Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, agreed to speak in favour of Home Rule in Belfast on 8 February 1912. He was to regret that decision. The Irish Chief Secretary, Augustine Birrell, who would have to provide security cover for that visit, was horrified that Churchill had chosen the Ulster Hall, where his father Randolph had warned loyalists in 1886 that Home Rule could come upon them like 'a thief in the night'. 'My own belief', Birrell wrote on 28 January, 'is that if you hold a mid-day meeting in a tent, no blood will be shed. But the moral is: Leave Ireland alone in future'. As Reverend J.B. Armour, Presbyterian minister of Ballymoney, informed his son, the 'Unionist Council is threatening to raise a riot and commit murder if Winston dares speak in the Ulster Hall'.
Reading police reports about 'great quantities of bolts and rivets having been abstracted from the yards' by shipwrights, Birrell ordered north five battalions of infantry, two companies of cavalry and police reinforcements. And a tent it would be: the organisers had a marquee rushed over from Scotland to be erected in the new venue, Celtic Park. The visit was a miserable experience from start to finish. On the night ferry from Stranraer, suffragettes tramped round and round the deck, shouting 'votes for women!' outside the cabin where Winston and his wife Clementine were trying to sleep.
After facing a hostile reception as they disembarked at Larne, the couple drove to Belfast and got into the Grand Central Hotel only with difficulty: outside at least 10,000 loyalists had gathered to demonstrate and they were to stay for five hours.
Heavy rain flooded the football ground as Churchill entered the marquee. There he was joined by Lord Pirrie, managing director of Harland and Wolff shipyard, the Reverend Armour of Ballymoney, Joseph Devlin, MP for West Belfast, and John Redmond MP, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party. To their disappointment, the tent was only three-quarters full. The sole interruption was made by suffragettes, one of them crying out to Churchill, 'Will you give the suffrage to women?'
For five hours 10,000 loyalists endured downpours in Royal Avenue, waiting to give Churchill a hostile reception on return to his hotel. But on police advice the First Lord changed his plans: he travelled by a circuitous route back to Larne before those who were standing in the rain in the city centre knew what was happening. They did at least have the satisfaction of reflecting that they had forced Churchill to leave Belfast, as one wag put it, 'like a thief in the night'.
Churchill had learned at first hand the intensity of feeling in Ulster. It was a lesson he never forgot. His Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith, had earlier announced his government's intention of introducing a Home Rule Bill to give Ireland a devolved parliament of her own in Dublin. Churchill was not alone in being taken aback by the impassioned reaction in Ulster. In the ensuing months of 1912 politicians on the other side of the Irish Sea were to be reminded again that society in the north of Ireland was dangerously fractured, bitterly divided to a degree quite beyond the experience of any other part of the United Kingdom.
It was widely assumed across the Irish Sea that the 'Ulster Problem' was unique, quite without parallel in the rest of Europe. But was it? Actually in 1912 many places could be found on the European mainland with inhabitants fiercely sundered by similar clashing aspirations.
By 1912 modern nationalism had sped along rapidly extending railway lines to engulf every part of Europe. It posed a deadly threat to multinational states, in particular to the sprawling dynastic empires of Austria-Hungary, Russia and Turkey. Dreams of imperial glory were conflicting abrasively with mounting demands for national self-determination. Some like the Greeks and Romanians had already won their independence. For others, such as the Poles, national self-determination in 1912 seemed but a dream.
The prospect of national liberation revealed a grave difficulty: nationalities were rarely neatly divided from each other. Often impelled by raw and aggressive racism, peoples in their struggle for freedom competed with each other for the same territory. For example, the Czechs laid claim to Slovakia, on the grounds that it was part of the state originally created by King Wenceslas (the one who looked out); but Magyars also claimed Slovakia as an integral part of the lands of King Stephen, the first Christian monarch of Hungary. Few thought of asking the Slovaks what they wanted themselves.
In short, there was hardly a people in 1912 that had obtained national self-determination, or were still campaigning for it, that did not have a minority, within the territory won or claimed, objecting strongly to the majority view. Ireland was no exception to this. Just as Hungarian, Romanian and German speakers were not neatly divided from each other in Transylvania, so nationalists and unionists – as near as makes no difference, Catholics and Protestants – were not neatly divided from each other in Ulster. For example, in 1912 there were more Catholic nationalists in Belfast where they then formed only a quarter of that city's population than there were in Fermanagh where they formed a majority.
In 1912 a clear majority in the island as a whole eagerly awaited the setting up of a devolved parliament in Dublin. But in the smaller and more urbanised area of the north-east a clear majority fiercely opposed this. It never occurred to either loyalists or nationalists in Ireland that their colliding ambitions could be compare with those festering so dangerously in central and eastern Europe. Surely those ethnic groups were set apart by language as well as by cultural differences? Certainly this was true almost everywhere, but not in an obscure province in the Balkans so heedlessly annexed by the Austro-Hungarian empire four years earlier – Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Here, just as in Ulster, the people all spoke the same language, Serbo-Croat. Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Bosniaks could not be told apart either by looks or by speech. That did not stop each one of them regarding themselves as a very distinct ethnic group. Actually the inhabitants of Bosnia-Herzegovina, regardless of religion, had been intermarrying for generations, as had natives and newcomers in Ulster. Of course that reality was then vigorously denied on both sides of Europe.
