Unionist opposition to Home Rule in Ireland had largely been expressed through large public demonstrations. On the 23rd September 1911 Sir Edward Carson addressed a rally of some 100,000 people, 50,000 of whom were Orangemen, at Craigavon House on the outskirts of East Belfast. Again, this time on the 9th April 1912, Easter Tuesday, a large Unionist demonstration was held on the show grounds of the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society, Balmoral in South Belfast. One hundred thousand men were in attendance as well as Andrew Bonar Law, Leader of the Conservative Party and seventy other English, Scottish and Welsh M.P.s. This demonstration, commonly known as the Balmoral review, was where the idea of an Ulster Solemn League and Covenant was born, “a pledge by Ulster unionists to resist home rule” (Buckland, 1973; 52-55; Stewart, 1966; 60).
The basis of the text of the Ulster Covenant was taken from the Scottish Covenant of 1580 on the recommendation of Belfast Businessman, B.W.D. Montgomery. After some work a much shorter and completely original Covenant was drafted by Thomas Sinclair, a prominent Liberal Unionist, Presbyterian and founder of the Ulster Reform Club in Belfast. The Covenant was then submitted and approved by the main Protestant Churches (Stewart, 1966; 61).
In August 1912 it was announced that Saturday 28th September was to be ‘Ulster Day’, when loyalists and Unionists would dedicate themselves to a solemn Covenant (Stewart, 1912; 62). Campaigning in the lead up to Ulster Day began in Enniskillen on the 18th September where Sir Edward Carson, Leader of Unionism, toured the Fermanagh town before making his way back to Craig’s house in Belfast to make the terms and wording of the Covenant public (Stewart, 1966; 62).
On the evening prior to Ulster Day a large rally was held at the Ulster Hall in Belfast where Carson was presented with a faded yellow silk banner, believed to have been carried before King William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne 1690 (Stewart, 1966; 63).
On the morning of Ulster Day religious services were held across Ulster, for, in the words of A.T.Q. Stewart (1966; 64), “the Protestant Churches had given the anti-Home Rule campaign their solemn blessing.” When religious services ended Carson and other Unionist Leaders’ walked up to Belfast City Hall, preceded by the Boyne Standard, under the guard of some 2,500 members of the Orange Order and Unionist Clubs. Carson was greeted by the Lord Mayor and the Corporation and other dignitaries and with everyone looking on Carson was the first to sign the Ulster Covenant using a special silver pen he had been presented with the night previous at the Ulster Hall by Sir James Craig (Stewart, 1966; 64).
The Covenant was then signed by Ulstermen across the Province, as well as Dublin and Edinburgh, where it was signed on the old Covenanters’ Stone in the old Greyfriars churchyard. Signatures were also collected in London, Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol and York by all those of Ulster origin (Stewart, 1966; 65). Some 218,206 men in Ulster alone signed the Covenant and 228,991 women signed the Declaration. Another 19,162 men and 5,055 women had signed elsewhere, resulting in a total of 471,414 signatures.
By November 1912, nearly some two months after Ulstermen and women, at home and in many other parts of the United Kingdom, had erupted in a display of unity and patriotism in signing the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant, the Third Home Rule Bill passed through the House of Commons and onto the House of Lords where it was thrown out. However this time the Bill would stick and Home Rule was to become a reality some two years after being rejected in the Upper House under the terms of the 1911 Parliament Act (Stewart, 1966; 67-68).
Buckland, P. (1972) Irish Unionism: One: The Anglo-Irish and the New Ireland 1885-1922. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan Ltd.
Buckland, P. (1973) Irish Unionism: Two: Ulster Unionism and the Origins of Northern Ireland 1885-1922. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan Ltd.
Stewart, A.T.Q. (1966) The Ulster Crisis. London: Faber and Faber.Share on Facebook