Contesting Ulster

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Contesting Ulster

John D. Brewer

The Queen’s University of Belfast
In Ron Robin and Bo Strath (eds) Homelands: Poetic Power and the Politics of Space, Pp. 283-304. Brussels: Peter Lang. 2003.

Some pious Protestants are politically inflexible because they believe that thereby they honour God; others, equally pious, believe they honour Him by their ability to compromise. This paradox has to be located in the history of the contest over Ireland. Contested homelands arise for many reasons, but religion, ethnicity and colonialism are a potent mix in Ireland’s case. They also contain contests of different sorts: sometimes it is the boundary of the homeland that it contested; in others the contest involves different groups in dispute over who should possess the rights and privileges of citizenship. Ireland has both contests. There is contest over the territorial partition of the island into two jurisdictions, Ulster1 in the North and the Irish Republic in the South, and dispute over the citizenship rights accorded Catholics in the North.2 These two contests merge in the demand for a United Ireland, but the 1998 peace agreement, known as the Good Friday Agreement, separates them by leaving aside the contest over territory to focus attention on Catholic rights and privileges in Northern Ireland. This is a remarkable achievement, since territory is not normally so readily conceded. But Ireland is also special in the way religion, ethnicity and colonialism are connected.

Religion is normally associated with colonialism because evangelism of the so-called heathen often supplied the moral justification for land appropriation and colonial expansion. Ireland’s final colonisation was different. It was already a Christian country and colonisation was effected under the impulse of Reformation disputes between different versions of Christian theology. Ireland eventually threw off the influence of its Reformation society but Ulster has not and to this day Scripture is wrapped up in the contest over Northern Ireland. This chapter examines the intersection of theology, territory and identity for Ulster Protestants. This intersection leads to Catholics being perceived as outsiders to the benefits and rights of full citizenship, giving them no rights to deny, for example, Orange marches through their neighbourhoods. This intersection makes anti-Catholicism and anti-Irishness integral to the way Protestants construct their homeland, and it determines Protestant hermeneutics of Scripture, encouraging a preference for Old Testament covenantal theology and New Testament apocalyptic passages. Versions of theology thus underwrite Protestant understandings of their homeland and rationalise their contest over territory and space with Catholics. Hence the shibboleth ‘For God and Ulster’ that is part of the historic rhetoric of Unionism. However, this chapter will identify nuances in the way theology affects Protestant conceptions of territory and identity, which impact differently on Protestant-Catholic relations in Ulster and result in political flexibility rather than stasis.
colonising ireland

The contemporary contest over Ulster has its genesis in the form of social structure created in Ireland by Plantation in the sixteenth century. Ireland was first colonised in the twelfth century as part of Norman expansion beyond England. The conquerors were Catholic and became known as ‘Old English’, distinguishing them from the Gaelic lords. The ‘Old English’ ran Ireland on behalf of the English Crown, although they were often rebellious; they were soundly Yorkist in England’s Wars of the Roses – the House of York tended to call the heir to the throne the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and many future kings honed their military strategy by extending the expansion of the Old English against the Gaels. But the Tudors were from the rival House of Lancaster, and when Henry VIII split from the Church of Rome over his marital difficulties, the old loyalties of the Irish and ‘Old English’ to Yorkist pretenders and the Catholic Church, impelled on the English Crown the need for the re-conquest of Ireland to reassert tighter control. Henry assumed the title of King of Ireland, and the power of the Pope in Ireland was replaced with that of the King. Any attempt at introducing the Protestant reformation in Ireland was stymied under Catholic Queen Mary. It was she who began the Plantation of English people in Ireland, but they were Catholics, established in Leix and Offaly in 1556 (Liechty, 1993: 13). It was with Elizabeth I that the Tudors began anew the task of establishing Protestantism in Ireland. An ecclesiastical commission was established to reform the church, attendance at Anglican worship was made compulsory on pain of a fine, use of the Common Book of Prayer was required and no preaching could be done in Irish (Ford, 1986: 51). English Puritans moved to Ireland during Elizabeth’s reign in large numbers.

Tudor motives were not exclusively theological however. The Protestantisation of Ireland was moved by strategic concerns to protect England’s western lands, to raise income for the Crown from property and land, and to quell troublesome rebels who challenged Tudor authority in Ireland. The object of Tudor policy was not just to transfer church wealth and power to the Crown, but also to establish control over independent lords by undermining their economic and political power base. Increasing levels of coercion needed to be applied in pursuit of this policy; Elizabeth’s ‘Irish wars’ occurred on and off from the beginning of her reign. When Elizabeth eventually died, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, so finally did attempts to conciliate Irish rebels: Hugh O’Neill, the leader of Gaelic Ireland, went into exile after military defeat, leaving a legacy of massacre and mendacity on both sides.

The final colonisation of Ireland in the seventeenth century was achieved in large measure by an alliance between England and loyal Protestants in Ireland, all of whom had recent origins in England or Scotland. British control of Ireland required Protestant control in Ireland, and Ireland’s social structure reflected the dominance of Protestants. Theological differences in Ireland obtained their saliency therefore because they corresponded to all the major patterns of structural differentiation in society, such as ethnic and cultural status, social class, ownership of property and land, economic wealth, employment, education, and political power. Colonisation proceeded on the basis of neutering the remnants of Gaelic and Catholic wealth and power by the ascendancy of Protestantism, linking this form of theology forever after with political loyalty, economic privilege, and cultural superiority. Anti-Catholicism played a major part in this process (see Brewer, 1998). It was a key resource in the ideological construction of Irish society into two groups in a zero-sum competition, which begins with the Plantation but was not finally accomplished until the nineteenth century. It was also an important rationalisation for the flagrant structural inequalities between the protagonists in the contest.

But unlike those instances of colonisation where the indigenous population was annihilated, the Gaelic and Catholic people in Ireland remained in subservient positions within the social structure. They were never entirely powerless. They possessed political resources in the form of Irish nationalism, economic resources by means of their labour power, and cultural resources by the legitimacy, internationally if not locally, of their Catholic faith. At various junctures in British-Irish relations, Irish Catholics were able to place immense pressure on British governments. Attempts to improve Catholic access to scarce socio-economic and political resources from the eighteenth century onwards, whether made as a result of pressure by Catholics in Ireland or the political self-interests of English governments, disturbed well-established patterns of dominance in Ireland and threatened Protestant interests (this is emphasised by Ruane and Todd, 1996: 12). The Protestant alliance with Britain forced the British government in 1922 to meet the demand for Irish independence by partition of the island. This solution had its roots in the different patterns of development that had been occurring in the Protestant North East corner of Ireland since Plantation.

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