Queen's Rebels: Ulster loyalism in historical perspective

Ruaírí Ó Domhnaíll reviews Queen's Rebels: Ulster loyalism in historical perspective by David W. Miller, UCD Press, ISBN 978-1-904558-88-0£16.95/€24 pbk

Queen's Rebels

This is another in the excellent series Classics of Irish History of UCD Press, which fittingly claims "a seminal book" and "the most original study of Ulster Loyalist ideology".

For those, who see Ulster loyalism as a mixture of dogged determination, sectarianism and Adam Smith's precepts, this should be essential reading, as it explains the origins and rationalizations of the "myths," which underpin that belief system.

The book was originally published some 30 years ago by an American academic. The interim is described eloquently in John Bew's introduction. Part of Dr Bew's remarks may be seen as attempts to reinterpret some of author's findings, but it would be an injustice to the main work to squander further space on this. Nonetheless a caveat should be entered here.

Professor Miller traces the origin of the "myth" of the planters' "constitution" to late 16th-century Scotland, where a weak King James VI was forced into a "social contract" or covenant with his subjects. The king undertook to "maintain the true religion," (Presbyterianism), while the "people" agreed to defend the king, Christ, "the liberty of their country" and ominously, "to punish iniquity".

"Public bands" were organized by the aristocracy and gentry when this contract seemed to be challenged. Public banding was transmuted into a weapon of the Kirk in its resistance to regal backsliding.

In Scotland, Calvin's teachings on God's relationship with man were accepted "covenant" theology i.e. "Covenant of works" (man had to work for salvation) and "Covenant of Grace" (salvation was God's gift). Preachers began disseminating that "Scotland enjoyed a special covenant relationship with the Almighty".

The process is followed through the turmoil of 17th century to the Glorious Revolution 1689, to the complexities of the Act of Union 1707. The English ruling élite were pragmatists and did not embrace "Scotch" contractarianism. These led to disagreements, but the English Constitution prevailed at least in Britain - the 'mainland'.

The Antrim Association 1689, the Militia, 1715 and the volunteers, 1778, were manifestations of the "public bands". Protestant tenantry was accustomed to being "arrayed under arms" - contributing to the "victories" at the 'Battle of the Diamond (1795) and 'The Homicides at Dolly's Brae' (The Times, 18 July 1849] - neither of which is mentioned.

Professor Miller's references to the six counties as a "state" are controversial, perhaps influenced by his familiarity with the USA's constitution. The Government of Ireland Act 1920 did not confer statehood nor did it establish a federal relationship. De Smith and Brazier (1998) dismissed the question deftly by simply stating that the six counties had "some of the trappings of an independent state".

The work may be summarised in the author's comparison the actions of the Irish Free State with those of unionists. The former accepted that it was "natural and inevitable for the nation-state to enjoy the willing adherence of all" its citizens.

Conversely, the "contractarian myth exacerbated the alienation of the northern minority". Professor Miller stretched euphemism beyond normal limits, by declaring that the contrived "northern majority" "did practically nothing to woo Catholics into allegiance to their state."

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