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Pockets of 'green' in Order — study

(Sarah Hilley, Irish News)

There may be a surprising amount of 'green' within the Orange Order, with almost 20% of members prepared to vote for the SDLP.

Leaders of the Orange Order were also "staggered" to find out that almost 2% of members would cast a vote for Sinn Féin if they could not back their favoured unionist party.

According to a study to be published in the September issue of the journal Electoral Studies, 5.4% of Orange Order members said they were "likely" to vote SDLP.

A further 13.5% said they would "possibly" vote SDLP as a second preference.

Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool, Jonathan Tonge, who conducted the study with colleagues from the University of Salford, said Orange Order leaders were shocked at the results.

"They were staggered that any of their members would even contemplate voting for Sinn Féin," he said.

"They wanted to know who these people were and why they were in the Orange Order."

However, as all of the 300 questionnaires were anonymous, the identities of the dissident Sinn Féin supporters will remain secret.

While he suspects the respondents who indicated support for Sinn Féin had misread the question, Prof Tonge believes the number who indicated a preference for the SDLP is a more serious statistic.

"There is a moderate wing of the Orange Order that would be willing to vote SDLP,' he said.

The study also found hardline political views were becoming prevalent among younger Orange Order members, with the DUP likely to remain the preferred unionist party.

The research revealed a "radical ethnic militancy is apparent amongst younger 'Orange' Protestants", Prof Tonge said.

Eighty per cent of 18-24 year olds who responded said they were "likely" to vote for the DUP.

It was also found that young Orange Order members disliked former UUP leader David Trimble – an Orangeman – nearly as much as they disliked Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams. Ian Paisley topped the popularity ratings.

Prof Tonge said young Orange Order members felt "the DUP is the party that best represents their ethnic bloc against a nationalist threat".

Younger members' radicalism could be attributed to being brought up during the most violent years of the Troubles, according to Prof Tonge.

Increasing secularism among young people is also reflected within the ranks of the Orange Order. Unlike in the past, people are joining its ranks for mostly political rather than religious reasons.

Likewise, according to Prof Tonge, the DUP's appeal has "nothing to do with religion". He said very few order members practice the same Free Presbyterian brand of Protestantism as party leader Mr Paisley.

Support for Mr Paisley's hardline politics was unlikely to diminish.

"The DUP has become popular with the Orange Order because it opposes power sharing with Sinn Féin. The Orange vote will now stay with the DUP," Prof Tonge said.

Some older Orangemen remain loyal Ulster Unionists, however. Fifty per cent of over-55s said they would vote UUP while those who are younger were overwhelmingly likely to support the DUP.

Prof Tonge said DUP dominance "doesn't bode well for prospects of power-sharing".

Orange Order voters "deserted the UUP in droves" after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

August 17, 2006

This article appeared first in the August 16, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News