Ulster Covenant

The Ulster Covenant 

This article was composed by Jason Burke, a young and progressive unionist. His article is the first in a series on the decade of commemoration 1912 - 1922 

‘We shall not fall alone’

The Ulster Solemn League and Covenant ... 100 years on

The 100th anniversary of the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant has raised many questions and many important issues.  Some groups and individuals will strive to mark this historic occasion while others will barely bat an eyelid at the thought of it.  What is the big deal about the Ulster Covenant?  What was it all about?  What were its effects? How does it effect us now?  This article aims to address these points by looking at various aspects from the Covenant text to the events surrounding Ulster Day.  It is hoped that this contribution will prove beneficial to those seeking to familiarise themselves with the events of 1912.

Political background

The United Irishmen rebellion of 1798 led directly to the Act of Union in 1800 and its execution in January of the following year.  Elements of the Orange Order including those of the Protestant ascendancy were in bitter opposition to the union with Great Britain, after all it was they who held positions of power in the independent Dublin government.  Ironically it was progressive sections of Irish Catholicism who supported, in principle, this idea of a union, they viewed Westminster as a potential sanctuary where they could benefit from any potential social and political reforms directed by London.   These roles were reversed two to three decades later when it became clear that concessions were not readily forthcoming, furthermore that Ulster Protestants were benefiting economically from the industrial growth under the union flag.

Use of violence and agitation during the land campaign did nothing to persuade unionism that Home Rule could be an inclusive society, it merely cemented their view that they were under attack not only politically but physically, economically and religiously.  This situation further confirmed the steady demise and decline of the ascendancy class in Ireland, their grip had been loosened ever since the Irish potato famine by a series of measures culminating with the Land Reform Acts.  It was during this bitter period in Irish social history that we witness the emergence of a talented young Dublin barrister who chose to defend the rights of tenants during legal disputes with landlords, his name was Edward Carson... 

Charles Stewart Parnell was the Protestant landlord who led the earliest campaign for Home Rule in Ireland, the bill was defeated by thirty votes in the House of Commons in 1886.  The second Home Rule Bill got a stage further but was defeated by the House of Lords in 1893.  It seemed on one hand that the bill was making some progress but on the other hand that it had been stopped in its tracks. 

The British Liberal Party depended on the support of the Irish Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons, they held the balance of power, and the deal maker was another shot at a Home Rule Bill.  Its passage to the statute book was ensured this time by the Parliament Act of 1911 which meant that the house of Lords could only delay a bill rather than veto it outright. The seeds of uncertainty had been sown for the years to come...

Unionism began to organise itself in order to challenge the Home Rule Bill on various grounds: Economic progress had been proven under the union, one only had to look at Belfast's thriving shipyards and ropeworks as an example of the prosperity that had been delivered in Ulster.  Protestants naturally feared the rising tide of Roman Catholicism in Ireland, compounded by the fact that any Home Rule settlement would leave them in a perilous minority cut adrift from the rest of Britain. The British Empire was of massive importance to the mindset of unionism at this time.  It was feared that if Ireland's place in the empire was surrendered then other countries might try to do the same (in future years this proved to be the case).  The empire was strong and successful in every way but particularly economically, and unionists felt that if Ulster's prosperity was to be maintained it would only be possible within the bounds of the British Empire.  Perhaps the most crucial element of unionist opposition to Home Rule was their belief in civil and religious liberty for all, and they felt that these liberties would not be protected under a Dublin government.  Opposition to Home Rule in the following years was to take many forms, including the plans for an armed insurrection, but it was one document in particular which has created much debate and attention in the 100 years since its creation.  

While sitting in the Constitutional Club in London drafting a form of words which would embody their belief James Craig was joined by B.W.D. Montgomery, the secretary of the Ulster Club in Belfast.  When Montgomery enquired what he was doing Craig replied “trying to draft an oath for our people at home” he added that it was no easy task.  Montgomery told him to base it on the old Scottish Covenant, and so they went to the library where they fetched a History of Scotland.  A special commission was then set up to construct a new text based on the old Scottish version, this was led by Thomas Sinclair, a Presbyterian Liberal Unionist and wealthy business merchant.  He cleverly constructed it to convey multiple messages and yet appeal to the masses, ultimately it was designed to unite the unionist people against a common foe.  