The debate on Ireland's political future had been going on for a very long time but everything came to a head in 1912. Why then?
William Ewart Gladstone, leader of the Liberal Party, had become convinced that Westminster must concede the demand of the Irish Parliamentary Party for Home Rule. In his second attempt in 1893 he got his Bill through the Commons, but it had then been thrown out by the House of Lords. In short there was absolutely no possibility of Ireland getting any sort of parliament in Dublin as long as the peers of the realm could veto it.
In any case the Conservatives, implacably opposed to Home Rule, were in power most of the time. One Tory Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, assured the electorate that his government would leave 'Home Rule sleeping the sleep of the unjust'. Then, in 1906, the Conservatives were ejected from power by a Liberal landslide – not until Labour's victory in 1997 did they again suffer such a humiliating defeat.
This was not as good news for the Nationalists of the Irish Party as it might seem. The Liberals simply did not need their support. True, Home Rule was still on the Liberal wish list but it was way down their agenda.
But by 1910 the situation had been transformed. The House of Lords – overwhelmingly Conservative in sentiment – was playing with fire. Loathing the radical measures being pushed forward by the Liberal government, the unelected peers of the realm kept emasculating, or kicking out in their entirety, bills being sent up by the Commons. To face down the Lords in 1910 Asquith had to go to the country twice in that one year. The Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith, emerged victorious but Conservative representation had recovered so well that his Liberal government was now dependent on the eighty-two Nationalist MPs to stay in office. In short, the Irish Parliamentary Party now held the balance of power in the Commons.
Naturally, the Nationalists demanded a Home Rule Bill as the price of this alliance. Asquith complied. Crucially the following year the Parliament Act smashed the power of the House of Lords – henceforth peers could only delay a Bill for a maximum of three successive parliamentary sessions. That meant that if the Home Rule Bill promised was introduced early in 1912 and, as would be expected the Lords rejected it, the very latest that Ireland would get a parliament of her own would be sometime in the year 1914.
Euphoria swept through the ranks of the Irish Party at Westminster. Back home nationalists all over the island rejoiced. They eagerly anticipated the dawn of a new age in Ireland, the imminent arrival of a long yearned for freedom, democratically sanctioned by a majority of the elected representatives of the entire United Kingdom.
Asquith introduced the Home Rule Bill on 11 April 1912. Would it make Ireland an independent state? Definitely not. After reading the Bill Arthur Griffith observed, 'If this is freedom, then the lexicographers have deceived us'. Griffith had founded a separatist party back in 1906 named Sinn Féin – incidentally this name, meaning 'ourselves', had been suggested by Sir Edward Carson's cousin, Maire Butler. Griffith had a point. Home Rule would provide a pretty modest measure of devolution, an assembly in Dublin with about the same devolved powers as are currently enjoyed by the Scottish assembly in Holyrood. Ireland would not only still be in the Empire, the island would also still be in the United Kingdom – indeed, Irish MPs would continue to sit at Westminster.
The vast majority of Irish nationalists did not take Arthur Griffith's curled-lip view. They exuberantly rejoiced that they were about to reach the promised land of liberty: Home Rule would be the realisation of the dream for which Daniel O'Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell had campaigned with such devotion and eloquence in the previous century.
The Protestants of Ulster, in contrast, stared at the future in horror. Home Rule to them was a deadly threat to their liberty. They felt sure that a Dublin parliament would weigh down the prosperous north-east with crippling taxes to subsidise impoverished peasants in the south and west. They feared that Home Rule would be Rome Rule, that the Catholic Church would come to dominate the country's institutions, schools in particular. International Catholicism was seen as a dark conspiracy, its power growing inexorably, perpetually endangering Protestant liberties. The promulgation of the Ne Temere papal decree in 1907, which laid down that Catholics marrying Protestants must bring up their children as Catholics, had recently aroused Protestant fury. Before the decree around thirty per cent of Presbyterian ministers favoured Home Rule; after it the percentage dropped to about six.
In addition, Unionists were certain that nationalists would never be satisfied with mere devolution, that – once they had their Home Rule parliament up and running in Dublin – they would, from that position of increased strength, press on to make a complete break with Britain, thereby casting the loyal people of the north out of the United Kingdom altogether.
