What's in a Name?
Game of the End Times
Will Not Have Home Rule
the Tight Rope
in Biblical Peacebuilding
Evangelical Post-Unionism and ECONI
God Our Help in Ages Past
LAND AND NATION: We Will Not Have Home Rule
Through the centuries Christians have continued to reflect on - and struggle with - the relationship between these three, not least in Ireland. Few of us would dispute that understanding this relationship is important in understanding Ireland's past - and, perhaps, its present.
This article explores how one understanding of the relationship between God, land and nation shaped Protestant responses and objections to Home Rule in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The Threat of Home Rule
The first Home Rule Bill in was introduced in 1886, provoking an overwhelmingly hostile reaction from all sections of Irish Protestantism - not least the churches. The Church of Ireland called a special synod and the Presbyterians a special meeting of the General Assembly. Both bodies produced a series of resolutions strongly critical of the proposals. The denominational paper of the Methodists proclaimed: "Home Rule for Ireland means not only war against the crown rights of England, but against the crown rights of Christ...its inspiration is religious antipathy, its methods plunder, its object Protestant annihilation"
Protestant hostility was not only channelled through denominational structures. Mass rallies, which cut across divisions of denomination, class and politics, were organised in opposition to Home Rule. In 1892, 12,000 delegates met in Belfast for a great Convention. The meeting began with prayer from the Anglican Archbishop of Armagh, Scripture reading from a former Presbyterian moderator and the singing of a Psalm. Two resolutions were proposed, one opposing Home Rule and one expressing sympathy and support for unionists outside Ulster. Among those proposing or speaking in support of the motions were leading clergy from all the main Protestant denominations.
The demonstration of 1892 also revealed the breadth of unionist opposition to Home Rule. Liberals and conservatives in both politics and religion stood side by side. The Orange Order was present, but only as one strand among the Unionist community. The organisers of the Convention, fearful that their opposition could be misrepresented as nothing more than sectarian prejudice, were well aware of the need to demonstrate the breadth and coherence of the unionist position.
Renewal of the threat of Home Rule in 1912 provoked another series of rallies and public meetings. On Easter Tuesday 1912, 100,000 gathered in Belfast to hear Andrew Bonar Law, leader of the Conservative Party, pledge his support to the unionist cause. Again, at this ostensibly political event the meeting began with prayer, scripture readings and hymn singing, with the Anglican Primate and Presbyterian Moderator leading.
1912 also witnessed a more overtly religious demonstration against Home Rule. The Presbyterian Convention, held in Belfast in February attracted an estimated 50,000 Presbyterian men - half the male Presbyterian population of Ulster. The arguments used were by now familiar though there was a distinctive appeal to their fellow Presbyterians in Scotland, and a declaration entrusting their cause to God.
Ulster unionism delivered its definitive response to Home Rule on Saturday September 28 1912 with the signing of Ulster's Solemn League and Covenant. Across Ulster Protestant men and women attended services in their local churches before gathering to sign the Covenant. In Belfast, the leaders of Irish unionism held their service in the Ulster Hall before moving to the City Hall for the signing.
At the Ulster Hall Dr William McKean, former Moderator of the Irish Presbyterian Church addressed the congregation. He told them:
"The Irish Question is at bottom a war against Protestantism; it is an attempt to establish a Roman Catholic ascendancy in Ireland to begin the disintegration of the Empire by securing a second parliament in Dublin."At the City Hall Carson was the first to put his name to the Covenant, followed by Lord Londonderry. Behind the political leaders of Irish Unionism came its religious leaders as the Church of Ireland Primate, the Presbyterian Moderator and the Methodist President signed up. By the end of the day the Covenant and the similar Declaration (signed by women) contained 471,414 signatures.
Clearly the Ulster Covenant drew on the older Scottish tradition of covenanting. However, despite some initial attempts to model the Ulster Covenant on these early Scottish Convenants what was published in the end bore little resemblance. It read:
Being convinced in our consciences that Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as the whole of Ireland, subversive of our civil and religious freedom, destructive of our citizenship, and perilous to the unity of the 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 vent of such a Parliament being forced upon us we further solemnly and mutually pledge ourselves to refuse to recognise 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.On the surface this Covenant is a political tract with little theological substance. This might create the impression that the religious significance of the events was not central. However, that overlooks the context in which the Covenant was drawn up. Ulster Protestants did not need the significance of religious belief for political life explained to them, they understood it perfectly well. Nor must the Covenant be detached from the wider events of the day. Ulster Day was a religious event. The leaders of Irish Protestantism and the ordinary men and women in the pews signed the Covenant together. Those of a liberal religious disposition stood side by side with those of a conservative religious disposition and sang 'O God our help in ages past'. On Ulster Day, Protestant Churches and the Protestant community were indistinguishable. The cause of true religion and the cause of Ulster unionism ran in perfect harmony.
