Unionism and the Separation of Church and State.

Recently, tourists coming to Northern Ireland around Easter were denied the option of having a glass of wine with their meal at lunch time on Good Friday. Okay, we do have a serious problem here with abuse of alcohol and binge drinking: but to suggest that there is something anti-Christian in alcohol in itself, is a matter of opinion to say the least.

Of course there are much more serious issues to consider: take the issue of abortion for instance, which I have addressed here. The issue is very complex indeed but how can Unionist politicians feel comfortable that the issue is dealt with differently in Northern Ireland than it is in any other part of the United Kingdom? In some instances our local laws seem more akin to the laws of the Vatican State than they are to the laws of the British State.

Then there is the issue of same-sex marriage: another complex issue that Unionist politicians believe should be dealt  with differently in our wee corner of the UK. With a referendum on this coming up in the Republic in May, maybe it’s time for Protestant Ulster to take a lead from Catholic Ireland?

Unionist politicians should perhaps consider our history that has led us to where we are at today.
Perhaps a good place to start would be with the reign of King William of Orange: celebrated as a champion for religious freedom. Most significantly perhaps, during the reign of King Billy the oppression of Scottish Covenanters ended. This was a battle for the right of Scottish Presbyterians to worship free of persecution from the state.

The Scottish Covenanter cause had much significance in Ulster as well: the extent of which is often not generally understood. This was particularly demonstrated in 1912 when the cause of The Ulster Covenant was directly linked to the Scottish Solemn League and Covenant of 1643. WF Marshal’s famous poem Blue Banner, published in local papers on Ulster Day, September 28th 1912, also made the direct link and presented the same cause:

“Firm-leagued we face the future, tho’ the road be dark and steep,
The road that leads to honour is the lonely road we keep,
And, though all the world forsake us, this is the course we hold,
The course our fathers followed in the Cov’nant days of old”.

Again, the focus was on religious freedom that they believed would have been threatened by a Catholic controlled Dublin government.

The Covenanter cause also clearly influenced the ideals of the Orange Order in its demands for Civil and Religious Liberty for all. Yes, those are the fundamental principles of this institution. Some love to challenge this and state that the Orange Order is simply anti-Catholic. The Institution itself points out that it’s not against people of Catholic faith but against the authoritarianism of the Vatican.

Those who regularly challenge this will not however challenge the ideals of The United Irishmen. Once again this was a campaign for religious liberty for all: for Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter alike.

While the United Irishmen movement was primarily driven by the liberal Non-Subscribing Presbyterians it gained support from other Protestants including many of the Reformed Presbyterian Church (Covenanters). One of the most celebrated martyrs by contemporary Irish Republicans is William Orr who was hanged in 1797. One of Orr’s closest associates, who attended his funeral and attended him in jail was a Covenanter minister. Many Covenanters saw this as simply the same issue: the same fight for religious freedom.

The ideals of the United Irishmen in Ulster were of course fuelled by the ideals of the earlier American and French Revolutions. The constitution of the United States of America enthusiastically promoted the separation of church and state: affording all citizens the freedom of faith and conscience. Most historians will acknowledge the huge influence of Ulster-Scots in this consciousness and Charles Thomson, born in Upperlands, County Londonderry was one of the architects of the American Declaration of Independence in 1776. Thomson was a devout Presbyterian but along with Anglicans, Jefferson and Washington they were adamant that the success of their new state was dependent on the separation of individual religious beliefs from the laws of the land.

Currently there is an ongoing debate in USA on this issue. An article in the Economist provided great insight.  There is much relevance in this for the UK and ROI as well. While it is correct that the Christian heritage of these states should be celebrated and respectfully acknowledged in the public holidays of Easter and Christmas we should still allow for freedom of conscience for those of differing faiths, politics and sexual orientation.

Curiously, the recent legal action by our government’s Equality Commission is viewed by many as an attack on the freedom of conscience of the Christian owners of Asher’s Bakery.  Regardless of how the legal action ends up most people will see this as an issue of conscience as opposed to an issue of discrimination by Asher’s.  Unionist politicians were correct to make a stand in support of Asher’s but the same political leaders should give the same consideration to other laws that interfere with the conscientious beliefs of other citizens.

When it comes to separating Church from State I believe that many of our Unionist politicians are out of step with the views of the majority of Unionist voters.

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  • Turgon

    Willie that is a fairly reasonable argument and one well put.

    The issue of abortion can be complex in that despite how it is portrayed in NI not all anti abortionists are religious.

    The continual conflation of pro life with religious practice is common in the western world but is not always the case. Secular systems and indeed secularists and atheists can and do oppose abortion.

    The alcohol one is also fairly complex (as you state) in the dangers of alcohol both social and personal. However, your and Belfast Barman’s arguments have significant weight in that I understand one can buy alcohol in off licences over Easter with much less restriction.

    The non biologically related same sex marriage question is of course very controversial but your views are incomplete. If one wants separation of church and state the only logical and fair option is to end marriage as a secular institution.

    The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation.

