Editorial from Church & State, Winter 2006 (Number 83)

Toleration, Ascendancy, Democracy

Tolerance, according to the apostle of English Liberalism, John Stuart Mill, was the outcome of the failure of intolerance. The different factions of English Protestantism had a go at suppressing each other, including a civil war, and failed. They were therefore left with no option but to tolerate each other.

English tolerance began with the 1688 Revolution, in which the most famous event is the Battle of the Boyne. A system of total intolerance was established by the victors at the Boyne, and it was maintained against the vanquished for well over a century. But this was entirely in accordance with the Toleration announced by John Locke, the ideologist of the Glorious revolution.

Tolerance applied within the Protestant family of religions: the Anglicans, the Presbyterians and the Independents, each of whom had in turn controlled the state and failed to suppress the others.

The difficulty with Protestantism in England was that it was brought into being by an act of state, and that the state kept changing its mind about what Protestism was. This led to confusion in society, and different kinds of Protestantism grew out of the confusion.

But they all had one thing in common, and that was the basis of the tolerance that was gradually established after 1688. What they had in common was the act of state in which they all had their origin—the decision of Henry VIII to break with Rome and establish an English national religion so that he could give himself a divorce in order to secure his dynasty.

Close on two hundred years after the breach with Rome the different factions of English Protestantism came to the de facto arrangement with each other which is called Toleration. It was based on their common source in English nationalism, and their common enemy—Catholicism. Toleration within the Protestant family of religions was therefore accompanied by an all-out attempt to suppress the religion which they all hated.

But, within the system of tolerance, there was no equality. Political office was exclusive to Anglicans—members of the State Church of England and Ireland. Dissenters from the state religion were merely allowed to go about their private business of making money—one of the first measures of liberalism in their interest being that the slave trade was thrown open to unsupervised private enterprise. At a certain point they were allowed to hold minor public office on the basis of Occasional Conformity—which meant making obeisance to the State Church by taking Anglican Communion once a year. But, though they were themselves excluded from the conduct of the state, they had the satisfaction of seeing the Anglican Establishment persecuting the Catholics.

After half a century of persecution, many elements in the Establishment would willingly have amended the Penal Laws in the broader interests of the state. But they could not do so because their bargain with the Nonconformist masses was that their monopoly of political power would be tolerated on condition that they upheld the basic principle of the 1688 Revolution, which was the suppression of Catholicism. Protestant Ascendancy was the general culture of the settlement under which certain Protestant tendencies were excluded from political office and sophisticated elements in government had to enforce it, whatever their private opinions were.

The extermination of Catholicism failed in Ireland and, 139 years after the Boyne, the old English ruling class, as its last positive action, admitted Catholics to Parliament when O'Connell pushed his Emancipation campaign to the brink of civil war. Catholic Emancipation led to Emancipation all round. Three years later the Parliamentary franchise was extended to the middle classes. The Belfast New Letter campaigned enthusiastically for the 1832 Reform of Parliament, and reflected that, if only the Reform had been enacted earlier, Catholic Emancipation would not have been conceded.

One does not come across many accounts of the agitation which brought about the 1832 Reform. We cannot say whether the betrayal of trust by the aristocracy in conceding Catholic Emancipation figured in it. But betrayal of trust there undoubtedly was, and the oligarchy only survived it for three years. And anti-Catholic feeling continued to be a powerful popular sentiment in British public life during the long process of gradual democratisation—which took over 90 years after 1832 to accomplish.

Religious persecution was inherent in the system of Protestant toleration that was securely established by the Battle of the Boyne. Protestant toleration was postulated on the persecution of Catholics. The suppression of Catholicism was the great national object of the state founded on the Glorious Revolution. By pursuing that national object, and holding it to the fore as an object, the Anglican aristocracy elicited from the populace a tacit consent to its monopoly of political office.

Toleration was based on a nationalist consensus. The different Protestant tendencies had different views on how the state should be conducted, but they had a common denominator of allegiance to the state as a national, anti-Catholic, institution.

