Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Book Review: The Ulster Crisis

We're rapidly approaching the decade of centenaries in Ulster and Irish history. The one-hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, the signing of the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant (and complementary Women's Declaration), the raising of the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Larne gun-running, the First World War, the Easter Rising, the Battle of the Somme, the formation of the Dail, the establishing of Northern Ireland, and so much more. Such a densely packed period of Irish history, and it's now rolling round towards one hundred years since each of those milestone moments.

With that in mind, and given the amount of discussion already being undertaken about how to commemorate each of those events, I decided to re-read ATQ Stewart's authoritative work on the events in Ulster: 'The Ulster Crisis.' The great historian writes passionately in an engaging style, carrying the reader along to follow the story, while giving some delightful and interesting asides to fill out the picture. Stewart seems to write with a lot of sympathy for the Ulster volunteers and their leaders, Sir Edward Carson and Sir James Craig, yet he is not beyond being critical of events and motives when required.

In my reading and notes, I particularly focused on the religious element of the resistance to Home Rule, well, I am a minister, after all! And along the way there were some interesting things to note.

Stewart's opinion of the Orange Order in the 1880s is interesting, given that the order seeks to portray itself as a purely religious institution: 'a very powerful political organisation working for the maintenance of the Union.' (p.31) (Which itself is interesting, given that the Order was originally against the Act of Union in its early days, as the leadership stood to lose out on the prestige and power of the Irish Parliament sitting in Dublin).

In terms of the underlying sectarianism in Irish society: 'It is doubtful that the Ulster Protestant had much desire to persecute his neighbour because of the way he worshipped, but he certainly had an excessive fear of being persecuted by him, or to be more accurate, but his Church.' (p. 43) Almost as an aside, from fairly early on in the campaign against Home Rule, there is lots of rhetoric about the 'Protestant Province of Ulster' from the lips of Carson and Craig.

The role of the Protestant churches is faithfully recorded, including the fact that the Balmoral rally on Easter Tuesday of 1912 was opened with prayers by the Archbishop of Armagh and the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church; the Ulster Covenant was submitted for approval from the churches before it was officially released; and that the morning of 'Ulster Day' 28th September 1912 'began with an impressive act of dedication in religious services throughout the city, for the Protestant Churches had given the Anti-Home Rule campaign their solemn blessing.' Leading ministers from the churches were among the first to sign the Covenant in Belfast, and across the province.

It's hard to know how to respond to these reports a century on, when you survey the political landscape today. It has been suggested recently that perhaps the Ulstermen were right to fear the power of the Roman Church, with the reports of shocking abuse which was covered up as if the Church were above the law, a state within a state. At the same time, were the churches pursuing politics rather than gospel, focusing on the earthly head of state (whether Queen or President or whoever) rather than on submitting to the rulers (whoever they may be) and working for the Kingdom whether in the United Kingdom or not?

Given the irony that it was the Anti-Home Rule province of Ulster that actually ended up with Home Rule, was it a bit of an over-reaction on the part of the leaders, whipping up hysteria and organising dubiously legal activities with less danger than was imagined? As Stewart comments, 'In retrospect, it seems strange that a measure as limited as the Home Rule Bill should engender such political passion.'

The coming decade will show us how far we have moved on towards a shared society from those turbulent days of the 1910s. The political capital and heritage of those years is up for grabs, to be used and abused by many political groups, who will seek to claim that they are the true heirs of their revered forebears, whether republican or loyalist, nationalist or unionist. It's clear that the churches have lost their position of influence in many communities, and while the four main church leaders can occasionally be wheeled out by the NIO to be on message, the churches seem to have been abandoned by many of the most political in society.

Stewart is the master story teller, and all of his history writings are worth reading, not just for what you will learn, but also for the way he tells you the details. I thoroughly recommend his book for those wishing to remind themselves, or indeed learn for the first time, what the events are which will loom large in these years. There are bound to be rumours, myths, and propaganda as we re-examine our history. Authentic and authoritative historians must be those we listen to so that we can learn from the past, and work towards our shared future.

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