    As such civil partnerships should be the sole legally recognised concept and should be allowed to be entered into by any person or persons with any other person or persons provided they are all able to provide consent. That would remove the discrimination against the religious practices of the second largest faith group in the world and also the discrimination faced by non romantic / sexual relationships as well as relationships between those the state currently deems too biologically related.

    As I said above and your position implies there should be no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation. It would then be for the faith group to bless / sanctify / marry persons or persons partnerships as they choose without coercion either way.

    The final point you forgot to note about the US experience is the separation of church and state in education. Secular education for all is the system in the USA. It is discriminatory that certain faith groups are allowed their own schools yet run them with state finances (the Catholic sector), whilst other faith groups are allowed their ministers and prelates on the Boards of Governors of other schools again state funded (our current state and integrated sector). Meanwhile other denominations have their schools receive no funding – the Free Presbyterians.

    The only fair solution is separation of church and state with secular education. Faith groups would be free to organise meetings during lunch and after school times but religious instruction and assembly in compulsory time for children is unfair: as is the discriminatory practice of some children having to leave class during religious instruction.

    For those who wish to have a religious education for their children they can simply pay for private education either as well as or instead of the secular state sector. That system seems to have served the USA very well and it is a state with similarly high levels of religious adherence to NI.

  • willie drennan

    “The final point you forgot to note about the US experience is the separation of church and state in education. Secular education for all is the system in the USA.”

    You are absolutely right. It is an omission on my part to not include the role of church in state education. I agree that ideally there should just be one state controlled school board in Northern Ireland and you have adequately explained how that might work in practice. There could still be ample opportunity for individual faiths to have a role in extra-curricula activity: and other ways that single faith schools could be financed.

  • Gingray

    Surely a first step would be to recognise that Ulster is a majority Catholic province? Or when you say Protestant Ulster do you mean Protestant Northern Ireland? In that case, is it time to recognise that even within Northern Ireland Protestants are a minority?

    This obviously has a major impact – Northern Ireland was run as a one party state for 50 odd years with the Orange Order having a formal link to that party. The impact of this is still felt in some of our laws which are out of sync with either the UK or the rest of Ireland. Slightly under 100,000 people turned out to see Orange Order parades on July 12 last year, or around 6% of the population – TV audience for the show on BBC was 8% of viewing audience at its peak. Currently 28% of MLAs are in the Orange Order.

    Our leading Unionist Party, the DUP, are beholden to an even smaller religous grouping – the Free Presbyterians (11,000 members in 2011 in Northern Ireland, or 0.6% of the population) while they make up 13% of the total MLAs.

    Long winded I know – but ultimately I agree with you on the fact that politicians are out of sync with their voters, but at the same time these self same voters know their views before they enter the polling booth, yet cast their vote regardless.

    Separation of Church and State is an ideal that would make this a better place to live in, and that includes an end to segregated schools, but ultimately in a divided sectarian society more often than not people will vote for the extremes (google this – it seems that a moderate unionist/nationalist votes for the extreme knowing it will compromise closer to their moderate side).

  • Barneyt

    Its perhaps time that we separated schooling from religious doctrine and worship. That is going to impact schools who feel they need to educate within a particular ethos. Most school statements are similar, referring to respect and in some cases the spiritual, physical and emotional well-being of the child. Some refer to kindness, confidence etc.. however I am sure we can roll all of these aims into a single policy that is socially and educationally focused.

    There is no need for religious based assemblies and prayer in our schools. For me this can be served by various organisations that should not be permitted to step over any schools threshold. The School should be a religiously neutral zone, which is focused on preparing the child for all that life brings. Using the school for religious catchment and potential indoctrination, something that can be achieved within a compliant and captive audience for me is just not acceptable.

    We do have too many other problems here however to resolve overnight, and sadly there is an alignment between cultural background, religion and the events we celebrate. Creating a true shared space within our schools offer a chance for a new start, were we can all experience a variety of cultures, including British and Irish (alongside Spanish, French, Polish etc..). If I look at two schools I have experience of as a child and parent the Newry High State school is reformist and the Abbey grammar is unapologetically Roman Catholic. There is no need for this degree of cultural identification via the schooling system (an by implication exclusion) and sabre rattling, particularly in Newry.

  • willie drennan

    “Surely a first step would be to recognise that Ulster is a majority Catholic province? Or when you say Protestant Ulster do you mean Protestant Northern Ireland? ”

    I was actually just referring to the Protestant mindset and demographics as regards religion breakdown are not that relevant to the issue I was trying to highlight.

    “.. but ultimately I agree with you on the fact that politicians are out of sync with their voters, but at the same time these self same voters know their views before they enter the polling booth, yet cast their vote regardless.”

    And this will certainly be the case for the upcoming General Election with its somewhat undemocratic first past the post system. Perhaps though, for next year’s Stormont election the ‘separation of church and state’ issue might have more bearing in that PR voting system. The times just might be starting to change – well at least a wee bit.

