What was the Ulster Covenant about?

What was the Ulster Covenant whose centenary is being commemorated on “Ulster Day” 29 September really about? 400,000 signed the Solemn League and Covenant and the Women’s Declaration in a vast demonstration of public opinion that still impresses today.

The production of the largest Union Jack is history, 48’x25’was an example of PR sureness of touch that Unionism was never to equal although often tried to emulate. Nobody was killed. But how strong was the threat of force implicit in the event?

The topic was reviewed by leading historians at a two day conference in King’s College London last week. Many people believe it was tragic  that Home Rule didn’t succeed. It might have kept the south in the Union in some form, or led eventually to an Irish existence separate from Britain acceptable to all.  Either would have spared us decades of turmoil. The conference went part of way to showing us why it didn’t happen and why blaming one side or the other is pretty futile. What struck me was is how very different society was a century ago in spite of  the loud echoes.

The conference was sponsored by the Irish government and opened by the Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore with a few generous remarks about the Unionism of a century ago and contemporary references centered around Carlisle Circus. The Irish State has of course long followed a more inclusive approach towards Unionism in the interests of improving relations and keeping all political options open in the future, including unity by consent. What follows are some notes and reflections from the conference.  Bearing in mind what is often thought of as the immobilisme of our politics, the differences are at least as striking as the similarities present in the legacy.

  • The “Irish Question” has all but disappeared from British politics. In 1912, they talked of little else.
  • “Playing the Orange card” was not a mere cynical tactic.  To Conservatives and many others, surrendering to Home Rule was a betrayal of constitutional principles and a threat to the survival of the Empire (the latter at least, presciently enough).
  • Why was such an apocalyptical view taken of the modest powers proposed for Home Rule? One answer is that even the  liberal strain in Ulster Unionism held that Catholics because of their religion were insufficiently free in their minds to be able to govern well. This partly explains why Carson and Redmond who know and liked each other as colleagues at the Dublin Bar were unable to bridge the gap.

But the familiar paradoxes – or perhaps contradictions – are salutary. Unionists, both of the British and Ulster variety thought of themselves not as rebels but as defenders of the British constitution embodied in the Crown even if they had to use force against the elected government to prevail.

The appeal of the Covenant was distinctly one sided. Proclamation of the Republic at the GPO in 1916 called out to all Irish people regardless of what they thought, whereas the Ulster Covenant identified only with Protestants.

Did they really mean it? 

Paul Bew on Nationalism and Unionism 1912 -1922

The threat of the Covenant shows they really did mean it. But did meaning it entail the use of force? “Every means” at that stage probably meant withholding taxes and not gun running, (similar to the Sinn Fein manifesto of 1918). But the Conservatives probably had at least foreknowledge of the Larne gun running. The later events of the counter revolution of the Right up to August 1914 probably undermined elements of the British constitution.

Charles Townshend on the politics of militarisation.

All that drilling north and south didn’t necessarily add up to the inevitability of armed clashes between the two sides or with the Army. Drilling provided  a way of keeping solidarity and discipline and was good PR for the cause. Arms up to the Larne gun running were few and even afterwards the wide variety of weapon types hampered military effectiveness. Someone from the floor added that even up to the 1970s some people were still hiding their grandfathers’ guns imported from the Austro-Hungarian empire.   The big question remains: while the threat of some sort of clash increased by 1914, would the UVF commanded by former British officers have really stood up to the British Army – assuming Curragh mutiny sentiment in that body did not prevail? Some in the UVF were keen for a fight with the Irish Volunteers, but overall, we shall never know. However during the Great War, something like the Easter Rising was probably unavoidable.

 How important was religion – “Home Rule is Rome Rule”?    

Paul Bew  confessed to struggling over the significance of religion in politics. “Part of the reason the Troubles ended was that no one takes religion seriously any more unlike 1912.” The fear of a theocratic ultramontane Catholic state was real.

