Belfast riots should not stop PM amending Bill of Rights

Dec 14, 2012
Colin Brown

For more than 300 years it's been illegal for the monarch to marry a Catholic. It's time for a change

The riots which made the centre of Belfast look like Cairo's Tahrir Square earlier this week should not deter the Cameron-Clegg coalition Government from changing a 300-year-old piece of bigotry that has long outlived its usefulness.

David Cameron is preparing to amend the Bill of Rights that was passed in 1688 to make it illegal for a Catholic to succeed to the Throne of England. It was later reinforced in the 1700 Act of Settlement to ensure that there could be no Jacobite revival after the deaths of William of Orange and Queen Mary.

The legislation introduced after the armed overthrow of the last Stuart king, James II, by the Protestant William of Orange (above), also banned the monarch from marrying a Catholic and has remained in force until now. But its continuation has been challenged by the pregnancy of the Duchess of Cambridge.

As part of his general modernising agenda, Prime Minister David Cameron has announced he is going to introduce legislation to change the common law to allow gender equality over the succession. It means if the child is a girl, she will be third in line for the Throne, ahead of any later male siblings.

However, while he is about it, Cameron is also going to change the law barring the monarch from marrying a Catholic.

It may seem like a long-overdue reform that will have little resonance in a country that appears largely agnostic, and has buried the religious rivalries that go to the very root of British history.

However, the riots in Belfast should remind Cameron that there are sections of the Protestant Realm that are still prepared to fight for a culture that they believe is endangered by Catholics.

I was astonished to be confronted by this when I was researching the Glorious Revolution for my book, Real Britannia. I went down to Brixham in Devon to investigate why William of Orange had chosen to sail from Holland to land with a powerful invasion force of over 20,000 men on the south coast, rather than Humberside, and found the Protestant banners waving.

Today Brixham is a pretty tourist resort as well as a fishing port, with yachts in the marina and fishing boats out in the harbour, and houses in pastel shades marching up the hillsides.

I was amazed to learn that each year, around 5 November, the day on which William of Orange is said to have landed, the port shakes to the rattle and boom of the drums of the Orange Lodges that come from all over Britain to march around the town to celebrate their Protestantism. They sing a full-throated version of the jaunty song, 'The Sash my Father War' and hold a service on the dockside reaffirming their commitment to not let Catholicism return.

I asked one of the marchers, a jovial man from Liverpool, if it wasn't all a bit bigoted? "Yeah, well, maybe, in a little way it is," he smiled. "But it is part of our heritage. The whole point of the Orange institution is that it is a religious organisation.

"I am loyal to the Queen and country because the crown is a Protestant crown, regardless of how many cultures live in Britain. My fear is that if you change the law, it is the first step back to Rome. It has always been Rome's aim to get this country back, ever since Henry VIII."

It is an annual event that is quietly brushed under the carpet each year by the media, as if it is afraid to mention it in polite company after the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace and some reconciliation to Northern Ireland – a peace now being challenged by the dissidents on both sides of the religious divide.

The riots and violence on the streets of Belfast should be a reminder that this part of our history is alive, and kicking very hard.

Colin Brown's book Real Britannia: Our Ten Proudest Years, the Glory and the Spin (Oneworld Publications) has been short-listed for the Total Politics Political History Book of the Year Award.

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