Created on Saturday, 29 September 2012 20:53 Written by Gerry Ruddy
The Ulster Covenant was signed by 237,368 men and a Declaration signed by 234046 women in 1912. 100 years later Northern Unionism celebrates the signing of the Covenant. The actual signing of the Covenant was a declaration to resist Home Rule, reject the decisions of the Westminster parliament and pledge to refuse to recognise any subsequent Irish Parliament if Home Rule was introduced.
Carson signs the Covenant
In a book published in the same year the leaders of Unionism and of the British Tory Party articulated their case "Against Home Rule". Edward Carson argues that the Act of Union, introduced by William Pitt, was necessary for salvation of England and the foundation of the British Empire and that
"-it is no less necessary for the continued security of the one (i.e. England) and the maintenance and prestige of the other (i.e. Empire)"(page 18 Against Home Rule-Pub Frederick Warne and Co. London /New york 1912)
So defence of the British Empire becomes the central issue for the leadership of the Unionists; hence the slavish attitude towards the House of Windsor and the institute of Monarchy.
But of course there are and were other arguments put forward by Unionism. Bonar Law argued that there were two nations in Ireland
"It is two nations separated from each other by lines of cleavage which cut far deeper that those which separate Great Britain from Ireland as a whole"(Page 13 Ibid)
This argument was further advanced by Thomas Sinclair who observed that
"These two nations are so utterly distinct in their racial characteristics, in their practical ideals, in their religious sanctions and in their sense of civic and national responsibility that they cannot live side by side unless under the evenhanded control of a just central authority in which at the same time they have full co-operation"(page 173 ibid)
Essentially this argument for two nations is based upon the belief that the protestants were in essence superior to the Catholics, ( i.e. what is now called racism) and that it required the benign influence of the British to act as the impartial referee. Of course that is still today how the British ruling class likes to still present the northern conflict.
Lord Londonderry, who once represented Down in Westminster wrote about opposition to Home Rule
"-- it is the hostility of a progressive and advancing people who have made their portion of the country prosperous and decline to hand it over to the control of representatives from the most backward and unprogressive counties"(page 166 ibid)
Sadly even today there is a strong element of racism within some ranks of Unionism and the displays by the Blood and Thunder bands outside catholic churches is a manifestation of bigotry, hatred and racism. But while that is the uglier side of that bigotry it is not confined to the lumpen proletariat. It also inhabits sections of the unionist middle classes.
Other arguments put forward at the time of the signing of the Covenant were on economic educational and religious grounds. For example the power and control of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland was immense and the recent introduction of the Ne Temere decree in 1908 obviously gave concern to non-Catholics entering into marriage with a catholic. The influence of the Roman Church in education was then as it is today a matter of concern for those of a non catholic background.
But of major concern were the linkages of the mainly industrial north of Ireland with the British economy. The industrial classes feared that the mainly agricultural south would lead to a decimation of their economy in the event of Home rule. Indeed there is sufficient evidence to show that the nationalist politicians were more in tune with the economic interest of the big farmers exporting to Britain than in building up an industrial base.
So for these reasons the bulk of the Unionists in Ireland opposed the introduction of Home Rule. In this they were supported the leadership of the British Conservative Party who also supported their right to armed resistance to the introduction to Home Rule. They both facilitated gun running into Ulster and the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force which grew directly out the anti-home rule movement.
It must be remembered that in 1886 when Gladstone introduced the first Home Rule Bill following the first ever elections with a secret ballot that returned a nationalist majority in Ireland, the Tories under Randolph Churchill whipped up intense sectarian strife in Belfast. It was Randolph Churchill who proclaimed that
"Ulster will Fight and Ulster will be right"
Catholics were driven from the shipyard and James Curran an 18 year old catholic from Ballymacarrett drowned in front of a hostile mob of bigots who made no effort to save him. Subsequently the Home Rule Bill was lost when many liberals in Parliament defected. When the Second Home Rule bill was introduced in 1892 the Ulster gentry and officer class decided to utilise the loyal orders which had until 1886 fallen into disrepute because of their regular involvement in sectarian riots. There were
"large numbers of country gentlemen, clergymen of all protestant denominations, business and professional men, farmers and the better class of artisans in Belfast and other towns" Page 46 "UVF Cusack/McDonald-Poolbeg 1997)
who flocked into the Orange institutions. An engineer, Fred Crawford established a secret organisation called "Young Ulster “whose one condition of membership was ownership of a gun!
