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.

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.

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.

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