O'Connell gained the admission of Catholics to Parliament in 1829. He then founded the Repeal movement which aspired to persuade Parliament to restore self-government in Ireland by means of a Repeal of the Act of Union.

Though O'Connell regarded the Act of Union as unconstitutional, he sought its repeal by Act of Parliament—that is, by a decision of Parliament.

Parliament adopted the intransigent attitude that a constitutional repeal of the Union was out of the question, and that the Union could only be ended under the necessity of force. A physical force body was therefore organised within the nationalist movement in response to the British position that the issue could only be decided by force.

Over a period of three-quarters of a century, various institutions of the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland were eroded in a medium of constitutional friction with physical force in the background. Every measure of democratisation was carried against the opposition of the Protestant community in Ireland—except for the land reform, in which the Protestant tenant-farmers in the North made common cause against the landlords with the Catholic tenant-farmers throughout the island.

The events in the long process of democratisation were experienced as betrayals by the Protestant community—never as liberations. And they culminated in the great betrayal of ——the date does not spring to mind because Irish historians have given little attention to the matter, but July 1921 seems to be the moment. That was when the British Empire negotiated a truce with "the murder gang".

Well, the betrayal of the Union by the British Government had to be put up with by the Unionists in the 26 Counties, in which an Irish State was recognised by Britain.

It was a subordinate state at first, but in 1932 it made a unilateral declaration of its independence in breach of the Treaty by abolishing the Oath to the Crown, and it made good that declaration between 1932 and 1939.

For the next half-century the legitimacy was unquestionable. But in recent years that state has lost its bearings in the world and has come under intense questioning, spearheaded by the British Ambassador, the British Council, the Irish Times, and Trinity College.

Central to this questioning of the legitimacy of the Irish State is the charge that it is a Catholic State which always oppressed Protestants.

Half-a-century ago, the late Hubert Butler, a Protestant gentleman of Kilkenny, contested a local election on a programme of Protestant superiority, protesting that, as the superior people of the country, the Protestant community was denied the place in public life to which its qualities entitled it. His Election Address was re-published by the Church Of Ireland Gazette, not in the heat of the election campaign but months afterwards. His claims were rebutted by Protestants who were playing an active part in public life—not as Protestants, but on the basis of policy. There the matter rested for forty years—until Butler's Election Address was rescued from obscurity and re-issued in a selection of his writings.

The claim that the Protestant community had been oppressed by the State was revived by a group called the Reform Society, which is sponsored by the British Ambassador and is given considerable publicity by the Irish Times. (It is apparently an offshoot of the Orange Order.) And the claim of Protestant superiority was re-asserted by Bruce Arnold in a letter to the Irish Times, where he spoke of "the more rigorous discipline of the Protestant mind" (28.10.2004).

The essential thing about the Reform Society is the demand that the Protestant/British interest should be empowered as a constituent minority in the Irish State. For these people it is part of the oppression of Protestants if they play a part in public life in recognition of their personal qualities, or as part of a governing party—as in the case of Two Presidents, several Cabinet Ministers, and a number of judges. The demand is that the Protestant/British interest should be given a formal role in public life.

The claim of Protestant superiority made by Butler and Arnold did not relate to wealth. If the assertion had been that the Protestant community was wealthier than the Catholic community, there could have been no argument. The truth of it would have been self-evident.

But that is not the claim. The claim is that, regardless of wealth, Protestants are superior to Catholics. They are inherently superior. Their superiority is in the blood, as Butler put it.

(Of course wealth and virtue are presumed to go together by certain English theological tendencies, and that presumption passed into secular English commonsense with the decline of Christianity. Atheism emerging from religion tends to carry with it the qualities developed in conjunction with the religion.)

Allowing that Butler's racist conception of the matter in terms of blood was nonsense (and was a bizarre survival of Nazi ideology in somebody who prided himself on having been an active anti-Fascist from before the 2nd World War), it would be rash to dismiss his views as nonsense from start to finish. The demand implicit in his protest was unrealisable, and the repudiation of his Election Address by Protestants who had found no obstacle put in the way of their participation in public life was grounded in actual experience: nevertheless, Butler's view expressed a social reality.

