Three realms united, and on one bestow’d, An emblem of their mystic union show’d
– John Dryden
Four years after his acclamation as Emperor at York, at the crisis point in his fortunes, Constantine the Great beheld in the sky three crosses superimposed upon another and heard the words “in this sign conquer”. Under such a banner for a hundred years the united kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland were invincible and all conquering. Year upon year the Catholic faithful grew in fidelity and in numbers until one quarter of the entire globe was subject to the United Kingdom and the Church was on course to reconvert the British Isles, torn from her grasp by the lust of Henry VIII. What went wrong?
In the middle of the First World War a group among the Catholics of Ireland rebelled against the crown. The overreaction of the government created the opportunity to force the partition of Ireland and eventually to transform the larger portion into a republic. This permitted in theory the creation of a ideal Catholic polity in the south. Indeed, great strides were made towards this in 1937 but the authors drew back from formally professing the Catholic Faith as the religion of the Irish State.
The majority of Catholics in Northern Ireland (according to various opinion polls and as implied by the census) now favour remaining within the United Kingdom. I knew a Northern Irish Catholic woman when I was an undergraduate whose family always voted Unionist but never openly admitted it. Electoral returns have for a long time been inexplicable in Northern Ireland unless many Catholics are voting for Unionist parties. The DUP’s policies have also long been the closest of any party in the British Isles to Catholic Social Teaching. Unborn children retain (albeit constantly threatened) legal protection in the North while abortion is legalized in the Republic. I have met at least one vociferous practicing Catholic ‘West Brit’ from the Republic. I am told there are many more discrete ones. A republican Irish historian once admitted to me that he did not think there was a majority for an Irish Republic among the population of the island of Ireland as a whole when it was created.
Until the end of the eighteenth century Catholic Ireland was more royalist and Jacobite than the rest of Britain. Whether one agrees with them or not Adrian IV and Paul IV gave the lordship and then the crown of Ireland to Henry II and Mary I fair and square. When John surrendered “the whole kingdom of England and the whole kingdom Ireland, with all their rights and appurtenance” to Innocent III in 1213 he got them back again “now receiving and holding them, as it were a vassal, from God and the Roman church”. I can see how Ireland could legitimately seek to put the Duke of Bavaria on the throne on the grounds that the events of 1688 and therefore the subsequent parliamentary union were revolutionary. I can see the pragmatic case for seizing the opportunity to create the state described in the 1937 Bunreacht Na hÉireann. I can see the theoretical case for an isonomic mixed republic as the highest form of government. Yet the authority of rulers does not come from the governed and nationalism is a theological and philosophical error.
Was or is Irish independence defensible? Nationalists strenuously deny the authenticity of the St Patrick’s Cross as the Flag of Ireland (despite the evidence) but at least the St Patrick’s Cross signifies St Patrick. Protestants and Catholics might disagree about the truth of the faith and the faith of St Patrick, but this is an argument about an objective fact which implies the importance of the topic. The Tricolor expressly signifies religious indifferentism and under that banner religious indiferentism has triumphed. The mutilated text of the contemporary Irish constitution and the wholesale apostasy of the Irish Republic (only two counties opposing ‘gay’ ‘marriage’) seem to indicate that a very serious mistake has been made. What has been gained ultimately by Irish Independence? It would seem only the political weakening of Catholicism in the British Isles, the intellectual hobbling of anglophone Catholicism at Vatican II (where it could have made a real difference), the confusion of nationalism and faith (and the instrumentalisation of the latter), and now, finally, national apostasy. Quis separabit?