Graham Walker on the pulse of Protestant Ulster

The Covenant was in part a democratic exercise. Protestant Ulster had been sidelined. Home Rule had been promised over their heads. But what sort of democratic elements?  They included a repudiation of landlordism, opposition to Catholic church’s control of education, both opinions being true to the liberal tradition.  Much attention is given to the rhetoric of Carson and the other leaders. More study is needed of the social strata below.

David Fitzpatrick on why one quarter of Ulster Protestantism dissented

The UVF   and Ulster Clubs were minority pursuits compared to the Covenant signing. Many had liberal views. Other thought that intimidating Asquith’s government into abandoning Home Rule was the only way to prevent a bloodbath. Southern unionists were much preoccupied by the threat of civil war. Some argued that Home Rule might not do them much harm, while placating Catholics. The clergy of the Church of Ireland whose members were the top and bottom of society had greater institutional inhibitions than the Presbyterians over opposing Home Rule but nevertheless provided many Orange Order chaplains and opened church doors for Covenant signing. Some clergy was coerced by their flock.

Roy Foster on Protestant nationalists and the revolutionary generation

The commemoration of the 98 rebellion in 1898 helped create the cult of Wolf Tone. The cult of Robert Emmett greatly affected Patrick Pearse.  The Quaker Bulmer Hobson “with the support of repentant gentry” helped to  revitalise the Irish Republican Brotherhood and founded  the Dungannon Clubs ( recalling the United Irishmen) and the Fianna scouting movement with the Catholic Fenian Denis McCullough. ( though both were sidelined in 1916 and afterwards). FJ Biggar expressed his own homoerotic but probably unconsummated impulses in his own camps for his boy bands. The idea of the cleansing power of violence was in vogue. “If only we could be left free to fight the battle among ourselves.” (Roger Casement). “Three cheers for Carson’s volunteers” ( Eoin MacNeill).  1912 challenged nationalist assumptions about the viability of Home Rule and brought about the partition of the mind.

Contemporary relevance.

Paul Bew

The Scottish referendum affects how we view the Ulster Crisis. The idea of partition was grudgingly accepted by the main parties by 1914. 1914 introduced the consent principle into the crisis. But as Carson warned, although they set up devolution in 1920 that didn’t settle the problem. The Westminster parties made the same mistake in the 1980s and 90s over Scotland.  Today the impulses for Scottish separation are far weaker but even so, we don’t know what will happen.

Arthur Aughey on what is living and what is dead in the Covenant

The Secret of  England’s greatness”( the Thomas Jones Barker portrait also depicted on an Orange banner)  is dead.

So is Belfast as a centre of world shipbuilding.

But the Covenant reminds us of the complex interrelationships in the British Question. We are all Gladstonians ( home rulers/devolutionists) now. The Union may be a constitutional artifice but it is not an artificial entity.

The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI,) which has decamped from near the Balmoral site of the great Covenant ceremony to the heritaged Titanic Quarter has a great website where those concerned can find the signatures of their forebears – and much else. A full account of the conference will be published soon.

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  • “thus setting in train a course of events”

    Events, dear boy [Greenflag], had been in train for a considerable time 🙂

  • The Lodger

    “As for the population of Ulster in 1912, on a cursory count of the 1910 election I make it 15 nationalist, 1 Liberal (i.e. pro- Home Rule) and 16 Unionist M.P.s, but obviously the voting could come out differently. Not a territory that Unionist could hope to control for any length of time.”

    But that was not what you were attempting to claim. You claimed that unionists in Ulster would not have won a majority in favour of rejecting home rule. That was nonsense.

  • The Lodger

    “The 1918 General Election was an election

    Also undeniably true . And also undeniably true was the fact that ‘unionists ‘ rejected the democratic result by the majority of people thus setting in train a course of events which to many in NI justified their resistance and opposition to the local artificial majority rule on which unionism depended for it’s political survival .”