The importance that Ulster Unionists attached to the economic arguments against Home Rule must not be overlooked. Very recently we in Northern Ireland have been given grim reminders of the fragility of the private sector here. It was so different in 1912: the north-east of Ireland was then one of the planet's most dynamic corners. Ulster was the world centre of the linen industry. Back in 1894 H.O. Lanyon, president of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, had made this estimation:
"I find the length of yarn produced in the year amounts to about 644,000,000 miles, making a thread which would encircle the world 25,000 times. If it could be used for a telephone wire it would give us six lines to the sun and about 380 besides to the moon. The exports of linen in 1894 measured about 156,000,000 yards, which would make a girdle for the earth at the Equator three yards wide, or cover an area of 32,000 acres, or it would reach from end to end of the County of Down, one mile wide."
Output was even greater by 1912. Entire towns, such as Gilford, Sion Mills, Killyleagh and Drumaness, were devoted exclusively to processing flax into linen, though it was in Belfast by passing down the canyon of the Crumlin Road, flanked by tall forbidding mills, or by looking up at the great ornate warehouses in Donegall Square and Bedford Street, that the global dominance Ulster had in this textile industry was made most obvious.
At the beginning of the twentieth century Belfast was, after London and Liverpool, the port of third importance in the United Kingdom, then the greatest trading state on earth; and in 1912 it had the world's biggest linen mill, ropeworks, tobacco factory, spiral-guided gasometer, tea machinery and fan-making works, aerated waters factory, dry dock, handkerchief factory and shipyard (launching vessels which were the largest made-made moving objects on earth). Around 90 per cent of Ulster's industry was in Protestant hands. Though the managing director of Harland and Wolff, William Pirrie, had become a Liberal in what had been a rather blatant but successful bid to be elevated to the peerage, the great majority of Ulster's businessmen were Unionists, utterly convinced that a Home Rule parliament in Dublin would inevitably deliver deadly blows to the economy of the north-east.
In short, Ulster was by no means an obscure corner of the United Kingdom. Indeed, its very prosperity – then ascribed, of course, to the beneficial power of the Protestant ethic – gave Unionists confidence that they had the power to face down Home Rule.
It ought to be said that it was unfair of these northern business leaders to dismiss the rest of Ireland as backward, impoverished and ignorant. In 1912 the living standards of Ireland as a whole were not as good as those in England but they were about the same as those in France. The agricultural sector was making a strong recovery; the literary revival was at its dazzling height; and for all its problems, Dublin had Guinness, the world's biggest brewery, and Jacob's, the inventor of the cream cracker and the fig roll. However, the proprietors of Guinness and Jacob's – and come to think of it, Jameson's whiskey – were also strongly hostile to Home Rule.
By the beginning of 1912 the Unionists were ready. This had taken quite a bit of time. Colonel Edward Saunderson had led Irish Unionists throughout the long years of Conservative rule. Nicknamed the 'Dancing Dervish' as a result of his antics in the Commons, Saunderson was witty and charming but, according to his friend, J. Mackay Wilson, he was nevertheless 'absolutely devoid of business capacity'. After Saunderson died in 1906, he was replaced by Walter Long, Unionist MP for South County Dublin. Long was dismissed by David Lloyd George as an 'amiable Wiltshire Orangeman'. Indeed, he was hardly an improvement on Saunderson; he deigned to attend a golfing dinner at Portrush but failed to appear at the annual meetings of the Ulster Unionist Council in 1908 and 1909.
That Ulster Unionist Council had been formed back in 1905 by men who rightly predicted that their Conservative allies would soon be put out of office, opening the door for the Liberals and their Nationalist friends. The Orange Order, which for several decades had been cold-shouldered by moneyed and landed Protestants, was enjoying a spectacular revival thanks in no small measure to the MP for East Down, Captain James Craig, who impressively augmented the number of brethren by indefatigably addressing lodge after lodge.
Walter Long, perhaps taking heed of a friend's warning against 'sinking yourself in the Irish stew', gave up his Dublin seat in 1910 and got elected in a London constituency. Who would now lead the Unionists? Perhaps the most obvious replacement was Captain Craig, the seventh child of a self-made Belfast millionaire whiskey distiller. Craig had demonstrated courage and organisational flair as an officer in the Boer War. But as a speaker Craig was somewhat less than electrifying. He knew that himself and indeed it was Craig who suggested that Sir Edward Carson be asked to lead the Unionists.
Carson, one of the most brilliant lawyers of the day, had become a household name in 1895 when he brought down Oscar Wilde; MP for Trinity College Dublin, he had served as Solicitor-General in the last Conservative government. Carson quickly proved himself the leader Ulster Unionists had yearned for. No man in Ireland, with the possible exception of the trade union leader Jim Larkin, could sway an audience with such skill. Carson's tall frame commanded respect and the grim set of his lower jaw seemed to show northerners that he would not yield in championing their cause.
On 23 September 1911 Carson crossed over to address 50,000 men who gathered to meet their new leader in the extensive grounds of 'Craigavon', Captain Craig's home in east Belfast. 'With the help of God', Carson assured them, 'you and I joined together...will yet defeat the most nefarious conspiracy that has ever been hatched against a free people'.
