SPEAKING at a Covenant celebration event in Belfast City Hall on Thursday, First Minister Peter Robinson said “we owe our survival as British citizens” to our forefathers from 1912.
Mr Robinson was reflecting on one of the most turbulent periods in Irish history when the transfer of power to Dublin was a very real possibility.
He said: “For unionists the Ulster Covenant and its aftermath in the early part of the last century are not merely historic events – they ultimately led to the creation of Northern Ireland itself and to the preservation of our position within the United Kingdom.
“We owe our survival as British citizens to those who, when the challenge came, were not found wanting. Their legacy is our inheritance.”
Commenting on the idea that a part of the UK could be expelled against its will, Mr Robinson said: “Such a proposition today seems absurd. There is, in this age, an acceptance of the principle of consent. But not then.
“The fact that the unionists of Ulster were a distinct people entitled to determine their own future was not accepted. Not only was Ulster to be abandoned by London but it was to be governed from Dublin and placed on the exit road from the UK.”
Mr Robinson, who served as MP for East Belfast for three decades until 2010, spoke of the justification of those who opposed Home Rule.
He said: “Let nobody tell you they were not justified in resisting such tyranny. They did so confronted by arbitrary power and by using the methods of that age.
“That today the Union is more secure than before has defied all those in Britain and Ireland who conspired to wrench Northern Ireland from the Union.”
On the theme of unionist unity, Mr Robinson said the subject made some people uncomfortable but added: “Carson and Craig succeeded because unionism was united. We should not be so complacent that we feel we can afford to let unionism take off in a host of different directions.
“Yes, there is party political history and baggage to deal with but we must not allow vested interests in our organisations to block progress that would be in the interests of the wider unionist family.”
The City Hall civic dinner was attended by all political parties and is one of a number of events being held to mark ‘a decade of centenaries’.
Also speaking at the dinner, Lord Mayor Gavin Robinson said the Covenant celebrations provided “an opportunity to develop respect for the complexity of our interwoven and shared history”.
Mr Robinson said society was founded on “mutual understanding and inclusion” and added: “We all want to play a part in creating a new and better Belfast.
“We must all learn from the past and genuinely deepen our understanding of each other to help resolve divisions and create a shared and better future.”
This centenary week also sees the launch of a new book examining the turbulent period between the launch of the Titanic in 1912 and the First World War in 1914.
With Ulster’s unionist population threatened by the prospect of Home Rule it was their links to Westminster that eventually held the union together.
Written by Alan Parkinson, Friends in High Places documents the success of their political and propaganda campaigns.
The book has been described as “a timely reminder of the force of political unions and the determination of the unionist community to affirm their collective identity”.