Forget about blood, and look at the fact that the Protestant community had ruled Ireland for centuries. They were a ruling minority. The majority was made subject to them by the brute power of the English State, and they ruled. And they acquired the habit of ruling. And they were Irish after a fashion. They were the English in Ireland. They ruled Ireland for England. Within the English Imperial family they were Irish, just as others were Indians, and as Caribbean slave-owners were West Indians.

In the course of time, West Indians came to be black people and Indians came to be brown, and the English who had been Indians and West Indians became merely English once more. And so it was with the Irish.

Grattan tried to persuade the Irish English of his time to become Irish in a different sense, but they refused. The English Parliament in Ireland (called the Irish Parliament, as the English Government of India was called the Indian Government) flirted with a form of Irish independence which would include the native majority, but then they thought better of it. England itself did not prevent the Irish Parliament from establishing independent government in Ireland in the 1780s. At the time England lacked the power to do so. And that was the critical moment at which the Irish English decided to remain the English in Ireland.

When England decided to abolish its Irish Parliament, the Irish English resented it. But their resentment did not go to the length of making common cause with the Irish in support of it.

During the generation following the Act of Union a national development began amongst the excluded majority of the country. Under pressure from it, the British Government gradually eroded the Protestant Ascendancy. The Protestants as a community resisted erosion of its Ascendancy status as far as it was within its power to do so. It never considered relinquishing its privileged position and becoming part of the new national development. If it had done so, it might have held an influential position within the new power structures. But it did not do so. Only the occasional individual did so. Parnell did not become Home Rule leader as the representative of the Protestant community exercising hegemony over the new democracy. He was in that respect a mere individual—a dissident.

Protestants who joined the national movement were favoured rather than discriminated against. But there were not many of them.

The Protestant community did not believe until the eleventh hour that the British State in Ireland would be displaced by an Irish State. It was thoroughly Imperialist in outlook, and it was confident that British Empire would never sell them out. It was a traumatic experience for them when it did sell them out.

The rulers of Ireland then became the ruled. But they did not lose the mentality, the culture, of Imperial rulers. They had to put up with the fact that the people whom they had ruled for centuries had formed themselves into a democratic state and were the rulers now.

They were, by and large, the wealthy people in this new state. And they were accorded a privileged position within it. But there is a real sense in which they were not equals. One might say that this was their doing. But it wasn't really. There is never a tabula rasa in these things. The Protestant generation of 1921 did not make themselves what they were in 1921. They were what they had been made by their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers. They were the offspring of the master race of the world, cast adrift to live amongst their inferiors. And, while their inferiors were kind to them as best they knew how, that kindness only consolidated their exclusion.

They were inevitably excluded because they did not share a sense of common nationality.

Senator Mansergh says that they were Loyal to the Irish state, and also that they were national. But this is merely a play on the two senses in which the word 'nationality' is used. The official United Nations meaning is membership of a state. But that technical meaning does not give the sense in which the word is generally used. If the state conferred nationality, a national rebellion against a state would be a contradiction in terms.

But national rebellions against states have been amongst the most common occurrences of recent times—rebellions by groups of people with a sense of common nationality which is not an expression of the governing authority which issues passports.

The elite Protestant minority in the Irish state was Loyal in the sense that it did not rebel and declare UDI [Unilateral Declaration of Independence] as the White Rhodesians did, after the Empire sold them out. But they had no sense of affinity with the nationalism to which they were now subject politically.

The English Tolerance of the 18th century, within which certain tendencies were excluded from public office, was made functional by a strong sense of English nationalism, of which anti-Catholicism was a major component. Nonconformists were no less committed to enhancing the power of the English state than Anglicans were, and they contributed their bit to it in the civil sphere, by way of slave-trading, manufacturing etc. And the Government ran anti-Papist campaigns periodically for their pleasure.

In the Irish state, by contrast, no public disabilities were imposed on Protestants, and they were privileged in many ways. But, for the most part, they could not take part in public life because they were profoundly out of sympathy with the nationalism on which the state was founded, and they did not desire to enhance the power of the state.