By now brilliantly led and efficiently organised, the Ulster Unionists could nevertheless not hope to succeed on their own. It was vital to forge a closer alliance with the Conservative Party. A good many bridges between Ulster Unionists and British Conservatives were in urgent need of repair. Northern loyalists seem to have feared constantly that their supposed allies were 'crypto-nationalists'. English Conservatives in turn were shocked by the frank sectarianism of some Ulster MPs. George Wyndham, a recent Conservative Irish Chief Secretary, had expressed his dislike of 'Orange uncouthness' and found 'the parochialism of the Ulster right-wing...beyond belief'. In 1904 Wyndham was remarking: 'My contact with the Ulster members is like catching an "itch" from park pests'.
Exclusion from office after 1905 for years on end had been a chilling and sobering experience for Conservatives. They were still self-destructively divided on the question of tariff reform, but Home Rule was the one issue which passionately united them. Some like the former Conservative Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, tended to regard the Irish as an inferior race, unworthy of any form of self-government. You wouldn't give Home Rule to Hottentots, Salisbury had said.
The extreme reaction of the Conservatives was partly the response of a traditional ruling caste not yet ready to face the consequences of parliamentary democracy. Yet there was more here than a desire to be revenged on the Liberals for recent humiliations: a formidable body of British opinion saw Home Rule as a deadly threat to the empire. Seen by many as a great civilising force, the empire could be torn asunder by any measure of Irish independence.
After all, a century ago the British Empire was the most extensive and populous the world had ever known; under its flag it controlled at least half the world's ocean-going commerce. The very idea that a substantial number of Irish people wanted to loosen ties with that empire was shocking to many across the Irish Sea. Indeed, some like the writer Rudyard Kipling, saw Irish nationalism – however moderate – as a deadly threat to the survival of the empire. If the Irish wanted to say goodbye, might not the hundreds of millions in the Indian subcontinent be set a dreadful example?
Just like Ulster Unionists, Conservatives were in urgent need of a dynamic leader who could hold them together. In November 1911 they found such a man – Andrew Bonar Law. Though he had been born in Canada and lived most of his life in Scotland, his father was a Presbyterian minister who had been born in Coleraine and then had retired there. Almost every weekend Bonar Law travelled to Coleraine to see his father while he was still alive.
Bonar Law quickly proved an unflinching friend of loyalist Ulster. A fresh bonding of Ulster Unionists and Conservatives on the other side of the Irish Sea was overdue. Early in the spring of 1912 the Ulster Unionist Council prepared a great demonstration against Home Rule in south Belfast with Bonar Law as the keynote speaker. The city's tram service was suspended as seventy special trains brought in demonstrators from all over Ulster to the agricultural show grounds at Balmoral. No fewer than seventy English, Scottish and Welsh Conservative MPs had crossed over to take part. More than 100,000 men marched in military formation past the platforms. After prayers and the singing of the 90th Psalm, a resolution against Home Rule was passed with a rousing acclamation; immediately afterwards, from a ninety-foot flagstaff rising from a tower in the centre of the grounds, the largest Union Jack ever woven was broken and unfurled.
As Bonar Law stepped forward to speak, he knew that a reference to the Siege of Derry would strike a chord in the hearts of his listeners:
"Once more you hold the pass, the pass for the Empire. You are a besieged city. The timid have left you: your Lundys have betrayed you; but you have closed the gates. The Government have erected by their Parliament Act a boom against you to shut you off from the help of the British people. You will burst that boom".
This formidable display of loyalist strength was an outward and visible sign, an open declaration that the Conservative Party had made a fateful decision – it had unequivocally committed itself to giving unswerving support to all that the Ulster Unionists intended to do to oppose Home Rule. Banishing all doubts, Bonar Law echoed Bismarck's 'blood and iron' speech to the Reichstag at a great Unionist rally at Blenheim Palace in July. 'There are things stronger than parliamentary majorities', he told his listeners. "I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster can go in which I should not be prepared to support them".
By that summer of 1912 passions were running dangerously high in Ulster. On 11 April, two days after the great demonstration in the Balmoral showgrounds, Asquith had introduced the Home Rule Bill in the Commons. John Redmond, the Irish Party leader, told the House with evident emotion: 'If I may say so reverently, I personally thank God that I have lived to see this day'.
In Ulster feelings of nationalist elation were short-lived. In June a Liberal backbencher, T.C. Agar Robartes, put forward an amendment to the Bill, commenting that 'I have never heard that orange bitters will mix with Irish whiskey'. This amendment was to exclude the four most Protestant counties from the Bill's operation. Though the amendment was defeated, the idea that all or part of Ulster would be excluded from the operation of Home Rule was about to gain favour at Westminster.
This was a matter of deep concern for Joseph Devlin, MP for West Belfast. 'Wee Joe' had succeeded in wresting control of the Irish Party machine from the Bishop of Down and Connor, Bishop Henry Henry (what were his parents thinking of when they named him?). Devlin had begun his career as a bottle-washer in a pub, and then had won West Belfast by a margin of sixteen votes in 1906. Proving himself to be an eloquent and colourful figure in the House of Commons, where he became known as the 'Pocket Demosthenes', Devlin rose to become second-in-command of the Irish Party. Redmond placed great value on his ability to deliver the northern Catholic vote.
