Covenant This!

Well, that was a bit of a surprise.

Yesterday marked the celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the Ulster Covenant, the document signed by nearly half a million Ulstermen and women in 1912 as a protest against the British government’s plans to implement home rule in Ireland.  The true anniversary was Friday, 28 September, but like Remembrance Sunday in the UK or Victoria Day in Canada, things get pushed around on the calendar.  Nearly all of the news reports have described the covenant as the document that “helped lead to the partition of Ireland.”  The New  York Times today quoted an Ulsterman saying that the covenant “is the equivalent of our birth certificate” – and I certainly have written the same myself, depicting these men of Ulster who signed the covenant as “the most masculine of midwives for the eventual birth of Northern Ireland.”

I am delighted that yesterday’s events were peaceful – even the weather turned out to be better-than-average, though it, too, was politicized somewhat in the papers:

“When the sun came out before the march, one Protestant quipped, ‘God’s light shines on the righteous.’  Minutes later, on the other side of the police lines, a Catholic looked up at the same sky and said, ‘The devil looks after his own.’”

What astounds me, however, is that there was this much fuss about the covenant at all.  You certainly wouldn’t have seen it coming down through the decades, or even in recent years.  For nearly a century of the north’s history, the covenant was not what counted at all.  A four-year run of importance is hardly the stuff of great historical drama… or is it?

Nearly all historians or Ireland (and its diaspora) agree that 1916 was the pivotal year in Irish history, something akin to the arrival of the potato blight in the 1840s, the political hopes and failures attached to the 1798 Rising, or the Flight of the Earls in 1608 that left the north of Ireland without its traditional Catholic-Gaelic aristocracy and paved the way for the Ulster Plantations and the transformation of what had been the most rebellious province on the island into the last scion of the British Empire.

1916 – not 1912.

1912 was also a memorable year in Belfast, to be sure.  The RMS Titanic sank.  You might have heard about that.  I still need to get my own “She was fine when she left Ireland” t-shirt.

1912 was also the beginning of the Home Rule Crisis, the near civil-war in Ireland that saw the oxymoronic craziness of unionist Ulstermen arming themselves to fight the British in order to remain British themselves.  Yes, that’s fight the British, not the nationalist Irish.  In fact, orders put out to the various cells of the Ulster Volunteer Force in 1913 warned specifically against Protestants fighting their Catholic neighbours and called for responsible members of each regiment to “control the hotheads.”

The Ulster Covenant, inspired by the Scottish precedents from the early modern era and also those from the Old Testament, was notable for its absolute lack of any sectarian language.  There is not a single mention of signatories needing to be Protestant.  Some of them weren’t – Ulster Catholics signed the Covenant, too, standing up for the little-thought-of-minority of faithful Catholics who had no issue with living in Britain or within the British Empire.  We’ve had a lot of those here in Canada – Sir Georges-Etienne Cartier and Sir Wilfrid Laurier spring to mind immediately – but it’s not something much spoken of in studies of the Irish.  The only pop culture reference I can think of that represents these people is a throw-away quip in In the Name of the Father that shows “Aunt Annie” having all sorts of royal mugs and tea-towels in her flat before she was arrested for her “association” with the Guildford Four.

Aunt Annie’s House

Those who signed the document a century ago were part of a wider historical phenomenon dating back millennia.  To align oneself to a contract with the divine was to enter into a “covenanter sensibility,” a state of mind that involved looking to the past in order to justify one’s actions as much as concentrating on present calamities.  This fit neatly into Ulster unionists’ simultaneous identification with seventeenth century historical episodes and twentieth century political turmoil.  This view was put into words by Andrew Bonar Law, the leader of the Conservative Party, in April 1912.  In front of a crowd of nearly 100,000 unionists, he announced “Once again you hold the pass … You are a besieged city.  The timid have left you; your Lundies have betrayed you; but you have closed your gates.”

Bonar Law knew that his references to the Spartans’ heroic stand at Thermopylae and the touchstone of the Siege of Derry in 1689 would be understood not only as historical precedents for fighting against oppression, but also as living examples of unionist Ulster’s modern identity.

There were naysayers, of course, to the anti-Home Rule campaign led by Sir Edward Carson and Captain James Craig.  Writing in 1912, William T. Laprade argued that there was no overwhelming opposition to Home Rule in the north and pointed out that even the term “Ulster” was an anachronism, as Unionists did not refer to “the entire province, but merely Belfast and its environs, particularly the counties of Antrim and Armagh.”  Unionist politicians, he argued, were “exerting themselves to stir up passions which certainly cannot tend to promote good feeling between the two contending parties in Ireland” and that, ultimately, it seemed “scarcely believable that the responsible leaders of a great political party, acting apparently from sincere motives, should commit themselves to propositions so inconsistent and so illogical.”

