The Covenant of 1912 drew on the concept of the Scottish Covenants of 1638, 1642 and 1648. Supposedly, James Craig, M.P. for East Down, future Prime Minister of Northern Ireland (1920-1940) and Carson’s principal lieutenant during the Third Home Rule Crisis, came up with the idea of the Covenant.
Working in the library of the Constitutional Club in London, Craig was trying to work out the basis of a ‘pledge’ which Ulster Unionists could sign up to. A friend suggested that the Scottish Solemn League and Covenant of 1643 might serve as a model and the Club librarian was quickly able to produce a copy of this. However, while what we could call the ‘Covenanting ideal’; the concept of people agreeing to stand united on a particular course of action, can be seen to be drawn from the 1640s, the actual text of the Covenant of 1912 owed little to the originals. Indeed, the Covenant of 1912 was drafted anew by Thomas Sinclair a leading Ulster Liberal Unionist.
The Covenant of 1912 therefore reads as a product of its time and carefully reflects the concerns of Ulster Unionists over Home Rule. Interestingly, the first concern noted is not one of religion or nationality but ‘material well being’ in other words the economic consequences of Home Rule. There were two major concerns regarding the Ulster economy if Home Rule was passed. The first was to do with the shortfall in Irish taxation over the cost of public services; many Unionist speakers noted that the recently introduced Old Age Pensions were funded by the taxpayer in Great Britain, not Ireland, to the sum of £2,000,000 a year. Ulster Unionists were convinced either that pensions would be withdrawn or that industries in Ulster would be heavily taxed to support pensions. The other major concern was over protectionism. Many Nationalist writers, notably Arthur Griffith, had written about how the Irish economy would grow under Home Rule. In their view domestic industries would grow as heavy tariffs would be placed on goods being imported into Ireland. Ulster Unionists worried that other governments would retaliate, putting high tariffs on goods produced in Ireland. This would obviously have a serious impact on the export driven Belfast industries, the demand within Ireland for luxury liners and cargo ships, to give just the most obvious example, being extremely limited.
The Covenant then expresses concern about the impact of Home Rule on the whole of Ireland. This is very interesting as, while only those men who were born or domiciled in the nine counties of Ulster were meant to sign the Covenant, it can not be seen as an explicitly partitionist document, given this phrase.
Concerns over religious and civil liberties may have the ring of Orange Order resolutions but these concerns were more complex and contemporary than this may suggest. The Papal Ne Temere decree of 1908 had sought to ban mixed marriages, insisting that marriages between Catholics and Protestants which were not solemnised by the Roman Catholic church were null and void. This became a real cause celebre in 1910 when Alexander McCann abandoned his Protestant wife, taking their children with him. The silence of the Irish Parliamentary Party on this issue was seen as a signal to many Protestants that their religion would receive little protection in a Home Rule Ireland. There were also concerns that the educational system would become dominated by the Roman Catholic Church.
Concerns over citizenship were most vocally expressed by Ulster Unionists in the outlying areas of the Province. While John Redmond, the Irish Nationalist leader, had made various conciliatory statements about the future position of Unionists, contemporary Unionists noted that there were no examples of what we now call ‘power sharing’ in local government in Southern Ireland. As a result, the jobs in the gift of Nationalist Councillors, generally went to Nationalists and these included some very lucrative professional posts, such as county surveyors and dispensary doctors. Of course Unionist local government was equally complicit in this jobbery and corruption but the concern of Unionists was that they would effectively find themselves bared from any civil service or local government posts in a Home Rule Ireland.
The Empire was another key theme of the Covenant and was something referred to at a number of Unionist speeches. Ulster Unionists were proud of their place in the Empire and local ‘Imperial heroes’ such as Sir George White, the defender of Ladysmith in the South African War (1899-1902) were often referred to. The concern of many Unionists was that Home Rule would be a stepping stone towards independence and Ireland would soon be outside the Empire and under the influence of the Irish-American lobby in the U.S.A.. Ulstermen, of all classes, found useful and, in some cases, lucrative employment within the Empire, from serving in the ranks of the British army to holding one of the highly sought after posts in the Indian Civil Service; if Home Rule came, these posts may be closed to Irishmen.
The reference to the monarchy is, of course, an important one but while the Covenant speaks of the signatories as ‘loyal subjects’ what is actually outlined here is, as the historian D. W. Miller has noted, a contractual relationship. Ulster Unionists were promising their loyalty to George V only to the extent that he upheld their interests, as they saw them. Indeed, in a few ill judged speeches, given what was to happen in August 1914, some Ulster Unionist politicians said that they would rather be ruled by the Kaiser, who they portrayed as a staunch Protestant monarch who would resolutely defend Protestant interests.
The Covenant can be seen as a militant document, in the light of the formation of the UVF in 1913 but the reference in it to ‘using all means which may be found necessary’ was not specifically committing Ulster Unionists to an armed struggle and many, possibly most, of those who signed it, did not become members of the UVF.
Finally, there was a real hostage to fortune in the term ‘present conspiracy’ in the Covenant. The Covenant was signed by Ulster Unionists in the nine counties of Ulster, pledging to stand together. This proved very problematic for the Ulster Unionist leadership when six county partition became a real possibility in 1914 and led to serious divisions in the Ulster Unionist Council when the matter was revisited in 1916. When the Northern Ireland state was formed in 1920, some Ulster Unionists in what became emotively known as the ‘lost counties’ (Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan) complained that the Covenant had been broken and that they had unceremoniously been ‘thrown to the wolves’.
Dr Timothy Bowman is senior lecturer in history at the University of Kent at Canterbury. His Carson’s Army: The Ulster Volunteer Force 1910-22 is published by Manchester University Press (£15.99).