They were aware of themselves as a superior people—how could it be otherwise after all those generations of careful segregation—but they had no voice as a people in public affairs after the British State deserted them.

That is the condition of things against which Hubert Butler protested. That is the rational kernel within the racist form of his protest. It is useless to deny that his expression of the grievance was racist in form. But it is not useful to ignore what was behind it.

The Church Of Ireland Gazette took little account of the result of the 1918 Election. Early in 1919, when the Dail was assembling and establishing a system of Irish government, it was preoccupied with the threat of Jewish Bolshevism in the form of the engineering strike in the North which brought Belfast to a standstill:

"Belfast has been going through the throes of one of the greatest and most far-reaching strikes in its history. The Carters' and Dockers' Strike engineered a few years ago by the notorious Jim Larkin cannot be compared in extent and gravity with the strike engineered by the Bolshevists from the Clyde, the Liffey, and the Thames. The Russian Jew… has succeeded along with his Sinn Fein friends in dragging the British working man into a terrible mess."

"It is stated that a prominent agitator, whose name figures at most of the meetings, if a chorister in one of the Roman Catholic Chapels. He is simply revelling in the condition in which the citizens have been placed b y the strike, and so are his Sinn Fein friends.

"At one of the meetings the following resolution was proposed by a member of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers—'That we, the workers who are now on strike, refuse to pay any more rent until the 44 hour week is granted'. Needless to state, this resolution was passed unanimously by the men who have been earning huge sums of money during the war, and whose rent thanks to a Government generous at other folks' expense, has never been raised a penny. The unfortunate landlords and landladies, for many spinsters depend absolutely on income from property for their subsistence, have a nice prospect in view, while the strike lasts, from those who are dishonest enough to rob them of their money" (C of I Gazette, 7 Feb 1919).

Much of the material in the Gazette in this period is about the class war. It was able to report on 14th February:

"The violent speech of a Russian Jew in the early days of the strike gave rise to some nervousness… But it soon became evident that revolutionary sentiments would not be tolerated by the strikers, and orders were issued to speakers to eschew Bolshevism and keep to the point".

But, revolution or not, the middle class was under a pressure that was eroding it, as was explained on 28th February, in an editorial entitled The Middle Class:

"It is not altogether a simple matter to state the exact connotation of the middle class, but generally speaking it includes… people of moderate means whose intelligence directs the productive energy of others, those whose work is of the head rather than the hand, and those who live partly upon the modest rewards of past industry… As a rule the middle class is thought of as standing outside the immediate sphere of productive industry, apart from the… conflicting interests of capital and labour… In the middle class the Christian ministry has had an honoured and distinguished place. It does not produce bread, but it gives a constant emphasis to the easily-forgotten truth that man does not live by bread alone. There is a worth in man very different from what a man is worth."

It is suggested that Sinn Fein stands only for what a man is worth:

"We note that the Bishop of Meath has drawn the fire of Sinn Fein critics by a certain passage in his address last Saturday at the High School, Dublin. "Don't be Sinn Feiners", said the Bishop; "those two words 'Ourselves alone' formed the most contemptible and anti-Christian matter that was ever heard of. To think of ourselves alone is just the thing we ought not to do at home or abroad. It is not only a contemptible, but a miserable, thing to think only of oneself ; it would ruin our happiness". The Bishop added that he was perfectly sure that the country would become ashamed of the motto "Sinn Fein", and would rise to a nobler ideal of its manhood. To this his critics reply that the words "Sinn Fein", strictly translated, do not mean "Ourselves alone"—the Irish for "alone" being "amhain"—but simply "We ourselves" ; that the founder of the movement adopted the phrase to denote what he regarded as a policy of self-help and self-reliance… On the narrow ground of accurate translation the Bishop's critics may be justified in their protest ; but on wider moral grounds his attitude is unassailable. The valid question is not linguistic, but ethical. What matters is not what the words "Sinn Fein" mean in their literal translation, but what the policy which has adopted the phrase as its title involves… We agree with the Bishop of Meath's belief that a policy which derives its main inspiration from appeal to a narrow, egotistical and arrogant sentiment of racial hatred is essentially anti-Christian, and we share his belief that its ascendancy over the mind of the Irish people will prove transitory" (14 Feb 1919).