Sir Edward Carson signs the Ulster Covenant

The climax of these seemingly illogical actions came on “Ulster Day”, 28 September 1912, when tens of thousands of unionist men queued at Belfast City Hall to sign the Covenant.  The Morning Post summarized it as the day when “Ulstermen banded together as one man,” a declaration which was pointedly exclusive in tone towards Irish nationalists and female signatories of the supporting Women’s Declaration.  Together, the Ulster Covenant and the Women’s Declaration received nearly half a million signatures in the single largest public demonstration for a political campaign in any part of the United Kingdom, before or since.

Yesterday, thousands of men and women dressed themselves in period costumes in order literally to follow in the footsteps of their fore-fathers (their fore-mothers weren’t allowed to sign the Covenant at City Hall).  In this, they were recreating scenes described in the newspapers of the day.  The Belfast News-Letter, a paper with strong unionist leanings, recorded that outside of City Hall, “the Orangemen and the Unionist Clubmen marched up in double column from midday until the night had set in, with bands playing and banners flying, through streets of cheering people.  But inside the City Hall there was not even a bustle, only a seemingly endless stream of sober-faced, silent, serious men, intent upon what they held to be a solemn undertaking.”

Ulster Day also solidified Protestantism’s central role within the anti-Home Rule movement.  The press recorded that religious services were held in nearly every Protestant church in Belfast and across the province on the morning of 28 September 1912, leaving readers with the impression that “the voice of a devout and united people” had come together in a single rendition of “O God Our Help in Ages Past” that “rose up to Heaven for succour.”

It’s interesting to note that hymns were the agreed-upon music to be played during yesterday’s parades whenever the assembled Orangemen and unionists passed a Catholic church.  St Patrick’s Church in Carrick Hill was seen as the one place where violence might erupt.  2,000 band members strode past peacefully, but numerous sources have noted this morning that “seldom has ‘Abide With Me’ sounded so martial.”

Hymns, apparently, still carry a bit of a punch in the north.

And yet, I would argue, these celebrations are a bit misplaced given how quickly unionist Ulster replaced the Covenant within its pantheon of sacred cultural images.  I have written before about the interpretations of masculinities wrapped up within the unionist events of 1912.  What truly changed the game, however, was the Great War.

In the aftermath of Ulster Day, Sir Edward Carson emerged as the key icon for the Protestant community, the Unionist Moses who vowed to deliver his people from the bondage of a Dublin Parliament and to maintain the British connection in Ireland. (Charlton Heston also would have been a solid choice to play him on film, had the Third Home Rule Crisis ever merited a movie.)  The Home Rule Crisis continued for another two years as the UVF armed itself through illegal gun-smuggling operations, most notably at Larne in April 1914.

But, just when civil war seemed imminent, news came of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary, followed by the mobilization of Europe and the onset of the First World War.  Ironically, the greatest challenge to the 1912 Covenant’s authority as the primary instrument of unionist identity did not come from Irish nationalist propaganda or the machinations of Westminster politicians, but through Protestant Ulster’s fixation upon and lionization of the men who had gone off to war.

The Ulster Memorial Tower at the Somme

The first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916, transformed Ulster irrevocably.  Not only did the 36th (Ulster) Division sustain heavy casualties, but the very bones of unionist Ulster were shattered and reformed in a soldier’s image.  In this sacrificial action, the “living military tradition” of the UVF allegedly was carried onto the battlefield by the Ulster Division, many of whose recruits had been UVF paramilitaries and, therefore, were covenanters.  An editorial in the Northern Whig proposed that the 36th Division was “composed of Covenanters who had bound themselves together with the object of resisting attacks on their hard-won liberties.”  The Reverend Dr. Henry Montgomery, the 1912 Moderator of the Church of Ireland, went even further in his remarks, declaring that “One little thought when in September 1912, the gallant youth of Ulster signed their Solemn League and Covenant that so many of them would before four years had passed have sealed it with their blood on the battlefields of France and Flanders.”

This was the blood-debt realized, which allegedly sanctified Ulster’s union with Great Britain.  For the Reverend Montgomery and others who shared his covenanting sensibility, the blood shed at the Somme now demanded Britain’s allegiance to Ulster in return for the 36th Division’s heavy sacrifice.  This belief quickly became the most potent unionist legend since King Billy crossed the Boyne.

The Somme, romantically consecrated in the Protestant community’s imagination by the actions of the fallen, supplanted the Ulster Covenant as the most powerful public construction of modern unionist identity.  The same had not happened when covenanting Scots had fought in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms; their covenant survived the battle and remained superior to soldiers’ memories.  Conversely, commemorations of the 36th Division became key cultural touchstones for Protestants in the north of Ireland, beginning in 1916 and continuing for the rest of the century.