    The 1918 general election was nationwide and I do not recall any majority in the UK, or indeed in Ireland, voting for a terrorist war from Sinn Fein/IRA. Yet that is exactly what they got.

    Unionists quite rightly rejected that violence and the notion that they should be ruled by terrorists. They initially rejected home rule because they feared that they would be subsumed into a Priest run state, and that is exactly what happened outside of Northern Ireland.

  • Greenflag

    ‘I do not recall any majority in the UK, or indeed in Ireland, voting for a terrorist war from Sinn Fein/IRA.’

    Neither do I but I do recall that 28 of the 32 counties voted for an Irish Dail . HMG responded with ‘terrorist’ attacks on the people of Ireland . They could’nt even send in the regular army and instead had to send in the notorious Black & Tans who burnt the city of Cork to the ground and who shot and murdered civilians out of hand . Eventually they had to be withdrawn in disgrace . The simple fact was that the majority of Irish people stopped recognising the London government after 1918 and turned their back on those who supported continued British administration .

    Eventually Churchill threatened the Treaty signers with the full force of 250,000 soldiers who would be let loose to kill anybody who was’nt pro British !

    The Irish are lucky that World War 1 had ended and that the USA ensured that the British Empire was’nt permitted to execute Churchill’s draconian solution .

    So imperial ‘terrorism ‘ was responded to with force .How could it not be and we’ve seen over the past 40 years the same forces rise up again and again .

    ‘They initially rejected home rule because they feared that they would be subsumed into a Priest run state,’

    An understandable fear I’d agree for the times that were in it .

    ‘that is exactly what happened outside of Northern Ireland.’

    And the same happened inside Northern Ireland but there each set of religious clerics got to have their own bailiwicks and the Ulster Unionist Party went on to rule Northern Ireland with the help of the Orange Order , the B Specials and somehow managed to rule the quasi fascist state for 50 years before the whole rotten edifice was brought toppling down and put out of existence by Her Majesty’s Government in 1974 ,

    The fact that there is a Stormont today is due to the pressures exerted by the UK , USA and the Irish Republic’s government . If none of the latter had bothered to intervene in Northern Ireland’s dysfunctional and backward looking sectarian politics the ‘half province ‘ would have destroyed itself.

    Unionists alone would never have had the political wit much less desire to reach a power sharing accomodation with Irish nationalism both within Northern Ireland and on the whole island .Which is why HMG told Trimble and before him Molyneux and Faulkner and Chichester Clark and O’Neill what they had to do . None of them got the message . Paisley eventually did which is why his party shares power with SF in the current Assembly .

    It could have been a whole lot worse so we should try to make the best of it for now .

  • The Lodger

    “Neither do I but I do recall that 28 of the 32 counties voted for an Irish Dail . HMG responded with ‘terrorist’ attacks on the people of Ireland .”

    That is the strangest interpretation of the Soloheadbeg murders and the subsequent IRA murder campaign that I have ever read. It is also absolute nonsense. In fact the IRA launched a terrorist campaign based on a mandate which they did not stand for and the British reacted to the murders of Irish policemen by sending in the army and reinforcements to the police.

    Think yourself lucky that you were dealing with the British and not your ‘gallant allies’ the Germans who would have reacted to IRA atrocities by rounding up the local men and gunning them all down.

  • lamhdearg2

    I ask Irish nats who run with the line, “the majority of the island” when suggesting ulster (northern ireland) has no right to excist, do/will/would you support the people of scotland, should they vote for independence, Or do you believe all the people of the island of Britain should be the measure.
    Ireland never excisted as a democratic country/nation except under British rule, when that rule was declined by a majority of the people of the southern part of the island and, the rule was still wanted by a majority in the north, the island naturally split into two countrys, the other course was a civil war, with, to the winner the spoils, this is how countrys/nations come into being, get over it, you are like an English person living in scotland and crying over the imaginary fact that back in the day all your island (Britain) was one big happy unit.

