History

Ulster Covenant

28 September 1912

On 28 September 1912, nearly half a million people signed the Ulster Covenant.


It was an oath whereby the Protestant people of Ulster, the northernmost province of Ireland, pledged to defend their way of life from the growing threat of 'Home Rule' - a devolved parliament in Dublin.


A huge public movement was mobilised in defiance of the British government, which wished to impose Home Rule, as the United Kingdom was brought to the brink of civil war.



Photo: Edward Carson, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, is the first person to sign the Ulster Covenant (Public Record Office Northern Ireland)

More information about: Ulster Covenant

The rise of Home Rule

Britain and Ireland had suffered a fractious relationship for centuries. Theirs was a history scarred by battles and rebellions, upheavals and atrocities. By the late 1800s, the cry for Irish self-government was growing in volume. Its spokesman was Charles Parnell, founder of the Irish National League and first leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party.

Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone was more sympathetic than most British politicians of the age. In 1886, he set out the case for Home Rule in an impassioned three-hour speech to parliament, but this first 'Home Rule Bill' was narrowly defeated. He had another go at introducing Home Rule in 1893. His second 'Home Rule Bill' made it through the House of Commons, but was defeated in the House of Lords.

Riots and resistance

Not everyone in Ireland favoured Home Rule. Protestant resistance to the idea was fierce, particularly in the north of the country. Belfast played host to riots and mass rallies as the anti-Home Rule movement found its voice.

Ulster's mainly Protestant population feared Home Rule was a first step to an independent, Catholic Ireland. They were concerned also that a Dublin parliament would introduce economic policies favourable to farming in the rural south. This would have the effect of penalising the rich industry in the north, of which Belfast's shipyard and linen mills were the proud standard bearers.

A new Home Rule crisis

Home Rule returned to the agenda in 1910 when the UK general election resulted in a hung parliament. HH Asquith's Liberals were the largest party by the slim margin of two seats. The Irish Parliamentary Party, led by John Redmond, held the balance of power and entered into a deal with the Liberals. In return for Redmond's support, Asquith would introduce a third 'Home Rule Bill'. Together, the pair also curtailed the House of Lords' veto that had derailed such legislation in the past. When the third Home Rule bill passed through parliament, the Lords could only delay it, and so it was due to come into effect in 1914.

Winston Churchill, then a member of Asquith's government as First Lord of the Admiralty, came to Belfast in February 1912 to speak in favour of Home Rule. If Churchill was in any doubt as to the strength of unionist opposition to the proposal, he was given a pointed demonstration as a jeering crowd attempted to overturn his car as it left his hotel.

Andrew Bonar Law, leader of the Conservative opposition to Asquith's government, played his hand quite publicly when he attended a mass Unionist rally in Belfast. One hundred thousand people were there to hear him declare: "I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster can go in which I should not be prepared to support it".

Unionists get organised

In Ulster, resistance was organised by local MP James Craig. He knew that the Unionists needed a powerful riposte, and a charismatic man to deliver it. That man was Edward Carson, a lawyer from Dublin and leader of the Irish Unionists. Carson was a brilliant and persuasive orator, who had famously outwitted Oscar Wilde in court. At Craig's invitation he would lead the Ulster Unionists.

James Craig determined that what was needed to galvanise Unionist resistance was an oath, a call to defend Ulster from Home Rule. Taking the Scottish Covenant of 1638 as his inspiration, he commissioned a text short enough to be carried in the wallet of every Unionist.

The words written, Craig began to meticulously stage-manage the whole process. The signing would take place on Saturday, 28 September 1912, to be named 'Ulster Day'. He took Carson on a tour of the province to mobilise popular support, attracting tens of thousands along the way. The press were invited to hear Carson dramatically deliver the Covenant's content on the steps of Craig's home. Supporters packed the Ulster Hall on the eve of Ulster Day, as Carson urged them to do their duty. Having given Unionism a firm statement of identity, Carson and Craig now simply needed people to sign up to it.

Ulster Day

The signing on 28 September 1912 revolved around a carefully choreographed ceremony at Belfast's City Hall. Carson marched in military procession toward the hall, behind a flag said to have been carried by King William III's troops at the Battle of the Boyne. In the grand entrance he leaned over a circular table, tightly draped in the Union Flag, and became the first person to sign 'Ulster's Solemn League and Covenant'.

Various gathered dignitaries followed suit before the throngs waiting outside were ushered in, 500 at a time, until the doors were closed near midnight. Women added their names to a separate declaration pledging to associate themselves with the men of Ulster in their opposition to Home Rule. In total, nearly half a million put their names to the Covenant.

Indifference and defiance

While Ulster Day had been a triumph for Carson and Craig - galvanising their support and publicly declaring the scale and nature of their opposition - reaction outside Ulster was mostly muted. Redmond maintained there would be "no concessions for Ulster", while Churchill took to mocking his Unionist opponents in parliament.

If the words of the Ulster Covenant had been easily dismissed, what followed could not be ignored. In January 1913, Carson and Craig demonstrated that the pledge to use "all means that may be found necessary" was not mere wordplay. They formally established the Ulster Volunteer Force, a militia made up of 100,000 men who had signed the Covenant months earlier.

In Dublin, the Irish Volunteers were formed in response, while the British Army faced mutiny in its ranks as many refused to stand against the UVF and enforce Home Rule should the need arise.

The way of the gun

Fred Crawford, a man so committed to the cause he is said to have signed the Ulster Covenant in his own blood, masterminded the smuggling of 25,000 rifles and three million rounds of ammunition from Hamburg in April 1914. The Irish Volunteers followed suit three months later, landing 1,000 rifles of their own into Dublin in broad daylight.

With the UVF ready to resist the imposition of Home Rule, the Irish Volunteers ready to enforce it and the British Army unsure exactly what they were going to do, the situation was coming to a head.

Britain responds

Asquith reacted furiously to the militarisation of the Unionist cause, ordering the Royal Navy to patrol the coasts of Antrim and Down in order to prevent further UVF arms hauls. Even King George V got involved, inviting Carson and Redmond to what might today be known as "all-party talks" at Buckingham Palace. The talks failed. With no solution in sight, the United Kingdom was on the brink of civil war.

World War One

Yet, less than a fortnight later, international events were to intervene as Britain declared war on Germany. Although the Home Rule bill finally passed into law with royal assent on 18 September 1914, barely anybody noticed.

The UVF and the Irish Volunteers went on to fight alongside each other for the allied cause in the Great War, both sustaining huge casualties in battle. The Home Rule Bill passed quietly into law in September 1914, but would not come into effect until World War One was over.

Partition

As the Home Rule Bill lay dormant on the statute books, things changed. Shaken by the strength of Unionist resistance, Asquith privately offered them exclusion from Home Rule in 1916. This 'opt out' for Ulster fatally undermined Home Rule.

John Redmond's vision for an Ireland within the British Empire was soon replaced by a more militant form of nationalism and the war in Europe had barely ended when the War for Independence erupted in Ireland.

By the end of 1921, the partition of Ireland was official. To the south was the Irish Free State, independent of British rule; to the north, a new nation state of Northern Ireland comprising the six counties of Unionist majority.

Edward Carson viewed partition as a failure and he resigned the leadership of the Ulster Unionists in 1921. Today, his statue stands before the Northern Ireland executive building at Stormont. Behind the building is the tomb of James Craig, first prime minister of Northern Ireland and architect of the Ulster Covenant.

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