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The Faithful Tribe: An Intimate Portrait of the Loyal Institutions

Ruth Dudley Edwards.  Harper Collins, London 1999. ISBN0 00 255863 7  £17.99

What might cause an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi to fly from New York to Belfast for the Twelfth?  Running the risk of sounding a bit too impressionable I must confess that my decision to visit Northern Ireland was made after having read Chapter One (the first fifty pages) of Ruth Dudley Edwards' The Faithful Tribe. Those opening pages describe in detail Edwards’ participation in eight parades of assorted Loyal Institutions. I was captivated by the sense that emerged from the narrative of a people who have somehow managed to reject the secular functionalism and cynical consumerism which has enveloped so much of European civilisation in our day. This was something that had to be experienced in person.

Edwards has set herself a difficult task. She seeks to tell the story of the Apprentice Boys, Orange Order and Royal Black Preceptory fairly, yet, with unmistakable sympathy. In order to do this properly, she provides the reader with a brief overview of Ulster history with special emphasis on the Williamite wars and establishment of the Free State. In addition, the inner workings and history of the lodges is gone into with painstaking depth.

Finally, in order to render contemporary the ideas and events described, she explores the annual crisis in Drumcree in step by step fashion beginning in the early nineties and extending till the summer of 1998. This meticulous chronology forms a book within a book extending to 254 pages. (The non -Drumcree half of the book is only 277 pages.)Rabbi Mayer Schiller

For outsiders unaware of events in Northern Ireland or, aware only through the lens of Republicanism's highly successful international media campaign, the book is immediately captivating by virtue of its even handedness. As one who is only beginning to explore the history and culture of Ulster and therefore not yet widely read, it is the best introductory work I have thus far come across. It is also one of the few works at all sympathetic to the cause of Unionism as advocated by the lodges. In fact, a frequent lament of the book is the inferior or non existent state of Protestant propaganda before the bar of international opinion.

Throughout the book Edwards lets the "faithful tribe" speak. We hear their voices and feel their ideals and fears. The credibility of all this is much advanced by Edwards' own Catholic background and current agnosticism on matters of faith.

Of particular note to the reader exploring the North for the first time is Edwards' articulation of the degree that the Orders' position on parades and the like is motivated by their belief in the link between religious and civil liberty and the Reformation. In their minds Rome and the denial of liberty are seen as one.  However, questionable this might be historically - Were Calvin and Luther really more committed to religious and civil liberty than is the Vatican II Church? - it is, nonetheless, part of the way the Reformation is viewed in the Ulster mythos and to ignore it is to miss an essential element of the Protestant struggle. This goes a long way to understanding the intensity concerning the Garvaghy Road and similar impasses.

Perhaps, one of the most surprising aspects of the Unionist cause to an outsider is how Orangeism, Loyalism and a deep seated attachment to their national history as Protestants survives even among those on whom religious faith itself no longer commands belief. This seems strange at first glance. Edwards however, who is clearly not comfortable with robust, traditional faiths (Catholic or Protestant) makes much of this fact in order to accentuate the fraternal and cultural, as opposed to religious, aspects of the Orders and the Unionist cause in general.  In truth this argument only goes so far. Much of Unionism's most fervent backers are to be found in the DUP and the Free Presbyterian Church . Edwards does not sympathise with this perspective and it is not portrayed in much detail in her work.

In general, her goal is to portray the Orders' aims in as benign a fashion as possible. This is worthwhile in that it counters the demonisation of the media but it does seem to miss the roots of religious and patriotic passion which has led Ulstermen into battles against overwhelming odds throughout their history.  And, it is true that this passion survives even where its religious underpinnings are gone. Yet, Edwards is as uncomfortable with "blood and thunder" bands of stark, working class, cultural Protestants as she is with Free Presbyterianism.

Her vision is one of ultimate reconciliation between Ulster's two peoples.  Surely this is a goal all can share. In an appendix she presents a "Draft Speech for the Prime Minister" where her fictitious Prime Minister says "I cherish both nationalist and unionist culture as equal expressions of important traditions which have shaped us all." Further, "The legitimacy and security of Northern Ireland's place within the UK has never been more secure."  However, the question is whether "cherishing traditions" equally can be achieved within the UK, or the Republic, for that matter. Of course, the notion that it is Union itself which presents major obstacles to the survival of faith, memory and identity which Unionists value is a bit much for many tradition rooted Ulstermen.

Ruth Dudley Edwards emerges from the pages of her book as a decent, fair minded women with the ability to enter the mind set of others with empathy. Her work is a readable and sympathetic treatment of a people who have had little sympathy in the past.  Yet, her reluctance to plumb the depths of passionate faith and identity is indicative of an inability to contemplate radical perspectives in general. Her kindly nature precludes the thought of invasive surgery. Yet, for an ill patient, is kindness of this sort, however well intentioned, what the doctor would order?

Nonetheless, the final verdict on The Faithful Tribe must be, at least for this writer, positive. Without it (and God's help, of course) I would never had been witness to the celebrations of the week of the Twelfth. And that would have been a shame.

Rabbi Mayer Schiller

Rabbi Mayer Schiller teaches Bible and Talmud at Yeshiva University High School in New York City. He has authored many books and articles on religious and political matters.

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