  • PaddyReilly

    I choose two names at random, Mathers and Tinsley, because they are comparatively rare. There are 69 male Mathers in the covenant. The first, Alexander Mathers, signs in the Shankill; then another Alexander Mathers, same address, same handwriting, signs in the City Hall. This is followed by the unpatriotic Alfred Mathers, who only signed once. Then we have Charles Mathers, who signed three times in the Lurgan district. Or perhaps we have three identical triplets with identical handwriting. There is a fourth signature in that name, in Belfast. Is it the same man? But as Greenflag says, does it mather?

    It turns out there are 2 Isaac Tinsleys in the census; one is 80 and the other 12.
    However, it’s all right (so I am informed) for young Isaac to sign twice, once for his grandfather, who is suffering from dementia or death or something, and once for his underage self, because he:-

    1) Is nearly 13
    2) Is a future veteran of the Somme in anticipation, intending to join up underage.

    Now these are only the obvious frauds. If anyone had done something high-tech, like supplying a false name every time he signed, using a common name and disguising his hand-writing, there would be no way of tracing him.

    So there is no point my adding any further comment about individual signings. The fact of the matter is this: there was a “We will not have Home rule” petition, and a lot of people did sign it, particularly in the East of the province. But exactly how many they were, and how many of them were adults, and how many duplicates, we have no way of telling, because no steps were taken to verify these matters. It’s a job for an expert in handwriting verification who wants a Ph.D. in History to decide.

    But does it mather? I recall there was a big notice in a school I visited, stating, cheating is cheating yourself. In 1912 the entire British Empire was suffering from gross hubris, and about to receive a fatal blow from its failure to form an accurate estimate of its numbers, fighting ability and commercial prowess.

    In Ireland, Unionists cheated and connived, awarding themselves a much bigger slice of the pie than they were entitled to, or could even digest. A one and a half county province could have lasted for all eternity: a six county province is in dire straits. Will the wafer-thin Unionist majority be preserved in the next election, which is only two years away? And the one after that? You, if you are Unionist, are the generation that is going to pay for the exaggerations of your great grandfathers.


    IDF forces are currently serving in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chad, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Haiti, Kosovo, Lebanon, the Middle East, and Western Sahara. It is true I only mentioned the first of these in one posting, but this is because it comes first in the alphabet and I wished to save myself the typing.

  • Pointless equine abuse. The damn thing is dead.

  • “It turns out there are 2 Isaac Tinsleys in the census”

    Well done, Paddy, you’ve got the ages almost right but if you’d paid closer attention you’d see that Isaac the elder and his son John are living in the same house at the time of the 1911 census and the handwriting for both is very similar. On the other hand, Isaac the younger – possibly a grandson – is living with his father James and his hand-writing differs from the other two.

    Have you had any better luck separating Aggie from the Shankill and Aggie from Ballymacward?

    Are you able to tell which George Taggart from the Poole in Ballyoglagh is from the long row of buildings in that farmyard and which is from the short row? You might well claim they are one and the same 😉

  • Greenflag

    @ lodger ,

    ‘In fact the IRA launched a terrorist campaign based on a mandate which they did not stand for ‘

    Now that is nonsense and simply not the truth . I’d call it a deliberate lie but I’ll be charitable and put it down to historical ignorance .

    Here’s a brief actual history.

    In the Irish general election of December 1918, Sinn Féin won a landslide victory, gaining 73 out of 105 seats (25 of these unopposed) in the British Parliament. In its election manifesto the party had vowed to set up a separate government in Ireland rather than join in the British Parliament. At a meeting in Dublin on 21 January 1919, Sinn Féin established an independent parliament called Dáil Éireann and declared independence from the United Kingdom.

    The reaction of the then British Government to that election result is what determined the outcome of the War of Independence which took another 3 to 4 years . In the end it was the sheer non cooperation or if you like boycotting of the British administration in most of Ireland at the time which ‘won’ partial independence . The Croke Park murder of civilians by Crown forces , Soloheadbeg, and all the other killings were ‘noises ‘ in the background .