Home Rule - The Issues
Arguments against Home Rule were repeated from public platforms, in parliament, in books, pamphlets and newspapers throughout the years of crisis. What is noticeable is the consistency of these arguments. While there may have been differences of emphasis and nuance depending on the speaker and the audience, the overall thrust of unionist objections comes across clearly.
First, Home Rule posed a religious threat. Against a background of Catholic renewal in Ireland, Catholic involvement in the Home Rule movement and a more conservative move in Catholicism generally, Protestants could see nothing but harm arising from an arrangement that left Catholicism as the dominant power in the land. Catholicism was held to be fundamentally anti-Protestant. Catholicism was also viewed as essentially illiberal in its social and educational values. Protestants feared a new ascendancy of Catholicism, which would impose this religious and social illiberalism on the whole of Ireland. Thus, when Protestants said Home Rule is Rome Rule, they believed it.
Nor was concern over the role of Catholicism restricted to those on the more conservative edges of Protestantism. Presbyterian liberals, having only recently been freed from the illiberalism of one established church had no desire to return to a new form of establishment under Catholicism. This was an issue that united the unionist community across the religious and political spectrums.
So, argued former Presbyterian moderator Rev Samuel Prentice, "The contention of the Irish Protestants is that neither their will nor their religious liberties would be safe in the custody of Rome. In an Irish parliament civil allegiance to the Holy See would be the test of membership, and would make every Roman Catholic member a civil servant of the Vatican. That parliament would be compelled to carry out the behests of the Church. The Church...claims to be above Civil Law, and the right to enforce Canon Law wherever she is able."
Second, unionists argued then - as now - that they were not part of the Irish nation but that they were part of the British nation.
"[Ulster Protestant] ideals are the ideals of the whole British nation. They are not Irish in that sense and England and Scotland form part of their ideals. Their ideals are Imperial ideals...[We] regard the term Briton as the emblem of liberty. We have prospered under it and we will take nothing less. And instead of the sentimental humbug about Ireland's well-being...we maintain our own ideals because we are connected with Britain by ties of blood...religion and history; and we object to being swallowed up in the claim that...we should come into [Redmond's] fold because we live in Ireland."But more than this, Ulster Protestant identity was bound up, not just with Britishness, but with Empire - the greatest, wealthiest Empire the world had ever known. Ulster Protestants had helped to build this Empire and had benefited from it, not least in the industrialisation of the North East and the Lagan Valley in particular.
"We hear a great deal of the false sentiment of Ireland a nation...We Ulstermen also have a sentiment, but it is a pride in the greatness of British Imperial citizenship - pride in the share we have taken in peace and war, in science and art, in Government and colonisation, in everything that went to the building of this Empire - pride in the memory of great deeds done by our forefathers."A third line of argument concerned the threat posed by Home Rule to the economic well being of Ulster, and Belfast in particular. The difference between industrialised and progressive Belfast and the agrarian and backward state of the rest of Ireland was marked, and Ulster Protestants knew why.
"Under the Union every industry in Ulster and Belfast especially is flourishing; but what industry has flourished in the South and West of Ireland, unless it be moonlighting, boycotting, agitation, resisting the law and crime?"Home Rule it was believed would lead to the running of this great industrial city being placed in the hands of farmers and economic incompetents. Belfast's wealth would be used to prop up a rotten economy. Separated from the wealth and stability of Empire Belfast's industries would never be able to raise capital to maintain their progress. Finally, Ulster Protestants also argued against Home rule on the basis of their understanding of the constitution. No government, they argued, had the authority to forcibly expel citizens against their will.
"Unionists hold...that their claim to remain under...the Imperial Parliament is an inalienable right of their citizenship which no Government of any time has the right to deprive them of. There need be no mistake about this, it is the position which Ulster has taken up all along; it is the heart and the essence of what has come to be called the Ulster Question."Nor was this considered an obscure or unusual argument. Bonar Law, leader of the Conservative Party, Lord McNaghten Lord of Appeal, and AV Dicey, the greatest constitutional theorist of that time all advanced this argument.
The objections to Home Rule, then, were multiple in nature. It is mistaken to adopt a reductionist approach. Such approaches were not uncommon either then or now. For some, Unionist objections could be reduced to religious bigotry - and, therefore, not to be discussed but to be faced down. Thus the liberal politician, the Earl of Crewe asserted that the only sentiment involved in Ulster unionism was 'that of hatred to the Church of Rome'. And Augustine Birrell, the Liberal Chief Secretary for Ireland, claimed in 1913 that 'the pulse of the [Ulster unionist] machine is religious bigotry'.
On the other hand some Home Rulers reduced unionist objections to economic concerns alone, believing that guarantees could be provided that would ease their fears. Such an approach failed to recognise the reality of unionist religious concerns and the strength of the sense of British and Imperial identity among unionists.
