SPEECH BY REV. MERVYN GIBSON, CO. GRAND CHAPLAIN, AT THE LAUNCH IN PARLIAMENT BUILDINGS, STORMONT, OF THE COVENANT CELEBRATIONS FOR BELFAST COUNTY GRAND ORANGE LODGE.
In August 1912 in Bad Homburg, at a famous German spa town near Frankfurt. a package arrived for a visitor who was holidaying there. The visitor opened the package and read the document it contained, I can almost imagine a smile creep across the recipient’s stony face as his sharp legal mind examined and dissected each phrase; every word weighed and tested in its purpose and meaning.
The man of course was Sir Edward Carson and the document was the Ulster Covenant - the draft had been sent to him for approval.
It received Carson’s imprimatur when on 21 August 1912 he stated “I would not alter a word in the declaration which I consider excellent”. It is this excellent document of 188 words that we seek to celebrate the centenary thereof next year.
I would contest that had the Covenant not been written and subscribed too, we would not be standing in this Parliament building today, because there would have been no need for it in an Irish State. Had people not been of firm confliction and prepared to take resolute action as indicated by the Ulster Covenant we would not be celebrating Her Majesties Diamond Jubilee next year, Elizabeth all would not be our Sovereign.So we have much to celebrate in the Ulster Covenant, not just its content, but what it represents, as the birth certificate of Northern Ireland. In 1776 - 56 men signed the American Declaration of Independence. In 1916 - 7 men signed the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. But in 1912 virtually an entire community, men and women put their signatures to the Ulster Covenant and related Declaration. My brief this evening is to talk about the Ulster Covenant, and provide an appetiser as to what is possible and what is required as we prepare to celebrate its Centenary.
Let me set the scene with a swift overview. Irish Nationalists sought home rule - a Parliament in Dublin giving them a majority say over the whole island. British Prime Minister Gladstone introduced the 1st Home Rule Bill in 1886, but it was defeated in the House of Commons. A second Home Rule Bill was passed in the Common in 1893, but defeated in the House of Lords. However, new legislation the Parliament Act 1911 changed parliamentary procedure, should a Bill be passed by the Commons - the Lords could only stop it for two years, on the third year if it was passed by the Commons and again rejected by the Lords it would automatically become law. Therefore the way was open for a Home Rule Bill. On 11, April 1912, the 3rd Home Rule Bill was passed by the Commons, but rejected by the Lords – the reality was that in 1914 Nationalists would have secured Home Rule. Unionists began to organise to resist such situation.
On 23 September, 1911, at a huge demonstration was held in the grounds of James Craig’s house, Craigavon House, about mile from this location, Craig was a partner in Dunville Whiskey Distillery and a veteran of the Boer War. He was also a prominent Orangeman and MP for East Down. The demonstration was attended by 50,000 – 100,000 depending on the accounts you read – suffice to say there was a brave crowd that you wouldn’t want to be feeding on the 12th day. Sir Edward Carson, the new unionist leader, was presented to the gathering and told those assembled that he was entering into “a compact”, an agreement with them. Stating, “with the help of God you and I joined together – I giving you the best I can, and you giving all your strength behind me we will yet defeat the most nefarious conspiracy that has ever been hatched against a free people” . He was of course talking about the plan to introduce 3rd Home Rule Bill. Carson had pledged himself to the cause of Ulster at a demonstration at Balmoral on Easter Tuesday, April 1912, when estimates of the crowd are put at 200,000 Bonar Law, the new leader of the Conservative Party, invited everyone present to raise their hands and repeat after him, “Never under any circumstances will we submit to Home Rule”. That day the people of Ulster pledged themselves to the cause of Ulster. It was at this gathering that the idea to formalise these verbal pledges into a document against Home Rule was born. A document that would articulate a community’s determination and resolve to resist Home Rule and I quote by “using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland.” The Covenant was drafted by the leading Presbyterian and liberal Unionist Thomas Sinclair an exemplary wordsmith and true Ulsterman, Sinclair had been the mastermind behind the Ulster Unionist Convention 1892. Some think Sinclair Seaman’s Presbyterian Church was named in his honour, however it was actually named to honour his uncle John Sinclair. The Covenant was inspired by the Scottish Covenant of 1581, but Sinclair took the title from the Scottish Solemn League & Covenant 1643 although its spirit is derived from the Scottish National Covenant of 1638. As I stated Carson approved the text while on holiday in Germany during August and on 19 September 1912 on the steps of Craigavon House, Carson read the text of the Covenant to assembled journalists. with the Ulster Unionist Council officially endorsing the wording on the on 23rd September. The scene was set for the signing 28th September 1912 was declared Ulster Day and on that date 471,414 men and women signed the Ulster Solemn League & Covenant and related Declaration, men signed Covenant and ladies the related declaration. It is this act of loyalty and the events surrounding it that the County Grand Orange Lodge of Belfast plans to celebrate next year.
