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Ulster 1912-2002: the Covenant and its relevance todayThe Covenant form signed by Sir Edward Carson.

NINETY YEARS ago, on September 28th 1912, a large crowd converged on the new Belfast City Hall to sign a document in which they pledged themselves to use ‘any 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 recognise its authority’. Similar scenes were seen in towns and villages throughout Ulster and even among Ulster exiles in Dublin and Edinburgh.

Before assuming the Ulster leadership a year earlier, Sir Edward Carson had written to James Craig of his concerns. “What I am very anxious about is that the people over there really mean to resist. I am not for a mere game of bluff, and unless men are prepared to make great sacrifices which they clearly understand, the talk of resistance is no use…”

Carson was the figurehead, but Craig was the true leader. He had no such doubts. He had been raised in the Scottish Presbyterian custom of covenanting. In February 1638, a National Covenant was signed in the Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh. This document established the Presbyterian tradition of obduracy, political radicalism, fear of persecution, distrust of the Establishment and even rebellion. Under this covenantal or contractual theory of government, Craig argued that his people only owed conditional loyalty to the State. Thus, rebellion was quite acceptable; indeed an obligation should the government fail to carry out its duties to its citizens. Craig was the brains behind the Covenant.

The British establishment and Irish nationalists didn’t understand the nature of this position. They dismissed Ulster’s will to resist as mere bluff and bluster, perhaps encouraged by Carson’s own occasional doubts and fears. Craig rose to the challenge. In parliament in June 1912 he made Ulster’s position clear. “We shall henceforth take the steps which may become necessary to prove to the government the sincerity of our people at home … there is a very strong and earnest determination on the part of Ulster to take action, and there is a movement already on foot to take it…”

As a military man, Craig knew that unruly mobs could never win the day. It needed efficiency and discipline to resist government coercion. He intended to see that Ulsterfolk got it.

In Ulster, 218,206 men and 228,991 women signed Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant or a women’s Declaration of solidarity with their menfolk. Unionists had shown that were prepared to vote against home rule for Ireland, but more importantly, they were prepared to fight to resist the rule of a Dublin parliament over Ulster. They set up a Provisional Government of Ulster, which would have taken control of as much territory as possible in Ulster on the day that the Dublin parliament came into existence. In January 1913, they raised a militia to resist home rule - the Ulster Volunteer Force. It was placed under the command of Lt Gen Sir George Richardson, a retired Indian Army officer.

This action was much mocked at the time, especially by pro-‘Home Rule’ newspapers, as ‘Carson’s comic opera army’, but it soon became clear that the Ulstermen were not just blustering and bluffing. Arms were procured from abroad and it became clear that Ulster meant business.

By the summer of 1914, civil war seemed inevitable. It was only averted by the outbreak of the First World War that August when Dublin rule was put into abeyance for the duration of the conflict.

It is essential for Ulsterfolk today to re-assert that sense of identity that emerged almost a century ago. Then, Ulsterfolk united in a disciplined defence of their homeland. After giving sterling service in the Great War, Ulster won exclusion from a unitary all-island state, but remained semi-detached from the United Kingdom as the ‘province’ of Northern Ireland. September 28th is Ulster’s true equivalent to America’s July 4th – our independence day - but the business begun in 1912 is still unfinished.

David Kerr, September 2002

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