(Lord) Alistair Lexden is the Conservative Party’s official historian. For further information about Lord Lexden's work, visit his website.
On this day a century ago, 28 September 1912 (a Saturday, which was then a normal working day), Unionists throughout the north of Ireland signed a Solemn League and Covenant, some of them using their own blood. The date entered the Unionist calendar as Ulster Day.
The signatories, who included both men and women, put their names and addresses on special forms which had been distributed in large numbers to towns and villages throughout Ulster by an extremely efficient co-ordinating committee in Belfast. The men pledged themselves “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”. The women made a separate declaration, associating themselves with “the men of Ulster in their uncompromising resistance to Home Rule”.
After careful checking, the results were announced: 218,206 men and 228,991 women had signed their respective forms. Outside the Province another 19,162 Ulstermen and 5,055 women had come forward, taking the total number of signatories on Ulster Day to 471,414. There was no suggestion that any of them had acted under pressure or duress.
It was in this manner that the Unionists of Ulster came together in implacable opposition to the Liberal Party’s third and most determined attempt to establish a devolved parliament in Dublin whose Nationalist majority would have authority over them. The Covenant made an immediate and deep impact. In the words of The Times, “the impression left on the mind of every competent observer is that of a community absolutely united in its resistance to the act of separation with which it is threatened”. Conservative MPs who visited Ulster in some numbers in support of the Covenant also testified to the remarkable unity of purpose that it created.
The Ulster Covenant was the brainchild of Sir Edward Carson, the brilliant Dublin lawyer who had become the leader of Irish Unionism two years earlier. Hatchet-faced and saturnine in appearance, he articulated the Unionist cause with immense power and eloquence. In Belfast, the scene of intense activity throughout Ulster Day, he was naturally the first to sign, standing at a round table draped with the Union Jack in the magnificent new City Hall which had been opened six years earlier. A vast crowd surged behind him.
Through the Covenant, Carson was able to instil in Ulster Unionists what they had conspicuously lacked since their emergence in the 1880s: discipline and effective, responsible leadership at the most local level capable of checking the wilder elements prone to ugly sectarian activity – something which had become increasingly prevalent in the months before Ulster Day. In the impressively unified mass movement which took shape in the wake of the Covenant, prominent local Unionist families restrained the hotheads and extremists in their communities. (Tragically Unionism lacks such people today.)
As the Home Rule crisis deepened over the next two years, the Unionists acquired rifles and ammunition in case political activity failed to prevent Ulster’s subjection to a Dublin parliament. The firm control exercised by Carson and the upper ranks of Ulster society ensured that the arms, though prominently displayed, were kept firmly in reserve, their presence helping to strengthen the hand of the Unionist leadership in its political task. Arms reinforced the Covenant.
Throughout all this Carson had the constant support of the Conservative Party under Andrew Bonar Law, the only leader of Ulster extraction that the Party has ever had. For two decades many Conservatives had preferred to be known as Unionists: in 1912 they first merged with Joe Chamberlain’s Liberal Unionist Party and then formed the closest partnership with their Ulster counterparts. “I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster will go”, Bonar Law famously (and controversially) declared, “in which I shall not be ready to support them”.
Though the third Home Rule Bill was not defeated, it was never implemented. Eight years after the Covenant the country was partitioned and Northern Ireland came into existence with its own Home Rule parliament under permanent Unionist control which the excluded minority resented so deeply. Those who signed the Covenant a century ago asked to retain their “cherished position of equal citizenship”. They did not want Home Rule in any form. If Britain had heeded their wishes and governed Northern Ireland from Westminster, subsequent history might well have taken a much happier course with Conservative and Unionist politicians playing a full and constructive part in the affairs of this part of our country.