By all means necessary

 

“... We hereby pledge 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.” – Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant

FOR UNIONISTS, that day, Ulster Day, September 28th, 1912 has all the historical resonances and meaning that the Rising represents for nationalists. It was their Rising. And, like with the latter, today many still want, and are able, to insist proudly on their grandparents’ participation in what was scarcely any less an act of mass rebellion against lawful authority. It was an open commitment to defy and repudiate the will of parliament if Home Rule was introduced, and a pledge to resort to “all means which may be found necessary” that would later be expressed in early 1913 in the founding, drilling and arming of the Ulster Volunteer Force.

The day itself, courtesy of Dubliner Edward Carson and James Craig, was a spectacular piece of brilliantly choreographed political theatre. It was a huge, strictly disciplined and peaceful tribal mobilisation that played on strong religious sentiment and fears of “Rome Rule”, on economic uncertainty, and on genuine affection among the middle class for Empire. Some 471,414 loyal Ulster men and women, some signing with their blood, participated across Ulster, in Dublin – where 2,000 signed – and in cities across England and Scotland. In Belfast, where they signed at a rate of up to 150 a minute, JL Garvin reported for the Pall Mall Gazette, from the top of City Hall: “The square below and the streets striking away from it were black with people. Through the mass, with drums and fifes, sashes and banners, the clubs marched all day ... onward swept this whole city in motion with a tumult that was mad.”

***

It was unarguably a transformative moment. That day decisively brought the gun and the physical force tradition back to centre-stage in Irish politics, eclipsing the democratic constitutionalism of a previous generation of both unionist and nationalist leaders.

This paper, then of a somewhat different persuasion, opined the next day, while warning of civil war, that Ulster was not fighting her own battle alone, “she is saving nationalist Ireland from the folly of its leaders”. But, in truth, Ulster was hammering a nail into the political coffin of the pre-eminent of those leaders, John Redmond, whose now-impossible vision of a parliamentary road to Home Rule inside the Empire would be completely overtaken by separatism and republicanism.

And, in the strange way that history has of playing tricks on us, the fruit of the undoubted success for unionism of Ulster Day and its aftermath would be the partition that Carson and southern unionists, this paper included, so feared, and a Home Rule parliament, but only for Northern Ireland.

And in Stormont’s “Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people” there would be an echo of the religious language of the Covenant. That religious, some see it as deeply sectarian, dimension is reflected again today in the Orange Order’s commemoration march in Belfast, certain to be joined by tens of thousands and hundreds of bands. It is to be hoped that the order will restrain the small minority who want to make of the day an exercise in triumphalism, by ensuring respect for the Parades Commission’s requirement that only sacred music be played when passing St Patrick’s Church.

***

Embarking North and South on the decade of commemorations, the hope is that both main political traditions, in good faith, will embrace the experience of the other. Not to judge it, or to engage in a collective celebration, but, in sharing in the commemoration, to engage in an exercise in developing mutual understanding and respect. To use that awful “peacespeak” expression, “parity of esteem”. At a minimum.

But is it possible to go beyond just a grudging tolerant understanding of the other’s history? Can we find with the passage of time, in our growing understanding of the interconnectedness of our stories, in the sense that each plays into the other, transforming it in turn, a means of celebrating our different narratives?

In a speech to the Irish Association in Belfast this week, Michael McDowell reminded his audience that his own grandfather, Eoin MacNeill, saw in the Covenant movement a positive home-rule-like assertion of identity and power. He wrote in a seminal article, The North Began, that “a wonderful state of things has come to pass in Ulster...”, and, as historian Diarmaid Ferriter puts it, “threw down the gauntlet to nationalists to follow the lead given by Ulster unionists.” The IRB, which may have indirectly prompted the article, enthusiastically took up the gauntlet, and at the launch of the Irish Volunteers in November 1913, McDowell says, its new leader, MacNeill, no less, “caused confusion by calling for ‘three cheers for Carson’s Volunteers’.”

Beyond what he sees as the welcome impulse provided by the Covenant to militant nationalists to create an armed movement, McDowell goes further: “I incline to the belief that Irish independence, in which I am a strong believer, owes its existence to the armed resistance to Home Rule, and thus, by supreme irony, it seems to me, the Ulster Covenant therefore numbers among the founding documents of Irish freedom.”

In that spirit nationalist Ireland may also find through a somewhat tortuous route a way, not just to commemorate, but to celebrate this day.

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