How Ulster Covenant put the gun into Irish politics


OPINION:The signatories of the 1912 pledge vowed to support their cause by using all ‘necessary’ means. Their actions were fatally flawed

ON SEPTEMBER 28th, 1912, a number of my family members signed the Ulster Covenant. Indeed, my great grandfather’s cousin, John Lonsdale, was a leading figure in the whole proceedings.

He was MP for Mid Armagh, secretary of the unionist parliamentary party and later leader of the party from 1916 to 1918, when Edward Carson joined the war cabinet.

Nonetheless, in retrospect, and with all the benefit of hindsight, I believe that their actions were fatally flawed. Unintentionally, a part of this document had fatal consequences in Ireland not only for unionism and loyalism but also for nationalism and republicanism.

The words of the Ulster Covenant explain why Ulster unionists were so opposed to home rule. They viewed it as “subversive” of their “civil and religious freedom” and believed it would have disastrous economic and social consequences. They saw the Bill as part of a conspiracy, whereby the government had agreed to it following a deal with nationalists to keep the liberals in power.

In my view, these arguments are reasonable from a unionist perspective.

The purpose of Ulster Day on September 28th, 1912 was to show how nearly half a million Ulster unionists were firmly opposed to home rule for Ireland.

However, the covenant contained a phrase that would take the unionist protest into new and potentially dangerous territory.

The document declared that those who signed it pledged to support their cause by “using all means which may be found necessary”. What was meant by this statement was not elaborated upon.

For most unionists on Ulster Day, September 28th, the matter seems to have raised little concern or questioning, perhaps because the exact words of the covenant were not released until just over a week before the signing.

When my grandfather, Carlisle Walker, put his name to the covenant in Carnmoney, East Antrim, I have no idea what he thought he was signing up to. On the same day, however, a few miles away in Carrickfergus, in a brave and very perceptive sermon, the rector, Rev Frederick MacNeice, explained why he could not sign the covenant.

Much later, his son, the poet Louis MacNeice, claimed that his father was a home ruler. In fact, as David Fitzpatrick has shown in his brilliant new biography of the father, Frederick MacNeice was an ardent unionist, but an all-Ireland unionist, and he was very concerned about possible consequences of the covenant for relations within Ireland.

In his sermon, MacNeice acknowledged that the covenant could be seen in different ways. Some believed that the use of force was justified to defend the unionist position, others felt that a threat of force would help avert violence, while others saw the document as simply a protest against home rule. His view, however, was that it could lead to bitterness, violence and even civil war, and, as a Christian, he could not condone such a policy. The words of MacNeice, ignored by most of his parishioners, proved prophetic, although even he could not have appreciated the particular train of events that ensued.

In January 1913, the Ulster Volunteer Force was established to support the unionist cause and eventually consisted of 100,000 men, all of whom had signed the Ulster Covenant and who were now organised along military lines. In April 1914, 35,000 rifles were brought in to arm the UVF.

These actions had not gone unnoticed in nationalist circles. In response, in November 1913 the Irish Volunteers were established and eventually more than 160,000 men signed up. In May 1914, 1,500 guns were imported into Ireland for the Irish Volunteers. By the summer of 1914, with the political situation unresolved and with the country full of armed “volunteers”, civil war was a real possibility.

In the end, this did not happen because of the outbreak of the first World War. Both the unionist and nationalist leaders promised their support to the British war effort. Most Irish Volunteers accepted this position but a small number did not. This group, led by some republicans, staged an armed rising in Dublin at Easter 1916.

These later events can be linked to the Ulster Covenant. By sanctioning the threat to use “all means”, the covenant, as Michael McDowell recently argued in Belfast, opened the door for a counter physical-force tradition, and was an unintended “foundation document” for Irish separatism. It gave a special invitation and opportunity for “those Irish separatists who would countenance the use of physical force”.

It is possible to claim that the Ulster Covenant served to protect the interests of Ulster unionists in the six counties of what became Northern Ireland. At the same time it helped to justify the threat or use of force which led to the rise of armed resistance and Irish separatism in the rest of Ireland. In this way the covenant was damaging in the long run for unionists, not least for their supporters in the new Irish State. Within Northern Ireland the early years would be marked by violence.

While the decision to sanction the threat of force or the use of force in 1912 had damaging consequences for unionists in the long run, the response by nationalists and republicans was also very detrimental to their cause in the end. The decision to meet the unionist challenge of armed opposition by similarly adopting the threat or use of force led eventually to the 1916 Easter Rising, the War of Independence and then the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

No doubt, for many republicans and nationalists this outcome was to their liking. However, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was followed, inevitably, by terrible civil war. Because the “gun” was now at the centre of Irish politics, it meant that people resorted to violence to settle their differences over the Treaty. During the War of Independence, hundreds of Irish people were killed, but during the Civil War the figures of those killed, by other Irish people, were in their thousands. No one could have forecast these outcomes. Frederick MacNeice, however, understood that violence begets violence.

Few in Ireland in 1912, unionist or nationalist, were willing to listen to his words.

Brian M Walker is emeritus professor of Irish studies at Queen’s University Belfast and author of A Political History of the Two Irelands: from Partition to Peace

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