How will the Churches Remember the Ulster Covenant?

As the centenary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant (28 September – Ulster Day) approaches, numerous events are planned to mark the event. Indeed, throughout the year the Ulster Covenant has been a hot topic of discussion at conferences, lectures, community events, and in the media.

Given that the Ulster Covenant links the cause of Protestantism and Unionism with the will of God, it will be interesting to see how Northern Ireland’s Protestant churches remember the covenant.

In 1912, many Protestant churches opened their doors for special services on Ulster Day and to encourage people to sign the covenant. The Public Records Office of Northern Ireland website includes the following description of Ulster Day:

The signing of the Covenant was conducted in an atmosphere of near religious fervour, appearing to many like a crusade, with comparisons being drawn between the Ulster Covenant and the Old Testament Covenant of the Israelites.

Religious services to invoke divine aid and to encourage signatures were held throughout in Protestant churches with the favoured hymn being ‘O God, our help in ages past’. Charles Frederick D’Arcy, later Archbishop of Armagh, stated his Church’s reason for supporting the Covenant: “We hold that no power, not even the British Parliament, has the right to deprive us of our heritage of British citizenship”.

In contrast, today’s churches have maintained a low profile in the present-day commemorations, seemingly leaving the business of remembrance to the loyal institutions. The highest profile event is the Orange Order’s Ulster Covenant Centenary Parade, planned for Saturday 29 September in Belfast.

The parade is set to pass by St Patrick’s Church on Donegall Street, which has become a site of controversy due to the playing of the ‘famine song’ by a loyalist band, the Young Conway Volunteers, in front of the church on the 12th of July. In August, bands in a Royal Black Institution parade defied the Parades Commission by again playing music outside St Patrick’s.

The reasons for the churches’ relatively low public profile are doubtless varied and complex, ranging from questioning the relevance of the Ulster Covenant to contemporary religious and political life, to mixed feelings about how Christians in 1912 linked their religion and their politics.  

I don’t know how many churches in Northern Ireland will mark the centenary of the covenant in special services. And there is of course a range of perspectives on whether Christians should celebrate the Ulster Covenant unreservedly, or remember it regretfully for too eagerly claiming God’s blessing while at the same time threatening violence by resorting to ‘all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland.’

A celebratory perspective is evident in the Orange Order’s Centenary Concert in the Ulster Hall, set for 26 September. It is titled ‘Soul of a Nation – The Story of the Ulster Covenant in 1912,’ and accompanied by the following description:

“At a time of crisis, almost half a million answered the cry from the Soul of a Nation. They preserved British identity and heritage. They laid the foundations of Northern Ireland.”

It also can be seen in an article titled ‘Ulster 1912: We Perish if we Yield,’ in the Ulster Bulwark, the Magazine of the Evangelical Protestant Society (EPS). (The full text of the July-Sept. edition is not yet fully available online.) It reads:

‘It is impossible for us to predict with any accuracy or authority just how the history of Ulster or Ireland might have unfolded if our forefathers had not taken the stand that they did from 1912 on, or if they had been defeated. But it is fairly safe to presume that the Gospel light, which shone brightly in Ulster in the years following the defeat of Home Rule and the introduction of partition, would not have shone nearly so brightly under an independent all-Ireland state.

…. Our fathers, quite correctly as the subsequent history of the Free State/Irish Republic readily confirms, identified Home Rule as Rome Rule and felt that they were duty bound to resist it to the death. There was Biblical and historical precedence for their robust and brave stand …’

A perspective of more regretful remembering can be seen in the work of theologians like Johnston McMaster and Cathy Higgins, both adjunct professors at the Irish School of Ecumenics (also my employer) and senior researchers with the Ethical Remembering project at the Junction in Derry/Londonderry.

McMaster’s book Overcoming Violence critiques the religious nationalism and cultures of violence that developed on this island, and which were subsequently reflected in religio-political documents like the Ulster Covenant and the Easter Proclamation.

McMaster and Higgins’ book Signing the Covenant – But Which One? deconstructs the theology behind the Ulster Covenant -specifically the identification of God’s will with a political cause and the religious justification of violence – and offers an alternative understanding of covenant based a non-violent reading of the Hebrew prophets.

Similarly, the organisation Contemporary Christianity (formerly Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland – ECONI) has produced ‘An Order of Service for a Contemporary Covenant Service of Worship’, which includes ‘A Contemporary Act of Covenant’ and a ‘Prayer of Confession.’

Contemporary Christianity has made the Order of Service available on its website for local congregations to adapt.

The Contemporary Act of Covenant is based on

‘the Methodist Covenant which John Wesley adapted from that of the Puritan Richard Alleine’ and confesses that loyalty to the ‘kingdom of God’ may require ‘rejecting previous loyalties and defying earthly authority.’

The Prayer of Confession includes requests for mercy for, amongst other items:

For the sin that has made us elevate earthly loyalties and personal ambition over the purposes of your kingdom

For the sin that made us dress personal prejudices and worldly agendas in pious language and self-righteous indignation

… For the sin that has caused us to be quick to divide people into us and them, and seek the welfare of us and ours above them and theirs

For the sin that has led us to seek the elevation of our rights over the rights of others, and to ignore our responsibilities to others and to you

And – in marked contrast to the Ulster Bulwark claim that the Ulster Covenant furthered the cause of the Gospel:

For the sin that has divided your church, brought shame on your name, and hampered the proclamation of your good news

Celebration and Confession are of course not the only options for how Northern Ireland’s Protestant churches remember the Ulster Covenant – if they choose to remember it at all. But these starkly contrasting perspectives on the Ulster Covenant demonstrate that Christians continue to struggle to come to grips with the role their churches have played throughout our troubled past. And this makes it all the more challenging for them to develop visions for a better future.

Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at