On September 28, 1912, a group of concerned citizens gathered in Belfast City Hall to sign a bold declaration in reaction to what they perceived as a political death sentence. They were not alone in their fears, as signatures from miles around had been gathered for weeks. Signatures of dock workers, landed gentry, pastors, shopkeepers – the demographics were wide. What they all had in common, however, was that they were Protestant people who believe in the Union. Deeply believed in the Union. (Note: while not all Protestants signed the covenant, all signers of the covenant were most likely Protestant. It is certainly believed largely to be so.)
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was, after several hundred years of uneasy union, was facing a potential split. After several decades/centuries of unrest, the Prime Minister had entered into a deal with Irish Nationalists (those seeking independence for Ireland) to devolve the government. The act introduced as a conclusion of that deal came to be known as the Home Rule Bill, which would essentially allow Ireland to function as Scotland does – allegiance to the British crown, but an independent devolved government.
But that deal excluded some key folks: passionate, Protestant, residents of the northeastern Irish province of Ulster, who due to previous political machinations, had come to enjoy a certain level of security and power that they were not about to abandon. Their loyalty was to God and to Ulster, and their idea of God was staunchly anti-Catholic. To allow devolution, they felt, would not only put the economic prosperity of Belfast at risk (for Dublin was still quite underdeveloped at this time), but it would allow for undue influence by the Catholic Church into their governmental affairs. Home Rule is Rome Rule, went the saying.
So, what to do? They rallied and they gathered signatures and they rallied and they gathered signatures and they made it known in no uncertain terms to the British government that they would use any means necessary to oppose this bill. Armed insurrection was threatened and all evidence shows they were completely prepared to act upon that threat.
Before I explain a few things about the covenant itself, let me say that this all ultimately became a moot point due to the outbreak of WWI. It just kept getting postponed and postponed until it became irrelevant due to other revolutionary actions in Dublin (the Easter Rising, for example) and this all would eventually lead to Partition, which will be covered in another post.
So, the covenant itself was split into two parts: first, the part the men signed which was called a ‘covenant’ and the portion the women signed, which was called a ‘declaration’. Approximately 500,000 people signed the document, with a generally even split between women and men. They make the case – as you can perhaps see in the above photo – that Home Rule would be catastrophic to the economy, a threat to civil and religious liberty, and a threat to their status as equal citizens with their fellow citizens.
Several points: the “threat to civil and religious liberty” is what I referred to earlier as their fear of “Rome Rule”. While there is no direct evidence that this would have happened, there is ample evidence that their fears were not unfounded. The idea of protecting Ulster from Rome, that God called Unionists to do so, would permeate their ideology through to the present day. Also, Home Rule may well have been catastrophic to Belfast’s economy, but from what I’ve read probably not. At the time of this bill, Belfast was one of the key industrial cities of the western world with its shipbuilding empire providing not only the passenger ships of the White Star Line, but other necessary industries as well. Finally, the threat to their status is a statement of ethnic elitism – Catholic citizens were largely second class at this point in history and the signers of the covenant wanted to make sure they still got the privileges of Protestants and not get lumped in with the discriminatory treatment.
Also, the gender divide is as much theological as it is political: many of the churches to whom these people belonged would have preached that suffrage for women was against God’s will, that women were to be subject to men in all ways, and that their primary role in both the church and the home was child-rearing. Many of those churches still preach variations on those things today.
So! What does this all mean?! If it died, you may be saying, why are we wasting so many words on it? Simple: the spirit of the covenant lives on. When partition happened and Northern Ireland got its own government, the men who signed this document were the ones put in power. Thus, the government of Northern Ireland was exclusively comprised of religiously and culturally Protestant men who believed strongly in the act of union as a theological imperative. Their identity as humans was tied to their identity as British people, which was tied to their identity as Protestants. Their theological foundations tied them as covenant people, just like the Israelites, and that tie is still strong today. This made it nearly impossible for them to entertain the equal citizenship of a person baptized by Rome and set the foundations of the conflict. Even though the total power of Unionism was ended in 1972, Northern Ireland’s government is largely still divided along these lines (with some exceptions). The attitude behind the covenant matters because it is still shaping small and large decisions, and the language used is often biblical.
When I teach the history of Northern Ireland, it is usually this point I dwell on. Few people outside of Judeo-Christian traditions are familiar with the idea of covenant and the deep theological meanings behind it. This is often referred to as a historical, political document, but it is honestly so much more. It is a foundational text for a marriage of politics and theology which outlines a very specific way to be a faithful Christian in that place. As we think about the intersection of faith and culture, this intersection, this marriage, is key.
What does it mean to claim a covenant with God on behalf of a nation-state? Especially when that God is defined exclusively with your tradition and against other traditions within the same faith? What is the difference between this theology and the theology that would lead to the Irish government partnering with the Vatican to rule Ireland? I have only two more posts about the history of Northern Ireland before I can start exploring these themes. I hope you join me.
Dr. Kristen Nielsen Donnelly (MSW, M.Div) holds a PhD in Sociology from Queen's University Belfast, where she focused on the intersections of religion and gender in Northern Irish Protestantism. Professionally, Kristen serves as the Director of Abbey Research, a concierge research firm for small businesses and non-profits. Her research interests revolve around the intersectionality of practical theology, especially how gender, faith, and popular culture all play together. Learning and asking questions are her core hobbies, which is why she is both an unrepentant bookworm and serial traveler. Kristen and her husband, John, live in Philadelphia, surrounded by piles of books and video game consoles.