Blythe, Bertie and the Shinners

Nov 16th, 2005 | By | Category: Ireland

Speculation has begun again in the past week that Sinn Fein will play a part in the government of Ireland after the next General Election, which is probably still eighteen months away. It is not a thought that is embraced with any fondness amongst the Protestants to whom I have talked.

Perhaps we need to draw courage from history. I watched a programme last year about Kevin O’Higgins, one of the leading politicians in the foundation of the State. There was television interview in the programme from the 1960s with a man who, for me, was much more fascinating than O’Higgins. The man who was clearly from a firm Ulster upbringing, he had been finance minister in the first Free State government and after losing his Dail seat in 1933 had gone on to be director of the Abbey Theatre, Ernest Blythe.

Blythe is chiefly remembered as the man who reduced the old age pension from 10/- to 9/-, yet he was a wonderfully complex character. He had been a member of Sinn Fein and had worked hard for the republican cause throughout the times of the Easter Rising and the War of Independence, but he was unusual amongst many of his comrades in being a member of the Church of Ireland, from Magheragall Parish in Co Antrim. A man of scholarship and sophistication, as one would expect from one who was to be director of the Abbey Theatre, with a background in journalism, Blythe felt no threat to his identity in the State that came into being in 1922. He was a one-man contradiction of the Unionist slogan that Home Rule meant Rome rule.

Now even if Ernest Blythe was a complete maverick, even if he was the only Protestant to have held public office, and we need only to think of Hyde and Childers to know he was not, he upsets the version of history I would have heard in the North, that in 1922 all the Protestants, who could, left the State and those who could not leave became a very oppressed minority. Certainly by the time of de Valera and McQuaid things had changed, but in 1922, Ernest Blythe, at least, felt that public life was something that Protestants should engage in.

Since the time of Ernest Blythe, Church of Ireland people have tended to stay away from political involvement.We have stood back from getting involved. I wonder what this says about our understanding of God and our understanding of how we should work for his Kingdom in this world.

Writing to the church at Colossae, Paul writes of Jesus, “so that in everything he might have the supremacy”. In everything, says Paul, not just the religious bits of our lives, not just in the Sunday-morning bits of our lives, but in everything.

“So that in everything he might have the supremacy”, is not an option we are being given, it is not a spiritual exercise that some people might choose to do, it is what being a Christian is about—making Christ king of all things.

We prefer to think that being a Christian is something that can be private and personal, something that we don’t talk about, something that doesn’t affect the way we act and the way we speak in our weekday lives. But Paul would say to us that we’re wrong. We’re wrong when we try to make God into something small and private. How can Christ have supremacy in everything if those who say they believe in him hide their faith away in church on a Sunday morning?

If Christ is king, if we believe he is king, then we should be working for his Kingdom by getting directly involved in his world, not because it’s something we want to do; not because it’s something we feel we ought to do; we should do so simply “so that in everything he might have the supremacy”. Perhaps Ernest Blythe understood this better than we do!

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