A personal sketch of the 1912 Ulster Covenant

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.

11 thoughts on “A personal sketch of the 1912 Ulster Covenant

  1. Hi Patrick! This is really interesting – quite the family tree you have! And that really is some beard. I’ve never seen such a thing!

    The more I read Christian history (which, admittedly, isn’t all that much), the more I see that those most infamous eras and trends associated with the church were nothing like universally condoned from within. There was often at least one, strong, dissenting voice of balance, reason, or integrity. Makes me wonder if there weren’t those even in the tumultuous religious and political climate of Ireland a hundred years ago who spoke out against the error of “sacralising” their respective political movements…?

    I have to admit that I’m not convinced that Jesus categorically rejected violence, though.

    I also read your post about “Too much talk” and I know what you mean – yours is one of my favorite blogs and I think I’m at least a couple months behind. Looks like I missed some good stuff. Should have a little more time for both reading and writing now, though. Fingers crossed, anyway. 🙂

  2. Hi Crystal, welcome back! I think about a quarter of Protestants did not sign but would have to research that one. There was a famous Presbyterian Home Ruler called Rev J B Armour who believed Home Rule was the best opportunity for economic development and for Catholic and Protestant reconciliation.

    Looking back in light of all the failures of ‘Catholic Ireland’ with its near theocratic state and unchecked power, you could fairly say the Unionists had a point about Home Rule not being in the interests of civil and religious freedom. The North was also the industrial and more prosperous part of Ireland (shipbuilding – eg Titanic). It was the use of God to legitimise that political stance that I struggle with.

    Look forward to you blogging a bit more. We’ll have to have a discussion about Jesus and violence sometime!

  3. Was British rule in Ireland over the centuries “in the interests of civil and religious freedom”?

    Was the formation of the Orange statelet in Ulster “in the interests of civil and religious freedom”?

    The Republic only became a suffocating Roman Catholic enclave because of partition.
    That said, Protestrants in the South had a better deal than catholic in the north. This is the point surely.

    • Hello Aofie & welcome. On your third line – I guess that is one of the big ‘If’s of modern Irish history – what would Ireland have looked like if Home Rule had happened. And even if it had eventually become independent from the Empire, would there have been a different sort of civil war? Or would both sides (competing nationalisms) managed to have somehow co-existed within a more moderate majority Catholic Ireland ? I for one don’t know!

      yes Protestants had a better deal – but many left. Those that remained largely ‘kept their heads down’. The Ne Temere Decree hit hard. See the book Untold Stories for the deep sense of exclusion that was felt. They also posed no threat at all to a triumphalist Catholic identity – unlike the Catholic minority in the North.

  4. Hi Patrick

    Your piece suggested that the formation of the Free State wasn’t “in the interests of civil and religious freedom” (at least as far as Ulster Protestants were concerned).

    My point was British rule in Ireland over the greater part of eight hundred years was never in the interests of the civil and religious freedom of the native, Catholic Irish.

    I feel this weakens or undermines the point you making – as if civil and religious freedom came under threat for the first time when Catholics took over the reins of government.

    Who can tell what would have happened if Home Rule had have won the day.

    What I imagine would have happened over time is that the strong numerical Protestant presence in Irish society would have made it difficult for the Catholic church to wield the kind of power it did during the twentieth century.

    Wasn’t our first president Protestant?

    That was at least a good start!

    • Aoife, it’s always a question in Irish history as to where you start! No, I wasn’t trying to suggest that issues of civil and religious freedom only surfaced in 1912. I was focusing on the rise of competing ‘nationalisms’ or national identities in the 19th C that led to events like 1912, 1916, War of Independence, Civil War and then most of a century of self-expression at the expense of the Other – including of course over 30 years of political violence in the North. As a Christian I believe that there needs to be critical distance from such identities, especially one’s own, because such identities are temporary and relative – Christians follow another KIng. And as a Christian I reject the use of violence, especially in the name of God.

  5. Hi Patrick, I must say I think Aoife is making some valid points, even if it is a slightly different conversation to the one you started! I absolutely agree with you that we, as Christians, need to keep a critical distance from our given nationalist identities – and I’m sure I still have a bit of work to do on my own part. So, confessing that I am still probably too closely attached to my Green nationalist background, I would say that I think you’re being a little hard on de Valera. I don’t think it’s entirely fair to compare the experience of Protestants in the Free State/Republic to that of Catholics in the North. It’s one of the many ironies of Irish history that the Protestant heartlands of the North, where the Covenant was signed, turned out to be the only part of Ireland that actually experienced Home Rule (a cynic might say that Unionists’ principled opposition to Home Rule disappeared pretty quickly once they realised that they would be running the show). And there’s no doubt that in the North, Home Rule did indeed prove to be “subversive of our civil and religious freedom” – if you were a Catholic. The deliberate, systemic and State-sponsored discrimination against Catholics in the North was quite different to what happened in the Republic. This is not to deny that Protestants were poorly treated, in some respects – but this was mainly due to a politically expedient and short-sighted neglect of a numerically insignificant group, rather than a deliberate policy. Perhaps de Valera might have done better, but in fairness to the man one must concede that he was presented with a situation not of his choosing. If he had his way, he would have had to deal with a very much larger Protestant minority, which could not have been ignored, and undoubtedly things would have been very different.

    I often think that partition is the single greatest tragedy of modern Irish history – not because of the loss of the Fourth Green Field, or anything like that, but because it led to these very unsatisfactory experiences on both sides of the border. What might have been, without partition (whether in or out of the Empire), is a really tantalising thought. But I suppose it’s well and truly water under the bridge at this stage! So I’ll go back to working on my critical distance – and to enjoying your thoughts!

  6. Hi Andy, good to have your thoughts. This stuff runs deep. I sure agree that the story of recent Irish history and partition (let alone further back) leaves little to celebrate on either side of the border. If I’m critical of Dev I have been just as much if not more critical of Paisley and the Orange Order in my book.

    Wasn’t it Wesley who said “It is no wonder that most who are born Papists generally live and die as such, when the Protestants can find no better ways to convert them than penal laws and Acts of Parliament.”

    I guess my anabaptism comes through here. I’ve become more and more sceptical of way nationalist belief (small n) parallels religious faith. The call for loyalty, emotional attachment, a metanarrative, a vision of future hope, a promised land, and frequently a call to take up arms in its cause. And in Irish history it is usually at the exclusion of the Other from ‘our’ story. I happily feel Irish but am attracted to neither Unionism nor Irish Nationalism as they have been traditionally expressed.

    And to continue the useless but interesting speculation ! – I don’t think I’m as optimistic as you and Aoife over what would have happened if Home Rule had gone ahead. The bitterness of the Irish Civil war showed how deep feelings ran. I may be wrong but I doubt peace would have broken out within a deeply divided island with a Catholic nationalist majority and large disaffected Protestant minority.

    Have you read this booklet by Joe Liechty – wonder what you think?

    Click to access RootsofSectarianisminIreland93.pdf

  7. Thanks for the link, Patrick – it looks interesting and, if I have any useful thoughts I’ll let you know! Aside from the useless speculation (and you’re as likely to be right on that one as I am, though we’ll never know!), I would agree with everything you say about nationalisms. But they’re still hard things to shake off, aren’t they?

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