In defence of modernity?

Published in Issue 4 (July/August 2014), Letters, Volume 22

Sir,—Fergus Whelan’s interesting report of the Hutcheson Institute seminar (HI 22.3, May/June 2014) raises a number of significant issues. In the first place there is a vexed question concerning the title. The Ulster Covenant is described as being ‘In Defence of Modernity’, but what is political ‘Modernity’? Technologically, the concept is easy to understand; the automobile is more modern than the horse-drawn vehicle, the jet engine more modern than both. This clarity does not exist in the murky sphere of the humanities. Within a decade of the Covenant being signed, Fascism was proclaiming itself the epitome of ‘Modernity’. Within a century, a less malevolent political movement, ‘New Labour’, would proclaim its recycled Lib-Lab garments to be the ‘new look’, basing itself on a modernity that opposed the writings of the eighteenth-century Adam Smith to those of the nineteenth-century Karl Marx. Though this could be dismissed as a problem of semantics, it does raise questions as to the clarity of the discussion.

Certainly, technological progress tends to proceed in connection with political progress, but this cannot be taken as automatic. It is equally certain that Ulster unionist modernity was far less beneficial than modern ideas were elsewhere, despite the province’s industrial development. Ulster Liberalism, the political tradition of ‘those who had “fought battles for their RC fellow countrymen when they really were downtrodden”’, was a minority force in the province even before the first Home Rule bill. Sir Edward Harland’s undoubted brilliance as an engineer was not paralleled by enlightened politics. The unionist workers could not develop an independent unionist Labour Party (unless one counts the travesty of the Unionist Labour Association) until their industrial base was in decline.

Unionism guided ‘not by a jingo spirit but by a martyr spirit’? It was allied to some of the most powerful and certainly the most ruthless forces among the rulers of the greatest empire in the world. Indeed, the modernity of Unionism involved its identification (like any principle of political modernity) with a major force of its times: in this case, im-perialism. Imperialism was considered in itself to be a force for enlightenment; to oppose it was to retreat towards barbarism. Objectively, this view was stronger in Ulster because its industrial greatness was historically dependent on the imperial rather than the Irish market. It fitted, too, with the illusions fostered by its rulers in Ireland and Britain, the inheritance of its holders’ colon origins.

Protestant Ulster could claim greater enlightenment than its fellow-Irish Catholics, but only insofar as the Westminster Confession of Faith could claim to be more enlightened than the decrees of the Council of Trent. It has yet to be proven that the majority of the 212,000 who signed the Ulster Covenant in 1912 did so to safeguard Darwinism in Ireland.—Yours etc.,

D.R. O’CONNOR LYSAGHT

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