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From: Church & State: Articles
Date: October, 2012
By: Editorial

The Ulster Covenant Of 1912

The declared purpose of the Solemn League And Covenant, signed by close to half a million Ulster Protestants in September 1912, was to defend their "cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom".  The outcome nine years later was that six Ulster Counties were formed into a devolved system of government within the United Kingdom but excluded from the political arrangements by which the UK state was governed.

Northern Ireland was neither a separate state, nor a federal component of the UK state, and its voters did not participate in the electoral contests to determine how the UK state was to be governed.

In recent decades the setting up of the Northern Ireland entity has been widely described as an "experiment in devolution".  A more unsuitable region for experimenting with devolution would b difficult to imagine.  It consisted of two hostile communities, one twice the size of the other, which were at war with each other.

The war in the Six Counties in 1920-21, when they were formed into Northern Ireland, was part of the general war in Ireland that resulted from the decision of the UK Parliament to take no heed of the 1918 decision of the Irish electorate to establish independent government in Ireland, and to authorise the Whitehall Government to continue governing Ireland in defiance of the Irish electorate.  British government in Ireland then took the form of military rule.  British military rule was disputed on the ground of force by an extemporised Irish Army dedicated to giving effect to the decision of the Irish electorate.  There was no other ground on which it might have been disputed effectively.  Constitutional debating points would have been futile.  In particular circumstances the pen can sometimes be mightier than the sword.  Those circumstances did not exist in Ireland in 1919-21.  Therefore there was war.

Three-quarters of the population of Ireland supported the military defence of their elected Government against British military rule.  A quarter of the population—including the signers of the Ulster Covenant—supported British military rule.

In the midst of this war the British Government decided to Partition the island by setting up subordinate British Government in the Six Counties.  The two communities that made up the Six Counties were at war with each other at that point, as active participants in the general war between the elected Irish Government and the British State.

Republicans in the Six Counties, who had been making war on Britain in support of the Irish Government, did not see any reason to lay down their arms when Britain decided to establish the subordinate form of British Government called Northern Ireland under which the local Covenanted Protestant majority, which had been active in support of the British military despotism in Ireland as a whole, would be constituted into a local ruling stratum acting on behalf of, and on the authority of, the Whitehall Government—organised, supplied and directed by Whitehall.

The establishment of Northern Ireland roped off a section of the British battlefield in Ireland, and the majority there, which had acted with Whitehall against the Irish democracy, was given the task of crushing the Irish nationalist minority in the region.  The "experiment in devolution" was in the first place a stratagem of war, and its first act had to be an act of war.

Reasons can be given for the British decision to divide Ireland politically and establish a state frontier within it.  Such reasons have been given;  and they seem to have been accepted as valid by all major parties both in the British region of the UK state and in the Irish state, though not stated intelligibly. 

British colonial ventures in Ireland disrupted the organic development of Irish society, which was their purpose, but they failed to function as the centre of an organic development of Ireland as West Britain.  The colonial residues in most of the country faded under pressure of the strong national development of the native population, which began after the Act of Union of 1800 had destroyed the colonial Parliament in Ireland.  By the early 20th century the native social elements, which had been dispossessed by the wars of conquest waged by Elizabeth, Cromwell and William of Orange, and which were assumed to have been broken by the Penal Law system based on the Williamite conquest, had reasserted themselves and had largely come into their own again.

The colonial venture in Eastern Ulster—the Plantation of Ulster—was the only one that had flourished.  It had survived because it had not been entirely a state measure in origin, but had been in considerable part the product of migration.  The official Plantation failed to take root in a number of the officially Planted Counties.  When the matter of Partitioning the country was raised as a practical matter in 1916 the colonial development in three of the officially Planted Counties was so weak that they were given back to the Irish without serious dispute.  And the strongholds of the colony were the Counties of Antrim and Down, which had not been part of the official Plantation.

Within the area of the official Plantation official towns were established, and were laid out in official colonial style.  The city of Belfast, which was the real hub of the colonial development, was an unofficial city, without a Charter, without official municipal government, and without representation in the Irish Parliament in the 18th century, or in the Union Parliament until the 1832 Reform.

Colonial ventures in other parts of the country had elaborate political forms but lacked substance.  The core of the Ulster colonial development had substance without official form.

The other colonial ventures were privileged castes of the Protestant Ascendancy.  They were not rounded communities, with all the classes necessary to functional society.  The intention that they should displace the native population was not realised.  When the native population asserted itself strongly, following the abolition of the Colonial Parliament, the colonial elite went into decline.  The Protestant Ascendancy—the monopoly of land and professional occupations by members of the Church of England in Ireland (the Church of Ireland)—withered.