Devlin had revived the Ancient Order of Hibernians – a Catholic mirror image of the Orange Order – and became grand master of its ruling body, the Board of Erin. By 1911 there were no fewer than 433 divisions of the AOH in Ulster. The impressive unity that nationalists displayed in 1912 contrasted sharply with the unedifying disunity which had plagued the Irish Party until very recently.
Carson and Bonar Law had metaphorically published the banns of marriage between the Ulster Unionists and Conservatives. What next should be done to halt Home Rule in its tracks? The Ulster Unionist Council now set about organising a rolling programme to demonstrate to the world, and the British public in particular, the determination of northern Protestants to resist all attempts to impose on them the authority of a Dublin parliament.
Captain Craig and his team worked ceaselessly to make sure that this display of Unionist strength would be so impressive that the world's press could not ignore it. They were also acutely conscious of the need to depict their movement as respectable, law-abiding, disciplined and dignified. These organisers knew their own province. Fierce emotions lurked just below the surface. Already there were alarming indications that those passions might not stay there.
On Thursday 27 June 1912 children from the Sacred Heart Convent in Lisburn were attacked as they were setting out for their annual outing to Ardglass. Then, on Saturday 29 June, the Sunday School excursion from Whitehouse Presbyterian Church arrived in Castledawson. At the close of what had been a pleasant day out, the children paraded back to the railway station with their flute band, holding aloft banners bearing texts from Scripture and a Union flag. Suddenly they were assaulted by Hibernians disembarking from their train after a meeting in Maghera.
Responding to the newspaper reports, loyalists employed at the Workman Clark shipyard in Belfast drove Catholic workers out. In the following weeks the expulsions spread to Harland and Wolff and right across the city to engineering works and linen mills. Troops had to be rushed north to Belfast. They remained on active service there for weeks, patrolling the Queen's Road with fixed bayonets. Throughout that entire summer of 1912 Belfast remained a very tense city.
The danger of sudden intercommunal strife remained constant. For example, on 14 September during a football match at Celtic Park between Linfield and Celtic, fighting broke out at half time. Quickly the ground was engulfed by rival hordes of supporters engaging each other with fists, bottles, knives, and revolvers until the Blues supporters were driven back into their Protestant enclaves.
At that very moment on the other side of Europe the world was being given a grim demonstration of what could happen in an all-out conflict in a deeply divided society. That autumn of 1912 the Balkan Wars began to rage, characterised by merciless ethnic slaughter on a biblical scale. By June 1913 no fewer than 200,000 combatants had fallen in addition to tens of thousands of unarmed men, women and children savagely cut down, mutilated or raped, simply – as they would say in Ulster – for being 'the other sort'.
Meanwhile in Belfast the organisers were redoubling their efforts to ensure that the climax of their campaign, 'Ulster Day', would not be besmirched by undignified, unseemly behaviour. It had been agreed some time before that the solemnity of the occasion could best be sealed by getting their followers to enter a binding oath to resist Home Rule. At his London club, Captain Craig sat with pencil and paper. When approached by B.W.D. Montgomery, a Belfast businessman sitting close by, Craig explained that he was 'trying to draft an oath for our people at home'. Montgomery then suggested: 'You couldn't do better than take the old Scotch Covenant. It is a fine old document, full of grand phrases, and thoroughly characteristic of the Ulster tone of mind at this day'. With the help of the club's librarian, they were able to peruse the text in a volume on the history of Scotland. The phrasing of the 1580 Covenant actually proved too archaic but it was retained as a template. The final text of the Ulster Covenant was composed by Thomas Sinclair, one of a Commission of Five appointed to frame a constitution for a provisional government of Ulster.
Craig's meticulously planned campaign kicked off on 18 September at Enniskillen, where Carson was met at the railway station by two squadrons of mounted volunteers and escorted to Portora Hill where he reviewed 40,000 members of Unionist Clubs marching past him in military order. Next day Sir Edward read out the text of Ulster's Solemn League and Covenant to journalists who had gathered in the grounds of Craig's home. It began:
"Being convinced in our consciences that Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as the whole of Ireland, subversive of our civil and religious freedom, destructive of our citizenship, and perilous to the unity of the Empire..."
They pledged themselves
"...in solemn Covenant throughout this our time of threatened calamity to stand by one another in defending for ourselves and our children our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom, and in using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland. And in the event of such a Parliament being forced upon us we further solemnly and mutually pledge ourselves to refuse to recognize its authority".
That evening, 19 September, Carson rushed to Lisburn to view a great procession of men carrying dummy wooden rifles and flaming torches and marching to bands playing such well-known loyal anthems as 'The Protestant Boys' and 'Boyne Water'. Over the following days at least a dozen more meetings ensued with Carson being joined by such Conservative dignitaries as Lord Salisbury, Lord Willoughby de Broke, F.E. Smith, Lord Charles Beresford and Lord Hugh Cecil. At every meeting a single resolution was carried: 'We will not have Home Rule'.
