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Figures from past who illuminated a far brighter future

By Eamonn McCann

Published 16/03/2016

Sir Edward Carson signing the Ulster Covenant at Belfast City Hall
Sir Edward Carson signing the Ulster Covenant at Belfast City Hall

Here's something I haven't seen mentioned in any of the functions and features marking the "decade of centenaries".

"We, the undersigned, Ulster Protestant men and women over the age of 16 years, hereby repudiate the claim of Sir Edward Carson to represent the United Protestant opinion of Ulster, reject the doctrine of armed resistance to the legitimate decrees of Parliament; and declare our abhorrence of the attempt to revive ancient bigotries and dying habits in this Province."

That's the opening paragraph of an 'Alternative Covenant', or the Armour Declaration signed by 12,000 Protestants and published in 1913. No surprise, I suppose, that it's been almost lost to history. It's a difficult document to fit into the approved narrative of separate communities proceeding along parallel lines.

The reference to "ancient bigotries and dying habits" is interesting: a hundred years ago thousands of Protestants welcomed the fact, as they believed it to be, that any lingering sense of hostility between Protestants and Catholics could be seen as a flicker from a fading past.

"We desire to live upon terms of friendship and equality with our Roman Catholic fellow countrymen and in the event of the present measure for the Better Government of Ireland becoming law, we are prepared to take our part with them in working for the good of our common country."

The "present measure for the Better Government" was the Home Rule Bill.

"We cannot consent to any proposal for the permanent exclusion of any part of our country from the life and interests of the whole: and we pledge ourselves before Almighty God to work for the promotion of peace and goodwill among all classes of Irishmen."

The Declaration had been drafted by the Rev J B Armour of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Ballymoney, a fervent adherent of the rich radical tradition of the area, at the prompting of Captain Jack White of Broughshane. The document was unveiled at an overflow meeting in Ballymoney Town Hall on October 24, 1913. The platform party included Armour, White, Sir Roger Casement and the historian Mrs Alice Stopford Green, granddaughter of the Church of Ireland Bishop of Meath. To emphasise the Protestant nature of the occasion, Catholics had been asked not to attend.

White was the only son of Field Marshal George White VC, former Governor of Gilbraltar. He had followed his father into the military training college Sandhurst, where, he later recalled, he mostly learned about "fortifications and fornication". He won a DSO for bravery in the Boer War. The horrors of that conflict cured him of allegiance to the Crown.

White led a packed life full of political adventure. He was the first training officer of the Irish Citizen Army. After the Easter Rising he toured the South Wales coalfields urging protest and strikes against the imminent execution of James Connolly. He wandered the world for a while, fetching up in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War.

His last foray into politics at home involved an attempt to run as a Republican Socialist in Antrim in the 1945 Westminster election, launching his campaign at a rally in Broughshane Orange hall where, with ecumenical even-handedness, he poured scorn on Hitler, the Pope, Lord Brookeborough and Eamon de Valera. But his health was failing. He died from cancer in a Belfast nursing home in 1946.

I had only then haziest knowledge of the Armour Declaration until Diane Greer phoned me at the weekend on the road from a session on "Shared Remembering" at Ballymoney Community Resource Centre. Diane is best known as vocalist with the brilliant Happy Enchiladas, but in her spare time contributes massively to community understanding and organisation. Had I ever heard of the Armour Declaration?

Rings a distant bell, I told her.

You should get your hands on it, she told me. "People should know about this sort of thing." And so we should.

"We cannot consent to any proposal for the permanent exclusion of any part of our country from the life and interests of the whole: and we pledge ourselves before Almighty God to work for the promotion of peace and goodwill among all classes of Irishmen."

It is right that we should remember the past, but wrong to remember it only as a tale of two traditions. There's more to us than that. There are few figures from the past better placed to illuminate a brighter future than the Rev J B Armour and Jack White.

  • Leo Keohane, Captain Jack White: Imperialism, Anarchism And The Irish Citizen Army, Merrion Press; Against The Tide: A Calendar Of The Papers of Rev J B Armour, Irish Presbyterian Minister And Home Ruler, NI Public Record Office

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