The Grand Master of the Orange Order, Robert Saulters, says the institution is reaching out as never before to explain its traditions.
Speaking at the unfurling of a banner in Derriaghy, he said:
The Orange Institution and the other loyal orders took some criticism last week from the SDLP Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie. She made scurrilous remarks about us being sectarian and divisive and one of her party colleagues said we should outreach more to explain what we were about.
First of all, let me assure you that we will meeting Ms Ritchie face to face to ask her to withdraw the remarks. That is, if she has the courage to meet us.
I believe the Orange Institution is outreaching more than ever before.
It clearly has gone over the heads of the SDLP, who we have met as part of our outreach campaign. They have their heads in the trenches while we have been moving forward to play our part in society.
We have a full time education officer who travels the length and breadth of this country to talk to schools, Protestant and Catholic, about the traditions and values of the Orange Institution. He has been in a number of catholic schools and has received a very warm welcome from teachers and pupils who want to learn more about what we stand for.
More than 20,000 pocket leaflets on our history have been distributed to schools and the Williamite Trail map which covers the whole of the island of Ireland is proving extremely popular.
We have been working closely with government agencies including Ms Ritchie’s Department of Social Development to widen our outreach and take our message to people who do not always hear it.
The tourism authorities north and south of the border have woken up to the importance of our parades as part of the growing cultural tourism market. We are working closely with them and we believe the economic benefits will affect everyone.
We have also been working with the Republic of Ireland Government, particularly in relation to the excellent Boyne Battlefield site on the south side of the river at Drogheda.
Their Culture Minister Eamon O’Cuiv has spoken of the importance of preserving the Orange tradition and has made grants of £100,000 towards the development of Orange Halls in border counties.
Here in Northern Ireland we have had one of our annual exhibitions opened by the then Secretary of State Peter Hain.
Our current exhibition – Heroes From History – is attracting visitors from all over the world.
This year we took a promotional stand at the Royal Ulster Agricultgural Show at Balmoral. The response from visitors to the show was fantastic. They were delighted that we were prepared to make such a public statement about the values and traditions that we hold so closely to our heart.
Last year I was privileged to lead an Orange delegation unto the world stage – at the Smithsonian Festival in Washington. We were operating at a completely new level and made many contacts who will prove useful to the Institution in the future. Once again, the reception we received there was fantastic.
Against this background, we still face a threat from people who want to burn and bomb our halls which are such an important part of the fabric of the small communities where they are situated.
We have condemned these attacks and called for increased vigilance from the police in preventing them.
And we have also condemned attacks on GAA clubhouses. Let me be absolutely clear on this – the people who carry out the attacks on GAA property do not represent anyone but themselves. The attacks are completely wrong and without any justification. They must be stopped immediately.
Margaret Ritchie made her remarks about the Orange Institution the day after an attack on an Orange Hall near Pomeroy. She did condemn the attack and we thank her for that, but she then went on to make extremely hurtful and offensive comments about our Institution.
Her remarks were ill chosen and the timing was particularly insensitive.
The Orange Institution wants to play a positive role in society and we are determined to do so.
We will not be put off by people who attack our halls or by people like Margaret Ritchie who seem oblivious to all the good work we are doing.
The Orange Institution has been here for more than 300 years and we intend to be here for a long time to come.