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Battle to thwart Home Rule may have been won, but it was a hollow victory

Unionists who celebrated the centenary of Ulster's Solemn League and Covenant in 2012 may think they have nothing in common with next year's commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, but they'd be wrong, says Liam Kennedy.

Published 08/12/2015

The 32 County Sovereignty Easter Rising commemoration parade held in the Creggan estate, Derry
The 32 County Sovereignty Easter Rising commemoration parade held in the Creggan estate, Derry

The New Year is almost upon us and then the centenary commemorations of the Easter Rising of 1916 will swing into action. Unionists in Northern Ireland will be largely indifferent, though many will have celebrated the centenary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant a few years ago. Yet that iconic document, and the campaign against Home Rule that it spearheaded, is part and parcel of the making of the Easter Rising in Dublin.

The Ulster Covenant, signed by almost half-a-million unionists in September 1912, promised to use "all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland".

It further solemnly pledged to refuse to recognise the authority of a devolved parliament in Dublin - even if introduced by the parliament at Westminster.

There is treason in those words, though to its eternal credit the Methodist Church in Ireland issued an apology in 2012 on two grounds: one was the implication that God was on the side of the unionists; the other was that "the language of using 'any means necessary' implied approval of the use of violence, as was clearly understood by some at the time".

The text of the Covenant, rather like that other iconic document, the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, contains threatening language, some false historical claims and crucial silences. In a manner of speaking, they each texted terror.

In relation to the Covenant, it is absurd to think of the Home Rule movement as constituting a "conspiracy". The great Irish parliamentarian, Daniel O'Connell, was a harbinger of future political demands when he introduced a Bill for the repeal of the Union as far back as 1834.

The matter had been debated seriously in the House of Commons and the House of Lords since the 1880s.

The policy was voted for in election after election in Ireland during the quarter-century of elections since then, and one of the two great British political parties, the Liberals, had embraced the cause.

Unionists, it may be readily admitted, had solid grounds for objecting to Home Rule and working for some historic compromise. There was, however, an Ireland beyond Ulster, beyond the Ulster unionist community, which was giving voice to very different aspirations.

The great silence, or mute scream, in the text is this: what of the nationalist Irish? What is not acknowledged, in either the (men's) Covenant, or the (women's) Declaration, is the elephantine fact that three-quarters of the electorate thought Home Rule was good for Ireland and its peoples and had been saying so for quite a long time. This was the crucial unacknowledged fact from Orange and unionist platforms in the run-up to Ulster Day and the dark days that lay ahead.

There was a conspiracy afoot, but it was of a different political hue. Major Frederick Hugh Crawford put it bluntly in his memoirs: "From the very first, I came to the conclusion that our resistance, to be successful, must eventually come to armed resistance." Hence the Larne gun-running.

Within a short time of the signing of the Covenant, in January 1913, the Ulster Volunteer Force trooped on to the public stage. Much preparation had already gone into the formation of this paramilitary force. In physics, to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Though politics is a less exact science, it was hardly difficult to predict that there would be a nationalist reaction.

The Gaelic scholar Eoin MacNeill, in a famous article, The North Began, mooted the idea of a nationalist volunteer force as a counterbalance to the UVF. This came to pass, as nationalist drilling and paramilitary displays became something of a country-wide pastime. Inevitably, the Ulster gun-running was imitated in the south. Some of those arms later found their way into the rebellion in Dublin.

At the time, the Easter Rising was both shocking and wholly unexpected. Between 450 and 500 people died in the fighting that engulfed Dublin's inner city, and another 2,600 people were wounded. Civilians suffered the most, accounting for more than half the fatalities. Losses by British forces made up less than a third of the total, and volunteer losses were on a still lower plane.

Less than one-fifth of the total numbers killed were insurgents and this includes those shot accidentally by other, inexperienced comrades and also those executed after the rising. In a relative sense, they came off lightly.

For most unionists - and, indeed, some nationalists - this was a stab in the back, when Britain, Ireland and the Empire were locked in deadly struggle with Germany and its allies. The sacrifices of the Somme were only months away. That was the other 1916.

The Ulster unionists did, indeed, succeed in defeating Home Rule. But at what cost? The eventual outcome was far worse than the mild form of devolution within the United Kingdom that Home Rule promised. In its place, an independent and largely hostile Irish state had emerged by 1922, southern unionists were abandoned to their fate and the nationalist minority within the statelet of Northern Ireland were more alienated than they had been a decade earlier. Moreover, the IRA had taken root in the northern counties.

This was failure with a vengeance. Somehow, Carson and Craig have never received the criticism they truly deserve for their tactical adroitness, but their strategic incompetence. Latter-day, Lundy-like figures could hardly have conceived and executed a worse outcome, though, of course, they would have been shouted down in the excitement of Ulster Day and the anti-Home Rule campaign.

In effect, the blundering of Ulster unionists allowed a tiny militarist group, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), to infiltrate the Irish Volunteers and catalyse a major revolt against British rule in Ireland. The end result was the partition of Ireland and the partition of the United Kingdom - hardly what Sir Edward Carson and Sir James Craig had set out to achieve.

The unintended consequences of the covenanting campaign were disastrous for all the peoples of the island and the after-effects still resonate in 21st-century Northern Ireland.

  • Adapted from Professor Liam Kennedy's Unhappy the Land: The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish? (Merrion Press), which will be launched tonight at No Alibis bookshop, Botanic Avenue, Belfast, by Professor Cormac O Grada MRIA (6pm-7.30pm)

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