Among the mountain of family documents, photographs, letters and newspaper cuttings which passed to me from my late parents, grandparents and possibly great-grandparents, one piece stands out as particularly historic. It is an original and unsigned copy of the 1912, ‘Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant’
It may be flimsy, faded and a little torn at the edges but the words scream ‘No Surrender’, ‘What we have, we hold’ and ‘Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right’ so loud as to echo down to September 28th 2012, exactly 100 years after ‘Ulster Day’ mobilised Unionists across the 9 counties of Ulster in opposition to what they considered the nefarious Third Home Rule Bill.
Today in Belfast, tens of thousands of the descendants of those signatories are expected to gather to celebrate one of the most glorious chapters from their history. And what better way to celebrate than with a good old, road disrupting parade from all corners of the city, converging on Stormont? There they will praise the Lord Jesus Christ in solemn prayer before trailing their way back through streets, some of which will be lined with every class of Unionism, from the moderately curious to the fanatical Orders and the paramilitaries champing at the bit to provoke a little more sectarian tension.
Other parts of the route will be empty except for a few dozen protestors who have been told that their rights are less equal than the bandsmen who have behaved so disgracefully in the recent past on the same stretches of road. In some ways, things have in fact changed utterly but in others, they stay the same.
That’s the context but I’m not that bothered one way or the other. What I want to know is very simple, why and what are they celebrating?
Possibly it was the line in the sand for Unionism, they could take no more and they would lay down their lives to stop Irish Nationalists and the Church of Rome from destroying all they held dear. Unfortunately for them, the facts are a little less heroic.
Against a backdrop of demands from the vast majority of Irish people for autonomy at least, sectarian rioting and murder and a British government which was only too keen to be shot of the day to day responsibility of the whole dam lot of them if not their resources, ports and cannon-fodder for future wars, the whole campaign served to heighten the tension and ultimately tear the island apart.
The Covenant itself and the subsequent importation of arms was to bring about the militarisation of Nationalists, the undermining of Redmondite politics, the war for independence and eventually, the partition of the island, a nightmare feared and predicted by Unionism’s greatest hero, Edward Carson. The document is so swathed in the gnarled Old Testament language of the puritan that it is fairly certain that not one Catholic, not even those in the establishment that were committed to the union, could conceive of signing it.
The loyalty of Unionism appeared to stretch to threatening treason against their government and the abandonment of their own people in Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan. Where the Irish Proclamation can be criticised on many levels, it did attempt to cherish all its citizens but the new Ulster was to be for one side only, a short-sighted and morally corrupt institution not to mention its thoroughly undemocratic conception.
The Covenant, we are told, was signed by half a million of the loyal and best with many using their own blood. Well actually, women were not considered equal enough in Unionist eyes either and they got their own little Covenantette to sign, God love them. Very recent investigation has also shown that the blood story is a myth as well.
On top of that, when the collected copies of the signed covenant were uploaded to the internet last year, the first thing I did was to look for my wife’s maternal relations in Inishowen and Fanad, County Donegal to see if they had also signed. They had! All of them! Even her great-uncles who were, according to the census of the previous year, 3 and 5 years of age and unable to read or write. Not only had they signed but they had signed 3 or 4 times in different locations. Sign early and sign often how are ye?
As far as I can see, without the filter of history blindness that has pervaded Unionism since its earliest beginnings, the Solemn League and Covenant should be a source of sadness and abject humiliation for Unionism, a miscalculation that lost three-quarters of the island, a third of Ulster and perpetuated mistrust and violence which careered unchecked for the rest of the century.
Edward Carson had a Cat
It sat upon the fender
And every time it caught a mouse
It shouted ‘No Surrender’.
5intheface – 29th September 2012
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