29th September 2012, the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant: a significant date for launching a new blog and publishing venture on Irish and Northern Irish history (can one ever really separate the two?).
Strictly speaking, today is the anniversary of the first signatures being put on the document. There are some nice pictures of “Ulster Day”, as it was called, on the website of the Public Records Office for Northern Ireland (direct link: http://www.proni.gov.uk/index/search_the_archives/ulster_covenant/ulster_day.htm) and you can search the entire document at:
Want some background to this historical event? Here’s an extract from the forthcoming Irish History Compressed:
The 1910 general election did not produce a clear majority, leading to a situation where the Liberal Party needed the votes of the Irish Nationalist MPs. The price for their support was a revival of the Home Rule plans, to which Asquith, the Prime Minister, agreed. Changes to the British constitution meant that the House of Lords could now only delay legislation, not stop it. The passing and implementation of Home Rule seemed inevitable.
The various Unionist parties in Ireland came together under the leadership of Sir Edward Carson. A prominent barrister and one of the MPs for Dublin University, he had no links to Ulster, yet that area was the centre of opposition to Home Rule. Mass demonstrations and rallies were held, and on 23rd September 1912 men across the province assembled to sign a petition against the government’s plans. (Women had their own, separate document.) This ‘Solemn League And Covenant’ stated the signatories’ conviction that ‘Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as of the whole of Ireland, subversive of our civil and religious freedom, destructive of our citizenship and perilous to the unity of the Empire’ and furthermore committed them to ‘using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland’. It ended on an ominous note: ‘And in the event of such a Parliament being forced upon us we further solemnly and mutually pledge ourselves to refuse to recognize its authority’.
There was of course a contradiction between the Unionists’ claim to be ‘loyal subjects of his Gracious Majesty King George V’ and their promise to refuse to obey a devolved parliament created by British law: the loyalty of Ulster loyalists has usually been conditional on the UK government protecting the status quo. Indeed, as the Covenant implied, the Unionists were preparing for active disobedience if the bill became law. Plans were made for a ‘Special Commission’ (in reality, a provisional government until Ulster could be reintegrated into the United Kingdom). A highly successful gun-running expedition imported 25,000 rifles from Germany and distributed them to the Ulster Volunteer Force (a private army formed by Unionists to ‘protect’ their rights). In an attempt to provide a counterweight to the UVF, some 200,000 nationalists across Ireland organized themselves into an ‘Irish Volunteer Force’. Civil war loomed.
(© 2012 Bruce Gaston)
The Belfast Telegraph published an interesting article about the contradictions in the Ulster Unionists’ position. To quote just a little:
But who was Carson thinking of turning his rifles on? And what hope was there that shooting anyone would have brought him any political advantage?
I’d never really thought about the topic carefully but now the question has been posed it seems an obvious one to ask. Let’s hope the parades planned for today pass of peacefully.Welcome to Irish History Compressed! by Bruce Gaston