    ‘Think yourself lucky that you were dealing with the British and not your ‘gallant allies’ the Germans who would have reacted to IRA atrocities by rounding up the local men and gunning them all down.’

    Indeed and even luckier that I was’nt a South African Boer a few years previously ,otherwise I’d have had to watch the British Empire’s army rounding up 26,000 Boer women and children and watch them die in the world’s first concentration camp.

    Which was of course only one of the many atrocities committed in the long history of the British Empire . Other ’empires’ such as the Spanish , French , German , Russian , Japanese and today even the Americans have their long list of ‘atrocities ‘ in foreign countries just in case you think I’m picking on the Brits . And there were more than a few Irish in British uniforms who took part in those atrocities including even the one in Croke Park .If I’m not mistaken it was an ex British army soldier who led the ambush/atrocity at Soloheadbeg.

  • Greenflag

    @ Nevin ,

    ‘Events, dear boy events ”

    had been in train for a considerable time.

    Indeed -events are always in train .

    Macmillan’s other famous dictum ‘the wind of change ‘
    is perhaps even more relevant to NI today just as in the wider ‘economic ‘ world of global monetary policies .

    The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.

    The occasion was in fact the second time on which Macmillan had given this speech: he was repeating an address already made in Accra, Ghana (formerly the British colony of the Gold Coast) on 10 January 1960. This time it received press attention, at least partly because of the stony reception that greeted it.

    Macmillan’s Cape Town speech also made it clear that Macmillan included South Africa in his comments and indicated a shift in British policy in regard to apartheid with Macmillan saying:

    ‘As a fellow member of the Commonwealth it is our earnest desire to give South Africa our support and encouragement, but I hope you won’t mind my saying frankly that there are some aspects of your policies which make it impossible for us to do this without being false to our own deep convictions about the political destinies of free men to which in our own territories we are trying to give effect. ‘

    Ironically 14 years after making that statement -Macmillan’s successor in Downing St was having some difficulty in speaking ‘frankly ‘ to the leaders of the UUP as to why it was now necessary to suspend Stormont .

    No doubt due to ‘events dear boy’ etc 😉

  • “In the end it was the sheer non cooperation or if you like boycotting of the British administration”

    Do you suppose they got that idea from the Ulster Unionists and their Covenant campaign, Greenflag, or were they just following in the footsteps of those who boycotted Boycott? ‘Non-cooperation’ might be considered something of an understatement.

  • Greenflag

    Probably both . Non cooperation is the last resort of people who have nothing . I’m surprised that the ‘boycott’ tool has not been resurrected in the current world financial crisis although the OWM did make a brief attempt at persuading people to boycott the larger financial institutions .

    Captain Boycott may have been an inept individual with poor social skills who did’nt understand either the history or the people of the area he was living in.He can be forgiven for that given his Norfolk background . Peasants in Norfolk have been by and large a peaceful lot ever since Wat Tyler’s failed revolt in 1381 .


    Thirty two years after the Great Famine (1848) there would have been many people who would have had a living memory of what being ‘landless’ was all about in an economy which was in that time and region 95% agriculture based if not more .

  • If you can’t persuade the Parades Commission as a whole to go along with your belief that you are right and they are totally biased and agin you, you can always try to “destroy” them individually.


  • lamhdearg2

    Thanks Joe. they wont accuse you of setting him up.

  • galloglaigh

    I found a fifteen year old who signed it (05:45). Check him out on the census!

  • galloglaigh,

    You deserve some sort of Prize. An “ignoble” perhaps. How long did it take you to find that one among hundreds of thousands? Might I humbly suggest you go out early tomorrow and watch the sun rise.

  • galloglaigh

    Found it looking for John Mitchel believe it or not. How ever that works?