McDowell questions Ulster Covenant


THE SIGNING of the Ulster Covenant, associated formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the threat of a provisional Ulster government were “close to treasonable”, former tánaiste Michael McDowell has argued at a conference in Belfast.

Entitled The Ulster Covenant and Contemporary Ireland, the series of lectures was jointly organised by the Institute for British-Irish Affairs, based at UCD, and the Irish Association. It took place at Belfast’s Linen Hall Library on Saturday, to mark the centenary of “Ulster Day” this Friday.

In his address, the former PD leader and lawyer said the threat by unionists of resisting, by force, the potential implementation of Home Rule was “clearly seditious and bordering on actual treason”.

It also opened the door for a counter physical-force tradition and, in this sense, the Ulster Covenant was an unintended “foundation document” for Irish separatism, he said.

“Tolerance of, or ambivalence about, the threat to use force to overthrow the will of parliament was, by any standards, an open invitation to those Irish separatists who could countenance the use of physical force,” he suggested.

In this sense, the covenant was a “God-sent opportunity to revive and tap into the physical-force radicalism of the Fenian tradition as well as the possibility of radicalising cultural nationalism into a form of Irish separatism far removed from [John] Redmond’s world view”.

In his lecture, Queen’s University academic Prof Graham Walker focused on the Presbyterian community and how their history had informed some of the “rebelliousness and defiance” that unionists drew on in their struggle against Home Rule.

Speaking before the conference, he said: “The writing on the covenant has been too fixated on Carson, crucial as he was. It’s time to bring to light people who were leadership figures in their own localities.”