In 1536 Henry VIII broke with Papal authority and Ireland was set to change forever, as a sectarian dimension was added to an already tense relationship with England. The English Crown and Church, especially from the reign of Elizabeth I onward, had protestantised the Doctrine of Discovery and used it to establish the North American colonies. As the British Empire grew, Australia and New Zealand would be added to a growing list – today they continue to grapple with the fallout of the DOD!
With regards to Ireland, England’s oldest colony, Catholicism and Protestantism were not good bedfellows, indeed, one historian wrote that Ireland became England’s training ground for empire expansion! It’s colonial policies and strategies in Ireland, throughout the 17th and 18th centuries were mirrored on the other side of the Atlantic – ruthless suppression of the savage other! That sordid history is recorded, though not often recalled, especially by the Protestant community!
Indeed, strewn across the last four centuries, is a long list of people and events which connect directly into this: Queen Elizabeth I, Cromwell, the Plantation of Ulster, the Siege of Derry, the Battle of the Boyne, the Potato Famine, the rise of Irish Nationalism, the Home Rule Crisis, the Ulster Covenant, Partition – to name but a few. Many layers…much pain!
However, what we need to realize is this: while we may be seen as sworn enemies, the seed of empire that was sown in Ireland by the Catholic Church and Crown, actually traversed the Reformation to be taken up by the Reformed Church and Protestant Crown. We have continued to operate out of that same spirit, albeit, with very different manifestations! Irish Catholicism has always been seen as the enemy. According to the Protestant version of the ‘empire spirit’, it had always been a constant thorn in the flesh. Something that had to be vehemently and rigorously pursued and put down! By fusing together our spiritual and political identities, we have ended up producing a deadly mix: Irish Catholic Nationalism v Ulster Protestant Nationalism.
This was highlighted to me back in 1994, not long after the Good Friday Agreement. In one of Northern Ireland’s daily newspapers, there was a cartoon. It was of two rats in a cage: one was a Protestant Unionist rat and the other, Catholic Nationalist. They were facing each other in an aggressive posture and attached to their limbs and heads were a series of strings leading up and out of the top of the cage, to be used by a pair of dark sinister hands, to manipulate them. The artist may not have seen the spiritual implications of this cartoon, but it was a stark insightful drawing to me. It was highlighting a key missing element. It is the question, “What was going on, and continues to go on, in the heavenly realms as a result of this history?”
One of our big problems is that we do not know our history from God’s perspective. We all to often only know our tribal versions of it! Time and time again, I am hearing clergy say to me “Harry, but we don’t know this history, our foundational roots! We have learned a selective history with selective interpretations!” We have lost sight of what I mentioned earlier – our battle is not against flesh and blood!
At the height of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Martin Luther King Jr wrote: “It helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his point of view we may see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.” We need others to show us the “log in our own eye”!
As followers of Christ, how can we continue to follow the false narratives of our history? For instance: Ireland was not God’s promised land for the Scottish Presbyterians who came here during the Plantation, with their take on being the special, chosen, covenanted people of God and the same could be said of the Puritans in going to America. Again, there is no evidence in history that God had initiated a special covenant with them either! How easily we have used the language of covenant, as we have sought to bring God over to our side and demonise the other! God’s covenants with us have been unilateral – He and He alone set down the conditions and terms. All too often we have drawn up covenants, used God’s name and then asked Him to endorse them!
Back to the Ulster Covenant
The Home Rule Crisis (1912-16)
Ever since the introduction of the first Home Rule Bill in 1886, the House of Lords had exercised its veto. With the removal of the last constitutional impediment to Home Rule for Ireland, the Ulster Unionists turned to more radical means of maintaining Ulster’s position in the United Kingdom. Its church and political leaders began to organise the drawing up and signing of the Solemn League and Covenant on Ulster Day, 28 September 1912. The signatories – 462,414 of them – pledged to resist Ulster’s inclusion in the Home Rule Bill and declare their desire for the province to remain within the United Kingdom.
What most people are unaware of is that the driving forces behind the idea of covenant were instigated by the Presbyterian Church, which drew on its historical use of the covenants in Scotland (1638 & 1643) in resistance to the English Crown and Anglican Church. Through emotional and vitriolic sermons and political speeches, fear of coming under the control of the Catholic Church was a dominant ploy to unite them in rebellion to the British Government.
A Hundred Years On
After the formation of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1998, God gave me an image of people trying to bring together the positive poles of two large magnets. As we know, all they were capable of doing was repel each other! I sensed God speaking into that, saying that the two magnets represented the DUP and Sinn Fein. The British and Irish Governments were trying to bring them together through forming the Power-Sharing Executive (1999) but because both groups were in a counter-covenantal relationship with each other – looking for two opposite outcomes, one maintaining the Union within the UK and the other, a united Ireland – like the magnets they were only capable of repelling each other, with the breakdown of the Assembly always a possibility. As we have experienced in the three dissolutions of 2002, 2011 and a longer one, from 2017 – January 2020.
Recent events here within sections of the Unionist/Loyalist community, regarding Brexit (the border and the backstop arrangements) has shown us how fragile things continue to be one hundred years on. The cultural strongholds of Satan are still intact! Reading newspaper reports on a meeting in Portadown Orange Hall, were like a flashback to those written in 1912: the conversation included, the Ulster Covenant, Drumcree, threats of a British sell-out, the need of a leader like Lord Carson and armed resistance.
Alongside this, we need to wake up to the fact that inside many of our churches and hearts, we have set up our altars to Protestant and Catholic Nationalism – albeit, invisibly. But we have our high priests, our high places, monuments to enshrine our victories and celebratory events. All these serve to empower the wrong spirit within.
As Christians, we need to understand these issues from God’s perspective. Where we have been bowing the knee to the idols of Nationalism – this needs to be repented of. But, we must also find ways of living out the fruit of that repentance as the Body of Christ! Period! And our spiritual leaders – collectively – need to find a way of taking us there! Where our church governing bodies have taken the lead in the creation and signing of the Ulster Covenant in 1912, the current leadership has to repent of that. In so doing, a foothold of Satan is dealt with, something powerful over Ireland will be broken in the heavenly realms. The log will have been removed, a tsunami of God’s Spirit will flow across the land.
Johannes Facius (Intercessors International) once wrote: “There is one major problem that stands in the way of healing the land. That is the uncontested historical sins of the nation. Uncontested sin is the foothold of satanic forces… a basis for satanic rule. We must, therefore, find a way of dealing with it if we are to see our people delivered from demonic strongholds.”
And John Dawson (International Reconciliation Coalition) wrote this: “A repentant church, confessing the sins of the nation before God is that nation’s only hope…the unredeemed cannot make atonement for the land. The pagan cannot go up into the gap and present the blood of the Lamb…Our nation will be cursed or blessed, according to the obedience or disobedience of the Church.”
We clearly have some homework to do!
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