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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