The movement of Irish national separation from the British Empire must, in the Anglican view, be motivated by racial hatred. But the Church of Ireland had for four years been a staunch supporter of Britain's Great War, in which the incitement of nationalist antagonisms against the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires had played a major rule. There was in Ireland a long-established national movement commanding the support of a majority of the people in the island. But there was no Arab nationalist movement in the Middle East. Britain brought it into being, as an instrument of war policy, by appealing to the ambition of a local chieftain in Western Arabia, and its declaration of independence took the form of a Jihad. And the Czechoslovak nation was likewise unheard of until Britain invented it for the purpose of breaking up the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Gazette commented as follows on the first meeting of the Dail, which assembled to give effect to the policy on which Sinn Fein had won the General Election a month previously:

"The 'national Assembly' of the Irish Republican Party on Tuesday invoked the blessing of God on its labours. On the same day two policemen in county Tipperary were murdered by a gang of masked men with every circumstance of cold-blooded brutality. We do not suggest any direct connection between the two events. The members of the "National Assembly" are doubtless a body of young ideologues who quite honestly see visions of an Irish Republic at once independent, orderly and pious. The Irish Executive, we think, acted wisely in permitting the meeting to be held. It had the result of exhibiting both the capacity of its members for evolving resonant if vague formulae, and their lack of a particle of experience in the conduct of public affairs. The proceedings of the Assembly make it more than ever probable that it will not be long before a reaction sets in against the impracticable and sterile Republican policy of abstention. We note that already Nationalist local bodies… throughout the country are protesting against the neglect of their material interests, which it involves, and are seeking means—sometimes even the agency of Irish Unionist members of Parliament—to safeguard these interests. But if, taking the long view, we may concede that a practical experience of what the Republican policy means on its negative side is best calculated to restore the more sober of its adherents to political sanity, at the same time there is a positive aspect of danger in the policy which cannot be ignored. It is illustrated by the Tipperary murders. The establishment of an Irish Republic, the drafting of a Constitution for it, the issuing of a Declaration of Independence, together with an Address to the Free Nations of the world in support of it—these proceedings may in themselves be academic and futile ; but a programme of deliberate defiance of the law, within whatever organised limits promoters may seek to circumscribe it, is bound to weaken individual respect not merely for British law, but for those instinctive self-restraints which in the last analysis hold any ordered society together. The Republican policy is releasing forces which its leaders are impotent to control—forces of punitive passion which must issue, despite all their efforts at restraint, in personal crime and outrage. It is not possible for the Republicans to make British government in Ireland impracticable, which is their desire ; it is possible for them to achieve something which is not their desire—the loosing of the bonds of social order. No policy based on racial hatred can fail to react for evil on the personalities of those who pursue it. Even if an Irish Republic were a good and attainable thing, would it not be won at too high a price if in the process of achieving it those who achieved it had become worse men and worse citizens?" (24 Jan 1919).

Not a word about democracy from start to finish. Nothing but a calculation of the realpolitik of power—the kind of attitude which, if adopted by Germans towards a people which had voted to free itself from them, would have been denounced in ominous tones as "Prussianism".

The electoral mandate for the policy which is condemned is treated as being so worthless that it is not even mentioned.

If a democratic standard is applied to this comment, it is seen to be a policy of reducing the country to chaos rather than let it govern itself.

The Church of Ireland did not see that, in the comprehensive loss of the election in Ireland by the British Government, there was any moral obligation on the British Government to desist from its attempt to govern Ireland. It was OK for Whitehall and Dublin Castle to carry on governing with the rifle and without the ballot. Morality lay with the power of the apparatus of the British state and against it the whim of the Irish electorate that it would like to govern itself.

