Public Affairs

A covenant centenary


One hundred years on from the Ulster Covenant, Peter Cheney assesses its significance in Irish history and how it shaped the debate over home rule and the union.

Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant demonstrated northern unionism’s opposition to home rule for Ireland but also contributed to the island’s subsequent partition and, ironically, devolved government in Northern Ireland.

Irish nationalism in 1912 was on the verge of success.   A Liberal Government depended on John Redmond’s pro-home rule Irish Parliamentary Party for its Commons majority.  The House of Lords had lost its power of veto and the Government of Ireland Bill was on course for the statute books.

Ireland under home rule would remain represented at Westminster with legal protections for religious minorities and unionist seats in an Irish Senate.  Unionist opposition was obviously influenced by fears of becoming a permanent minority, affinity to Britain and the potential for extra taxes on Ulster industries to raise revenue for the more agricultural South.

Those signing the covenant were “convinced in our consciences that Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as of the whole of Ireland” and also “subversive of our civil and religious freedom, destructive of our citizenship, and perilous to the unity of the Empire”.

In this “time of threatened calamity,” unionists would “stand by one another in defending, for ourselves and our children, our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom.”  This extended to “using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland” and refusing to recognise such a parliament’s authority, if established.

The Cabinet had already discussed excluding Ulster from home rule (in full or in part) as a potential compromise with unionists.  Furthermore, Liberal backbencher Thomas Agar-Robartes had surprised both sides of the House on 11 June 1912 by suggesting that Antrim, Armagh, Down and Londonderry be excluded.  The amendment fell by 69 votes, with unionists voting tactically in favour, although Edward Carson’s central goal was to bring the whole Bill down.

Sectarian tensions rose over the summer of 1912 with up to 2,000 Catholic workers forced to leave their jobs in the Belfast shipyards.  Riots and clashes continued into September.  The violence had alarmed unionist leaders Carson and Craig, and both men saw the covenant as a way to instil discipline within unionism.

Commencing the ‘Carson trail’ in Enniskillen on 18 September, the Dublin-born barrister Edward Carson travelled and spoke across the province before his final rally in the Ulster Hall on 27 September.  Copies of the covenant were meanwhile delivered across the province from 25 September onwards.  The emotional climax came as Carson himself signed the Covenant at Belfast City Hall at on Saturday, 28 September.

The 237,368 signatures by Ulster men (including some in Britain and overseas) were accompanied by those of 234,046 women on the supporting declaration: a grand total of 471,414, representing two-thirds of Ulster Protestants.


Initially, the covenant had no impact.  Nationalism was dismissive.  The Irish News described Ulster Day as a “silly masquerade in Belfast” where the “whole grotesque production has been a political failure.”  The Government responded by speeding up, rather than slowing down, the Bill by applying the guillotine procedure.

Carson moved an amendment to exclude all of Ulster from home rule on 1 January 1913.  again a tactical move which was rejected in the Commons.  The Bill passed its third Commons reading (by 367 votes to 257) on 16 January but was rejected by the mainly Conservative Lords (326 to 69) on 30 January.

The Government’s focus soon turned to events on the ground in Ulster. On 31 January 1913, the Ulster Unionist Council announced the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force.  Then, on 23 September 1913, the council also approved plans for an Ulster ‘provisional government’ in the event that home rule occurred.

World War One intervened to prevent a civil war and a generation of Irishmen, Protestant and Catholic alike, went to war for Britain.  Thomas Agar-Robartes, the MP who had suggested partition, joined up and was killed in northern France in September 1915.  Closer to home, the Easter Rising fundamentally changed Irish politics.

Amid the Irish War of Independence from 1919 to 1921, unionism opted for home rule as the best strategy for keeping six Ulster counties inside the union.  Minorities on both sides of the border lost out.  Northern nationalists were separated from their southern counterparts and the unionists of Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan were abandoned, despite signing the covenant with equal fervour back in 1912.

Carson was undoubtedly a skilled politician yet he regarded his political career as a failure, as only part of Ireland remained within the union.  “I was in earnest.  What a fool I was!” he told the House of Lords in 1921.  “I was only a puppet, and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into power.”

The next major centenary is likely to be that of the Dublin lock-out (August 2013-January 2014), mainly celebrated by the Irish Labour Party and Irish Congress of Trades Unions.  The focus, though, will return to Northern Ireland when the Larne gun-running is commemorated in April 2014: a further example of how unionism defied Westminster to defend the union.

Protestant nationalism and scepticism

The Covenant’s tone was openly Protestant but not all Protestants concurred.  Presbyterian minister James Brown Armour, along with around 3,000 other Protestant supporters of home rule, signed a counter-covenant rejecting the “doctrine of armed resistance to the legitimate decrees of Parliament”.  They also recorded their desire to “live upon terms of friendship and equality with our Roman Catholic fellow-countrymen and … take our part with them in working for the good of our common country.”
Church of Ireland rector John Frederick MacNeice (father of poet Louis MacNeice) supported the aims of the Covenant but declined to sign it, as “all means which may be found necessary” implied violence. For similar reasons, it is likely that many Quakers were sceptical and held back their support.

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