What I shared was only a synopsis of the history and heritage involved, a summary of events that were to shape the Unionist people and their future. It is how we celebrate the Ulster Covenant that will shape the many centenaries that will occur in what is being described as the forthcoming Decade of Centenaries. A decade that will take us up the centenary of the founding of Northern Ireland in 1921. It is important that all these centenaries are commemorated, celebrated and marked, depending on your perspective of the event, in a way that brings understanding and engagement, in a climate of toleration. However, we cannot do it alone or with a few committed individuals. The Covenant was signed by a community and it needs celebrated by a community.
There are so many stories that emanate from the Covenant that need to be told and heard, and many of us are indebted to people like Gordon Lucy and others who have unlocked in us an interest and passion for our past, not as mere history, but in the events that shaped and moulded our character and world view. Let me further wet your appetite in this regard.
There’s the story of the logistics surrounding the Covenant:
On Wednesday, 25 September, 700 large cardboard boxes containing copies of the Covenant and forms for signing, were sent out from Belfast’s Old Town Hall for distribution in the city and in rural areas. 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. The Covenant could be signed at over 500 Orange Halls, Churches and private homes across Ulster. At city hall 540 signatures could sign the Covenant simultaneously and this went on to 11pm. 19,162 men and 5,055 women signed the Covenant outside Ulster 2000 men in Dublin alone – bearing in mind this was the Ulster Covenant. One my favourite images of day is people signing the covenant in Greyfriars church yard, Edinburgh on top of the “covenanters stone”. It was signed on ships in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. The logistics of the 28th September is a story in itself.
The churches role in the Covenant. Seven Anglican bishops signed the Ulster Covenant, including Bishop Montgomery of Tasmania, the father of Field Marshal Montgomery. At the City Hall on September 28, 1912, Charles Frederick D’Arcy, the Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore and future Archbishop of Armagh, was the fourth signatory to the Covenant and the Dean of Belfast was the fifth. The Moderator Presbyterian Church and President Methodist Church.Although some stated the Covenant was driven by CoI and Orange.As a response on 1 February 1912, 25,000 – 50,000 male Presbyteriansattended a convention held in Churches in Belfast to show their support for covenant.In the early 18th century Ulster flourished economically under the Crown.Belfast was one of the major industrial powerhouses of the world.it boasted the largest shipyard, ropeworks, tobacco factory, linen spinning mill, tea machinery works, aerated water factory and dry dock in the worldUlster Unionists believed that this prosperity and positionwould be jeopardised by Home Rule. Covenant stated Home Rule would be“Subversive of our civil and religious freedom.”Unionists had long feared that a Home Rule parliament would besubject to Roman Catholic teaching, The enforcement of the Ne Temere decree by Pope Pius X in 1908,fuelled such an assertion. The decree declared that marriages between Roman Catholics and Protestants not conducted by the rites of the Roman Catholic Church were null and void. It also required the children of mixed marriages to be brought up as Roman Catholics. The slogan Home Rule is Rome Rule was real in 1912.By product - was Women’s Loyal Orange Institution was formedin 1912 as a result of the implementation of Ne Temere decreeWhat role did that new body play in Covenant.The covenant spoke of “Destructive of our citizenship and Equal citizenship”“Perilous to the unity of the Empire”Ulster men and women had played an importantpart in the acquisition, defence and administration of Empire,they did not want to see that jeopardised by Home Rule.The story of Orange Order and Covenant – one worth tellingWhen the religious services ended at 12 noon on Ulster Day Carson and the Unionist leaders paraded from Ulster Hall toCity Hall , preceded by the Boyne Standard, a faded yellow silk banner that had been carried before William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne.He was escorted by a smartly turned-out guard of men wearing bowler hats and carrying batons. I would say from No 6 District – smartly turned out, but Noel Liggett’s excellent book about History Organism in Ballynafeigh names 11 brethren No 10 District who were part of Carson’s body guard. An example of how there are many local stories to tell;Stories that can be found in our minute books and research of local newspapers, stories that we need to tell.The Orange Order was pivotal to all the Covenant and emergence Ulster Unionism ,the Institution was the glue that held it all together and provided the structure and supportSo it’s fitting we the County Grand Orange Lodge of Belfast are at the heart of celebrations, in partnership with thosefellow Unionists from whatever hue who are proud of their history that shaped and moulded their loyalty and faith.The story of Covenant warts and all needs to be heard,there was opposition to the events of Ulster Day. John Frederick MacNeice, the future Bishop of Down, Connor & Dromore, father of the poet Louis MacNeice and Rector of St Nicholas in Carrickfergus, declined to sign the Covenant but on religious rather political grounds.Revd J. B. Armour, the Presbyterian Home Ruler minister from Ballymoney, dismissed Ulster Day as Protestant fool’s day and regarded Carson as greatest living enemy of Protestantism. Not surprisingly, the nationalist Irish News tried to dismiss Ulster Day as of little consequence. The paper asserted that most of the signatories had never bothered to read the document; even of those who had bothered, most would not have understood it. The few who had both read and understood the document had little intention of honouring their pledge. Events, however, were to prove the Irish News completely wrong. Ordinary unionists clearly did value their cherished position of equal citizenship within the United Kingdom and civil and religious freedom . Indeed we still do.
