Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Past Is Another Covenant

I own an original copy of the Ulster Covenant signed by William James Ward in The City Hall, Belfast, one hundred years ago this weekend. I also have the Ulster Women's Unionist Council version, signed by Ruby Kathleen Rhind in Fisherwick Church, Belfast on Ulster Day: 28th September 2012. Details of all the signatories, by the way, are available on an excellent website run by PRONI.

But as I've observed before, the language of the Ulster Covenant belongs not only to another era, but to another world view entirely, one imbued with Christianity and a sense of identity and belonging now almost alien to modern sensibilities. Fintan O'Toole, in today's Irish Times, has an excellent essay on the centenary of the Ulster Covenant, in which he notes our apparent inability to understand the motives and mindset of the 500,000 people who signed the Covenant:

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.

Fintan ends with the thought that perhaps such conflicting, cultural attitudes may have disappeared by the 150th anniversary of the Ulster Covenant. That's the only duff note in the entire article in my opinion. For it seems obvious to me that the Christian world view (Old Testament/New Testament) - whether Calvinist or Catholic - and the attitudes that go with it is entirely irrelevant already to the daily lives, even the political allegiances, of the vast majority of people on both sides of the border. The Orange Tide, and its Catholic equivalent, have long since ebbed. The new covenant of liberal secularism is firmly entrenched on both sides of the border (as in most of the developed world) - and most have signed it, whether they know it or not.

The past is another covenant.

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