Tomorrow the 28th of September 2012 marks the centenary of The Ulster Covenant. As a way of reflecting on events 100 years ago, allow me to tell a story of two sides of my family tree. First the text itself:
‘Being convinced in our consciences that Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as of the whole of Ireland, subversive of our civil and religious freedom, destructive of our citizenship and perilous to the unity of Empire, we, whose names are underwritten, men of Ulster, loyal subjects of His Gracious Majesty King George V., humbly relying on the God whom our fathers in days of stress and trial confidently trusted, do hereby pledge ourselves in solemn Covenant throughout this our time of threatened calamity to stand by one another in defending for ourselves and our children our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom, and in using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland. And in the event of such a Parliament being forced upon us we further solemnly and mutually pledge ourselves to refuse to recognize its authority. In sure confidence that God will defend the right we hereto subscribe our names. And further, we individually declare that we have not already signed this Covenant … God save the King.’
The Unionist Side
I recently had a browse of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland website and looked up signatories of the Covenant. Very quickly I found the signatures of my grandfather George (18), my great-grandfather Rev Samuel Mitchel, Presbyterian minister in Enniskillen (56), his wife Marie who signed the separate women’s Declaration in Enniskillen (address given, ‘The Manse’), and my great-great grandfather, Rev David Mitchel (1825-1914), retired Presbyterian minister attached to Hamilton Road Presbyterian Church in Bangor.
The three men had probably met up in Belfast together on a sort of pilgrimage. I know that my grand-father cycled to Belfast from Newry to be there. They must have listened to Edward Carson at City Hall warning of the imminent dangers of Home Rule before signing the Covenant within the building itself.
It was a Saturday, but felt like a Sunday; a holy sacred and solemn day, filled with significance. Pretty well everyone went to church, just as they would the next morning. But what was different about this act of worship was the way it transcended any theological distinctives and united the signatories within a broad politicised Protestantism. The document they signed that day promised to resist Home Rule ‘by all means which may be found necessary’. The formation and arming of the Ulster Volunteer Force gave shape to this threat.
It may have been a century ago but that day, and other events of that decade, are still within touching distance. I remember my grand-father quite well – a real gentleman. I can imagine him as a teenager, there with his father and grand-father, both Presbyterian ministers; three generations together, men of the church, men of Ulster, men of Empire – men of their time.
The Irish Nationalist / Republican side
The Rev David Mitchel I just mentioned was a first cousin of John Mitchel ‘The Patriot’ (1815-1875); orator, journalist, controversialist, fervently anti-English Irish nationalist, himself the son of another Presbyterian minister in Newry, Young Irelander, bitter opponent of O’Connell’s pacifism, transported to Van Diemen’s Land for inciting revolution, author of Jail Journal (a hugely influential book within 19th and early 20th century Irish nationalism), and, at the very end of his life, MP (although declared ineligible since he was a ‘convicted felon’).
Mitchel can fairly be called the father of violent Republicanism. He was one of Padraig Pearse’s four ‘ghosts’ – the dead but inspirational forefathers of 1916. Mitchel was the ghost legitimating the use of physical force to liberate Ireland.
So, two very different sides of the one family who knew one another. Conversation over tea at family gatherings with Rev David and rebel John must have been interesting. But both sides in their own ways embedded beliefs that gave shape to the rest of 20th century Irish history (as well as having a nice line in beards).
A belief that violence, or the threat of violence, is in certain circumstances justified and trumps ‘illegitimate Government’. For Unionists, the Ulster Covenant represented a covenant with each other (not with God) to resist British failure to maintain their side of a contract of honour to protect the Union. Such resistance was heroic, necessary and morally right. The violent rebellion of 1916 glorified martyrology, death and violence in the cause of the nation – the rebels taking onto themselves the right to bear arms even though they were a tiny minority at the time.
Both sides are shaped by nationalist narratives that claimed that God was on their side. See the text of the Covenant for how it ‘sacralised’ the political cause of opposing Home Rule. And see 1916 and Pearse’s religious rhetoric for how Christian imagery would serve the cause of his ‘blood sacrifice’. My Presbyterian grandfathers would not have put in those terms of course. They fitted within the overwhelming Protestant consensus that they had no other choice but to resist such a manifest threat to their political, religious and economic existence and that God must obviously be on their side.
Both sides saw themselves as fighting for ‘liberty’: one from the alien and disloyal threat of Rome Rule, the other from the crushing power of English occupation.
Both sides were battling to protect, maintain and express their own political, cultural and religious identities. For Protestants like my grandfather and his forbears, it was a time of ‘threatened calamity’ that called for radical unity – wherever it may lead.
Both Irish nationalist and Ulster Unionist narratives united people into opposing ‘identity blocs’. Unionists like my grandfathers were overwhelmingly at this time ‘Irish’. By the end of the 1970s only about 3% of Protestants would describe themselves this way. Previously significant differences of identity (between Presbyterian dissenters and the Anglican establishment for example) would be subsumed within an all-embracing Unionist political identity.
Both sides developed negative ‘identities of opposition’. The zero-sum politics of siege and fear of ‘the Other’ would dominate the rest of the century. Both were defined by what they were not: Unionists were not Catholic and (increasingly) were not Irish. Whatever Irish nationalists were, they were not British and did not exactly share Unionist’s view of the Empire as a benign force for good. Both sides saw themselves as more rational, advanced, and obviously morally, culturally religiously superior to the Other.
Both sides used the power of the state to implement and reinforce and propagate its own identity – which included wildly differing interpretations of Irish history. One led to De Valera’s Catholic Ireland, the other to James Craig’s ‘Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people’. Both sides excluded and marginalised the Other as they gained the freedom to assert their own identity within a political space –whether Northern Ireland or the Irish Republic.
Of course these are all generalisations but I want to contend they are broadly accurate. This deep entwining of religion with narratives of power, self-interest, fear, exclusion and violence in Ireland has been, in my opinion a disaster and a curse. It is a form of idolatry that has deeply damaged the authentic witness of the church as followers of a crucified Messiah who rejected violence.
Its legacy is one where churches still find it incredibly difficult to even begin to imagine how to distance themselves (not remove themselves) spiritually and theologically from particular political and cultural identities. And this has deeply damaged their witness and mission to an alternative kingdom of the one true Lord.
As you can tell from my family tree, ‘historically’ I’m a Presbyterian. But I’m also one by practice – if a Christian first. So I’ll explore in a couple of more posts next week how this fusion of religion and national identity around ‘Ulster’s 1912 pact with God’ played out within the Presbyterian Church in Ireland during the 20th century.
Comments, as ever, welcome.