All of this was leading up to 'Ulster Day', Saturday 28 September, when across the northern province men who could prove Ulster birth were invited to sign the Covenant and their womenfolk a matching Women's Declaration. I want now to provide you an account of that day in Belfast – whatever your opinions about it, this event was a quite remarkable one in the history of this island.
That day, declared a public holiday, dawned bright and clear and defied the forecast by remaining almost cloudless. 'There was a Sabbatical appearance about the streets in the early morning', the Belfast News-Letter observed, and it continued:
"The clang of the hammer, the throb of machinery, and the whirr of the loom were no longer heard, and the artisans, dressed in their best attire, joined their employers in the services at the various Churches, where Providence was supplicated to avert the very grave and real danger that threatens the country".
At 9.25 am a guard of 2,500 men recruited from the Unionist Clubs of Belfast gathered at the City Hall; at 10 am the first relief of 500 men wearing bowler hats and white armlets, and carrying white staves, began the daylong task of marshalling the crowds and protecting the flowerbeds. The Portland stone of the City Hall gleamed in the sun; formally opened six years before, this was one of the most sumptuous municipal centres in the United Kingdom, a fitting pivot of the resistance to Home Rule. Belfast was the very heart of loyalist Ulster: three quarters of its 387,000 citizens were Protestant and the lion's share of its business and trade was in Protestant hands. To most of its citizens Belfast's prosperity depended on it remaining an integral part of the United Kingdom. Now they prepared to give fervent expression to their feeling.
Just before 11 am Bedford Street was packed with spectators as Carson stepped into the Ulster Hall. Craig reminded everyone in the packed hall that there should be no applause as this was a religious service. The congregation sang 'O God, our help in ages past', and after prayers and lessons had been read, the Rev. Dr William McKean rose to deliver his sermon, taking as his text 2 Timothy 6. 20: 'Keep that which is committed to thy trust'. 'We are plain, blunt men who love peace and industry', the former Presbyterian Moderator declared: 'The Irish question is at bottom a war against Protestantism; it is an attempt to establish a Roman Catholic ascendancy in Ireland to begin the disintegration of the Empire by securing a second parliament in Dublin'.
All over Ulster similar services were being held in Protestant churches.
From the Ulster Hall Sir Edward walked bareheaded into Bedford Street towards Donegall Square. Captain Anketell Moutray proudly carried before him King William's flag, a yellow banner decorated with a star and a red cross, said to have been borne at the Boyne. The guard of honour which had escorted Carson – splendid with military medals, specially embroidered sashes, and white staves – stood to attention on either side of the Queen Victoria Memorial statue as the Lord Mayor, R.J. McMordie MP, the councillors in their scarlet and ermine robes, the civic mace bearers and other city dignitaries greeted Sir Edward.
Carson entered the vestibule and advanced towards a circular table directly under the dome rising 173 feet above him. He took up the silver square-sided pen made by Sharman D. Neill of 22 Donegall Place and presented to him the evening before. It bore the inscription: 'With this pen I, Edward Carson, signed Ulster's Solemn League and Covenant, in the City Hall, Belfast, on Ulster Day, Saturday 28th September, 1912'.
When Carson re-emerged the reverential hum in the vast crowd outside changed to tempestuous cheering as he made his way bowing and waving down Donegall Place to Royal Avenue where he was to be the guest of the Ulster Reform Club for luncheon. Behind him the stewards struggled to regulate the flow of men eager to sign the Covenant in the City Hall. A double row of desks stretching right round the building made it possible for 550 to sign simultaneously. Some, including Major Fred Crawford of future gun-running fame, cut themselves and signed in their own blood. Every signatory was given a handsome parchment paper copy of the Covenant to take home.
All over Ulster men and women were signing the Covenant or the Declaration. At Castle Upton in Co. Antrim, Lord Templetown signed the Covenant on an old drum of the Templepatrick Infantry. At Baronscourt the Duke of Abercorn inscribed his signature under an old oak tree.
At 2.30 pm a procession of bands from every Protestant corner of Belfast converged on the City Hall. As each contingent arrived the bandsmen halted at a prearranged position in Donegall Square, all continuing to play different tunes, creating, in the opinion of the Northern Whig, 'a fine post-impressionist effect about it that should have pleased admirers of the new style of music'.
J.L. Garvin, reporting for the Pall Mall Gazette, wrote:
"Seen from the topmost mast outside gallery of the dome, the square below, and the streets striking away from it were black with people. Through the mass, with drums and fifes, sashes and banners, the clubs marched all day. The streets surged with cheering, but still no policemen, still no shouts of rage or insult..."
Signatures were still being affixed in the City Hall after 11 pm.
