SEPTEMBER marked the centenary of the signing of Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant. The Covenant, which was the most memorable moment of Ulster Unionists’ two-year resistance campaign against Herbert Asquith’s Third Irish Home Rule Bill, encapsulated the rationale behind the virulent opposition of the Province’s Protestant community to the proposed legislation.
Whilst it was Ulster loyalists’ obdurate determination in resisting Home Rule which would prove to be the crucial factor in staving off unity, the numerous pledges of support and sympathy emanating from the “great and good” in the rest of the United Kingdom provided considerable sustenance for Ulster Unionists during many tense moments over these two years.
These “friends in high places” and Covenant Day 1912 are at the centre of Alan F Parkinson’s new book Friends in High Places – Ulster’s resistance to Irish Home Rule, 1912-14, which was published on the eve of the Covenant Day centenary by the Ulster Historical Foundation.
Support for Ulster came from most sections of the British establishment, including the Conservative Party, the aristocracy, press “barons” and Army officers. Ulster Unionists received immeasurable political backing from the top rungs of the Conservative Party, both in Parliament and in their extra-parliamentary protestations.
Andrew Bonar Law, the relatively new Tory leader, had strong Ulster family connections and assured a large gathering of British and Irish Unionists at Blenheim Palace in July 1912 that he could “imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster can go in which I would not be prepared to support them”.
Undoubtedly Bonar Law’s support for Ulster Unionists (and indeed that of many other Tories) was genuine. They sympathised with Ireland’s “patriotic minority” whose devotion to ideals such as the sanctity of the United Kingdom and British Empire they shared.
However, political pragmatism was also a factor in explaining the ‘marriage’ of the Conservative and Irish Unionist parties, just as it was for the alliance between Liberals and Irish Nationalists. Indeed, Ireland was perceived to be a potential vote-winning issue for the Tories.
Additional parliamentary support came from the huge majority of Tory-leaning peers in the House of Lords, who also gave their backing to Ulster’s Protestants in the form of pressure group activity and extra-parliamentary protest against the impending Home Rule legislation.
Organisations such as Lord Willoughby de Broke’s British League for the Support of Ulster and the Union and Lord Alfred Milner’s British Covenant movement provided much-needed practical support, notably in the latter stages of the anti-Home Rule campaign.
The BLSUU was unambiguous in its contempt towards any compromise (such as exclusion of part of Ulster), preferring the destruction of the Bill for all of Ireland, and many of its branches formed euphemistically-titled “athletic clubs”.
Milner’s group collected nearly two million signatures for a British Covenant, and he also organised a “monster” meeting in support of Ulster at London’s Hyde Park in April 1914. Even the King, George V, would express concerns that his constitutional position might be compromised and that his military might have to intervene in a civil war situation in Ulster. George V eventually called a conference in July 1914, but this Buckingham Palace meeting of key Irish and British political leaders was doomed to failure.
Further support for the predicament of Ulster Unionists was provided by sympathetic newspaper editors and press “barons” such as J L Garvin and Alfred Harmsworth.
Supportive leading articles, detailed, on-the-spot reports and cartoons lampooning unionism’s opponents featured in a range of right-leaning papers and journals including the Times, Daily Telegraph, Pall Mall Gazette and Daily Express.
Harmsworth, who was later created Lord Northcliffe, never wavered in his support for Carson and the Times and Daily Mail encouraged their respectively influential and vast readerships to empathise with Ulster’s vulnerable Protestant community.
Garvin, who edited both the Observer and Pall Mall Gazette, personally covered many of the great occasions of the Ulster Unionists’ campaign, including Covenant Day, where he admired the “concentrated will and courage” of the Ulstermen.
Friends In High Places: Ulster’s resistance to Irish Home Rule, 1912-14 by Alan F Parkinson. Published by the Ulster Historical Foundation, paperback, priced £14.99.