Today is the centenary of “Ulster Day”.
I’ve talked before, briefly in the context of the Third Home Rule Bill going through Parliament in 1912, about the start of a coordinated Unionist opposition to the plans of Irish Nationalists. Today, marks 100 years since the signing of what has become known as the “Ulster Covenant”, a brief declaration, signed by thousands of men and women from Ulster, declaring their opposition to Home Rule and pledging themselves to oppose it.
The effect of this moment in our history is not to be under-estimated. As a contemporary editorial to the Irish Times put it, on the application of the term “historic”:
“Without any danger, however, we can apply it, in its fullest and most exact sense, to the events of to-day in Ulster. Ulster Day will be historic within the limit of its twenty-four hours; beyond that limit it may affect, far into the future, the currents of national and Imperial history.”
When it comes to revolutionary remembrance, we in the south of this island do a lousy job with the Unionists of the period. In the vast majority of study, they are dismissed, almost as a non-entity past the point of the Home Rule Bill, the Ulster Volunteers and the Easter Rising, a sideshow to more important matters happening in the 26 counties. The political and military activities that took place in the most northern part of Ireland are a forgotten element of our revolutionary period once the fighting started.
Part of that might come from the widespread recognition and acceptance of Northern Ireland and its six counties as a separate state today, which retcons the place out of the years between 1916-1923, making the War of Independence and the Civil War conflicts over just 26 counties. Perhaps the popular consciousness does not want to involve the north in our history anymore than it has to be.
Maybe I’m reaching a little. Maybe it is just a case of more momentous events happening down south over that whole decade, but we could do worse than take a more careful look back and appraise the actions of Unionists that day – and the response to it.
This was not some repeated tirade by Ian Paisley, another antagonistic march by the Orange Order. This was the real start of it, the organised, strong, resistant Unionist group determined to oppose Home Rule. Their language was inflammatory, their resolve should have been clear to everyone. The documents wording should have left no room for doubt as to the intentions of the signatories, so closely did they walk a thin line between lawful protest and outright treason.
The text of the covenant states after all, that:
BEING CONVINCED in our consciences 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, we, whose names are underwritten, men of Ulster, loyal subjects of His Gracious Majesty King George V., humbly relying on the God whom our fathers in days of stress and trial confidently trusted, do hereby pledge ourselves in solemn Covenant, throughout this our time of threatened calamity, to stand by one another in defending, for ourselves and our children, our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom, and in using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland. 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. In sure confidence that God will defend the right, we hereto subscribe our names.
I suppose it is easy for me, 100 years of “Ulster says No” later, to look back and marvel at the way this declaration was dismissed by some in the Liberal and Nationalist camps. Those who did not want to contemplate a world where the Home Rule supporting majority could ever have their designs torn down by a vocal minority, to contemplate the outbreak of violence between two armed, politically motivated camps. There were those who stuffed their fingers in their ears and shut their eyes when it came to the Covenant and then those who talked of calling hollow bluffs.
How few dared to consider the compromise that would become fact within a decade.
We will never know for absolutely certain if those people would have been right if bluffs had been called. World War One saw to that. But given the stanch and unyielding position of the Unionists in Northern Ireland for the last century, I think we can come to a probable answer. Ulster would have resisted, and if it came to arms, then so be it.
Why is this important? Well, it helps us to realise the depth and history to Unionist feeling. It helps us to understand, if we study in detail, that resistance to Home Rule was no shallow thing, it was a position built on genuine fear. It helps us to understand the origins of the modern age of dispute between nationalist and unionist, Catholic and Protestant, the divide that has defined the entire history of Northern Ireland. That divide did not spring into being on this day 100 years ago, but the course it has taken today was shaped decisively by the commitment made by the signatories. One country, one religion, one king.
It was a commitment that could not be meshed with that of the Nationalists, the IPP, Sinn Fein, the IRB, those who wanted the break with England whether it was to come through the ballot box or a gun. And, in fact, it helped to accelerate the process of more violent nationalism taking hold. A group of people so large, willing to use “all means” to achieve their end needed a force that could do that for them. Thus came the Ulster Volunteers. And from that arming, came the response: the Irish Volunteers. First came the fighting words. Then the guns were put in hands. The fight came later.
Remembering Ulster Day and the Covenant as part of our revolutionary heritage – with the important restraint on not casting unionists as the villains of the piece due to our own political and religious background – is critical. On the road to separation, to independence for the south and unity for the north, Ulster Day is as important a moment as anything else.
And if we want peace to last, looking at why the roots of war started is not a bad idea.