  • csb

    A breakdown of numbers from the 2011 census

    Catholic 738,033
    Presbyterian 345,101
    Church of Ireland 248,821
    No Religion 183,164
    Methodist 54,452
    Baptist 18,513
    Pentecostal 12,438
    Free P 10,068
    Muslim 3,832
    Hindu 2,382
    Buddhist 1,046

  • willie drennan

    Reading Barneyt’s and Turgon’s responses make me realise just how crucial it is to have separation of church from state within education. Without that any other ‘separations’ are possibly not sustainable. The current system in Northern Ireland is so entrenched however that only a groundswell of grassroots opinion has a chance of changing the situation.

    It is unlikely that our political leaders will initiate the change although a few have made noises to that effect. For some political parties I guess they look at our religiously divided school system as a necessary investment in the future of religiously divided politics.

  • Gingray

    Sorry Willie, I realised after I had went off on a tangent, seeing Ulster inappropriately used gets on my goat.

    I do think the breakdown is important for understanding the lack of separation between Church and State within Unionism. Membership within stormont of the orange order/free presbyterians, is much higher within unionist parties at stormont than it is within the general unionist voting population. As such both organisations have undue influence – and as both organisations have views which are more extreme than any of the mainstream religions this influence will lead to a more extreme involvement of god on the unionist side.

    As much as I would like to agree with you that this election could produce a watershed moment like you suggest, the fear of the ever growing catholic/nationalist population will, in my opinion, continue to push unionists voters towards parties that appeal to protestants. Last years local elections, which saw TUV, PUP and UKIP all grow does not fill me full of confidence.

  • Ruhah

    Are you presenting King Billy, Orr, Thomson, et al. as being on your side for a secular state argument? I don’t think any of the aforementioned could of convinced of a nation who morals didn’t follow judeo-christian standards. In their time the triune God was over the nation and the church. Separation of church and state protects the church from the state but didn’t remove God from the state’s laws and values. The church had the right to teach children, adults and the very nation certain morals and standards. Those taught people made up a society who laws reflect their morals.

    I have no problem with this process. Maybe the time is coming where the people have different morals and standards to the church teachings and the law of the land will reflect that. And the wheel rolls on!

  • willie drennan

    “Separation of church and state protects the church from the state but didn’t remove God from the state’s laws and values.”

    I did acknowledge that we have a Christian heritage that should be respected. It naturally follows then that the laws of our land will be influenced by Christian values and should facilitate the freedom of citizens to live according to their faith or conscience.

    This only becomes problematic when we try to impose our specific beliefs on to others who have differing conscientiously held beliefs. I’m saying that others should be allowed to live by their conscience provided their actions don’t in any way negatively effect our individual rights and freedoms.

    I’m pretty sure that was where King Billy’s, Orr’s and Thomson’s heads were at as well.

    “Are you presenting King Billy, Orr, Thomson, et al. as being on your side for a secular state argument?”

    Not sure about King Billy but both William Orr and Charles Thomson were devout Christians.

  • willie drennan

    Well, you are certainly correct on the proportion of Free Presbyterians and other similar orthodoxy.

    And strangely enough Protestant Unionists currently tend to be singing from the same hymn sheet as Catholic Nationalists up in Stormont on issues relating to church and state. Especially with the SDLP.

    However, I think some Unionist parties at least have some individuals who think outside the box. So if the issue of separating church from state grows momentum we may well see some changes in the next Stormont to reflect that.

  • Abucs

    What is the rate of Slugger ‘columnists’ calling for Godless education over the past 5 years? One a fortnight?

    What is the percentage of Slugger ‘columnists’ heavily participating in academia?

    The forced removal of Christian education sidelines and leaves mute the Christian voice and leaves academia as the main input into forming the philosophies on how children should be educated.

    A state forcing on the population a Godless school system is not neutral. It is extreme and authoritarian.
    It may fit in with the ideology of some, but that doesn’t make it any less extreme and authoritarian.

    To force Godless ideology and culture on all citizens through the power of the state is the very antithesis of the initial concept of the separation of church and state.

    There are many problems with the idea of separation of church and state as it has evolved. One of the obvious examples is that there are many who wish government to regulate more and more facets of human interaction and then use this to force a change of culture to be more in line with their own non Christian and non religious ideology.

    Such people do not admit the authoritarian nature of their position which favours their own interpretation of how ‘secular’ culture and government should be enforced on all, whether you agree or not.

  • Gingray

    Who are you thinking of Willie? Are any of them currently in leadership roles within the Unionist parties at the minute or are they up and coming?

  • John Collins

    One question. Are there no Jews in NI?

  • I don’t find the Godless education system in America as extreme and authoritarian. You confuse religious liberty with secularism. America is a religious nation, which figured out over two centuries ago that a better way to encouraging so much Godfulness is to ensure there is no established singular church of the state.

  • csb

    335, according to the Census.

    And there are 302 Pagans.

  • Abucs

    I think maybe you are confusing the education system with society at large. You can have a Godless education system and a society that is not Godless. The overwhelming evidence would show however that a Godless education system affects the culture and perceptions of the population as it is supposed to. This is why Hitler closed down all Catholic schools, why other Socialist leaders like Stalin opposed religious education. Over two centuries ago America moved to protect religious liberty by enacting legislation. Today’s interpretation of those laws are quite different. Nobody sat down and thought to make America more ‘Godfulness’ by taking God out of the curriculum. It just did not happen that way.