The loss of the covenant’s specific popular influence and place in Ulster/Northern Ireland was a slow process, but its beginnings can be traced to the war years.  Part of its eroding authority was caused by the reappearance of the spectre of Irish Home Rule in the spring of 1918 and debates about the exact jurisdiction of the signatories’ original obligation.  Had the suspension of Home Rule until the end of the war also suspended the covenanters’ oath?  Facts needed to be clarified in order to define individual men’s specific obligations to God, the king and the covenanting brotherhood.

Opinions across Ireland on this issue were heatedly divided.

Richard Dawson Bates, the future Minister of Home Affairs for Northern Ireland, had written to Carson in August 1915 that the covenant was “not a political matter, and that, while we are doing our best for the country” through the war effort, “we are only strictly speaking fulfilling the terms of the Covenant.”

However, the German Spring Offensive of 1918, followed by the Irish Conscription Crisis altered the political realities surrounding Home Rule.  Change was inevitable.

The decision that finally broke the covenant’s back was the popular conviction that the exclusion of Ulster from any Home Rule settlement – essentially, the partition of the country – was the only way to maintain the British connection. In 1916, the Battle of the Somme had replaced the Ulster Covenant as the memorial action of northern Protestant loyalty to the empire; in 1920, the Government of Ireland Act became the new covenant between King George V and his subjects in the six counties as the written contract that commanded unionist Ulster’s allegiance.

Donald Harman Akenson has defined the 1921 creation of Northern Ireland as an example of a covenanting culture acquiring a state.  It is quite feasible to argue that the Stormont era of 1921 to 1972 was indeed the product of a covenanting culture; however, this argument becomes problematic if we presume that the primary covenant which shaped Northern Ireland was that of 1912.  A covenanting sensibility from the Home Rule Crisis endured among unionists in Northern Ireland after partition, paired with traditional unionist siege mentality which, together, informed the cultural matrix of the new state.  However, this sensibility was now fragmented because of growing divisions within the Protestant unionist population as to the 1912 Covenant’s original parameters and its applicability as a living document after the partition of Ireland.  As the years wore on, the importance of the Ulster Covenant increasingly diminished, despite Carson’s emotional pronouncement in 1919 that “I will keep my Covenant to the day of my death.  I know every Ulsterman will do the same.”

By the 1930s, there seemed to be a sentiment visible in the public sphere that the Ulster Covenant should be left where it belonged – in the past.  Brigadier-General F. P. Crozier – one of the Great War’s more flamboyant and controversial officers – wrote in his 1930 memoir that the problem with the men in Ulster during the Home Rule Crisis was that they had been “suffering from political paralysis of the top storey and found it difficult to set themselves free from insular and parochial associations.”  When reporting the events surrounding Lord Carson’s state funeral in 1935, the Northern Whig noted that the cortege halted briefly outside Belfast City Hall “where Lord Carson signed the Ulster Covenant, but as the procession slowly resumed its way stirring recollection gave way to memory of the man himself, simple and sincere.”

The 1912 Covenant was limited in its historical significance; unlike its sister documents of 1581, 1638 and 1643, it had not been adopted by any specific religious denomination, domestic or diasporic, as a literal divine contract.  As such, the Ulster Covenant became the exception to the covenanting tradition rather than part of its legacy, standing as the modern contrast to the Protestant faithful of previous generations.

In 1931, J. W. Nixon asked the prime minister, Lord Craigavon, if a framed copy of the covenant would hang in the new parliament building once it was unveiled at Stormont the following year. Nixon cited the document’s historical nature in his question rather than its contemporary relevance, making the covenant something to be put behind glass, like an antique in a museum, rather than a document that had active resonance within the policies of the day.

Meanwhile, the Somme continued to amass interest and personal testimonials from Ulster veterans and the unionist community across the years, and particularly during the fiftieth anniversary of the battle in 1966.  Among the printed accounts of old Ulster soldiers making pilgrimages to the Somme Valley and the ceremonies attended by Prime Minister Captain Terence O’Neill, were words that continued to ring true for unionists despite the passage of time: “The Division had its days of glory to come, and out of its sharp experience it adjusted itself to the war as it was and was all the more valuable for it.  It went on to the end; it did not lose heart; it did not break faith.”  Communal faith in the Ulster Covenant had been broken within only a handful of years after its creation, whereas unionist fidelity to the sacrificial actions of the Ulstermen at the Somme continued to be both meaningful and mesmeric.

