The Ulster Covenant: loyalist or nationalist, where would we be without it?
Almost 500,000 people signed the pledge “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 Dublin”, or, in the case of women, an associated declaration. The idea harked back to the Scottish Covenant of 1636 (the breach of which is invoked by Walter Scott’s rebel) and, beyond that, to the biblical pact between God and the Jews. But it was primarily a very modern phenomenon: a brilliant piece of propaganda, tailored for the new era of mass politics.
This is part of Irish nationalist history, too. Without the Covenant, and the implacable opposition to Home Rule that it crystallised, there would have been no Irish Volunteers, no Easter Rising, no collapse of the dominant Irish Parliamentary Party. Patrick Pearse and James Connolly might well have ended up as opposition leaders in a Dublin parliament. Why, then, do those of an Irish Catholic cultural background find it so hard to understand the Covenant as an aspect of their own history? There’s nothing innately alien to Irish Catholic culture about the idea of the mass public signing of a pledge: the temperance movement led by Father Mathew had already succeeded in getting hundreds of thousands of Catholics to sign public pledges to abstain from alcohol.
Moreover, the basic idea of the Covenant is, as the historian and theologian Rev Dr Johnston McMaster pointed out in the Catherwood Lecture this year, no different from that of the 1916 Proclamation. The two documents share “the myth of redemptive violence”.
Each, he argued, is organised around the same five themes. “Both documents are about God and guns, God and the militarisation of politics. Both documents speak of equal citizenship, an equality agenda. Both underline the importance of civil and religious freedom. And, to name a major European theme of the time, and which became even bigger after the Great War, unionists and nationalists were for the right of self-determination.”
That right was, of course, understood in diametrically opposite ways: the right of the nationalist majority to break away from the United Kingdom and the right of the unionist minority to remain within it. But the basic concept is the same, and it is expressed in the same promise: we are prepared to kill and die to assert our national rights. It should be easy enough for Irish Catholics to understand where the Covenant is coming from even if they don’t like where it’s going.
BUT, I THINK, two broader cultural differences stand in the way of that understanding. They were present in 1912 and they haven’t gone away. One lies in the question of sacrifice – or, more particularly, who is to do the sacrificing. Both the Covenant and the Proclamation may evoke a religious, indeed obviously biblical, parallel. But they use two different parts of the Bible. The Covenant is Old Testament: it draws on the idea of God’s special pact with the Jews. The Proclamation is New Testament: not, admittedly, in proclaiming peace and love but in mobilising a parallel between the rebels and Jesus; the idea of a blood sacrifice to save the soul of a damned nation, the deliberate symbolism of Easter, Pearse’s upfront comparisons of himself to Christ and his mother to Mary.
These differences are cultural. In crude terms, Protestants read the Old Testament and Catholics didn’t. But they also shaped the idea of what sacrifice entailed: the Old Testament resonance is collective, the New Testament one is individual. The Covenant uses the idea that an entire people is being sacrificed and is, in return, prepared to sacrifice itself in defiance. The Easter Rising drew on a much more individualised idea of sacrifice: as Jesus died for our sins, so would the elite group of leaders. This divide is still imprinted in cultural memory; the great image of sacrifice in Ulster Protestant memory is the massed ranks of anonymous members of the Ulster Division going over the top at the Somme; that in Irish Catholic memory is the lone leader – Pearse or Connolly – facing a firing squad.