Signing up to the Covenant: An Alternative Vision for the Future?

At Thursday night’s annual Catherwood Lecture, Johnston McMaster covered a lot of ground in his talk entitled

Signing up to the Covenant: An Alternative Vision for the Future?

He started by explaining that his grandfather had signed the covenant, and continued to question throughout the talk whether he would have signed it if he’d lived 100 years ago.

Looking back at history and at the same time looking forward from today was a key tenet of his lecture, and mirrored the twin directions of memory and hope that are also at the heart of Christian worship. Back in 1912, some people seemed to think …

… God was an Ulsterman and against Home Rule. There was not a coat of paint between God, guns and politics.

Around 3,000 people signed an Alternative Covenant that repudiated violence, though little is known about the identity of these dissidents. Parallels were drawn between the 1912 Covenant and the 1916 Proclamation. Both documents were “theologically deliberate”, covering topics of: God; militarised politics; equal citizenship (an equality agenda); civil and religious freedom; and self determination.

At the start of a season of events that are looking at the signing of the Ulster Covenant, I found it a useful lecture to start to set the scene of a period of history that was ignored in school but will be unavoidable over the next ten years.

The Catherwood Lecture is an annual event organised by Contemporary Christianity (formerly ECONI) that looks at issues relating to faith in the public square and Christian worldview.

1912 A Hundred Years On - stillAnother contribution to the decade of political centenaries by this group is the 1912, A Hundred Years On play that started a two week tour on Friday evening. Written by a Carrickfergus writer/historian Philip Orr and a Jesuit priest Alan McGuckian, the play explores the events of that year, focussing on the political rather than maritime events.

The playwrights describe 1912 as “a tense and troubled year with violence on the streets”. Yet also “a year when many people stood up for their convictions, on all sides”.

The challenge for the audience may be to try to understand more fully the motivations of their ‘forefathers’ and ‘foremothers’ but also the motivations of those with whom their ancestors quite possibly disagreed, in matters of faith and politics.

The story of 1912 and the Ulster Covenant can’t be told as simply a unionist story as the events and repercussions are part of a narrative that covered communities across the island and beyond. Home Rule, the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish National Volunteers, gun running at Larne, the Suffragist movement in Ireland, the Battles of Gallipoli and the Somme, and the Easter Rising all form a continuum of history.

I was impressed with the play’s preview last year and look forward to seeing the final version during the two week run. See the full online schedule of venues which also lists whether or not there is an entrance charge. Performances are followed by a discussion.

  • Monday 12 March at 7.30pm // Antrim Old Court House
  • Tuesday 13 March at 7.30pm // Fitzroy Presbyterian Church
  • Wednesday 14 March at 7.30pm // Aquinas Grammar School
  • Thursday 15 March at 8pm // Ballymoney Town Hall
  • Friday 16 March at 7.30pm // Neilsbrook Community Centre, Randalstown
  • Monday 19 March at 7.30pm // Knock Presbyterian Church
  • Tuesday 20 March at 7.45pm // Marine Court Hotel, Bangor
  • Wednesday 21 March at 7.30pm // Sean Holywood Arts Centre, Newry
  • Thursday 22 March at 7.30pm // Westbourne Presbyterian Church, Belfast
  • Friday 23 March at 7.30pm // Down County Museum, Downpatrick

And for anyone wanting more covenant thinking – perhaps for those running away from the Titanic commemorations! – a series of talks are planned in Westbourne Presbyterian Community Church at the bottom of the Newtownards Road.

  • Monday 30 April at 7.30pm // Presbyterianism and the Ulster Covenant, John Erskine and Nelson McCausland
  • Wednesday 23 May at 7.30pm // Nationalism and the Ulster Covenant, Eamon Phoenix
  • Thursday 21 June at 7.30pm // Women and the Ulster Covenant, Diane Urquhart and Philip Orr

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  • lamhdearg2

    It seem that the Ulster covenant, can not be mentioned without the easter rising getting a mention, i wonder will the events of 1912 be given as much prominence come 2016.

  • Johnston McMaster – Signing Up to the Covenant: An Alternative Vision for the Future – a copy of the lecture in pdf format.

  • lamhdearg2 – maybe if commemorations and remembrances start well, the good practice will continue!

    Nevin – thanks

  • USA

    Thanks Alan, an informative post.

  • “There was not a coat of paint between God, guns and politics”

    A neat sound-bite but Johnston ignores the build-up from the 1880s, the significance of the Ulster Unionist Convention of 1892 as well as the role of Thomas Sinclair who drew from the well of the Scottish covenants of the 16th and 17th centuries. Instead, he wanders off down a different track:

    Did the Ulster Covenant mirror in any way the Judeo-Christian Covenant on which the author, endorsers and presumably the signatories, believed it was based?

  • lamhdearg2

    We will see Alan,