Stephen Goss is currently conducting PhD research in modern British history at Queen’s University Belfast. A Catholic and former Ulster Unionist, he now advises the NI Conservative Party spokesman for Regional Development and the Environment on transport policy.
With the publication of the New Year’s Honours List last week, 1,068 people have been duly rewarded for hard work, dedication and service to their community or the nation with a BEM, MBE or OBE. Naturally there were considerably fewer recipients of the higher honour: Lord Coe and Professor Higgs have been made Companions of Honour and we have two Knights Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire, as well as two Knight Commanders and one Dame Commander of the Order of the Bath.
To anyone without a reasonably detailed knowledge of the honours system, this probably doesn’t mean very much; a series of abbreviations and – at best anachronistic, otherwise bizarre – cacophony of titles. However, they do in fact denote some sort of major contribution to the life of the nation on the part of the recipient. The BEM (British Empire Medal), MBE and OBE all relate to the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Without wanting to undermine the achievement of recipients, the Order of the British Empire – thankfully saved from being renamed the ‘Order of British Excellence’ under Labour – is the most junior order of chivalry in the UK.
The Order of the Companions of Honour on the other hand is a very high distinction awarded by the monarch for outstanding achievements in the arts, literature, music, science, politics, industry or religion. This is why only two were awarded this year: one to the man who delivered such a remarkably successful Olympic Games and the other to a scientist whose prediction 48 years ago has made a ground-breaking contribution to particle physics. What exactly that contribution is I don’t pretend to know, but I do know it must be very significant if he’s been made a Companion of Honour.
The Most Honourable Order of the Bath, despite not perhaps sounding particularly impressive, is in fact the fourth most senior and distinguished Order of Chivalry in the UK. This is why there have been only three awards of its second highest rank this year. You may be asking now – assuming you haven’t got bored – what then are the top three honours one can possibly receive for services rendered to a grateful monarch and nation?
The highest accolade that can be bestowed is to be made a Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter. It is so prestigious that membership is restricted to twenty-four and at present there remain two vacancies. Next is the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, which only has fifteen of its sixteen places filled. The third highest is the Most Illustrious Order of St Patrick, which permits the creation of twenty-two knights: of which there are currently none.
Given the distinction implicit in the award of these honours, why should the third highest be all but empty? Established in 1783, the Order of St Patrick was created to reward Irish nobles who had provided distinguished service to the Crown. With partition it was thought impolitic to continue bestowing it, lest doing so antagonise the consistently bolshie regime in an increasingly independent Ireland. As a result, the membership eventually dwindled as its knights died off, the last of which, the Duke of Gloucester, died in the 1970s. This has meant that while the other constituent kingdoms of the UK: England and Scotland, have distinct orders of Chivalry, Northern Ireland – which should be considered the successor to the Kingdom of Ireland – does not.
After ninety years this anomaly should be addressed. The Scots have the Thistle and while open to all British and Commonwealth citizens, the Garter is historically an English order. It is therefore time that the Order of St Patrick was revived so that Northern Irish people who make an outstanding contribution to public life in Northern Ireland or the UK as whole can be appropriately rewarded.
Some changes would of course have to be made so that the order was relevant and more in tune with modern society. Originally it was only Irish peers and foreign princes who were made members; today anyone who provides distinguished service – regardless of social position – should be admitted. Also, as with the Garter, women should now be let in. The Thistle and the Garter both have chapels and annual services at which time investitures take place; St Patrick’s Order would need a new home (Dublin not being an option as before). St Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh would be a logical choice with a yearly ecumenical service for the benefit of the non-Anglican members admitted.
Otherwise, the vestments and privileges of the Order could be largely transposed and as it is already based on the Order of the Garter; where necessary the English regulations further applied to the Northern Irish order.
There has been consideration of reviving it in the past: in 1943 Churchill was persuaded not to honour General Sir Harold Alexander (son of the Earl of Caledon) by making him a Knight of St Patrick. Apparently Sean Lemass gave some consideration to re-establishing it in the 1960s, but dropped the idea. More recently it was suggested that a re-instituted order could be jointly awarded by the monarch and the Irish President on an all-Ireland basis.
Aside from the fact the idea of a republic creating chivalric knighthoods is stupid, it is important the Order should be distinctly Northern Irish. If Northern Ireland is to mature both politically and socially and become secure about itself and in its position, it needs a broadly acceptable identity which can be rallied around. An Order of St Patrick that honours and celebrates Northern Irish people who achieve great things, but also those who contribute significantly to life in Northern Ireland, can be part of that.
As the editor here once quipped, David Trimble should be awarded it and John Hume given the honour of declining it. The distinguished careers of Colonel Tim Collins, Dame Mary Peters, Lurgan born Lord Kerr (former Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland and currently a Justice of the Supreme Court) and many others warrant such recognition.
The honours system is an effective way to not only reward but also publicise the great contributions that individuals have made to their community and the nation. It is only right, and indeed particularly important, that Northern Ireland be on par with other parts of the UK and have something which not only keeps alive a forgotten aspect of its Irish heritage, but highlight individuals it can be proud of. A revived Order of St Patrick is an effective and desirable means of achieving these aims.Share on Facebook