But the wayward electorate did not come to its senses when its whim was ignored. A year later: "We are all in a state of semi-hysteria". Deplorable things happened, which were—

"…used by unscrupulous people to colour their harrowing picture of Ireland trodden beneath England's military heel; but it never could have occurred if ever soldier and policeman in the country did not feel in hourly danger of his life. This is the awful fact. Ireland has given herself into the hands of terror…; and until the Irish priests and people combine to rid themselves of the most horrible incubus since the days of the "Invincibles" we cannot hope to see Ireland happy or Ireland free" (2 Jan 1920).

The Irish must submit in order to be free. Freedom is the recognition of necessity. Necessity is the will of the British Empire to hold Ireland. Resistance of that necessity is terror, whether done without a democratic electoral mandate as in the case of the Invincibles, or in the furtherance of a clear democratic mandate, as was the case in 1920.

The Dail Government is a bad joke. It is only ever referred to with a sneer. But another year passes and the attempt by the moral authority—the Empire—to set it aside has left the wayward Irish people unmoved:

"Fatal ambushes have been of daily occurrence, and Southern Ireland has slipped still further down the deep incline which leads to chaos" (28 Jan 1921).

So far as the Church of Ireland was concerned, legitimate authority in Ireland was British. British authority could not be de-legitimised or made immoral by any number of mere Irish elections. Democracy was something to be flaunted if it happened to support your position, but it was of no real moral account. British military rule in defiance of the electorally expressed will of the people was fine. Before any heed should be taken of the will of the people, the people had to be brought back to a due sense of subordination to the Empire.

In December 1921 the threat that all the military resources of the Empire would be mobilised for use in Ireland, unless Sinn Fein recognised the Crown, brought about a submission in the form of what was called a Treaty.

It was not a Treaty. Treaties are made between sovereign authorities. Britain did not recognise the Dail as a sovereign authority. It didn't even make the Treaty with the Dail. A new administration, the Provisional Government, was set up under the provisions of this dictated Agreement made between the British Government and a faction of Sinn Fein which Britain legitimised on the condition that it recognised the authority of the Crown. A case can be made for the 'Treaty', but it is not a democratic case.

The Church of Ireland, which had played no part in Irish politics since the 1918 Election, and had supported military government against the will of the electorate for three years, sprang to the support of the 'Treaty' in January 1922. Submission to a military ultimatum of the Empire was hailed as a patriotic, and even democratic, event. The Gazette became a propagandist for the strictest enforcement of the Crown aspects of the Treaty, from which Collins tried to escape. It was a party to what is called the 'Civil War'. That was its entry into Irish political life. But, ten years later, it had to adapt to the fact that the Treaty was rejected by the electorate, and that the Empire had gone astray and it could do nothing about it.

The political history of the Church of Ireland in the era of the independence movement has not been written. We were content that it should remain so. But, now that the Anglican Archbishop of Dublin has placed himself at the head of the re-Anglicising movement, it is time that the Church of Ireland was required to look at itself in a mirror.

We did not take on the Catholic Church in its prime—with no Anglican support—in order to lie down before the most undemocratic and intolerant Church that has ever existed in Ireland.

Contents of Number 83

Toleration, Ascendancy, Democracy

The Importance Of Being Irish (Part 2)
Stephen Richards

"Lest We Forget"—Remembering The
British Legion.

Eamon Dyas

Fr. Alex Reid's Nazi Analogy

William Sharkey
Pat Muldowney

T. Ryle Dwyer On Patrick Pearse
Nick Folley

Little Lad Of Tricks
Patrick Walsh (Letter)

Ruth Dudley Edwards

Patrick Pearse

Defending The Pope (Report)
Pat Maloney

Pope Benedict XVI
The Ratzinger Report (extracts)

Vox Pat: Ireland’s Privileged Minority; Church Of Ireland; Methodists; Archbishop Martin; Jews, Catholics And Savages; Mafia
Pat Maloney

Co. Offaly Protestants Killed By IRA In 1921: Subverting A True Story.
Pat Muldowney

Religion And The Liberal Abyss
Brendan Clifford

James Joyce On The Austrian Empire
Manus O'Riordan

State Papers 1975: Dublin, London, Belfast
Pat Maloney

Bono: Spirit Of The Times (Book Review)
John Martin

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