The Home Rule Crisis
The Ulster Covenant was a response to the latest Home Rule Bill to be proposed in Westminster to sort out the long running ‘Irish Question’ by giving Ireland a limited measure of local autonomy. The first two bills had been rejected by Parliament in 1886 and 1893. In June 1892 a demonstration in Belfast, the Ulster Convention, was chaired by the Duke of Abercorn and attracted 20,000 opponents to Home Rule.
By 1912, Liberal British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith had proposed a third Home Rule Bill. Whilst it dragged its way through the Commons, the Ulster Unionists made preparations for active resistance. In January 1912 they had begun to raise and openly train a military force which became known as the Ulster Volunteers.
Back at Westminster, Unionists put up fierce opposition to each stage of the Home Rule Bill, and the third reading was not carried until January 1913, after which the bill received its expected defeat in the House of Lords. The outbreak of World War I then halted further progress.
Creating the Ulster Covenant
Sir Edward Carson (Leader of the Irish Unionist Party) and James Craig (the Unionist MP for East Down) appreciated the importance of maintaining order and discipline among their followers. A solemn and binding oath to resist Home Rule that could be signed by the men of Ulster was one means by which Carson and Craig believed they could maintain cohesion in their organisation. This was as much for propaganda value as for any other reason — to convince public opinion at home and abroad of the solidarity, determination and self-control of Unionists.
After much consideration as to the wording, it was suggested that a model might be the Scottish National Covenant of 1638 which was a protest against the King's right to decide how the Scottish Church should be governed. A special commission was appointed to adapt the wording to suit Ulster's circumstances, when it was realised that a shorter and plainer-English version would be more suitable. This was drafted by Thomas Sinclair, a Belfast merchant and leader of the Ulster Liberal Unionism that had broken with the Liberal party on the Home Rule issue.
When the covenant was submitted to the Protestant Churches, a crucial change and note of caution was introduced. The Presbyterians advised that the obligations on signatories should be confined to the present crisis as no one could predict what circumstances might arise in the future.
Prepartations for Ulster Day
In August that year, newspapers announced that Saturday 28 September 1912 was to be 'Ulster Day', when Unionists would dedicate themselves to the covenant.
James Craig masterminded a covenant campaign of 11 meetings to be held over 10 days in September 1912, beginning in west Ulster and sweeping towards a crescendo in Belfast. Carson was the principal speaker at these rallies, designed to explain the purpose of the covenant and the responsibilities involved in signing.
On 23 September 1912 the Ulster Unionist Council (UUC) passed a resolution pledging itself to the covenant and set out a case for doing so. During its meeting, one of the largest union flags ever made - measuring 48 by 25 feet - was hung as a backdrop.
A central Ulster Day Committee was appointed to handle preparations for obtaining as many signatures as possible at various centres throughout Ulster. The committee was headed by Dawson Bates, Secretary of the UUC, Colonel TVP McCammon of the Orange Order, and Captain Frank Hall representing the Unionist Clubs
Circulars were distributed to local Ulster Day Committees which arranged for Unionists to have the opportunity to sign the covenant in their own districts, and to make sure that over 500 halls and other suitable premises were made available.
On Wednesday 25 September, 700 large cardboard boxes containing copies of the covenant and the declaration printed on cardboard in large bold type for display in halls, and forms for signing were sent out from Belfast's Old Town Hall for distribution in the city and in rural areas.
The signing of the covenant was conducted in an atmosphere of near religious fervour, appearing to many like a crusade, with comparisons being drawn between the Ulster Covenant and the Old Testament Covenant of the Israelites.
Religious services to invoke divine aid and to encourage signatures were held throughout in Protestant churches with the favoured hymn being 'O God, our help in ages past'. Charles Frederick D'Arcy, later Archbishop of Armagh, stated his Church’s reason for supporting the covenant:
"We hold that no power, not even the British Parliament, has the right to deprive us of our heritage of British citizenship".
Factories and the shipyard in Belfast were idle and silent, allowing their workers the opportunity to go to church and then to congregate at the City Hall. The church services ended about noon. Carson and other Unionist leaders left the Ulster Hall and walked the short distance along Bedford Street to the City Hall, preceded by the Boyne Standard and with a guard of men wearing bowler hats and carrying sticks. A body of 2,500 men drawn from Orange lodges and Unionist Clubs marshalled the crowds outside the City Hall throughout the day.
At the City Hall entrance Carson was welcomed by the Lord Mayor and Corporation, the Poor Law Guardians, the Water Board and the Harbour Commissioners. Inside, a circular table draped with the Union flag was placed in the entrance hall. On it was set the covenant together with a silver inkstand and Carson’s silver pen. Carson signed first, followed by Lord Londonderry and by representatives of the Protestant Churches, and then by James Craig.
The Unionist Club marshals admitted the general public in batches of four or five hundred at a time until 11.00 pm. Lines of specially made temporary desks set out along the corridors allowed 540 signatures to be taken at a time. Elsewhere there were similar scenes of people enthusiastic to sign. At the Ulster Hall women signed the declaration. The Duke of Abercorn, in failing health, signed under an oak tree on his estate at Baronscourt. Lord Templetown signed at Castle Upton on an old drum of the Templepatrick Infantry.
Martin Ross (of Somerville and Ross) wrote:
"Four at a time the men stooped and and fixed their signatures and were quickly replaced by the next batch. Down the street in a market house the women were signing, women who had come in flagged motors, and on bicycles and on foot...