This failure to appreciate the strength of religious convictions in the unionist position was doubly mistaken. For as well as recognising the multi-causal nature of unionist opposition to Home Rule, it is important to recognise the interrelationship between these causes. These were not separate and discrete arguments; they were intimately connected, though in some cases the connection is more obvious than in others.
One of the less obvious connections is the way that a religious worldview informs all of the arguments listed above. Historically, Britain's sense of its Imperial power and economic success was intimately linked to Britain's sense of itself as a Protestant nation. And Britain's constitution and the liberties and freedoms deriving from it were held to be a political manifestation of Protestantism.
Hence, the construction of Britishness with which Ulster unionists identified had, at its core, a religious - more specifically - a Protestant worldview, which interpreted both its past and its present in religious terms.
This is not to reduce all opposition to Home Rule to religious matters only. It is to insist on the pervasive influence of a religiously informed view of political and social reality underpinning and informing the multi-causal objections to Home Rule. It is to insist that religious belief cannot be pushed to the margins, cannot be reduced to a mere set of private beliefs and practices which do not impinge on 'real' issues of politics, social order and economics.
This multi-causal nature of Unionist opposition to Home Rule, and the role that religion played in it, can be brought into sharper focus through looking at the life and work of one of Unionism's key thinkers and organisers, Thomas Sinclair.
Sinclair embodied evangelical religion and liberal politics. In this he was perhaps truer to his non-conformist tradition, for in British political life non-conformists tended to see liberal politics as a progressive force compatible with their own agenda.
However, Sinclair's liberalism did not make him any the less hostile to Home Rule - far from it. For Sinclair's opposition to Home Rule was driven precisely by his liberal convictions. Sinclair was strongly and consistently opposed to the establishment of religion in any form by the state. Hence his opposition to what he viewed as a potential Catholic ascendancy under a Home Rule parliament. Even before Home Rule became the key issue in Irish politics Sinclair was campaigning against state endowment of Catholic education. Once Home Rule took centre stage Sinclair's considerable energies and abilities were channelled into its defeat.
It was Sinclair who played a leading role in organising the Great Convention of 1892, which brought together all strands of Unionism to declare their opposition to Home Rule. And it was Sinclair who organised the Presbyterian anti-Home Rule rally in 1912. It was Sinclair who wrote newspaper articles, who addressed rallies in Ireland and Scotland, who organised businessmen and politicians against Home Rule, who made representations to business and political leaders in England, who shaped debates in the Presbyterian General Assembly.
Sinclair was no religious extremist, no sectarian fanatic. Yet he as much as anyone argued that Home rule was Rome Rule. For Sinclair, the Empire and Britain stood for all that was progressive, enlightened and liberating; Catholicism stood for social control, impoverishment and religious establishment.
Sinclair could not see how a Home Rule parliament with a majority of Catholic members could escape the pressure to reshape Irish society in the image of a Catholic state - even if they had wanted to. Ulster's wealth, Ulster's freedom, Ulster's liberties could not survive under such a regime. Thus for Sinclair, '...it was his belief that he was being steadfast in his liberal principles which often occasioned his most strident warnings about Homer Rule and Catholic power'.
Yet, seen in the wider British context, this did not make Sinclair unique or even unusual. Rather, it simply demonstrated the extent to which Sinclair was one with nonconformist liberalism throughout Britain in the late nineteenth century. Sinclair was a British liberal as much as an Ulster unionist.
That belief in God mattered to those who opposed Home Rule is clear. More specifically, it was a belief in God that was filtered through Protestant churchmanship and British historical experience. As for the land, there was less of a direct emphasis on the land as God's gift or on its sacral nature. However, there was a sense that the land was more fruitful and generated greater economic wealth in those parts where unionism flourished, in contrast to the impoverishment of the rest of the island. As for nation, there was a strong sense of distinctiveness and difference from Irish nationalists. But this was much less a case of seeing themselves as a distinctive Ulster nation than seeing themselves as an integral part of the British nation. And so Ulster unionists could sing the patriotic songs of Britain with the same enthusiasm as any other citizen:
Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free, How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee? Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set; God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.Born as citizens of the same land of hope and glory as their fellow citizens in the rest of the United Kingdom, they too proclaimed the God who had made the nation mighty. That was then. We can argue about the legitimacy or otherwise of the understanding of the relationship between God, land and nation among earlier generations. The challenge to us today is to look at our own understanding of these things and ask ourselves the hard questions.
Alwyn Thomson - Research Officer at ECONI
1 The Christian Advocate 8 January 1886 cited in David
Hempton and Myrtle Hill, Evangelical Protestantism in Ulster Society 1740-1890
(London, Routledge 1992) p 175