In August 1912 the Covenant text was forwarded to Homburg to the new leader of Irish Unionism Edward Carson for approval, he replied to Craig on 21 August 1912: “I would not alter a word in the declaration which I consider excellent.” On 19 September 1912 Edward Carson stood on the stone step outside Craigavon House and read the Covenant to the standing committee.  Its final drafting appeared as this blunt yet defiant message:

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. And further, we individually declare that we have not already signed this Covenant.

This text seemed to capture the fears of unionists in Ulster at that time.  It was a simple document, consisting only of a single paragraph and managed to articulate the unionist opposition in the opening sentence.  By its very nature the Covenant was a defensive document rather than an offensive one, emotive words such as 'disastrous, subversive, destructive, and perilous' paint a deliberate imagine in our minds.  It should be noted that the Covenant was a pledge not a threat, an agreement rather than an order.  There was however one line which will have rattled the cages of local nationalists while simultaneously sending a chill through the corridors of 10 Downing Street; 'and in using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy...'.  Were unionists really prepared to take up arms against the forces of the crown?  We now know with the benefit of hindsight that the threat was very real owing to the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force and their transformation from a 'broomstick army' into a well armed militia.  

An Ulster Day rally was taken around the province to such places as Enniskillen and Londonderry, the purpose of which was to create a euphoric and patriotic atmosphere in the lead up to a mass signing of the pledge.  On 23 September, five hundred delegates attended a meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council in the Ulster Hall where they overwhelmingly ratified the covenant without a single dissenter.  Outside the hall 25,000 people had gathered on the streets to resoundingly endorse and support the plans for Ulster Day.

The rally climaxed at the Ulster Hall on the eve of Ulster Day itself.  Here was unfurled a flag that had been carried before King William at the Battle of the Boyne provided by Mrs Burgess Watson, thus the unionists were providing a powerful link between their present situation and crises of days gone by.  On the morrow, as he went to sign the covenant it would be carried before “King” Carson, and its carrying would be no less significant than that of two hundred and twenty-two years before.  A silver key, symbolic of Ulster (Carson believed that Ulster was the key to the situation; “if Ulster succeeds, Home Rule is dead”) was presented to Carson; and with it a silver pen for the signing of the covenant document.  (Both items are currently on display at the Ulster Museum Belfast).

The Covenant would be signed by a wide range of people, it straddled all classes, all shades of Protestantism and varying degrees of extremity in protest.  Any male over the age of 16 was eligible to attach his name in protest against the passage of the third Home Rule Bill.  Ulster's Women signed an equivalent 'women's declaration' in which no less a sacrifice was asked and they were motivated by the same ideals.  The Ulster women desired to associate themselves “with the men of Ulster in their uncompromising opposition to the Home Rule Bill now before parliament”.  In this sense Unionism was progressive in terms of promoting the role of the female in society, for example the Ulster Women's Unionist Council.

Ulster Day 28 September 1912

Saturday 28 September began and finished with a tense atmosphere.  The people of Ulster woke up to largely fine weather that morning while the majority of men in Belfast enjoyed a day off work owing to the fact that all labour in Belfast had been suspended to allow the men to sign the Covenant..  Labouring clothes were swapped for their 'Sunday best' and a Sunday vibe hung over province as the Protestant population readied themselves to attend the 500 or so religious services held prior to the main event,  Edward Carson played his part by attending a religious service in East Belfast, it is likely that he enjoyed a final poignant cigarette before going to commit himself to the Ulster struggle.  Belfast was by no means the only location to host a mass signing of the Covenant.  Makeshift stations were used across Ulster in order to accommodate the huge demand to sign the pledge of defiance.  Ballymena, for example, decorated the streets with flags and arches containing loyal mottoes.  On the streets there was no jubilation, it was a day of reverence and focus.  Under the dome of the City Hall sat hastily made table draped in the union flag, a flag that meant so much to so many.  It was on this table that Edward Carson led the masses by writing his name, he became the first signatory of the Ulster Covenant, significantly James Craig was not among even the first ten signatories.  At any one time in the City Hall 540 people could simultaneously sign the document.  Some of those who signed, like Fred Crawford, did so in their own blood in order to testify their determination, this was yet another connection to the Scottish Covenanters.  Once an individual had signed the Covenant he was offered a souvenir copy on parchment paper.  

