Wednesday, 3 October 2012

On the Ulster Covenant

The Ulster Covenant
[T]here’s no denying that as Ian Paisley kick-started the Troubles, without Edward Carson there might not have been an Easter Rising. - Ruth Dudley Edwards

London hears the Irish gun more keenly than the voice of Irish reason. For decades it had steadfastly obstructed the patient and courteously expressed nationalist demands for Irish self-government, but almost overnight yielded to the threat of violence from the Ulster loyalists. - Kevin Myers

The Ulster Covenant contributed to the cycle of violence that resulted in the Easter Rising, War of Independence and Civil War. - Eoghan Harris

Though I like and admire Ruth Dudley Edwards, it is not often we find common ground in the subject of Irish history. Moreover, to find myself nodding in agreement with Kevin Myers and Eoghan Harris on any subject - let alone Ireland - is a little disconcerting. Yet all three are right about the Ulster Covenant.

By signing the Covenant, Irish unionists committed themselves not just to the exemption of Ulster from Home Rule, but to "using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland." We saw what that meant when the Ulster Volunteers were established within a few months of the Covenant being signed. Indeed, that particular phrase ironically foreshadowed the pledge in the Sinn Féin 1918 general election manifesto (the widely-circulated, uncensored version) to "use any and every means available" to achieve a 32-county republic.

In 1912, Irish unionists may have considered themselves a distinct people vis-à-vis Irish nationalists, but they did not see themselves as a distinct national group nor did they have aspirations to nationhood. Indeed, most unionists saw themselves as a loyal group of British citizens in Ireland who should not have to endure the very limited measure of self-government promised by the Third Home Rule Bill.

The text of this bill makes clear that Westminster had the power to veto any legislation passed by a Home Rule parliament in Dublin:
Notwithstanding the establishment of the Irish Parliament or anything contained in this Act, the supreme power and authority of the Parliament of the United Kingdom shall remain unaffected and undiminished over all persons, matters, and things within His Majesty's dominions.
Moreover, the Bill had strong protections against "Rome rule":
In the exercise of their power to make laws under this Act, the Irish Parliament shall not make a law so as either directly or indirectly to establish or endow any religion, or prohibit the free exercise thereof, or give a preference, privilege, or advantage, or impose any disability or disadvantage, on account of religious belief or religious or ecclesiastical status, or make any religious belief or religious ceremony a condition of the validity of any marriage. Any law made in contravention of the restrictions imposed by this section shall, so far as it contravenes those restrictions, be void.
I don't believe that the only option available to unionists back then was resisting Home Rule by any means necessary. For instance, they could have negotiated with Irish nationalists and the British government in order to create a non-sectarian, secular, self-governing Ireland that would remain under the Crown and part of the British Empire. Fundamentally though, I believe that if a country within any union or federation has a long history as a distinct national entity (especially prior to its entry into that union/federation), if it has a reasonable population size and if it is viable as an independent state with substantial majority support, then its integrity should be respected and it should be the unit of self-determination.

If Ulster unionists were within their rights to demand a partition of Ireland in 1914, then wouldn't Scottish nationalists also be entitled to demand a partition of Scotland if that were their wish? Indeed, wouldn't the same such right apply should Muslim majorities emerge in Bradford or Leicester and demand their own statelets?

Minorities ought to be respected, but not pandered to.

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