Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Is this what it's all about?

Since Slugger O'Toole is seeking to build better relations with the blogosphere, I thought I'd write a post in response to their 'Bonefire of the vanities'... about the bonfires lit every 11th of July. But first I've been asked by a few, even by those who've studied British politics, if I can explain what the annual celebrations are about.

Perhaps the best starting point is with the reign of James VII & II. The seventeenth century saw ferocious struggles between King and Parliament, with assertions of popular sovereignty and the Divine Right of Kings flying backwards and forwards, whilst elsewhere states such as France were reaching the height of their power under absolutist monarchs. In the three kingdoms in the British Isles events came to a head with James's reign. Many were prepared to tolerate James's conversion to Roman Catholicism in the short term as he was already in his 50s when he ascended to the throne and his heir presumptive was married to William of Orange, one of the leading Protestant rulers of the day.

There was a strong element of anti-Roman Catholicism involved, but it would be wrong to see the events of 1688-1691 purely as a religious conflict. In the eighteenth century there was a lot of political hypocrisy - a rejection of Protestant dissenters from Anglicanism co-existed with an establish Presbyterian church in Scotland; distrust of foreigners co-existed with first a king who also ruled the Netherlands and later with successive kings who also ruled a leading state in Germany; and a staunch anti-Roman Catholicism co-existed with alliances with Austria (and sometimes conflict with Prussia). Maybe the anti-Roman Catholicism was really a code for Francophobia and Spanophobia.

In 1688 James had a son who seemed likely to continue the Roman Catholic reign and many of the controversial policies and a result matters came to a head. Although there was division between those who wished to replace James and those who merely wished to see his actions curtailed, soon many came together to invite William of Orange over to England with his armies. Landing on November 5th 1688, William soon garnered much support and after a series of minor skirmishes and desertions James eventually fled (throwing the Great Seal in the Thames) to France.

The following year the Convention Parliament deemed James's actions to be abdication. The throne of England was jointly offered to William and Mary, with succession to James's daughter Anne. James's son was disregarded and many a story circulated about him being smuggled into the palace in a bedpan.

Part of the settlement in England was the passing of the Bill of Rights which remains to this day one of the fundamental constitutional laws of the country. The Estates (Parliament) of Scotland passed the separate but similar Claim of Right. And for many the "Glorious Revolution" was all about what the Bill stands for.

The Bill of RightsWikipedia sums up the basic tenets of the Bill of Rights as follows:
*Englishmen, as embodied by Parliament, possessed certain immutable civil and political rights. These included:
**freedom from royal interference with the law (the Sovereign was forbidden to establish his own courts or to act as a judge himself)
**freedom from taxation by royal prerogative, without agreement by Parliament
**freedom to petition the King
**freedom from a peace-time standing army, without agreement by Parliament
**freedom [for Protestants] to have arms for defence, as allowed by law
**freedom to elect members of Parliament without interference from the Sovereign
**the freedom of speech in Parliament, in that proceedings in Parliament were not to be questioned in the courts or in any body outside Parliament itself (the basis of modern parliamentary privilege)
**freedom from cruel and unusual punishments, and excessive bail
**freedom from fines and forfeitures without trial
*Certain acts of James II were specifically named and declared illegal on this basis.
*The flight of James from England in the wake of the Glorious Revolution amounted to abdication of the throne.
*Roman Catholics could not be king or queen of England since "it hath been found by experience that it is inconsistent with the safety and welfare of this protestant kingdom to be governed by a papist prince". The Sovereign was required to swear a coronation oath to maintain the Protestant religion.
*William and Mary were the successors of James.
*Succession should pass to the heirs of Mary, then to Mary's sister Princess Anne of Denmark and her heirs, then to any heirs of William by a later marriage.
*The Sovereign was required to summon Parliament frequently, later reinforced by the Triennial Act 1694.
Note that once again basic principles that few today would dispute (the sovereignty of Parliament, the restricted role of the crown, regular Parliaments, freedom from punishment without trial and so forth) co-exist with anti-Roman Catholicism.

Not everyone accepted the Glorious Revolution with open arms. For some Jacobitism was merely about the personal restoration of James VII & II, and later his heirs ("James III & VIII" and Bonnie Prince Charlie) to the throne. Indeed there are a fringe few today who still assert that all monarchs since 1688 have ruled illegitimately and that the rightful ruler of the country is Francis of Bavaria. For others Jacobitism was a vehicle for the restoration of rights and privileges, especially those who lost out in the Glorious Revolution or its successors.

In 1689 James landed in Ireland with French troops and backing, seeking a counter-revolution and restoration, drawing upon the especial support he had amongst Roman Catholics and also in Scotland. The "Williamite war" lasted two years, but the turning point was the Battle of the Boyne on July 1st 1690 (because of the later change to the Gregorian calendar it is now celebrated on July 12th). James deserted Ireland not long afterwards, although the struggle with his supporters seeking better treatment lasted another year.

Today the Orange Order claims to celebrate the Glorious Revolution and the Bill of Rights every year - though as shown above not every single thing in it commands universal support. How the annual celebrations became politicised is another story and one that is deeply controversial to tell.

Turning back to the 'Bonefire of the vanities'..., one of the points it raises is that the bonfires don't just alienate the nationalist community but also the middle class unionists are offended. "Burning tyres could create more of a stink in North Down than West Belfast."

Seeing the bonfires as a sign of working class manhood, with the competitions to have the area's best bonfire demonstrating skills and giving a clear message:
"Women of Ulster, be ye impressed by these tall, phallic objects, for yea, thou shalt be needing cupboards put up shortly, and ye are now witnessing the ultimate manifestation of our manly DIY skills."
But the bonfires themselves are frequently environmental hazards, made up of tires and old furniture and pile up in communal areas. One has to seriously wonder if this is quite how the Glorious Revolters would wish to be remembered.

So much has been said and written both for and against the July 12th Orange Order parades and whether or not they should walk down certain routes that I doubt there's much to add. The one thing that I do think is clear is that the Orange Order hasn't always been very good at promoting itself outside of Northern Irish Protestants. Images of riots against the RUC/PSNI over the right to march down a street where the residents do not wish to have the marchers do nothing to support for not just the Orange Order but for Unionism as a whole (although, as Slugger notes, Drumcree passed off peacefully this year). Hypocrisy from politicians, especially the DUP, in demanding the right to "march the Queen's highway" for the Orange Order but object to Gay Pride marches that wish to "march the Queen's highway", does little to endear their cause to the liberal minded.

And is there any obscure clause in the Bill of Rights that gives people to Right To Stink Out The Neighbourhood?

1 comment:

Paul Burgin said...

Since when have the DUP shown interest in big causes other than their own?


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