The upper end of the Garvaghy Road in Portadown runs past a dreary 1960s housing estate, once mixed but now Catholic. The unremarkable topography of that estate, the Drumcree Anglican church just north of it and the fields round about are by now miserably familiar to the world. They have become the landscapes of nightmare. For the fifth year running, confrontation over the Orange Order's insistence on marching there threatens to destroy Northern Ireland's peace settlement, and even push the province towards civil war. At least ten people have been murdered as a direct consequence of the Drumcree dispute.
Portadown, the "Orange Vatican", is perhaps the most bitterly sectarianised locale in all Northern Ireland. Most outsiders react with weary disgust towards those enmeshed in its battles, in a heightened and localised version of the overall attitude to Ulster's divisions. People in England who know nothing about Northern Ireland seem to believe everyone there is mad. Those who do know something suspect that the Portadown folk are the real problem. And in Portadown itself, the sane majority will point towards a few specific streets as the actual source of trouble.
The Orange Order is often identified as the prime villain. Why do these strange, archaic figures in their bowler hats and sashes insist on thrusting themselves where they're not wanted? Who can take seriously their claims that their way of life, the bedrock of their identity, even their physical survival are at stake on that dull stretch of road?
Ruth Dudley Edwards' portrait of the "loyal institutions" - the Orange Order, Apprentice Boys and Royal Black Preceptory - is engrossing and illuminating, if sometimes infuriating. Herself of southern Irish, Catholic background, Edwards argues that Orangemen and their loyalist siblings are consistently and shamefully "misrepresented and traduced" by most outsiders. But she concedes that their own stubborn inarticulacy is partly to blame. Her account should convince the open-minded that they have far greater virtues and a stronger case than is normally recognised. Her encounters with ordinary Orangemen and women (contrary to widespread belief, there are women - though mostly in subordinate and auxiliary roles) display their kindness, honesty and, with few exceptions, genuine aversion to sectarianism and violence.
But Edwards, in her desire to set the record straight, overreaches. Hers is too trenchant a defence of the loyal institutions to carry full conviction; it glosses over too many of their faults. There is something slightly naive - or faux-naif - about her repeated expressions of surprise at being received with friendship by loyalists. Some of that hospitality, as she says, is because the people concerned are genuinely decent and non-sectarian. But the institutions' leaders are not as foolish as they sometimes make themselves appear. They recognise the value of having a distinguished writer and journalist, a Dublin Catholic to boot, on their side. They're unlikely to bite the hand that caresses them.
Journalists such as Roy Greenslade and Mark Steel portray them as ignorant, mindless bigots. Others repeatedly assert that Ulster Protestants have no culture worth the name, no traditions worth respecting or preserving. "Boot-faced" seems to be a favourite adjective for them. The impression is often given that loyalists are sectarian in a way that their enemies are not.
In fact, the main difference is that republicans have tighter internal discipline and a more sophisticated public relations machine. The IRA's categories of "legitimate targets" were broad and flexible enough for them to kill almost anybody they liked while hardly ever doing so on overtly religious grounds. The Catholic residents' associations that have sprung up in several areas to oppose Orange marches are presented as spontaneous, essentially apolitical responses to loyalist aggression. But as Edwards shows, many of them have been created or manipulated by Sinn Fein.
Edwards downplays, however, the other side of the picture. "Retired terrorists" have certainly featured on the republican side of the parading disputes. But some very active ones, such as Billy "King Rat" Wright and his friends, offered the Orangemen their support. Most Orange lodges expel members convicted of terrorist crimes. Most, but not all. Lodge number 633, the "Old Boyne Island Heroes", carries on its banner the names of five members killed during the troubles - loyalist gunmen, including one of the worst sectarian murderers of the entire troubles. Many loyal parades feature, too, "Blood and Thunder" bands, swaggering young shaven-headed gangsters, often playing viciously sectarian songs and openly linked to paramilitary groups. They contrast bizarrely with the dark-suited respectability of the older marchers.
Edwards doesn't entirely ignore all this; but she doesn't confront the question which bemuses so many of loyalism's potential friends: why doesn't the Orange Order ban these people from its ranks? Rather, her history of the loyal institutions seems uncritically to reproduce their own self-images. For instance, she refers to the "burning to death of more than 200 Protestants at Scullabogue" in 1798. In truth, there were probably only about half that number of victims. Isn't that bad enough? Some of them were Catholics, and some of their murderers were Protestant. This was certainly not a neat sectarian affair. Nor was it ordered or approved by the republican leadership. Edwards is in danger here of perpetuating the historical myths that feed sectarianism today.