The Protestant Ascendancy stratum also existed in eastern Ulster.  But in parts of that region the native population had been substantially displaced, and replaced by a Protestant migration/Plantation that was not Anglican.  Where this had happened there was functional Protestant society.

The Penal Laws applied superficially to Protestants who were not Anglicans, but they could not be applied within Protestantism as they were against Catholics.  The Anglican gentry had to live in organic community with a substantial Protestant population that was not Anglican..  The exclusion of the non-Anglicans from the privileges of the Protestant Ascendancy acted as a stimulant rather than a depressant.  And it gave to the substantial Ulster colony an internal political life of a kind that could not develop in the colonial fragments dotted around the rest of the country.

The Colonial Parliament in Dublin, based on the Williamite Conquest in the 1690s, was a subordinate Parliament, subject to the English Parliament.  In 1780 the colonial gentry, taking advantage of England's difficulty in America, organised the Volunteer movement and demanded legislative independence.  England had no option but to concede.  But the colony, having gained legislative independence, did not proceed to set up its own Government.  It relied on the power of the English Government to protect it from the native population in Ireland.  The Volunteer movement in eastern Ulster proposed that the colonial development should consolidate itself by drawing the native population into its affairs.  That is essentially what the United Irish movement, which was a mass movement of society only in Antrim and Down, was about.

The colonial Parliament refused to open itself to the native majority.  It remained true to the end to its Protestant Ascendancy inheritance from the Glorious Revolution of 1688.  When its intransigence led to chaos, the English Government saved it from the Irish and then abolished it with the Act of Union.  (The Union was achieved by bribery and corruption—but bribery and corruption was the normality of the Irish Parliament.)

The Ulster United Irish quickly accepted the Union Parliament as meeting their requirement for representative government.  An unexpected consequence of the Union was the political resurgence of the native majority.  Westminster could not police it as closely as the Dublin Parliament had done.

In 1829 Westminster, intimidated by Daniel O'Connell's mass movement in Ireland, admitted Catholics to Parliament.  The Ulster Presbyterians, by and large, supported O'Connell's demand for Catholic Emancipation.  The following year they came to a hostile parting of the ways with him on the issue of Repeal of the Union.

It has become the fashion to seek the origin of Partition in something other than the British Act of Parliament that did  it.  Socially its origin lies in the partly successful British colonisations.  Economically it lies in the industrial development of the Ulster colony in the conditions of post-Union free trade.  In post-Union politics it lies in the parting of the ways around 1830 between O'Connell's movement and the Protestant Ulster reformers.  That rupture was made unnecessarily venomous by O'Connell.  After it, the two parties went their separate ways, in ever-increasing conflict with each other.  But, as O'Connell is one of the iconic figures of "Constitutional nationalism", his blackguarding of the Ulster reformers after they refused to follow him from Catholic Emancipation to Repeal of the Union cannot be acknowledged.  (He is iconic in those circles because of his statement that Irish freedom was not worth the shedding of a drop of blood.

Repeal of the Union was a Protestant Ascendancy issue in the first instance.  The Union deprived the Ascendancy of its stronghold in Ireland.  O'Connell, who was hardly even a token Catholic when he returned to Ireland in the 1790s, supported the Ascendancy agitation for the restoration of the Irish Parliament on 18th century terms.  As the native Irish majority began to assert itself under the comparative freedom of the Union, Protestant enthusiasm for Repeal declined.  It soon became apparent that a restored Irish Parliament would have to be representative of the majority in some degree.  Repeal then became an issues of the Irish majority.  O'Connell adapted to this new movement.  As far as one can tell, he became a believing Catholic, and not just a nominal Catholic by family inheritance.  He led the Catholic Emancipation movement to success in 1829, and then switched the momentum of that movement onto the Repeal issue.  He was also a force in the British Reform agitation which led to the Reform Act of 1832, which brought about the first extension of the Parliamentary franchise since the Glorious Revolution of 1688.  

Catholic Emancipation  plus franchise reform brought about a situation in which the Protestant interest in Ireland saw no possibility of maintaining its privileged position under a restored Irish Parliament.  It became Unionist, relying on the strong anti-Catholic prejudice of the newly-enfranchised English middle class to sustain it.  But it found its privileged position in Ireland being relentlessly subverted as English prejudice compromised with the Irish majority as the process of democratisation begun in 1832 was carried on by further Reform Acts.

