The Ulster Covenant: loyalist or nationalist, where would we be without it?
The second cultural rift is that idea of a covenant. It’s obviously a powerful concept, so powerful that even Anglicans and Methodists were happy to use it in 1912, even though its immediate roots were in Scottish Presbyterianism. But what does it mean and why do cultural Catholics find it so confusing? The idea of a covenant is confusing in part because it messes up a favourite cultural stereotype: that Protestants are blunt and straightforward while Catholics revel in equivocations and ambiguities. In fact the whole idea of a covenant is that something of momentous importance, loyalty to the state, is not at all straightforward. It is ambiguous and conditional.
For Catholic nationalists the notion of the Ulster Covenant is a crazy contradiction: the covenanters express their loyalty by threatening to resist to the death the will of the state to which they proclaim that loyalty. The UK’s elected government and parliament were about to create Home Rule. Defiance of that decision was, surely, treason. How could traitors be “loyalists”? This attitude is still the biggest barrier to understanding the Ulster Covenant: cultural Catholics see it as nothing more than a huge exercise in organised hypocrisy.
But for anyone steeped in the covenanting tradition, there is no contradiction. For, as Walter Scott’s rebel makes clear, a covenant is a two-way deal. His rage is rooted in King Charles’s breach of his side of the pact. The right of the monarch to rule is not absolute. It is contingent on the maintenance of certain conditions – in the original Scottish case, the recognition of Presbyterian church structures.
The framers of the Ulster Covenant knew exactly what they were doing when they invoked this precedent. It was their way of squaring the circle of a loyal rebellion. It allowed them to frame the argument in a way that had deep roots in tradition: we will keep faith with Britain so long as it keeps faith with us.
In the context of Catholic nationalism, this insistence can be seen only as reactionary and anti-democratic, the thwarting of the will of the Irish majority through the threat of force. But in the context of Protestant, and especially Presbyterian, tradition, it is actually a much more democratic attitude than blind loyalty to the monarch.
Conditional allegiance, after all, is what most contemporary citizens give to their states. We accept the state’s legitimacy so long as it behaves legitimately.
That gulf has clearly not been bridged, for those shaped by Catholic nationalism the centenary of the covenant is, at best, to be tolerated. It is an occasion on which the other side expresses its exotic difference. The religious monoliths may have crumbled, but the cultural attitudes behind them survive a lot longer. Perhaps by the 150th anniversary the word covenant, and the complex idea of loyalty that it contains, will have become common property.