The Covenant centenary creates an opportunity to explore issues thatit references and are still relevant today,although the laugauge may have changedSocial Justice – “material well-being of Ulster”Human Rights – “our civil and religious freedom”Citizenship – “our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United KingdomIdentity – “loyal subjects of His Gracious Majesty King George V”Faith and Politics – “humbly relying on the God whom our fathers in days of stress and trial confidently trusted”. All themes that today will still present challenges and opportunities.All these stories and more are deserving of exploration and articulation; Plays; Paintings, Poems and Prose need to be produced Debates, Dinners and Dialogue need plannedand of course parades organised.But, sadly the response to the Ulster Covenant celebrations is not what it ought to be. Not least by academics and artists, by museums and libraries, by playwrights and local government Yes there have been meetings and sympathy expressed, but overall commitment is hesitant and resources unannounced Before those with their hands of the tiller of power feel I’m having a go at them let me say - I am to an extent, but it is not to you alone I direct my comments. We all need to mobilise enthusiasm, ignite a passion and encourage involvement in the Covenant centenary. Every man and women present has a role to play, just as they had in 1912. It is up to us to honour the commitment of those whose toil and tenacity secured our cultural, religious and political freedom. Commemorating the signing of the Ulster Covenant and the events surrounding it are deserving of our energies and efforts. It was a struggle that we won and reap the benefits from to this very day.On the morning papers of 28 September 1912 a poem by Rev WF Marshall Presbyterian minister and Orangeman linking the Ulster Covenant and the struggles of the Scottish Covenanters appeared – entitled The Blue BannerThe Blue BannerFirm-leagued we face the future, tho’ the road be dark and steep, The road that leads to honour is the lonely road we keep,And, though all the world forsake us, this is the course we hold, The course our fathers followed in the Cov’nant days of old.
We fain would look for comfort to the land from whence we came, Where still abide our kith and kin and clansmen of our name.Where lives were deemed of small account by valiant men and true, For Christ, His Crown, His Cov’nant and the war-worn folds of blue.
Long years have been and faded since the old-time banner waved, See! How it flashes once again ere dangers must be braved,The Cov’nant oath we now will swear that Britain may be told, We stand for faith and freedom and the memories of old.
For all they died for gladly in the homeland o’er the sea, For blood-won rights that still are ours as Ulsterborn and free,For the land we came to dwell in, and the martyr’s faith we hold - God grant we be as leal to these as were the men of old!
By the end of the Ulster Day, the unionist people had demonstrated their resolve – their zeal – their loyalty. The London Times opined that the events of Ulster Day brought to a close a fortnight memorable in the history of Ulster and remarked that 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 . The Covenant was Ulster’s birth certificate, a birthright that was won at Derry Aughrim Enniskillen and the Boyne a birthrigh that was secured by the blood of Ulstermen and women in the mud of Flanders and the fields of Picardy, on the beeches of Normandy and in the jungles of Burma a birthright that we still enjoy today. I said at beginning my brief was to give you an appetiser - an appetiser never fills me.There is a feast of Ulster Heritage and culture and history surrounding the Covenant to be shared and devoured. Stories that will educate friend and foe alike – debates that will challenge - exhibitions that will amaze celebrations that will create confidence in a people who have much to thank God for. May our commemorations in 2012 provide a legacy that will see the Covenant remain a living reality for generations to come. May each of us here this evening resolve to play our role in celebrating and commemorating Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant in 2012