In his first major and wide-ranging interview since being appointed grand secretary of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, Rev Mervyn Gibson has spoken of his concerns over the current political climate, his belief that the deal to end the Ardoyne/Twaddell parading impasse will hold…and his love of Irish folk songs and ballads.
The Presbyterian minister and former Orange grand chaplain took over his new post in December following the death of Drew Nelson.
Rev Gibson has been one of the Institution’s most recognisable public figures since a number of residents’ groups intensified their opposition to Orange parades following the paramilitary ceasefires.
The 59-year-old from east Belfast is not aligned with any political party but was invited by the DUP to join its delegation taking part in the 2013 Haass talks – aimed at resolving disputes over flags, parades and Troubles legacy issues.
The process ended without agreement and Rev Gibson has remained an outspoken critic of the Parades Commission and the way parades are regulated in Northern Ireland.
Speaking to the News Letter this week the former police officer – who had been a Special Branch detective until leaving the RUC just before the peace process began gathered momentum – said that while the Order will do all it can for the good of Northern Ireland, “it won’t compromise on its principles”.
In the past he has defended the Order against claims by former deputy first minister Martin McGuinness that the Institution, the PUP and the UVF were acting as “one and the same thing”.
Looking ahead to this summer, Rev Gibson said the agreement which led to the dismantling of the loyalist protest camp at Twaddell Avenue in north Belfast is expected to hold – although the usual protest at Ardoyne shop fronts is expected to take place.
“This year there will be no parade applied for in the evening but the parade will go down [the Crumlin Road] in the morning,” he said.
Rev Gibson also explains that the Order’s grand master Edward Stevenson has written to all unionist parties contesting next month’s assembly election – urging them to ensure that parading is “back on the table” as part of any future negotiations.
“We don’t want promises of talks – we want legislation,” he said.
Revealing more of the man behind the collarette, Rev Gibson speaks of his love of folk music, long walks, the cinema and travelling.
Among his favourite bands are The Clancy Brothers, The Chieftains and The Fureys, while South Africa is rated as his top holiday destination.
Surrounded by Institution memorabilia at the Museum of Orange Heritage in Belfast, the life-long Orangeman said he would work tirelessly to ensure Drew Nelson’s impressive legacy is built upon as the Order moves forward.
Mark Rainey: How relevant is the Orange Order 2017?
Mervyn Gibson:: “It’s relevant to its members and its families, that’s what makes it relevant. It’s not the size of the organisation in the past…it’s what it believes in and what stands for that makes it relevant. The values of the Institution in terms of its Christian values are still as relevant today for society as they ever were. Also, our stand for the Union is still as relevant today, so it may not be as big as it was, but neither are many other fraternal organisations or indeed the churches.”
Mark Rainey: Has the long-running parading impasse around Ardoyne/Twaddell Ave been resolved?
Mervyn Gibson:: “Sadly, the fundamental issue about the parade that everyone seems to be missing, and seems to have fallen off the table politically, is that the legislation is fundamentally flawed and biased against parades…so until that legislation is changed to be transparent and equitable, we are still going to have to face parading issues. That has to change. This year there will be no parade applied for in the evening but the parade will go down [the Crumlin Road] in the morning. Obviously some groups will still oppose it, and we have no difficulty with the protest, but the unknown quantity is the political climate. If people want to make mischief they will use parades.
Mark Rainey: Is there a desire among some opponents of the Orange Order to ensure a number of traditional parades are embroiled in controversy?
Mervyn Gibson:: Sinn Fein used parades as a tactic in the late 1990s coming out of [the republican movement’s] terror campaign. It gave their membership and supporters something to do, to oppose parades. It has outlived its usefulness as a tactic, now it is just an irritant that they keep going and there could be potential for this summer that they turn the screw to up the ante around parades to try to get a reaction. I hope that won’t be the case, but they use it as and when they need it. They probably see it also as a negotiating point for any future talks. If there is fairer legislation for parades then they are looking something in return. Sadly, it’s a horse they’ve sold us three or four times over the various talks and it looks like it has to be sold again, but as far as the Institution is concerned we just want a fair playing field for all. It would also help if the attitude of some others towards parades changed too. That is all we are looking for. We don’t want to parade through republican areas, but we do want to be able to parade the main streets and the main towns of this province.
Mark Rainey: What is you current position in repsect of the Parades Commission?
Mervyn Gibson:: We are not looking for special treatment. We are not saying that new legislation that is fair and transparent will get us every parade, but at least it will get us a fair hearing at the table. At the minute we are not getting that and the Parades Commission is totally unaccountable. I understand that people oppose us and oppose the things we stand for, and they have the right to protest so I have no difficulty with that, but when protestors are given preferential treatment within the law that’s when I have a difficulty. “Sadly, we still have brethren stuck at Drumcree, protesting there. Many in society are saying ‘that problem’s cured’ but it’s not sorted out yet. These issues need dealt with and we are more than willing to play our part in moving forward and making Northern Ireland a peaceful and more prosperous country.
Mark Rainey: How do you think the public views the Order?