These souvenirs can no doubt be found today in homes across Ulster,  At the end of a day which turned out peaceful across Ulster the crowds had dispersed and the business of counting signatures began.  In all, 237,368 men (accounting for a majority of adult Protestant males in Ulster) and 234,046 women pledged their determination to resist Home Rule including in other parts of the world 19,161 Ulstermen and 5,047 Ulsterwomen.  In Edinburgh, a group of Ulstermen proceeded to the Covenanter's Stone in the old Greyfriars burial ground and signed it there just as the Scottish Covenant had been signed in the seventeenth century.  The total number of signatories was 471,414, an astonishing figure by any standards and a clear message of intent to the British government, thus in terms of what the covenant had set out to do it appeared to be an initial success. That night Carson returned to London via Liverpool where 50,000 people had gathered at the banks of the Lagan to see him go.  Rockets were shot into the sky and bonfires burned in Down and Antrim as one of the most momentous days in the history of Ireland headed towards a conclusion.

The Irish News did not view the events of Ulster Day with the same favourable attitude.  In the typical fashion of the local newspaper press at that time they described it as a 'silly masquerade', it seems this was the sentiment of a majority of nationalists in Ulster.  To knowledge not a single Catholic signed the Ulster Covenant, the reason being that it was so obviously a Protestant document as opposed to simply a unionist one owing to the expression of religious fears.  It seems that nationalists may have endured an awkward Ulster Day, Ballymena Council for example requested that all households display a union flag regardless of political persuasion or religion.    Nationalist opposition seems trivial when compared to the actions of a group of liberal minded Protestants in the north of Ulster.  They arranged a counter-covenant on the basis that they were pro Home Rule, anti Carson, anti violence, and had pledged to strive for peace.

In the following days and weeks those who had signed the covenant could purchase a framed copy of the document for as little as one shilling from W & G. Baird's in Belfast.  They could read reports and see photos of Ulster Day in their local paper but the Belfast News Letter and Belfast Evening Telegraph gave particularly favourable reports.

Ulster Day and the Ulster Covenant undoubtedly changed the English mindset on Home Rule, the Liberal government were seriously agitated by the situation.  Not even the Liberal government could possibly ignore or misconceive the importance of the Ulster Day demonstration.  However, making the government sit up and take notice is one thing, making them change their course would be a lot more difficult, essentially the Covenant could not and did not halt the passage of the Home Rule Bill.  Though St. John Ervine viewed the covenant as the starting point of the lengthly journey of protest, its clear that he feels the covenant was a success when he said; “The Ulster Unionists swore in the presence of Almighty God that they would not be ruled by a Dublin Parliament.  They are not ruled by that parliament.  Such is the fact.  No jeers can alter it”.

There has never been any such example of mass public support for a political campaign in any part of the United Kingdom before or since.  It also dramatically shifted the political debate, from then on much of the wrangling revolved around whether Ulster might be excluded from any Home Rule settlement and the term 'Ulster unionists' became more widely used.

A covenanter's hymn was published on 28 September 1913 presumably to mark the first anniversary of Ulster Day.  The third verse was particularly militant:

God is our Strength.  Though man betray

Kinsmen and comrades, blood and bone;

Though all forsake us-even they

Who share our Faith, our Flag, our Throne-

We shall not flinch; we will not bend.

The oath that our forefathers swore

Is ours to carry to the end,

Confident on the God of War.

Having avoided a civil conflict and been battered by a brutal war in Europe Ireland was severed in two by a border and ironically both new states were granted Home Rule measures by Westminster.  For Ulster Unionists in the north it meant they were in control of their own destiny and of their own identity, for nationalists in the south it was a similar situation.  Unionist fears of a 'stepping stone' approach towards complete Irish independence were confirmed when Republicans turned up the heat on the British government over the next few years.  These same fears exist today within unionism as Sinn Fein have controversially described the Good Friday Agreement as a 'staging post' towards a unified Ireland.  It is important however to view the covenant in the context in which it was set.  Curiosity encourages us to try and place it in our present situation which is ill-advised due to its differing nature.  Today's unionism is in a much different shape with different strands, different aims, objectives, and protests while more importantly we live in a different type of society than that of a century ago.  People are less likely today to be caught up in mass political movement  or be led by the rhetoric of a select few, and with this in mind I would argue that we will never again see anything like the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant.  

Jason Burke is a graduate historian and researcher specialising in early 20th century Ireland.  At Queens University he wrote a paper/dissertation titled 'East Belfast, the UVF, and the Great War, 1911-1919' which scored well, he has continued on with this research and hopes to publish it in the future.  Other articles include 'A Question of Culture' regarding Protestant/unionist culture in Ireland.

Books that were consulted during the construction of this document can be provided by the author upon request

This© Tommy McKearney 2012                                                                                      email:    tommymkearney@me.com