Huge crowds sang 'Rule Britannia' and 'God save the King' as Carson and the Unionist leaders walked round the corner from the Ulster Reform Club in Royal Avenue to the Ulster Club in Castle Pace. Trams had to be diverted and jarveys were forced to take their horses away from the Bank Buildings to a place of safety. At 8.30 pm a brass band advanced towards the Ulster Club playing 'See the conquering hero comes', its staff major and spear carriers almost having to carve a way through the surging mass. A searchlight from the Olde Castle Restaurant played on the scene and deafening cheers greeted Carson when he came out of the club and with twenty other dignitaries climbed into a waiting motor brake designed for twelve passengers. Lord Londonderry, swept off his feet, temporarily got lost in the crowd. The vehicle was pulled own High Street by hundreds of willing hands. 'With a roaring hurricane of cheers punctuated on every side by the steady rattle of revolver shots', Garvin wrote, 'onward swept this whole city in motion with a tumult that was mad'.
Another enormous crowd was waiting at the Belfast Steamship Company's shed in Donegall Quay; many clung to perilous perches on cranes and lampposts. Sir Edward was saluted by a fusillade of shots and prolonged cheering. After making a short speech, Carson was welcomed aboard the S.S. Patriotic by Captain John Paisley, and from the upper deck, the Belfast News-Letter reported, he shouted out:
"I have very little voice left. I ask you while I am away in England and Scotland and fighting your battle in the Imperial Parliament to keep the old flag flying. (Cheers). And 'No Surrender!' (Loud Cheers)."
As the vessel steamed into the Victoria Channel bonfires in Great Patrick Street sprang to life, a huge fire on the Cave Hill threw a brilliant glare over the sky, fifty other bonfires blazed from hills and headlands round Belfast Lough, and salvoes of rockets shot up into the air.
All over Ulster people were still signing the Covenant. Altogether 471,414 men and women who could prove Ulster birth either signed the Covenant or the Declaration.
Ulster Day was denounced as 'a silly masquerade' by the Irish News and as 'an impressive farce' by the Freeman's Journal, while the Manchester Guardian contrasted 'the anarchic hectoring of the ascendancy party and the loyal patient reliance of the Ulster Nationalists upon English justice and firmness'. Garvin, however, now knew this was no game of bluff and blackmail: 'No-one for a moment could have mistaken the concentrated will and courage of those people.' The next two years seemed to reveal the truth of his judgement.
And what did the Ulster Covenant mean for the future? At one level it was a remarkable exercise in public relations, quite unprecedented in Ulster. At another level the Covenant was designed to bind loyalists together by solemn pledge in a manner that had not been witnessed for centuries.
Signatories had pledged themselves to stand by one another to defend their cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom. To do that they had also pledged themselves to 'use all means which may be found necessary'. That, of course, included the use of violence or, at the very least, the threat of violence. In short, the Covenant may not by itself have set Ulster down the road to civil war, but it certainly was a key marker flag.
John Redmond, leader of the Irish Party, had dismissed Unionist threats as 'bluff and blackmail'. Churchill had told an audience at Dundee: 'We must not attach too much importance to these frothings of Sir Edward Carson, I daresay when the worst comes to the worst we shall find that civil war evaporates in uncivil words'. In fact – quite unknown not only to rank-and-file loyalists but also to senior members of the government – the Unionist leadership had taken steps to arm their followers.
As early as November 1910 the inner committee of the Ulster Unionist Council had secretly sought a quotation from a German arms manufacturer for 20,000 rifles and a million rounds of ammunition. In March 1911 the UUC, including Carson himself, voted its first cash allocation for the buying of firearms. Carson urged the Council's inner circle: 'I am convinced that unless a steady supply is started, we will be caught like rats in a trap'.
All through the year 1912 loyalists had been drilling. This was not judged illegal since ancient statutes permitted the formation of militias to defend the constitution. The tragedy was that until then the gun had almost disappeared from Irish politics. The Irish Republican Brotherhood, better known as the Fenian Brotherhood, had been reduced to a handful of elderly men with pints of foaming porter before them reminiscing about the old days of plotting and dynamiting.
Now the situation altered with breakneck speed. In January 1913 the Ulster Volunteer Force was formed with the aim of enlisting 100,000 men who had signed the Covenant. The republican militant, Tom Clarke, wrote enthusiastically to Joe McGarrity, the Tyrone-born Clan na Gael leader in Philadelphia:
'Joe, it is worth living in Ireland these times – there is an awakening...Wait till they get their fist clutching the steel barrel of a business rifle and then Irish instincts and Irish manhood can be relied upon'.
'Personally I think the Orangeman with a rifle is a much less ridiculous figure than the nationalist without a rifle', Patrick Pearse said in 1913. The Irish Party leader, John Redmond steadfastly resisted demands for a Nationalist volunteer force and Joseph Devlin swiftly quashed proposals to found a Catholic military corps in Belfast. But the pressures were too great: in November 1913 the Irish Volunteers were launched in Dublin's Rotunda.