In the City Hall of Belfast the people were signing at the rate of about a hundred and fifty a minute; here there was no hypnotic force of dense masses, no whirlwind of emotion, only the unadorned and individual action of those who had left their fields and taken their lives and liberties in their hands laying them forth in the open sunshine as the measure of their resolve".
In Dublin the covenant was signed by 2,000 men who could prove that they were born in Ulster. It was also signed in major cities in England and Scotland, and in places further afield including aboard the SS Lake Champlain. From this vessel a letter was received attaching the signatures of 12 second-class passengers, four men and eight women. Among the third-class passengers, 34 had also got the covenant text, stuck it to a piece of paper and signed.
On the evening of Ulster Day, Carson left the Ulster Club in Belfast to travel by wagonette the short distance to the docks, where he boarded the steamer for Liverpool. A journey that should have taken a few minutes took an hour, as around 70,000 people crammed Castle Place beseeching Carson not to leave.
As the steamer slowly made its way up Belfast Lough the vast crowd stood singing "Rule Britannia" and "God Save the King". When Carson went ashore at Liverpool next morning a 150,000-strong crowd greeted him with "O God our help in ages past" and conducted him in procession.
Information collected in the covenant
The forms were foolscap-sized sheets, with spaces for ten signatures, made up into blocks of ten sheets per folder, and headed by the text of the covenant together with the parliamentary division, district and place of signing. Underneath were lines ruled for names and addresses of signatories.
Additional information on the folder cover was the agent's name. Also sent were what would become souvenirs for signatories, individual parchment copies of their signatures in old English type and headed with the Red Hand of Ulster.
Those who signed the Ulster Covenant
237,368 men signed the covenant and 234,046 women signed the corresponding women's declaration, totalling nearly half a million signatures.
The signatures were made by Ulster Unionists across a strikingly large breadth of society including labourers, professionals, aristocracy and clergy. It was not only in Ulster that the covenant was signed. Signatures were collected in major cities in England and Wales and in Dublin, with 2,000 signatures were given by those who could prove they were born in Ulster.
The views of non-Unionists on Ulster Day
The views of non-Unionists on Ulster Day were reflected by the Irish News:
At last the curtain has been rung down on the Ulster Day farce, and we may hope for, at any rate, a temporary return to the civic pride on which Belfast prides itself so tremendously. The Carson circus having toured North East Ulster…gave its final and greatest performance entitled, ‘Signing the Covenant’, in Belfast on Saturday, and wound up its fantastic career in a paroxysm of flag waving and noise, emblematic of the meaningless nonsense of the whole grotesque scheme from start to finish…
…..The stage lost an actor manager when the law and politics claimed Sir Edward Carson. His unfailing instinct for theatrical effect was never better exemplified than on the Saturday in his ‘state’ progress from the Ulster Hall to the City Hall. Something was expected from him as the central figure in the ‘historic’ scene and he rose to the occasion splendidly.
He evidently aimed at mimicking some great pose from history; he had set himself a part which was a mixture of Cromwell, King William III, with just a suggestion of King Charles I on the way to execution; but he rather spoiled the effect by introducing a swagger reminiscent of Sidney Carton’s farewell.
Bareheaded, slightly stooped, and with a well assumed expression of portentousness, he strode between the ranks of his bodyguard - partly Orangemen and Unionist Club members - past batteries of cameras and cinematograph machines, while behind him a standard bearer carried the suspiciously fresh looking orange flag, which is supposed to have waved above the battle smoke of the Boyne. In its present keeping it is not likely to be flourished in anything more exciting than a street riot or a shipyard pogrom….
…….Taking the day’s proceedings altogether they were tame as a demonstration of enthusiasm and highly ludicrous as an indication of the ‘grim and determined’ spirit. The whole grotesque production has been a political failure, though a comic success, and now that it is past and gone, one wonders how many thousands the Ulster Unionists have spent on staging it……
Impact of the Ulster Covenant
One of the most striking features of the covenant campaign and of its signing was the breadth of support given to it across all classes of Unionism, including labourers, professionals, gentry, aristocracy and clergy. Another feature was the high turn-out of women to sign the declaration - 228,991 women signed in Ulster compared to 218,206 men, and 5,055 women signed elsewhere as against 19,162 men, making a grand total of 471,414.
It is not clear what effect the Ulster Covenant campaign had on the Home Rule Bill's parliamentary progress. When parliament reconvened for its autumn session, Asquith tried to force the bill through the Commons by ruthless use of the guillotine, but on 11 November it was narrowly defeated by 228 votes to 206. Uproar and acrimony ensued in the Commons.
By early 1913, things had quietened down again in the House. The Home Rule Bill continued to be debated hotly, and finally passed the Commons only to be thrown out by the Lords at the end of January, by 326 votes to 69.
A period of time had then to elapse before the bill could become law (the Lords had only a power to delay). By then it was 1914, War had broken out, and a compromise was agreed that the bill would pass into law accompanied by a suspending act, effectively postponing Home Rule until peacetime.
Back in Ulster, the covenant organisers had demonstrated their ability to mobilise huge numbers of people for their cause. In January 1913 this was carried a stage further when the Ulster Unionist Council decided that the volunteers should become the Ulster Volunteer Force and should be given training in the use of firearms. Recruitment was to be limited to 100,000 men between the ages of 17 and 65 who had signed the covenant. So the stage was set for the next phase of resistance to Home Rule.