Last weekend QPR manager Mark Hughes was going a bit ballistic about a goal he says his team scored but the ref ruled they hadn’t. The ref said he couldn’t see it from his angle so he couldn’t judge if the goalie had scooped the ball out before it crossed the line; the assistant referee/linesman said his view was blocked by two players between him and the ball; goal-mouth replays on TV showed the ball had definitely gone in.
You thought I’d forgotten about the signing of the Covenant, didn’t you? Bear with me. As in the case of the disputed goal, the way you see the Covenant signing depends to a great extent on where you’re positioned. If you’re in the shoes of a traditional (or maybe average) unionist, you’ll see it as a glorious event that laid the foundations for the state you’re now living in. Faced with forcible expulsion from the United Kingdom, the men and women of Ulster came together to make clear they were having none of it. Nearly half a million men and women solemnly pledged themselves to resist by all possible means such unfair and misguided treatment. (The women weren’t allowed to sign the Covenant, just a Declaration, but let’s not go there).
If you’re a nationalist/republican, you’ll see 1912 differently. From your seat in the stands you’ll see a minority of Irish people resisting the democratic and lawful wishes of the majority that they should be granted Home Rule. You'll also point to the contradiction of a unionist people defying the very British government to whom they vowed allegiance. You might add that the Covenant people, promising violence if their wishes were not met, acted not just undemocratically but opened the door to a decade of violence – the Larne gun-running, the Howth gun-running, Easter 1916, the Tan War, the Civil War. By bringing the gun into twentieth-century Irish politics, they sent hundreds of good people on this island to their graves and plunged thousands of loved ones in deepest grief.
So is that it? Do you pick your side and chant insults at the opposing lot? Well, maybe if you’re supporting a football team, but not if you’re seriously addressing Irish history. If it’s history you’re talking, you stay open-minded to other views and perhaps new evidence. You scrutinise the signing of the Covenant and try to tease out the meaning it can have for us, one hundred years later. You’ll probably raise that old question: does the meaning and/or its morality change with the passage of time?
That’s what happened on BBC Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh’s Sunday Sequence last weekend. They were talking about the signing of the Covenant, and panelist Brian Feeney said in so many words that we mustn’t judge the signing of the Covenant/the Larne gun-running by the standards of today. Presenter William Crawley immediately did his job. He asked “Why?” Why shouldn’t we judge the morality of the Covenant signing and the Larne gun-running by today’s standards? After all, we judge the actions of Hitler in the 1930s by today’s standards – why not those in the north of Ireland during second decade of the twentieth-century? In response to the question Feeney gave a jokey remark about religion but no answer.
So do we show how tolerant we are and settle back into moral relativism? You say tomato, I say tomayto? Everything depends on what vantage point you've got, and anyway we can’t really judge people and events that happened so long ago? My own view is that relativism is bunkum. Of course we must keep in mind the context in which people found themselves and the beliefs they held then. But when all that tomato/tomayto stuff has been said, there are still conclusions to be be drawn and judgments to be made. The video replay, the goal-line technology should be wheeled on and used. We can't let the value of historical events depend on the state of someone's digestion.