At the beginning of December 1913 the Irish Volunteers' funds stood at £8 7s.6d., this at a time when the UVF had over £1 million pledged to it and £70,000 invested in a hazardous enterprise to bring guns to Ulster. By the summer of 1914 the UVF had 216 tons of German arms brought ashore at Larne, Bangor and Donaghadee. The rifles Irish Volunteers landed at Howth and Kilcoole in July may have been obsolete single-shot Mausers but the situation was now extremely volatile. By then there were around 140,000 Irish Volunteers, half of them in Ulster.
'I see no hopes of peace', Carson gloomily observed, 'I see nothing at present but darkness and shadows...we shall have once more to assert the manhood of our race'. But it was to be in Flanders fields, not Ulster, that that the manhood of his race was to be asserted. The threatened civil war was postponed by a world war, begun, as it happens, in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
And so, reflecting on the Covenant, what was its legacy? Eventually there was indeed a civil war of a kind. The price in blood was high: between July 1920 and July 1922 the death toll in Ireland's six north-eastern counties was 557 – 303 Catholics, 172 Protestants and 82 members of the security forces. Between Easter 1916 and the spring of 1923 the number of violent deaths in Ireland as a whole was over 3,500.
But let us put that in perspective: at least 210,000 Irishmen joined British forces to fight Germany. Former Ulster Volunteers and Irish Volunteers fought on the same side – indeed, at the close of the Battle of the Somme in September 1916, at Ginchy and Guillemont, they were fighting side-by-side. It has to be remembered that at least 28,000 men and boys, Catholics and Protestants, southerners and northerners, had made the ultimate sacrifice in the Great War fighting in the armed forces of the United Kingdom.
Those who signed the Covenant in 1912 had pledged themselves, I quote, 'to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland'. That was a big ask: to defy the majority in Ireland as well as the majority in the House of Commons was a very tall order. The great majority in the Ulster Unionist Council knew that; very quietly, almost unnoticed, the UUC in December 1912 changed the refusal to accept Home Rule for Ireland to a refusal to accept Home Rule for Ulster. This was altogether a much more realistic objective. As Joe Devlin was almost immediately and gloomily aware, this change made the political partition of Ireland almost inevitable.
Partition was on the agenda as Prime Minister Asquith desperately tried to find a compromise solution. It is often forgotten that it was Carson as much as Redmond who hated the very idea of partition. Sir Edward was a southern unionist and he was determined to prevent any part of Ireland getting Home Rule. In the end he was overruled by Craig and his colleagues.
The First World War changed everything. Without it, there would have been no Easter Rising. And a few weeks after that rebellion, again almost unnoticed, the UUC met and decided to seek only the partition of the island's six north-eastern counties, not the full nine counties of the historic province of Ulster. This was because Unionists realised that they had only a wafer-thin majority in those nine counties. Naturally loyalists of Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan were outraged; they, who had signed the Covenant, felt betrayed by their fellow unionists.
Changes which in peacetime might have taken decades were telescoped into a few years by the seismic force of international conflict. Fears felt by northern loyalists in 1912, some of them expressed in the text of the Covenant, seem to have been proved correct. Unionists were sure that nationalists would regard Home Rule only as a staging post to a complete break with the United Kingdom. For twenty-six counties that eventually happened. But, it could be argued, Irish nationalists could well have been satisfied with Home Rule but for the threat of violence implicit in the Covenant.
Conservatives had been certain that Irish Home Rule would begin the disintegration of the Empire. They were probably right. Nehru and other Indian nationalists followed developments in Ireland very closely and were inspired by them. Irish nationalists did much to help the concept of national self-determination to spread out beyond Europe – though Japanese victories in the Far East in 1940 and 1941 did far more.
Ulster's Solemn League and Covenant can be regarded as Northern Ireland founding document, its birth certificate. It made partition certain. The 1920 Better Government of Ireland Act gave northern Unionists what they wanted. Of course, Northern Ireland's frontier could have been different; Article 12 in the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty held out the prospect that the frontier could be more fairly drawn until the Dublin/Belfast/London agreement to suppress the report of the Boundary Commission in December 1925.
Westminster politicians desperately seeking a solution scrutinised maps of Ireland showing the results of the extremely thorough 1911 Census. The problem was that little isolated blobs of orange and green were to be found in every one of Ulster's nine counties. And they still are. When partition was finally agreed in Whitehall in 1920 it was obvious that even the most skilled cartographer could not draw a frontier which would unite, for example, West Belfast Catholics or the Protestants of Rossnowlagh with co-religionists in their preferred jurisdiction.
Peacemakers in Paris after the First World War faced an almost identical problem. Seeking to give force to the principle of national self-determination, they could not avoid marooning great numbers of unhappy minorities. New states emerged from the collapsed empires. It has been estimated that more than 25 million people found themselves as national minorities after 1919. The reality on the European mainland was that, as we have discovered so painfully in Northern Ireland, the only alternative to further conflict and bloodshed was to set about building a shared future.
Happily our elected representatives here at Stormont appear to be united in their determination to create this shared future. That in itself is a remarkable advance.