Last September, Unionists paraded in their tens of thousands through Belfast to celebrate the centenary of the Ulster Covenant. From the days of Lilibullero in the 17th Century, Ulster Protestantism has always had a particular genius for summing up its political causes in easily remembered ditties and catchphrases. Perhaps the easiest slogan to remember of all from that era is “Home Rule is Rome Rule”.
That encapsulated the fears that Irish self-government would inevitably lead to a clericalised, priest-ridden state. Such fears were reasonable given that centralised Papal power, a more modern development than popular understanding remembers, was at its apogee and Ireland lacked the liberal anti-clerical element that kept the Roman Catholic Church in check in continental Catholic countries. Indeed, the reality of the post-1922 Southern state amply vindicated those fears – civil divorce was not legalised until 1996.
That makes the constellation of forces at Westminster that unsuccessfully opposed the introduction of marriage equality in England and Wales this week all the more unlikely. The Roman hierarchies in Scotland and England/Wales have opposed the introduction of marriage equality with a degree of clerical vitriol reminiscent of the days of Cardinal Bourne, while eccentric Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg stated on Radio 4 that “I take my whip from the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church.”
A previous generation of Unionists, particularly those of the tendency represented by of the DUP and its antecedents, would have regarded such a statement as evidence of the enduring danger of Vatican power. As recently as 1994, Ian Paisley’s European election literature denounced the European Union as a grand Vatican conspiracy; less than two decades later, his successors in the DUP group in the House of Commons are in happy alliance with the representatives of British Ultramontanism.
Of course, the reality of Northern Ireland post-1922 was a state arguably as clericalised as the nascent Republic, albeit one where a rambunctiously non-hierarchical clerisy holding different theological standpoints produced a different set of concerns.
Belfast City Council chained the swings in parks on Sundays (a reminder that the municipal playpark has long had a bizarre capacity to become politicised in Northern Ireland). Liberal reforms on homosexuality and abortion stopped at the Irish Sea. Fear of Rome was never far away: in contrast to the situation in every other part of the UK and the ‘white Dominions’, Catholic schools remained deliberately underfunded until the end of the 1980s. A majority of my own education was spent in schools funded 15% less than their non-denominational analogues.
20 years ago, Northern Nationalism was every bit as clericalised as Unionism. Eddie McGrady and Seamus Mallon took pride in voting to keep the age of consent for gay men at a ludicrous 21. The swift and sudden death of Catholic Western Europe has not spared Northern Ireland. The process of secularisation is far from complete – no Nationalist politician has yet to come out publicly in favour of liberalisation of Northern Ireland’s abortion laws, although privately many are. Support for integrated education and, especially in the case of Sinn Féin, a non-denominational Irish language sector is hedged by an unwillingness to tackle the hierarchy on denominational education.
And yet, for all that, not a single Catholic MLA or MP from Northern Ireland has voted against marriage equality over the past months (although a few actively abstained and a larger number conveniently found themselves ‘absent on other business’ when votes were taken).
In contrast, only 3 Unionist legislators out of 62 at Stormont and Westminster voted for equal marriage. Explicitly religious concerns are prominent in the reasons expressed for opposition to the reform. After a bellow from Presbyterian pulpits that would have made John Charles McQuaid blush, both Danny Kennedy and Roy Beggs ‘declared an interest’ as members of Presbyterian Churches before voting against the measure at Stormont. There has been at least one case of church victimisation of a Presbyterian politician who publicly supported marriage equality.
We are in a situation no-one could have predicted until very recently: Paisleyism is leading Unionism in almost monolithic lockstep with a shrill Roman hierarchy in Great Britain under a papacy seeking to reassert ultramontane control. Meanwhile, the Special Constitutional Convention will likely see the Republic follow Great Britain thumbing its nose at the Vatican by legalising same-sex marriage only a year or two behind. Support from Northern Nationalism for that measure is, if anything, even more monolithic than Unionist opposition.
It is no longer the descendents of the Home Rulers who support Rome Rule but those who venerate the memory of Carson and Craig. Northern Ireland politics never loses its capacity for strangeness.