Take time to study real history

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The DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson made an inspiring and quite brilliant appearance on the Nolan Show a few days ago.

He was speaking about the burning of Polish flags on 11th night bonfires and attacks on the Polish community.

He told listeners of a letter he had received from a woman in East Belfast who described watching a Polish fighter pilot defending Belfast during the Blitz. His plane was hit, and had caught fire, but instead of bailing out he flew straight into a German bomber, destroying it. He had given his life to save the citizens of Belfast.

Donaldson demanded that those who claimed to be loyalist and indulged in racism should take a little time to study their real history, and when they did so they would be ashamed and appalled at attacks on people from a community that had done so much, at such great cost, to protect ours.

He went further and reminded listeners that the Twelfth itself was a celebration of the Glorious Revolution and that was essentially about the establishment of civil and religious liberties.

This is a really fascinating thing for him to have said: after all where else in the world do you get politicians of all hues, invoking the distant past in order to make sense of the present?

And wherever else do we have such a confused interpretation of what actually happened which so distorts our behaviour today?

Many historians have always known this. FSL Lyons famously wrote at the outbreak of the Troubles “to understand the past is to cease to live in it”.

So let’s very briefly look at the Glorious Revolution.

When Charles II died in 1685 his brother James II, who had converted to Catholicism, came to the throne and started to exercise more and more power without reference to Parliament. English parliamentarians were alarmed as they suspected him of wanting to re-establish an absolute monarchy.

When his son was born, opening up the prospect of a Catholic dynasty, secret negotiations were established with his daughter Mary and her husband William, the Stadholder of Holland.

Essentially the deal that they cut was that William and Mary would be offered the crown. In exchange they would effectively sign up to new constitutional arrangements that would establish the supremacy of parliament.

In 1689 these provisions became codified in the Bill of Rights, which to this day is the foundation stone of parliamentary democracy. Never again would monarchs be able to exercise arbitrary power. The Bill of Rights was the main inspiration for the US Bill of Rights in the following century.

So the Glorious Revolution was a critical turning point in history, shifting power permanently to parliament, whose members were guaranteed freedom of speech.

However two groupings were excluded from the general liberating impact of the fall of James: Catholics and Protestant dissenters. James had granted religious freedoms to both these groups. After the Glorious Revolution Catholics were excluded from the vote, not permitted to stand for parliament, and legislation was passed which was only revoked last year barring a monarch from adopting Catholicism.

It is important to remember that the 17th Century was still an age of religious conflict. To Catholics Protestants were heretics and in Catholic countries heretics were persecuted, and many were tortured before being burned at the stake, so that their sins could be cleaned with fire. In 17th Century England, the same treatment was handed out to Catholic priests.

The very notion of religious toleration was novel and why, indeed would you tolerate a creed that you believed to be inspired and motivated by the Anti-Christ?

The Glorious Revolution was probably the single most important development in shaping contemporary British democracy, which in turn has been an inspiration for many other States across the globe. In that respect alone it deserves to be celebrated by all

However it did not establish religious freedom, in the modern sense, rather a victory of one religious tradition over another, which was then excluded from influence, reinforcing resentment that still simmers today.

I’ve yet to meet anyone anywhere today who believes that Catholics or Protestants or dissenters should be excluded from the vote and banned from Parliament or forced to attend a church that is not of their choice.

So maybe we should find a little time to celebrate that as well, to make it clear that when we mark the great events of the past, we are not necessarily endorsing every single aspect of what was said and done in a distant time in a world we would not recognise today.

If we are prepared to look coldly and dispassionately at the past we often find that things were not always quite what they seem.