Category: Archive

Inside File: Unsettled over settlement

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Ray O’Hanlon

The bunting and union flags were out in abundance several days ago when Queen Elizabeth arrived in Northern Ireland for a visit marking her golden jubilee.

The Tyrone Courier, a weekly published in Dungannon, reflected the views of many, though of course not all, with its front page headline: “Welcome Ma’am.”

A lot of people in the North who might be dubbed nationalists have no particular personal gripe against the British monarch despite all the rancor, not to mention blood-letting, that has taken place in the name of monarchy in Ireland down the years.

And let’s face it, the British monarchy as a real life soap opera is as captivating to Catholics in the Six Counties as it is to their Protestant neighbors. It’s also prime-time fodder for the punters in the wee Republic, a state that is even now gearing up to throw out the green carpet for QE2, perhaps as early as next year.

Back in Tyrone, the carpets, red ones, were out all over. Some folk in the county might have preferred to see the “Ma’am” left out of the Courier headline. “Welcome” alone would have been quite adequate without a bending of the editorial knee.

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Still, we can allow for a slight dizziness at the Courier news desk given the timing of the visit, its place in local history, etc. And besides, the queen’s bright dresses are always guaranteed to brighten the day in Churchill’s land of dreary steeples.

There was also likely a practical reason for the bow in bold type: Many of the paper’s readers are loyal. Doubtless, if the pope, this one or the next, were to make landfall in Tyrone, the headline would be “Welcome Your Holiness.” Then again . . .

The visit of Elizabeth to the most troubled corner of her kingdom did serve to once again draw attention to the debate over the role of the monarchy in British public life and that part of the United Kingdom that is forever Ireland.

The monarchy in an Irish context was pulled anew into public view recently by the refusal of Sinn FTin’s MPs at Westminster to take the oath to the queen, which, lest the reader wonder, reads: “I [name] swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.”

The refusal by Sinn FTin MPs to utter these words was a far more dramatic gesture pre-1997 when such defiance resulted in non-payment of salary.

The four current Sinn FTin MPs are in the happy position of being able to thumb their noses without financial penalty at a personage whose existence ultimately pays their airfares to the palace by the Thames.

The oath, by the way, now comes in several forms. Anyone who objects to swearing an oath can make a “solemn affirmation.” But even that is a red rag to the Shinners.

Of course, the oath poses no problem at all to Unionist MPs, nor indeed much of one to SDLP members, who have worked from inside the House of Commons chamber for years in an effort to better the lot of their constituents.

But what if the monarch was Catholic? What would unionists do? Indeed, what would Irish Republicans do?

That fact that QE2 isn’t Hindu, or even Methodist or Presbyterian, is due to the 301-year-old Act of Settlement.

The act stipulates that only Protestant heirs of the German Princess Sophia, a granddaughter of James I of England, can attain the throne. Protestant in this case means Anglican/Church of England.

An heir to the throne who marries a Buddhist can still become monarch. But an heir who marries a Roman Catholic loses his or her entitlement to it. Many believe that Prince Charles found his truest love in the person of Princess Marie Astride of Luxembourg. But she being Catholic, marriage was out, out, out, as Margaret Thatcher might say.

Three centuries, of course, is but a portion of the anguished history of the isles, Irish and British.

But some members of the House of Commons, led by Labor’s Kevin McNamara, are now arguing that 300 years is more than long enough and that such leftover vestiges of discrimination as the Act of Settlement have no part to play in the this age of supposedly enhanced human rights.

Before going any further, it should be pointed out that the United Kingdom is not the only European nation that reserves its throne for people of a single religious persuasion. Sweden, Denmark and Holland hold the throne for Protestants, while Spain and Belgium reserve it for Catholics.

The tiny principality of Monaco is a one example of double-edged discrimination. In a little entente worked out between the French government and the Vatican, the heir to whatever passes for a throne in Monte Carlo must be both male and Catholic. If none such personage exists, the principality is dissolved and returned to French control.

This male-first rule also applies in merry England. Elizabeth would not be celebrating a golden jubilee if she had a living brother.

Not surprisingly, such arcane rules stick in the craw of many in England, by no means all of them politicians. Westminster politicians and peers that do want an end to the act now number more than 100.

Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, wants the act to be scrapped. He happens to be Catholic. Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose wife, Cherie, is Catholic, apparently believes that the act should go but has made no bold moves against it as yet.

Oddly enough, the Conservative Party, under the leadership of Iain Duncan Smith, is opposed to any change. Duncan Smith is also Catholic, though of the Tory variety.

To muddy the waters even further, The Church of England itself supports reform of the act, while a recent poll carried out by the Guardian newspaper, which is leading its own campaign to scrap the act, showed that 63 percent of Britons wanted to lift the bar against a Catholic monarch.

So, the drumbeat for change is mounting. The Act of Settlement flies firmly in the face of Britain’s Human Rights Act of 1998, a piece of legislation that rules against any discrimination on the grounds of sex, race and religion.

So what of Ulster Unionism if a future king or queen kicks with a strange new foot? God Almighty only knows.

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