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A District of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland

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JOHNSTON, GRAND LODGE and the PARTY PROCESSIONS CONTROVERSY

In the year 1850 Lord Russell's first administration passed a Party Processions Act. This measure made it illegal to hold meetings which would 'tend to provoke animosity between different classes of Her Majesty's subjects'. In effect it became illegal to parade the public highways while displaying any emblem or colour, or playing any tune that could be identified with a particular Irish party.

The ordinary Orangemen were incensed, but the Orange leadership, being basically conservative found the thought of opposition to the government of the United Kingdom distasteful. The same was not the case with all the Orange democracy and all it took was a charismatic leader and a flashpoint for the Grand Lodge to loose control.

The leader who seized upon the indecision and took the initiative was a small landlord from Lecale, William Johnston of Ballykilbeg. He recognised that the rank and file of the Orange Institution would support a move to break the ban and though Grand Lodge did not agree to Johnston's plan, a resolution was passed that something must be done.

On 1st July 1863 a small number of mill workers in Gilford had marched in contravention of the Act and in March 1864 the government brought an action against them. In the same year a massive demonstration took place in the centre of Dublin at which party colours were worn and tunes played. The parade, under the walls of Dublin Castle was attended by many prominent nationalist politicians in Ireland.

Such a flagrant breach of the law infuriated Orangemen. Their bitterness was increased by the fact that throughout the south the authorities were tending to ignore illegal Fenian demonstration in areas where there were few Protestants and it appeared that only fear of armed retaliations dissuaded the government from action against the Fenians. Orangemen on the other hand were not treated so lightly.

In 1866 Johnston got the support of the Belfast County Lodge for a 12th of July demonstration. The parade was held on Johnston's demesne and was thus not in contravention of the Act. Around 9 000 people attended the rally and the day was a resounding success: the stage was now set. Johnston decided that he would indeed hold a large parade. The venue was important and he choose to lead a parade from Newtownards to Bangor.

Firstly he was walking within County Down whose County Lodge was in favour of breaking the act; secondly the route was close to Belfast where he was already the champion of working-class Orangemen; and lastly Johnston was aware that he must parade in an area where he would be unlikely to provoke animosity as clearly any sectarian riot would strengthen the government's hand. This was unlikely to happen in Newtownards.

On the morning of 12th July 1867, Johnston headed a procession from Newtownards which consisted of over 10 000 Orangemen. As the parade reached Bangor it increased to such an extent that it is estimated that between 30 000 and 40 000 people took part in the final march through the town.

The challenge to the government's authority was too blatant to ignore. On 4th September Johnston and 25 other Orangemen were charged with a breach of the Party Processions Act and returned for trial. They were given the opportunity of signing a confession and in return the prosecution would be abandoned. Nineteen men signed the paper; Johnston and four others refused.

The case opened in Downpatrick on 28th February. Of the remaining five, Johnston and two others refused to plead guilty and they were sentenced to one month in jail. Keatings and Mawhinney petitioned for release which they quickly got, but Johnston was determined to serve his sentence. His sojourn in jail was cut short due to the effect it was having on his health. Clearly the government could not afford to have Johnston die on them.

On 27th April a crowd of 10 000 people turned out to welcome the hero back from his brief period of incarceration. Johnston was the man of the hour. There was an election in 1868 and Johnston was already being tipped as an independent and Orange candidate for Belfast. When the election was fought at the end of the year, he was returned to Westminster. He remained M.P. until his death in 1902. The Party Processions Act was repealed by Gladstone's Liberal Government in 1872.

When Orangemen march the streets of Newtownards this 12th of July, at least some of the route will follow that taken by Johnston 119 years before, when his place in Orange folklore was assured that day, 12th July 1867.

taken from Johnston, Grand Lodge and the Party
Processions Controversy
by Dr. Christopher McGimpsey