The Protestant position in Ireland was built on monopoly of political power in the Colonial Parliament, combined with the system if Penal Laws designed to disable the Irish as Catholics and phase them out of existence.  When it failed in the latter object, its position became unsustainable in the long run.

The Presbyterians in the Ulster colony had not shared in the privileges of the Anglican Ascendancy.  But neither had they been seriously oppressed.  Their Church was the State Church in Scotland and many of them were educated there.  In the 1790s they demanded reform of the Irish Parliament, but after 1800 they settled down quickly under the Union Parliament.  As a carry-over of their own radicalism in the 1780s and 1790s, they supported the Catholic Emancipation movement under the Union, but did so with diminishing enthusiasm.  And only a handful of them followed through from Catholic Emancipation to Repeal.

The Protestant position in Ireland remained exceptionally privileged after 1801, and even after 1829, but it was clear that the dynamic of politics was against it.  Its future could not be sustained by institutional power.  It could only be sustained by drawing the newly-enfranchised Irish into the party-politics of the British state.  And O'Connell prevented that.  He failed to Repeal the Union but he ensured that the political system of the Union Government did not take root in Ireland outside the Ulster Colony.

O'Connell began his political life in London in the 1790s as a Whig.  He remained a Whig.  The English reformers a generation later recognised him as one of them.  In 1829 his prestige with the native Irish was such that it seems that he could have made of them what he would.  But he did not attempt to ground the Whig Party among the Irish as their medium of reform.  While remaining a Whig in many ways, he stood between the Whig Party and the Irish masses.  By doing so he set Ireland on a course of nationalist development.

In the 1840s his Young Ireland colleagues became impatient with him for obstructing as a Whig the national development which he had set in motion against the Whigs.  And no doubt the Whig reformers in the Ulster Colony, with whom he came to a bad-tempered parting of the ways around 1830, could not understand why somebody whom they knew to be a Whig was making nationalists of the Irish instead of West Brits.

Because of O'Connell, mass politics in Ireland developed outside the party-political structure of the British state.  And, given the crucial role of party politics in the British state, that fact carried the implication of an Irish state.

The national development of the Irish went on relentlessly. English Governments, Whig or Tory, might disrupt it for a moment but the next moment it was back again, toughened by experience.  O'Connell himself attempted what he considered a Constitutional coup in 1844, but he backed down in the face of a British military ultimatum and was imprisoned.  That provoked an ideologically tougher Young Ireland development, which was suppressed in 1848.  That gave rise to the Fenians, etc.

In 1912 a Constitutional nationalist Home Rule Party, led by John Redmond, who had toyed with Republicanism, held the balance-of-power against the British party-political system.  He manipulated British party-politics to disable the House of Lords and get a Home Rule Bill that was certain to be enacted.  The Ulster Protestants were rendered helpless within the forms of the Constitution, and were driven distracted by Redmond's attitude towards them.  There was nothing they could do.

But they found something to do.  They swore a mighty Oath they would not stand for it.  And they prepared for war.  They made a Covenant with God—and such things usually have to do with war.

Mid-way between the Act of Union and the Third Home Rule Bill—mid-way in the national development of the Irish under the Union—an extraordinary religious event happened in Protestant Ulster.  Today one hears much about flash-in-the-pan millenarian phenomena among the Irish connected with the Emancipation movement or the Anti-Tithe movement of the 1820s or 1830s, but the extraordinary religious upheaval in Protestant Ulster that superseded sectarian differences within Protestantism is never mentioned.  Yet the 1859 Revival was a watershed in the life of Protestant Ulster.  It washed away all the complications that arisen in the life of the colony before then.  1859 was in many ways a Year Zero.

The producers of this journal took some trouble to discover the history of Protestant Ulster in the 18th and early 19th centuries.  The object was not to browbeat them with facts about what they had done in 1794, or 1810, or 1825 and demonstrate that they really were part of an Irish nation.  We investigated the matter for our own satisfaction, found much that was of enduring interest, and published some of it.  We directed the attention of 'Constitutional nationalists' towards it as something they should take on board if they were in earnest.  They weren't in earnest.

We also thought that Unionists of today might have some interest in what Protestant Ulster had produced in those times if it was not presented to them in anti-Partitionist wrappings.  We found that it hadn't.  All that it was interested in before 1859 was traces of the development that led to 1859.