There have been many covenants in history.  Part of the applicability of the covenanter sensibility is its continued renewal and adoption by a specific community at a specific time and place.  The Ulster Solemn League and Covenant, with its overtones of historical precedent and collective action, fit nicely into the demands of a Protestant and unionist society concerned about its future survival under a Catholic-nationalist parliament.  The accompanying rhetoric of Unionist politicians and their supporters in the years during and after the Great War promoted the lasting nature of the Ulster Covenant, despite its arguably limited parameters regarding duration, commitment, and Irish partition.  The covenant’s stated principles of loyalty to king and empire, its stand against both Irish nationalism and British governmental interference, and its incurred blood-debt at the Somme all underscored its apparent role as the present and future foundation of the northern Protestant community.  Despite these apparent strengths, it failed to live up to the legacies of its predecessors.

Unlike the American Constitution, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms or Britain’s Magna Carta, the Ulster Covenant is no longer a living political document.

Whatever the final outcome of yesterday’s celebrations on the lawn at Stormont, the Great War endures and will continue to endure in the Protestant unionist imagination in ways the Home Rule Crisis cannot.  There will be many more commemorations in 2016 for the Ulstermen who died at the Somme than now in 2012 for those who signed the Ulster Covenant.  Things that happened immediately before the summer of 1914 are easy to overlook in the wake of what came after.

The BBC’s Mark Simpson wrote today that yesterday’s calm during the parade bodes well for future centennials in the next decade.  2016 will be the year to watch, as the Republic of Ireland (and northern nationalists) celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Easter Rising in Dublin, while unionists will flock to Thiepval in order to salute those men from Ulster who fell at the Somme.  It was the Great War that caused both of those episodes to occur, not the Home Rule Crisis in 1912.  By sheer numbers alone, those two events will far outshadow the march we have just witnessed.

It will be very interesting to see how history repeats itself in four years.  Will there be a reawakening of violence as there was for the fiftieth anniversaries in 1966?  Will Northern Ireland be able to commemorate both occasions in a peaceful manner?  And, four years from now, will this past Saturday still echo in the mind, or, like before, will the Ulster Covenant have faded into a distant memory?

Further Reading

The New York Times, 30 September 2012, “Tension, Though No Violence, as Protestants Parade in Belfast”
William T. Laprade, “The Present Status of the Home Rule Question,” The American Political Science Review, vol. 6, no. 4 (Nov. 1912), 543-4.
Belfast News Letter, 30 September 1912
www.proni.gov.uk/index/search_the_archives/ulster_covenant.htm
Northern Whig, 30 September 1912
Jane G. V. McGaughey, Ulster’s Men: Protestant Unionist Masculinities and Militarization in the North of Ireland, 1912-1923 (2012)
John Keegan, The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme (1976)
Richard S. Grayson, Belfast Boys: How Unionists and Nationalists Fought and Died Together in the First World War (2010)
Lt.-Colonel W. A. Shooter OBE, Ulster’s Part in the Battle of the Somme: 1st July to 15th November, 1916 (1966)
Donald H. Akenson, God’s Peoples: Covenant and Land in South Africa, Israel and Ulster (1992)
F. P. Crozier, A Brass Hat in No Man’s Land (1930)
J. W. Nixon, 5 March 1931, HC Debs. NI, vol. 13, col. 132.
Belfast News-Letter, 1 July 1966
David G. Boyce, “British Opinion, Ireland, and the War, 1916-1918”, The Historical Journal, vol. 17, no. 3 (1974)

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Midatlantic Musings by Jane G. V. McGaughey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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About midatlanticmusings

Historian of the Irish Diaspora and masculinities, wife, mother, lover of good books, red wine, fine whiskies, pop culture aficionado, and Star Wars wonk.
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2 Responses to Covenant This!

  1. Sarah Emily Duff says:

    Amazing, amazing post: you’ve traced the shifting meanings of the Ulster Covenant magnificently. I wonder, though, when you write about Northern Irish loyalty to ‘Empire’, what this meant for ordinary people in Ulster. Did they think of all the pink bits on the world map, or did they think about Britain? Much later, did decolonisation in Africa and elsewhere the 1960s provoke much debate about the relationship between Ulster and Britain? (I’m sure not – particularly given that decolonisation coincided to some extent with the beginning of the Troubles – but I’m curious.)

    • I’m going to generalise a bit, but the “ordinary people” (for the most part) were some of the biggest supporters of the empire — or their imaginings of the empire. This is certainly a pre-WWII vision of all the pink bits on the map, primarily based around the ‘White Dominions’ (which also were the areas of highest Ulster Protestant migration outside of the USA). The decolonisation projects of the 1960s did not merge with the lower-middle-class paraphenalia of imperialism… I haven’t looked at any newspaper coverage then, but I doubt any independence campaigns made headlines. For many of these people, they were still caught in about 1923 until the onset of the Troubles in 1968. The only international incident I have heard merging with Northern Irish affairs in the ’60s is the American civil rights campaign.

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