The Ulster Covenant: loyalist or nationalist, where would we be without it?
CULTURE SHOCK:One hundred years ago this week, 500,000 Ulster people pledged to defend their UK citizenship and to defeat the Home Rule ‘conspiracy’. That divide is still imprinted in cultural memory, north and south, on a biblical scale
ABOUT 10 YEARS ago I read, for the first time, one of the greatest of historical novels, Walter Scott’s Old Mortality. Scott tends, in the popular imagination, to be associated with the romance of defeated Highlanders and Jacobites; stuff that chimes well with the mainstream of Irish national mythology. But Old Mortality is strikingly different. It concerns quite a different group of rebels: the Calvinist covenanters who fought bloody wars against the episcopal establishment in 17th-century Scotland.
The language that Scott puts in the mouths of these covenanters was, for me at least, at once startlingly strange and oddly familiar. Here, for example, is a covenanter leader confronting an emissary from the government forces before a skirmish: “Return to them that sent thee and tell them that we are this day in arms for a broken Covenant and a persecuted Kirk; tell them that we renounce the licentious and perjured Charles Stewart, whom you call king, even as he renounced the Covenant, after having once and again sworn to prosecute to the utmost of his power all the ends thereof, really, constantly, and sincerely, all the days of his life, having no enemies but the enemies of the Covenant, and no friends but its friends. Whereas, far from keeping the oath he had called God and angels to witness, his first step, after his incoming into these kingdoms, was the fearful grasping at the prerogative of the Almighty, by that hideous Act of Supremacy, together with his expulsing, without summons, libel, or process of law, hundreds of famous faithful preachers, thereby wringing the bread of life out of the mouth of hungry, poor creatures, and forcibly cramming their throats with the lifeless, saltless, foisonless, lukewarm drammock of the fourteen false prelates, and their sycophantic, formal, carnal, scandalous creature-curates.”
This is magnificent, but what does it mean? Leaving aside the odd, unfamiliar Scots words – foisonless means “without strength or sap, dried up” – it turns, again and again, on “covenant”, a term whose deep meaning is quite alien to someone, like me, from an Irish Catholic background. The import of the speech is plain enough: that the rebels are in arms because the covenant has been broken; that the breaking of this covenant makes King Charles a perjurer and therefore an illegitimate monarch; and that this breach of faith consists in the replacement of true, good – that is, Calvinist – preachers by 14 dried-up bishops of the established church and their sycophantic curates. But the violence of the speech – its emotional as opposed to its argumentative power – arises entirely from a deep feeling contained in that word “covenant”. And it’s a word that leaves people of my cultural background cold.
On the other hand, though, the rebel leader’s rhetoric was also immediately recognisable. Its biblical cadences and in particular its mix of religious passion and lurid, mocking humour matched exactly the rhetoric of a contemporary Irish politician, the Rev Ian Paisley. And here was the cultural divide made plain. I grew up in a working-class area of Dublin, and for me these passages of Old Mortality were as exotic as science fiction. Had I grown up in a working-class area of east Belfast they would have been as familiar and immediate as a Sunday sermon. And the gulf that marked that divide was defined, in essence, by “covenant”. That divide is still there, and it is still captured by that word.
On the face of it, the centenary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant ought to be a moment of shared history. For anyone with the slightest interest in the events of 1912-23 from which both Northern Ireland and the Republic emerged, it is obvious that the Covenant is one of the keys to everything that comes after it.