The representative bookshop in Belfast is the Evangelical Bookshop in Great Victoria Street, facing the Academical Institution.  There was once a liberal bookshop in Royal Avenue, but it has long gone.  There was a bookshop near the University and it has now gone.  These were sectarian bookshops, in the sense that they stood apart from the integral culture of the mainstream.  The Evangelical Bookshop lives, and within the Evangelical Bookshop God lives.  Catholics do not talk about God in the course of normal conversation:  Ulster Protestants do.  The Evangelical Bookshop displayed in its window the Collected Works of Spurgeon—a famous London preacher in that last outburst of Christianity in England in the late 19th century.  Within the bookshop one might discuss the merits of Spurgeon's theology, but Sampson or Drennan or Nielson or Finlay do not exist for it.

In 1859 the Anglican Church was still the State Church in Ireland.  A number of Anglican clergymen felt it was their duty to investigate the Ulster Revival and make sense of it.  They did their best, but if they were unable to participate in it, all they could see in it was an outbreak of mass hysteria.  But, however one regards it, it is a fact that Protestant Ulster remade its internal life through it.  And the Ulster Covenant is hardly imaginable without the mentality generated by the Ulster Revival.

Ian Paisley was never a freak or a throwback.  He was a representative man of his community.  His rise signified the sloughing off of the liberal secular veneer maintained by the gentry.  And it was only when Revivalist fundamentalism came into its own, and put itself in the position of having to make its own decision in the absence of sophisticated upper class scapegoats, that a settlement could be made.

The cultural influence of the Revival was de-politicising.  It generated a sense of personal experience of eternal truth, and that is not the medium of political thought.  The mass feeling that fed into the Covenant-signing was Revivalist and apolitical.  But Unionism in those days was not merely Ulster Unionism.  It was a major political party of the British state—a merger of the social-reform Liberals and the Tories against the laissez-faire capitalism of Gladstonian Liberalism.  The Unionist Party had governed the state for ten years (1895-1905) and had carried out the most thorough reform ever accomplished in Ireland.  It abolished the Protestant Ascendancy in land and Local Government and established a system of higher education that was acceptable to Catholics.  And it took Revivalist Ulster in hand, subordinated it to political affairs in the state, and shepherded it through a couple of years of bold, but carefully-judged brinkmanship, of which Ulster Unionism would have been entirely incapable on its own.  And then British Unionism, having shown that a Liberal Party put in Government by the 80 members of the Irish Party—who themselves refused to take part in the Government of the UK—could not apply the Constitution against it even though it had broken the law by raising a private Army, and having brought itself to power during the World War launched by the Liberal Party, discarded  its Ulster Unionist component, giving it a subordinate Six County Government to run, in a kind of outhouse of the state, as the condition of remaining 'connected' with the state.

Carson protested in 1920 against the setting up of that hopeless system under which a million Protestants had the job of policing half a million Catholics outside the political life of the state.  He retired from the movement which had had led, and complained that Ulster Unionist fervour had been made use of by the British Unionist Party for party-political purposes.  Did he not understand that the durability of the British system of representative government, once it had been set in motion by Walpole between the death of Queen Anne and the Accession of George 3, lay in the conflict of two parties, each of which made expedient use of whatever cause came to hand?

The two parties of the British state from the early 1890s until the early 1920s were not the Tories and the Liberals, but the Unionists and the Liberals.  Beginning with the 1912 Home Rule conflict, the Unionists undermined the Liberals, and polished them off during the Great War.  The Labour Party became the alternative party when the Liberals imploded.  And then in 1922 the Tory/Social Reform Liberal merger, having been fully accomplished, the Unionist Party began to be called the Tory Party.  Ulster Unionism was told that it had got what it wanted when it was shunted out of the political life of the British state and given half a million Catholics to keep down.  That is not what it had ever asked for, but it did not have the political resourcefulness to get what it wanted when the Party that had shepherded it through the crisis told it this is what it would have, and that it had better want it.

The Covenant demanded the continuation of "equal citizenship" in the state.  What came to it was exclusion from the process of electing the Government of the state, with the compensation of running a subordinate Government in which it was not only allowed to lord it over the Catholic third of the population, but was required to do so in order to remain "connected" with Britain.  It had to win every election in order to remain "connected".

The war that was implicit in the Northern Ireland system was warded off for two generations by the masterful inactivity of two Unionist leaders who saw that the system could not bear much political activity within it—Lords Craigavon and Brookeborough.  It broke out within a few years of the arrival of a Unionist leader who set about governing it as if it was a state.

