Comment: Ulster’s Covenant at 100 – what does the future look like?

Paul Hagan explores the position of the UUP 100 years after the Ulster Covenant. Is there still a place for them in Northern Irish politics?

 

Paul Hagan is a member of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland; he works as an adviser in the European Parliament but he writes here in an exclusively personal capacity

In a week in which Northern Ireland will see the centenary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant, the UUP’s new leadership failed to inspire at its annual conference.

Mike Nesbitt, a former TV personality who only joined the party a few years ago, was elected in March to try to bring the party new vision and restore its old fortunes; however, his party continues to suffer a lack of purpose and ambition.

Since becoming the smaller unionist partner in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing coalition, they struggle to articulate an alternative platform to challenge the DUP or offer an alternative vision.

In a pedestrian speech at the Titanic Building in Belfast last Saturday, the new UUP leader spoke of reaching out beyond the Protestant community to a more “pluralist and progressive politics”, but he didn’t say what shape these would take and then returned to discussions about Ulster’s history.

Nesbitt’s party’s main problem is one all unionists may have to address this week and beyond: if the constitutional situation they define themselves by is secured and settled, then what exactly is the point of the party or of Ulster unionism in general?

The larger and more populist DUP, under first minister Peter Robinson, have recently started to brand themselves “the party for Northern Ireland”, and hinted at the need to tackle sectarianism and balance the economy. However, their 2011 manifesto (pdf) said their first priority for this “second century” of Northern Ireland was simply to “make union stronger” – economic issues come in fourth.

While unionist politicians of all parties continue to show their opposition to a United Ireland and cite their Britishness as their selling-point, there is very little discussion of what “Britishness” means or how what its future might be.

It would take a very brave unionist politician to make critical remarks about the Royal Family or any war the British Army may be involved in, as these could be seen as undermining the solidity of Northern Ireland’s British identity and make traditional Protestant voters uneasy.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland continues to face the same challenges that affect most post-industrial regions in Europe.

At 8.2%, unemployment is now above the UK average, and among 18-24 year olds it is well above, at almost 24%, which may help explain the huge brain drain among the province’s young. In 2009, the Rowntree Foundation found persistent poverty rates were more than double those of the rest of the UK.

What continues to worry observes in Ulster and elsewhere most is the economy continues to float on a tide of UK government and EU subsidies, with the public sector employing 30% of the workforce. [Source: 2009-10 Northern Ireland Public Sector Pay and Workforce Technical Annex (pdf)]

In Europe’s self-confident and autonomous regions such as Catalonia, Bavaria or Corsica, regionalist politicians are happy to play-on regional identity and play-off against central government to boost their prestige and talk of secession, with increasing assertiveness. However, even the issue of developing Northern Ireland’s corporation tax level provokes anxiety among unionist politicians.

The worrying news for unionists is that after 2014 there mightn’t be much of a union to support if the SNP at Holyrood get their way. Scottish independence has been little discussed in unionist circles, where the Saltire flag and Scots culture occupy an increasing significance in Ulster Protestant identity.

In January this year, first minister Peter Robinson and his Welsh counterpart Carwyn Jones made a joint plea for Alex Salmond not to go it alone.

Robinson said at the time:

“I speak as a unionist but also as an Ulster Scot. Clearly I have a massive interest in what happens and what decision the people of Scotland will take.”

Today’s and all this week’s Covenant commemorations will no doubt bring out the great and good of Northern Ireland’s establishment to romanticise the last hundred years of resistance and defiance. For a century Ulster Unionism has been very good at telling the world what it is against, but it has yet to articulate to anyone what exactly it is for.

One Response to “Comment: Ulster’s Covenant at 100 – what does the future look like?”

