The Repealer Repulsed: Ulster Presbyterians and Daniel O'Connell

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Reformed Covenanter

Cancelled Commissioner

This is the final installment in my series of threads on Ulster Presbyterian history. This time we consider why the Presbyterians in Ulster rejected Daniel O'Connell's attempts to have the union with Great Britain repealed.

When Daniel O’Connell sought to bring his campaign for the repeal of the act of union to Belfast in 1840-1, his most outspoken Presbyterian opponent was the champion of political and theological conservatism, Henry Cooke. Consequently, it would be easy to deduce from this that Presbyterian opposition to repeal was evidence of an increased conservatism.

Speaking in 1841, O’Connell set forth precisely this interpretation of the political evolution of Ulster Presbyterianism in the period following 1798 when he said ‘the Presbyterians fought badly at Ballynahinch’ and ‘as soon as the fellows were checked, they became furious Orangemen, and have continued so ever since.’ Yet, this interpretation of history is hardly legitimate as not even Henry Cooke was an Orangeman.

Moreover, opposition to repeal of the union came from a broad spectrum of both political and theological opinion. When O’Connell came to Belfast to champion repeal, it was not only the leading orthodox Trinitarian Cooke who withstood him, but O’Connell was even opposed by Cooke’s leading liberal opponent in the Arian controversy, Henry Montgomery. Indeed, there was little enthusiasm for O’Connell’s repeal movement among politically liberal Ulster Protestants in general, as even the Northern Whig expressed vigorous opposition to the idea. O’Connell only came to Belfast at the invitation of a group of Roman Catholics, and when he did arrive, the leading Protestant liberals, including Sharman Crawford, stayed away from his gatherings.

Cooke linked the cause of the union with the maintenance of Protestantism and liberty; he believed that Protestant liberties would be jeopardized by a Catholic ascendancy in a Dublin parliament. Furthermore, Cooke made a convincing economic case against repeal, linking Ulster’s recent prosperity with the Protestantism and liberty which the union safeguarded. Concerning Belfast Cooke said ‘I behold the genii of Protestantism and liberty, sitting inseparable in their power, while the genius of industry…reclines at their feet.’ Hence, he also said ‘Yes Mr. O’Connell, we will guard our liberties, and advance and secure the prosperity of our country…look at Belfast, and be a Repealer – if you can.’

Cooke thus set forth the standard Unionist polemic for decades to come – that Protestantism, liberty and economic prosperity were bound up with the union. The fact that this argument was largely accepted was not a sign of increased conservatism, but a real-politic reaction to the prospect of a Catholic dominated parliament hindering Ulster’s liberty and prosperity.
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