While the influx of the gentry and others lent an air of respectability to the Orange Order it did not dampen its sectarianism. In 1893 the Trade Union Congress was attacked by loyalists and Catholics again driven from the shipyards. Sectarian clashes again occurred in 1898 on the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the 1798 rebellion.
Furthermore northern unionists moved away from the concept of Irish unionism to one of Ulster Unionism. They began to abandon their fellow unionist in the South. This was underlined by the establishment of the Ulster Unionist Council composed of Ulster MPs on March 30th 1905. It was now clear that Ulster Unionism was going for its own form of devolution under the Imperial Parliament. In this they were back in the main by the mainly protestant industrial working class in the north whose interests were tied up with the British market.
So it was no surprise when an all class alliance was formed between the ruling and working class Protestants. That alliance was cemented when the gentry opened up their large demesnes at Donard Park, Newcastle, Fernhill Belfast, Tobar Mhuire, Crossgar Springhill House, Moneymore, and Castle Hume at Lough Earne for drilling by the loyalists. Then in January 1913 the Ulster Unionist Council inaugurated the Ulster Volunteer Force, an army of 100,000 men whose head was General Sir George Richardson a British army veteran of the Boxer rebellion in China.
Weapons were imported from Germany and plans made for a provisional government in the event of Home Rule been introduced. Sections of the British Army sympathised with the unionists and refused to move against them in the infamous 'Curragh Mutiny'.
The British Government faced with this, backed down. Home rule was postponed and eventually abandoned. Nationalists and Republicans followed the example of the Unionists and set up their own volunteer armies.
While many nationalist and unionists took part in the intra -imperialist 1st World War Irish Republicans in the Irish Volunteers and Socialists in the Irish Citizen Army combined in Easter 1916 to stage a Rising.
Flag of the I.C.A.
This was brutally crushed by the British but lead to an awakening of nationalism leading to the War of Independence and the eventual partition of the isle of Ireland.
Now one hundred years on the issues that existed in 1912 have not been resolved. The devolution of power desired by the Ulster Unionist Council in 1912 lead to the establishment of the Northern Ireland state which even today many nationalists refuse to recognise. For 50 years the Unionist Party discriminated against the minority in jobs housing and resources. The conflict that ensued from 1968 in both mass resistance and armed struggle was a direct consequence of the partition of the island. The differences between working class protestants and Catholics have not been resolved Sectarian hatred is as deep as ever and there are few signs that many associated with the Orange want anything to do with Catholics.
However conditions have changed from 1912. Now in September 2012 the North of Ireland has been de-industrialised. There are now no privileges for the skilled protestant working class because most of the skilled jobs have gone or in the process of going. Loyalists try to articulate that their protests and behaviours outside Catholic Churches are a manifestation of frustration at being left behind as a result of the peace process. However this ignores the actual statistical evidence that Catholics are still more likely to be unemployed or live in deprived areas. This is not to deny that there is poverty and deprivation in working class protestant areas. Of course there is. But is the answer to that poverty and deprivation to take sectarian actions against Catholics or their churches?
It is clear that the political elites are reasonably happy with all these disputes about parades. It diverts attention from the failing economy, binds people to their tribe and prevents the emergence of a class conscious opposition.
The development of such an opposition is of course essential for working class life. For too long, many communities have been protected by so called peace walls with no opportunities to reach across sectarian divides. Republicans and Socialists have a part to play in ensuring that opportunities exist to build a class based opposition.
They can do this by avoiding any semblance of either religious or political sectarianism. Rather that engage in petty squabbles with other like minded groups republicans and socialists should be building bridges to like minded workers of all persuasions in a bid to overcome the sectarianism that inevitably arises from historical commemorations such as those of the Ulster Covenant. In that context the behaviour of the Carrick Hill Residents has been exemplary.