Are there more Orangemen than fluent Irish speakers?

CLAIM: There are more Orangemen than fluent Irish speakers in Northern Ireland.

CONCLUSION: UNSUBSTANTIATED. The 2017-18 Continuous Household Survey indicates there are an estimated 35,955 persons with conversational fluency of Irish, and the current Grand Secretary of the Orange Order has said that it has “around 40,000” members. However, the Order membership figure is unverifiable.

On 7 January 2020, during a BBC Talkback episode (22:18), Tim Cairns stated, “There’s more Orangemen in Northern Ireland than there are fluent Irish speakers.” Tim Cairns was a former special advisor to the minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Jonathan Bell (Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)). Cairns remark was made in a discussion about the political negotiations to restore the devolved administration of the Northern Ireland Assembly and on the issue of Irish language rights.

Membership of the Orange Order

The Grand Lodge of Ireland describes itself as a “Protestant fraternity”. When contacted by FactCheckNI, the Orange Order explained that the membership of the movement is not centrally recorded. The Grand Secretary of the Orange Order, Reverend Mervyn Gibson, stated on 7 January 2020 that membership of the organisation was “around 40,000”. On 15 September 2012, the News Letter reported that former Grand Secretary Drew Nelson said that there were 34,000 members. The exact figure for Orange membership is unverifiable.

Irish speakers in Northern Ireland

The Department for Communities (DfC) collects data on knowledge and use of Irish, through the Continuous House Survey. The most recent available DfC bulletin covers years 2017-18. Respondents were asked about their level of speaking Irish, which is summarised in the following table (for population estimations, we used the mid-year estimates for 2017 (published 28 June 2018)):

Residents aged 3 and over (mid-2017 estimate) Do not speak any Irish Speak Irish Complicated conversation Everyday conversation Simple sentences Single words or simple phrases
1,797,764 1,653,943 143,821 0 35,955 53,933 53,933
92% 8% 0% 2% 3% 3%

Source: DfC; NISRA; manual calculations (with rounding). NB. “Percentages less than 0.5% are represented by ‘0’ and where there are no responses this is represented by ‘-’.” (DfC)

The DfC bulletin defines levels of speaking Irish:

  • Complicated conversation: Could carry on a complicated conversation in Irish, e.g. talking about any subject
  • Everyday conversation: Could carry on an everyday conversation in Irish, e.g. could describe their day
  • Simple sentences: Can use simple sentences in Irish, e.g. “Can I have a cup of tea?”
  • Single words or simple phrases, e.g. “Hello” or “How are you?”

More or less fluent Irish speakers?

For the purpose of this fact check, we applied a definition of conversational fluency as someone who can carry on a complicated conversation in Irish (e.g. could talk about any subject) or can carry on an everyday conversation in Irish (e.g. could describe their day experience). 2% of respondents to the 2017-18 Continuous Household Survey indicated such a level of conversational fluency; this equates to an estimated 35,955 persons in Northern Ireland at the time of the survey.

This figure of an estimated 35,955 fluent Irish speakers is in the range of 34,000 to 40,000 estimated members of the Orange Order members.

Summary

A claim was made that there were more Orangemen than fluent Irish speakers. FactCheckNI interpreted “Orangemen” as members of the Orange Order, and “fluent Irish speakers” as those who can have a complicated or everyday conversation in Irish.

Grand Secretaries of the Orange Order have reported membership figures between 34,000 and 40,000. The Continuous House Survey indicated that in 2017-18, an estimated 35,955 people in Northern Ireland have conversational fluency in Irish.

These two figures are within the same range. However, because the Orange Order membership figure cannot be verified, the claim cannot be substantiated.

Image: West Belfast Orange Hall by Allan Leonard used by license.