Mervyn Gibson:: The view that the Orange Order doesn’t compromise is a nonsense. The Orange Order, like any organisation changes and compromises as things move on, but we don’t compromise on our principles. We are happy enough to look at things to see if they could be done better for the greater good of society. We are happy enough to engage with people, but some people have this view, and sadly some within the unionist community, that the Order is sectarian and won’t compromise and is full of dinosaurs. That is just a nonsense and a caricature that just doesn’t live up to the reality.
Mark Rainey: Why do you make of the current political crisis?
Mervyn Gibson:: I don’t buy into the view that all politicians have their snouts at the trough. I think it’s a disgrace the way that has been promoted throughout society. You had the backdrop of the Westminster expenses scandal, but I find that most politicians, no matter what party they are from, are in it for genuine reasons and work hard. But like any profession there are those in it who are wasters. Politicians make mistakes. I think mistakes have been made but hopefully they can be rectified. Hopefully apathy doesn’t set in…that people go out and vote and we a strong government back in Northern Ireland that wants to see Northern Ireland work. The difficulty here is that we have a significant party, namely Sinn Fein, whose ultimate aim is a united Ireland. The republican movement has tried to terrorise the unionist community – by bombing and murdering them – into that, but they now are trying to do it politically. Every political act, by their own admission, they judge it against whether it will help achieve a united Ireland. So it is difficult, but not impossible, to work in a situation where we have to be very careful as unionists that the decisions we support will actually strengthen Northern Ireland.
Mark Rainey: Did the Orange Order make any representation to political parties ahead of next month’s election?
Mervyn Gibson:: The Grand Master has written to every unionist political party, outlining that we can’t support individual parties but we support all unionists who are standing, and we are asking our membership to vote unionist, and to vote unionist down the slip, and then it’s a choice after that. But whenever people get into the polling booth they will do whatever their conscience sees fit. As a unionist organisation we can see no purpose in voting for Sinn Fein or a party that wants to see a united Ireland as one of its primary aims. We also made political leaders aware that in any future negotiations we want parades back on the table. We don’t want promises of talks – we want legislation.
Mark Rainey: And what about victims?
Mervyn Gibson:: While we want parades on the table, it’s not the most important issue. One of the most important issues is victims. To me it’s very simple – victims can’t be equated with terrorists. The should be no equivocation whatsoever. We see this being a one-sided process at the moment. We members of the British armed forces being pulled into court on charges 30 and 40 years old and we see that as a witch hunt against the security forces. That needs to stop because where are the re-investigations into the murder of all the UDR men, Protestants along the border, there’s none of that.
Mark Rainey: Are you even more appreciative of your predecessor’s Drew Nelson’s legacy having spent a few weeks in the role?
Mervyn Gibson:: I always appreciated Drew Nelson’s legacy. I have been around headquarters and Grand Lodge office long enough to realise the work that Drew put in to this organisation. I have said before, no one can replace Drew Nelson, but what we can do is carry on his legacy that he leaves behind and the foundations that he built on and move the Institution forward.
Mark Rainey: Historically, apart from King William of Orange, who do you most admire?
Mervyn Gibson:: Like Desert Island Discs I will leave the Bible and Christianity to the side for this particular purpose. No man is perfect, everyone has flaws, but probably the social reformers of the 1800s like [William] Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury worked for the poor, to see conditions change in prisons, down the mines. Christian social reformers who were driven by their faith. Moving on, the greatest hero would probably was a German, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor who founded the Confessing Church, was one of the first Protestant pastors to speak out against Hitler and was hanged in 1945 by the Nazis. They were all men of action, they got things done. They didn’t sit back and theorise about what should be done. That’s why I admire them, and their faith is very much part of that.
Mark Rainey: On the possibility of a visit to Northern Ireland by the Pope
Mervyn Gibson:: We are an organisation that believes in civil and religious liberty for all and there is a large part of the community in Northern Ireland that owes their allegiance to the Roman Catholic church. I recognise that they would like to see a visit to our province by their leader, the Pope. The Orange Order, as an organisation is committed to the principles of the Reformation, can neither welcome nor support such a visit, however, our best response to it as an Orange Institution, is for our members and supporters to celebrate the 500th anniversary this year. Let us stand squarely for the Gospel truths as our forefathers always have done.
Mark Rainey: Favourite countries visited?
Mervyn Gibson:: I loved New Zealand and America but South Africa was probably my favourite. The highlights were visiting Rorke’s Drift, the scene of the famous Zulu battle, and I went to see the Nelson Mandela’s prison at Robben Island. An amazing country.
Mark Rainey: How do you unwind away from work?
Mervyn Gibson:: My wife and I like to go to National Trust properties and to go for walks. I also enjoy the cinema. The last film I went to see was Hacksaw Ridge, which was quite good, but my favourite film of all time would have to be The Deer Hunter with Robert De Niro. My taste in music is mostly folk, particularly Irish folk and ballads. I like Woody Guthrie and John Prine but I would listen to a lot of Irish artists like The Chieftains, The Clancy Brothers and The Fureys. I read a lot also…mainly Troubles-related non fiction. At the minute I’m reading ‘Secret Victory’ by William Matchett and really enjoying it.
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