How the Ulster Covenant created the definitive expression of Ulster unionisim
The Covenant and the events of 1912 helped to lay the foundations of the Northern Ireland state, says Dr David Hume
Published 29/09/2012 | 08:00
The Ulster Covenant of 1912 is once again in the centre stage, as we mark the centenary of this significant event in our history.
The Covenant was a foundation stone of Northern Ireland. It was a document at the heart of history.
It was also a very personal profession of determination and a bond of unity.
This came across to me some years ago when two elderly men presented me with their father’s Covenant.
David Reid signed it at Magheramorne Presbyterian Church; his two sons, who lived together in their latter years, had held onto the Covenant he signed. It had a lasting, treasured place.
The fact that two elderly men would treasure this piece of documentary history signed by their father was touching enough. Even more touching was the fact that they would entrust me with its future safety after they were gone.
Among those who put their names to it, subscribing to the views which it embodied, were thousands like David Reid.
Among them was William Chaine of Cairncastle Lodge outside Larne, one of the leading unionists in the town, from a family which had developed the port of Larne and were prominent in business circles locally.
On September 28th he signed his name on the Ulster Covenant at Larne and Inver Parish Church.
There were ten names to a sheet and the last man to sign that particular sheet was Thomas Ballantine of Drummond Street.
The sheet is very symbolic of unionist opposition to Home Rule. Chaine, who was a wealthy man, being joined by Ballantine, who could not read or write but instead made an X on the sheet, which was verified by the rector.
I have seen another sheet of ten names from Ballymena, six of whom could not write their own names.
The courage which was required to admit such a thing pales when one considers that these men and women feared so much for their future that they were prepared to take all the measures they could to prevent Home Rule.
It disappoints me that some of the Protestant churches so involved in the unionist campaign in 1912 have now stepped back and declared their reticence.
I have heard a Presbyterian cleric talk of the need to repent of the Covenant period because it was ‘sectarian’. I do not believe that this was the case, although there were important religious issues surrounding concerns over Home Rule.
Those concerns do not in themselves make the opposition sectarian, the usage of which as a term suggests a predetermined antagonism towards someone else.
The Methodists have issued an apology for their involvement in the Covenant. They raise an interesting issue and one which is open for debate. The Covenant does not talk about the threat of violence and the apology seems to be based on the words about taking all necessary steps to prevent Home Rule.
Necessary steps for unionists included canvassing in Great Britain, but it was the issue of drilling and arming that some churches now find concerning.
This raises interesting questions about civil disobedience and the relationship of people to the state. These are important questions for churches who have supported civil disobedience in other parts of the world.
The issue of the church involvement in the Home Rule debate on all sides is an important one and we should be grateful for those clergy who have raised it.
Coming from a Presbyterian background, I believe that churches and state should be separated, end of story. The precise fear of the unionists of 1912 was that the Roman Catholic Church would not be separated from the state and legislation would be directed accordingly.
That is not an issue with which to beat the Roman Catholic Church; it is historical fact and highlights the great fear that unionists had.
Religious fears of being a Protestant minority in a Roman Catholic Ireland were highlighted when the Vatican brought in the Ne Temere Decree in 1908, which ruled that those in mixed marriages had to be married in the Roman Catholic Church and children had to be brought up as Roman Catholics. Where previously the enormously personal issue of mixed marriage had been relaxed to allow parents to reach their own compromises, there was no longer the room for relaxation.
In 1910 the McCann family in Belfast were split over the issue when a parish priest intervened to cite Ne Temere. Alexander McCann left his Presbyterian wife Agnes, taking their two children. It became a cause calibre in Ulster, from Belfast to Monaghan. It was the sum of all fears for Protestants, particularly those in scattered populations across Ireland. Agnes McCann never saw her children again.
There were also, however, other factors just as important as religion; economic concerns over taxation and economic policies such as protectionism, fears over the future of the British Empire if Home Rule was passed, worries that lawlessness seemed to prevail in nationalist Ireland.
Sermons at Ulster Day services are instructive.
At Raloo Presbyterian Church near Larne on September 28, 1912, Rev. Ewing Gilfillan told a congregation prior to the signing of the Covenant that there had been so many reforms in Irish society he could not understand the need for Home Rule.
At Gardenmore Presbyterian, Rev. D. H. Hanson went much further in his opposition to the Liberal Government.
In his sermon, Hanson outlined a classic Presbyterian view on the state: “…there are limitations to the power of the State. Human governments have no right to intrude within the dominions of conscience. Nor have they by any enactments the right to imperil the faith of a people, a faith that has been dearly bought in other days, a faith for which our fathers paid a heavy price.”
Hanson’s sermon is a fine example of the traditional Presbyterian outlook on conditional loyalty: the sense that there is a contract with government and that if it is broken by the latter then no moral obligation exists to obey.
This outlook was very clear from the events of 1912.
There was a strong sense that the government, a minority government shored up by Irish Home Rule MPs who had exacted Home Rule as the price for their support, did not represent the country.
After signing the Covenant in Belfast, Sir Edward Carson sailed to Liverpool, bonfires at Carrickfergus and Whitehead and fireworks at Bangor signalling his departure.
At Liverpool he was greeted by around 150,000 people on a wet Sunday morning, proof that this was not only an Irish but a wider British issue.
There are some intriguing aspects of the period concerning those who did not sign the Covenant, an interesting study in itself. In Ballycarry, County Antrim, the signing did not take place in any of the three Protestant churches, but at Redhall House, home of the landed Porritt family.
Many Ballycarry men and women signed at Redhall, Whitehead or Magheramorne, suggesting that there was divided opinion over Home Rule, which local Presbyterian minister Rev. Thomas Bartley, a native of Monaghan, had declared himself supportive of.
In the final analysis, however, around 75% of male Protestants over 16 in Ulster signed the Covenant and by 1914 there are signs that many of those supportive of a measure of Home Rule were rethinking.
The majority in 1912 backed the Covenant and in total across Ulster and in other parts of the world, 471,414 signed it.
It was a declaration of opposition to Home Rule but as events took shape it would also be the foundation stone of Northern Ireland.
What followed historically was far from perfect.
Unionists in Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan felt badly let down when they were excluded from the new six county state established by the Parliament of Ireland (1920) Act.
Nationalists in places such as south Armagh, Fermanagh and Tyrone felt that they too had been betrayed, this time from Dublin. Those in Belfast were left particularly isolated as whatever boundary might have changed would never have addressed their transfer to the Irish Free State.
As a unionist, however, I believe that the Covenant opened the way to preserving Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, which is the best political option for us all.
And in so doing it laid a foundation for us to build in successive generations. The true legacy of the Covenant is to continue that process.
Dr. David Hume is Director of Services of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland and a historian with particular interest in unionist history.
Those who wish to search the Covenant database for their ancestors can do so online at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland site.