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. 

Scotland Rallies for Independence

How George Robertson must regret saying in 1995 that ‘Devolution will kill Nationalism stone dead.’ Robertson, then the shadow secretary of state for Scotland, was trying to appease sceptical unionists. Last weekend, 13 years after a devolved parliament was established at Holyrood, somewhere between 4000 and 10,000 people attended a ‘March and Rally for Scottish Independence’ in Edinburgh. Organisers said that it will be an annual event until the independence referendum in 2014.

Squabbling over numbers – whether of crowds, revenue or voters – has been a feature of a campaign that has so far managed to be both shrill and low-key. ‘Seriously, is this #indyrally a secret gathering? I have seen better turnouts at bowls tournaments,’ the Labour press officer James Mills tweeted. Writing in the Scotsman, the former Conservative MSP Brian Monteith said nationalists had scored ‘the mother of all own-goals’. Whether either of them attended the event is unclear.

The SNP and the Yes Scotland campaign have gone in for some raucous hyperbole, too, but Saturday was hardly a disaster. Indeed, in the mix of people and perspectives on show, the rally marked a refreshing departure from dreary tribalism. Among the sea of Saltires assembled on a bright, warm morning on the Meadows there were Welsh flags, Senyeras and a huge banner carrying the face of the Edinburgh-born Irish Republican hero James Connolly.

‘Scottish independence would be the best thing for Scotland, the best thing for women, the best thing for everyone,’ said Sarah Currier fromVillage Aunties, a socialist feminist collective (‘We are vigilantes. We are village aunties’). Venetian nationalists in full military regalia marched on the spot. In the background a mix of Orange Juice and Tartan rock (Yes Scotland’s theme song is Big Country’s ‘One Great Thing’) blared out of a campaign bus.

As the march got underway, activists filed behind their standards. There were SNP groups from Leith, Clydebank and elsewhere; Socialist Party members handed out leaflets and asked for signatures for a petition to have Tony Blair charged with war crimes; a small group of Scottish Labour supporters marched behind a ‘Labour for Independence’ banner. Alan Grogan, a bookmaker from Angus, started the group ‘because I was told every time I mentioned it that a vote for independence was a vote for the SNP.’

‘People have realised that Scottish Labour is essentially a puppet of Westminster,’ the writer Alan Bissett told me as we walked past Greyfriars Kirkyard and along George IV Bridge. In January, Bissett released a caustic monologue called ‘Vote Britain’: ‘Vote for being told you’re the only country in the world that could not possibly survive and that without us you’d fall to pieces like children abandoned in the wild, caked in faeces.’

Our destination was the Ross Bandstand in Princes Street Gardens. With Edinburgh Castle in the background, Alex Salmond led the crowd in a call-and-response (‘What do we want?’ ‘Independence!’ ‘How we gonnae vote?’ ‘Yes!’); the Scottish Socialist leader Colin Fox talked hopefully of ‘the beginning of a Scottish spring’; the independent MSP Margo MacDonald called for a popular front in favour of independence, echoing the Scotland United campaign that followed the 1992 Conservative general election victory, but warned that ‘after the independence vote has been won, then party politics come back into play.’

Whether independence can be achieved without a more fully articulated policy platform remains to be seen. Many in Scotland – I’m one of them – would like to see the tabula rasa of an independent Scotland shaded in, however lightly, before committing ourselves. The SNP has been sending out mixed signals; talking about keeping the queen and the pound on the one hand, while on the other saying that it will be up to ‘the people of Scotland’ to decide policy after independence. As the ‘No to Nato’ and ‘Believe in a Nuclear Free Scotland’ placards at Saturday’s march attested, for many people independence isn’t only about self-determination, but about what we do with it.

The Unionist cause meanwhile is far less coherent than its defenders claim. Better Together, the No campaign, is an unhappy marriage of Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem supporters and unionist-minded civil society that is unlikely to rub along entirely harmoniously (especially while rogue elements such as the Orange Order in Northern Ireland put forward uninvited proposals on how the referendum should be conducted).

Although polls suggest the appetite for independence is flagging – only 32 per cent of Scots are in favour, according to the recent British Social Attitudes Survey – the ballot is still more than two years away. As the late Stephen Maxwell notes in Arguing for Independence, more than £40 billion is due to be stripped from the Scottish budget by 2025. Swingeing cuts, an unpopular Tory-led coalition and a faltering recovery north of the border could yet provide the impetus for the break-up of Britain. ‘This was always going to be a bad year for us, with the Olympics and the Jubilee,’ a veteran independence supporter said. ‘But Cameron will see that it gets a whole lot better from now on.’

This piece originally appeared on the London Review of Books blog