Ulster Covenant’s Scottish Resonances

THE prospect of independence in Scotland is a world apart from the quashed Irish bid for home rule in 1912, writes Peter Geoghegan.

“THE DARK eleventh hour draws on and sees us sold to every evil power we fought against of old.” So begins Rudyard Kipling’s poem Ulster 1912. Now fondly remembered as the hirsute creator of The Jungle Book, Kipling was a passionate agitator on behalf of the Protestant cause in the north of Ireland. After refutations of Rome rule and English duplicitousness, Ulster 1912 ends with a rather fateful proclamation: “We shall not fall alone.”

Kipling’s poem, penned almost a century ago, was a passionate paean to a pivotal event in Irish history that celebrates its centenary today – the Ulster Covenant. Almost half a million Ulster men and women put their names to the covenant, in protest at the then-Liberal government’s intention to introduce home rule in Ireland. Sir Edward Carson, erstwhile MP for Trinity College, Dublin and, later first prime minister of Northern Ireland, was the first signature, at Belfast City Hall. Similar signing ceremonies were held across the north, with crowds gathering to pledge their fealty, if not quite to the United Kingdom than at least to Ulster.

Kipling’s bombast seems even-tempered compared to the text of the covenant itself. “[R]elying on the God whom our fathers in days of stress and trial confidently trusted”, covenant signatories pledged “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”. This was not empty rhetoric.

In 1912, the unionist militia that was to become the Ulster Volunteer Force was formed. Two years later, almost twenty-five thousand rifles and three million rounds of ammunition were smuggled into Ulster in what became known as the Larne gun-running. Any doubts about the Protestant people of Ulster’s capacity to suppress, first, the home rule ambitions of the Irish Parliamentary party and Liberal prime minister HH Asquith, and, later, Irish republicans were dispelled. Ireland would eventually gain independence, but the north would, of course, remain part of the United Kingdom.

The impact of the covenant was keenly felt in many parts of Scotland. It was drafted by Belfast merchant Thomas Sinclair, a Gladstonian who broke with the Grand Old Man after the Liberal leader adopted the policy of Irish home rule. Sinclair, who had a very developed sense of his Scottish identity, consciously echoes the Scottish Covenanters lexicon in his text. Indeed, the Ulster Covenant was often referred to as “the Solemn League and Covenant” in homage to the agreement of the same name signed between Scottish Covenanters and the leaders of the English Parliamentarians in 1643.

“It was this Presbyterian tradition that supplied the rebellious spirit of 1912,” says Graham Walker, professor of political history at Queen’s University, Belfast.

The campaign against home rule for Ireland had popular support in Scotland, particularly on the west coast, with thousands turning out to see Edward Carson in Glasgow. Many Scots were among the two million signatures to the British Covenant, a protest, mirrored on the Ulster version, which circulated in 1914. However, says Prof Walker, Scottish enthusiasm for the Unionist cause in Ulster was less pronounced than many Irish Protestants hoped. “Unionists [in Ulster] were disappointed by the less than full-blooded support of their co-religionists in Scotland”.

That Ulster Protestants would look to Scotland for validation is hardly surprisingly. As the periodic debates about sectarianism here attest, the legacy of Scots-Irish relations remains vexed. Less controversial is that many lowland Scots participated in the plantation of Ulster, which started around 1600. The remnants of this migration are still felt today in the names, religion and dialect of many in what is now Northern Ireland, particularly in the areas closest to Scotland.

Between 1840 and 1920, the flow of migrants was reversed. As the famine ravaged Ireland, increasing numbers escaped across the Irish Sea to Scotland. According to census results, in 1841, 126,321 people in Scotland (4.8 per cent of the population) were Irish-born. Within a decade this figure had risen to 207,367 (7.2 per cent). These new migrants settled across Scotland, but those coming from Ulster, both Catholic and Protestant, tended to congregate in Glasgow and smaller towns in the west of Scotland.

As Alasdair McKillop notes in a recent Scottish Review essay, Protestants accounted for between a quarter and a third of all Irish immigrants who arrived in Scotland in the 19th century.

The vast majority were from the north of Ireland; and many went on to join the Orange Order, which, although initially established here by Scots army regiments returning from Ulster was, until the 1920s, largely a society for emigre Ulster Protestants in Scotland.

The Orange Order remains an obvious connection for Protestants east and west of Ailsa Craig. During the 1920s, tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Scots joined the order, including the secretary of state for Scotland, John Gilmour. While its support remained strongest in areas of historic Irish-Protestant migration, many Scots with no connection with Ulster, or Ireland, enrolled in the organisation.

The order is not the force it once was in Scottish politics – indeed some, such as Professor Eric Kaufmann, would argue that the power of the putative “Orange Vote” has often been overstated but there are still more than 180 lodges in the Glasgow area alone, and around 8,000 people attended July’s annual Orange Walk in the city. A century on from the signing of the Ulster Covenant, the union faces its gravest existential threat yet – Scottish independence. Orange leaders, thankfully, have largely recognised that the SNP are not, and never will be, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and the political situation in Scotland today is very different from that which existed in Ireland in 1912.

“There is no religious tension in Scotland, no armed uprising, no open rebellion. It’s not a case of taking up arms to defend the Union,” Ian Wilson, a former Grand Master of the Orange Lodge in Scotland, said in an address to the annual Orange parade in Broughshane, County Antrim, on 12 July. The case for the Union, Wilson said, must be made “by persuasion, by campaigning, and through the ballot box”.

Northern Irish unionists have yet to made a compelling case for their inclusion at the top table at the independence salon. Earlier this week, Dr David Hume, director of services at the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, claimed Ulster Scots in Northern Ireland are “stakeholders” who should to be given a vote in the 2014 referendum. Dr Hume was speaking at a Glasgow event in to commemorate the centenary of the signing of the Ulster covenant.

Notwithstanding the practical problems pertaining to Dr Hume’s proposition — how do you define Ulster Scots? Would people of Scottish descent elsewhere in the world be allowed to vote? The reality is that Ulster Scots can participate in the debate, not by voting but by well-made, reasoned interjections, presumably, in support of the Union.

Many Northern Irish unionist spokespeople have failed to appreciate the subtleties of the debate on this side of the Irish Sea – as former Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble’s fatuous suggestion that the SNP are “doing violence” to people’s identities illustrated.

What happens in Scotland still matters in Northern Ireland, as any football fan knows, but Scotland 2014 is not Ulster 1912. Until Northern Irish unionists grasp that difference their voice in the independence is bound to remain muted.

This article originally appeared in the Scotsman, 28 September. 

2 thoughts on “Ulster Covenant’s Scottish Resonances”

  1. Should Scotland decide to go independent, I would like to see a portion of the country decide to remain outside of Scottish independance. Maybe then one can realize thwhat has happened in Ireland that has caused all the trouble over the years.

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