Whose Past Is It Anyway?  The Ulster Covenant, The Easter Rising And The Battle Of The Somme, published recently, is a collection of interviews with various people in public life.  The most pertinent comment on the Covenant is made by Jim Allister, leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice, and a barrister, who has a seat in Stormont:

"The core belief that underscored the Ulster Covenant was equal citizenship, and yet we've arrived a hundred years on in a scenario where some of the most basic tenets of equal citizenship in a democracy are denied to us.  The right to change your government—we're not allowed that in Northern Ireland because of the absurdities of mandatory coalition.  The right to have an opposition.  Things that are taken for granted which might seem pretty to basic to any concept of equal citizenship, which might seem basic to any concept of democracy, have been trimmed back, if not obliterated.  So I think the core principle hasn't flourished the way I would like to have seen.  In fact it has been suppressed—and some of that self-inflicted.  Unionists, by buying into that concept of the Belfast Agreement, which suppresses the right to have opposition, the democratic right to change your government, have brought that upon themselves.

"If we look at the signing of the Ulster Covenant, I certainly think that the attachment to the union for me is still strong.  I wonder sometimes, when I look around at what some unionists have been prepared to settle for, whether it matters to them as much as I would like it to matter.

"They have settled for incredible proposition;  we're supposed to be an integral part of the United Kingdom but we're not allowed to change our government, we're not allowed to have an opposition.  In fact, we must have in government those whose organisations set about murdering and butchering us.  As of right!  Those seem to me light years away from the principles that underscored the Ulster Covenant.  I think if you were to say to anyone who signed the Ulster Covenant in 1912 that a hundred years hence, manifestation of those whose politics you fear will be effectively ruling over you, as of right, and you will not be allowed to put them out of government or change your government—they would say, 'That's not what we're signing the Ulster Covenant for, it's the very antithesis of what we're signing the Ulster Covenant for.  So I think the whole essence of British citizenship has been so suppressed and distorted by the Belfast Agreement that though we remain a part of the United Kingdom, in a notional way and in a more than notional way constitutionally, we do not enjoy the rights of citizenship that everyone else takes for granted"  (p51).

It is, of course, not true that the Government never changes.  It changed two years ago and will probably change again in three years time.  But that's the Government of the state.  And the influence of what the Unionist Party did to Ulster Unionism in 1920-21 remains so profound that even a thoughtful person like Allister is incapable of seeing the state.  He can play no part in the process of changing the Government of the state, therefore the local facade of government is what he sees.  And that is certainly not democratic—and it never was.  And equal citizenship—which in a state as shy of abstract rights as Britain was, meant an  equal right to participate in the political process by which the governing of the state is conducted—ended in the Six Counties with the setting up of the Northern Ireland system outside the politics of the state.

 (Scotland now has devolved government, and of a more substantial kind than Northern Ireland, but it is not excluded from the politics of the state, and one never hears the devolved system referred to as the Scottish State, though it has become usual to refer to the Northern Ireland state.)

Northern Ireland is governed as Allister describes because, as Charles Haughey put it long ago, it is not a viable political entity—not to mention a state.

In 1985, when John Hume brought about the Hillsborough Agreement (giving Dublin an official but insubstantial advisory role in British government of the North), the Unionists were driven crazy.  Hume gave an interview to BBC Radio 4 in which he justified driving the Unionists crazy.  It was necessary, he said, to bring up the Unionist boil in order to lance it.  And he expressed confidence that the Unionists—despite their impressive outburst of fury—would give way in the end.  His confidence was based on the fact that they had given way on the substance of their position in 1920-21 by agreeing to operate a subordinate system of government separate from that of the state.
Whose Past Is It Anyway? consists of 17 interviews with people across the political spectrum, with two notable exceptions:  the Official Unionist Party and Fianna Fail.


The Ulster Covenant Of 1912.  Editorial
Encounters.  Julianne Herlihy
The Stuarts.  Eoghan Ruadh Ó Súilleabháin
The "J" Word.  Séamas Ó Domhnaill  (Life & Work Of Eoghan Ruadh, Part 7)
Fighting In Syria.  Ted O'Sullivan (Letter to press)
Vox Pat:   EU  Population;  Dead Right!; Shattering Traditions?;  Healthy Superstition?;  Priesthood;  Circumscribed;  British View  of Ireland;  Gossip;  Islam in Ireland; Shatter Again;  Trivial Pursuits?
The Good Cromwell.  Stephen Richards
The End Of Western Civilisation—when?.  Jack Lane (reply to Desmond Fennell)
The English In Ireland.  John Minahane (reply to Desmond Fennell)
Netanyahu's Dangerous Game.  David Morrison
Sarah Harrison.  Brendan Byrne