, places and historical events that are important to the political, social, religious and cultural identity of the Unionist community. But within this diversity of colourful symbolic displays images of the monarch or members of the royal family, a keystone of their sense of Britishness, are distinctive by their almost total absence. This is perhaps even more surprising given that the marching orders go under the collective term of 'loyal orders' and the most fervently British of the Unionist community are known, and describe themselves, as 'loyalists'.
Images of the monarch in Ulster Protestant representations of their cultural and political identity are rare but not completely absent. Observers of the Belfast Twelfth parade will see a small number of banners that depict recent monarchs: a stern portrait of Queen Victoria; King Edward VII on horseback doffing his hat; George VI speaking into a microphone whilst making a radio broadcast to the nation are three that spring to mind. However no banners carry portrayals of Queen Elizabeth II, nor of any monarch before Victoria, except of course for the ubiquitous image of King William III on his white horse. An image that has become the key symbol of the Ulster's Protestant community's attachment to their sense of Britishness.
One reason for the lack of images of the current monarch can be found in the pragmatism of self-imposed constraint. An informal rule prohibits the depiction of the living on loyal order banners. In the late nineteenth century images of the rich and powerful members of the Ulster ruling classes were widespread at parades. But when one prominent businessman, whose image was proudly borne on parade each year, indicated a sympathy for Irish nationalist ideals it was decided that the banners should display only the dead, because they at least are unable to change their opinions or their allegiance. After all a hand painted silken banner is expensive and can be expected to last for twenty years or more, but a lodge would find it impossible to walk behind the image of a 'Lundy' (a traitor). A few years ago a Scottish lodge requested and received permission to depict the Queen on their new banner, but as yet no Ulster lodge has followed suit. Perhaps the memory of Edward VIII still resonates, because in spite of their protestations of loyalty, the Orange Order still seem to retain a suspicion and mistrust of betrayal that has become almost natural to their self defined status as a besieged and threatened community. Such wariness apparently extends even to the monarch.
However the restricted range of representations of the monarch within the public forum of a parade contrasts with the widespread presence of photographic images of the Queen in Orange halls across Northern Ireland. Every hall contains at least one image of Queen Elizabeth, usually in a prominent place, although she would often also share space with portraits of local Orange worthies or photographs of past lodges in their summer regalia. In displaying what are often fading colour photographs of the Queen as she was in the 1950s or 1960s (an era often regarded with some considerable wistfulness as the Golden Age of Orangeism), the Orangemen are acknowledging their sense of loyalty in the same way as many others within the wider unionist community. Local authorities and political bodies, businesses and shopkeepers, and institutional bodies such as the RUC are among those who, now or in the past, routinely display a portrait of the Queen. But for the loyal orders it may well be that in displaying this standard image of the Queen the emphasis is more a matter of adhering to a routine and normative behaviour rather than an expression of freely considered choice. Such images appear to be displayed as much as an act of genuflection than as an expression of affection. One should consider the position where an Orange lodge has the choice of displaying a person who is important and personally meaningful to its members, as they do when ordering a new banner, in such situations they are far more likely to choose a deceased lodge member than an image of the monarch. Furthermore the distinctive individual detailing and craftsmanship of the banner images, each one a variation on a limited theme, it is true, but nevertheless unique and personally significant to the men who march behind it, is in stark contrast with the dull uniformity of the mass produced photographic portraits that are hung in the privacy of an Orange hall.
This difference between private displays of portrait of the Queen and the public absence of such images is also partly due to the fact that the monarch as person is less important than monarch as symbol. In spite of the absence of images of specific monarchs, the institution of monarchy is nevertheless often represented in symbolic form on Orange banners. The painting of the Crown and other symbols of the monarchy sitting on top of an open bible is one of the most widely used and one of the most long-standing of banner images. Another popular painting, which has the explanatory motto 'The Secret of England's Greatness', depicts a young Queen Victoria offering a bible to an 'Indian prince'. These two images indicate how the status of, reverence for, and loyalty towards the monarchy for the Ulster unionist identity is entwined with, and inseparable from, its relationship with the Protestant faith.
It has been argued on numerous occasions that the loyalty of the loyal orders, and of the loyalist community more generally, is primarily to the monarchy rather than to the monarch. The visual displays symbolise their loyalty to an institution rather than to an individual. It was the monarchy that originally united the four countries within the United Kingdom and in an era of devolution it is the monarchy that continues to unite the increasingly disparate political entities. The classic images of King William III are stylised representations. They depict the King as symbol, a military, religious and political leader, rather than a simple man. This is not to deny a real sense of loyalty to the Queen or to a sense of Britishness, but it does suggest that while the collective Orange identity is based on a sense of loyalty to the Crown or the State, this is nevertheless conditional. Loyalty is extended only as long, or in so far as the Crown and State remains loyal to them. The relationship is one of a freely entered covenant rather than a contract based on compulsion and subservience.
This underlying attitude of mutuality can be discerned in such popular displays as the singing of the National Anthem at Northern Ireland's international football matches where the lines have long been adapted to include popular, local sentiment:
God save our gracious Queen,
Long live our noble Queen,
God save the Queen,
Send her Victorious...
It is also evident in the posters of Charles and Diana that were hugely popular at the time of their wedding, in which the clothes the royal couple were wearing had been changed into the royal blue colours of Glasgow Rangers football club. One reading is that we love you as much as we love Rangers, but with the implication that we will remain loyal to you as long as you remain one of us. On the other hand it was also indicative that for some people Rangers were as much an equal anchor for their sense of Protestant identity as were the royal couple.
In spite of such symbolic ambivalence the loyalist community have not publicly questioned their relationship with the monarchy. Perhaps this is because to date the Queen is not perceived to have threatened their status as British citizens in the same way as Her Majesty's Government have been felt to undermine the Ulster Protestant British identity over the past decade. However, when Prince Charles described himself as the 'defender of faith' rather than as the 'defender of the faith' some years ago, voices were raised in concern over the implication that this might have for the status of the Protestant community in Ulster. After all their loyalty to the crown has always been contingent on the seemingly synonymous relationship between the crown and the reformed faith. Their loyalty is to a Protestant British monarchy rather than simply to a British monarchy. There is clearly still no scope for equality of faiths to Orange eyes, after all it was only as recently as 1997 that Robert Saulters, the newly elected Grandmaster of the Orange Order denounced Tony Blair, at the Twelfth parade in Belfast, for having the poor judgement to marry a Roman Catholic.
It may well therefore be the transition from Elizabeth to Charles that asks the most questions of the Ulster loyalist's loyalty to the monarchy, particularly if Charles pursues an approach that aims to further adapt and modernise the monarchy and attempt to make it more relevant to the pluralist multi-cultural, multi-faith society that Britain has become. When the Ulster Freedom Fighters were decorating the lower Shankill estate with murals during the summer of 2000 some local people complained about the number of hooded paramilitary gunmen on the walls. They asked the painters to produce something more representative of their broader loyalist culture and traditions. The next paintings to appear were standard Orange banner depictions of the Battle of the Boyne and the Siege of Derry, but alongside them appeared a twenty-foot high portrait of Diana, the 'Queen of Hearts'. The image sits somewhat uneasily between the symbols of the loyal orders and the loyalist paramilitaries but perhaps represents most clearly the underlying tensions and contradictions within the Ulster Protestant's sense of loyalty.
Photographs by the Australian photographer Matthew Sleeth from the series Pink Bits (referring to the old maps) looking at the cultural legacy of the British Empire. © Matthew Sleeth (alisonholland.com and M.33 Photoagency)