  1. anne

    Paul Hagan wondered what exactly Ulster Unionism is for. It was based on defiance
    “The Ulster Covenant was an oath that every man in Ulster would be called upon to sign. It stated that their right to remain citizens of the United Kingdom would be defended by “all means which may be found necessary”. The Covenant itself was never presented to the government. In fact, it was never presented to anyone. It was simply a huge statement of defiance and intent”,
    //www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-politics-19718680
    There was a lot more to it than the narrow sectarianism of the Unionists and Orangemen. It included the threat of armed rebellion, encouraging troops and officers to mutiny, seeking foreign intervention to subvert the legal government, conspiracy to undermine democracy As early as the mid-1880s Randolph Churchill had decided to play the Orange card, hoping that loyal Ulster would cause enough trouble to frighten the Liberal Government, cause a general election and let the Tory Party back into power. At a rally in the Ulster Hall he called upon the Orange community to prove their loyalty amounted to more than words and empty slogans.
    Conservative leader Bonar Law warned that if civil war started in the North of Ireland it would spread very quickly to the rest of the UK
    In March 1914 Winston Churchill told Bradford liberals that the UK was threatened not only by the Ulster Unionists but by “some sections of the propertied classes in England” who were “conspiring to subvert parliamentary government and to challenge all the constitutional foundations of society”
    Prime Minister Asquith agreed that the conspiracy of Ulster Unionists and English Tories was “a deadly blow aimed at the very foundations on which democratic government rests”.
    The threat of armed uprising in Ulster was a real threat only a few months before the outbreak of WWI.
    “Ulster will fight” was incitement to rebellion against the UK government. Under the leadership of Carson and his associates rebellion was openly preached, men were drilled and arms were landed. Any attempt by the authorities to seek and seize the weapons meant the immediate mobilisation of the UVF . The assistance of the Kaiser was invoked, the forces of the crown were defied and their commanders seduced from their allegiances (Curragh mutiny, with officers resigning their commissions when told they were to be sent North to deal with the Ulster Unionists).
    Today in the 21sr century Ulster Unionism and Loyalism appears to be for fascism,
    Nick Griffin of the BNP enjoyed himself with some brethren.
    UPDATE: Mr Griffin tweets the following tonight:
    “So Ulster pics have upset my Republican stalkers. Tell you what, the bodran can’t match the lambeg, you Fenian bastards.”
    //bangordub.wordpress.com/2012/09/29/now-who-is-that-in-the-middle/
    It also appears to be about rioting and bigotry
    The heritage of unionism seems reduced to rioting and bigotry. //sluggerotoole.com/2012/09/29/the-covenant-had-its-day-a-new-one-is-needed/comment-page-1/#comments
    And lack of respect for catholics/nirish nationalists/republicans who constitute about 40% of the population in NI
    Respect? bandsman urinating on the church gate s//sluggerotoole.com/2012/10/01/respect/
    It’s importance exists only in the mind of those who celebrate it.
    Yesterday and today there was no major TV or press coverage in the UK.
    No member of HM’s family or government attended the march/celebration.
    Did any world-famous celebrities attend?
    What about famous writers or scientists?
    Artistes and Painters? //sluggerotoole.com/2012/09/29/the-covenant-had-its-day-a-new-one-is-needed/comment-page-1/#comments
    The GFA/Belfast Agreement is the new dispensation
    The 1920 Ireland Act was repealed, the ROI abrogated articles 2 and 3 (?) of its Constitution
    Nobody mentioned repealing or abrogating the Ulster Covenant.
    Perhaps because it didn’t/doesn’t count for much?
    Maybe someone should inform the marchers
    In any case they continue their dominance and supremacy with over 2,500 Loyalist parades a year in NI

    Total number of parades Parades by type

    Loyalist Other Nationalist

    2003/4 – 3124 2296 702 126
    2004/5 – 3342 2526 621 195
    2005/6 – 3292 2408 (73%) 756 (23%) 128 (4%)
    //www.paradescommission.org/fs/doc/publications/annual-report-and-financial-statements-for-year-ended-31-march-2006.pdf

    2008/9 – 3801 65% 32% 3%
    //www.paradescommission.org/fs/doc/publications/final-annual-report-9-june.pdf

    2009-10 67% 29% 3%

    2010-11 – 3962 66% 31% 3%
    //www.paradescommission.org/fs/doc/publications/2011-ar-final.pdf

    From 1 April 2005 to 31 March 2006 the percentage of parades organised by the loyal orders and other loyalist
    bands represents 73% of the overall total.

    The number of parades organised by nationalist groups remains relatively low and last year fell to 128, from 195
    in the previous year. This represents 4% of the total number of parades.

    “Other” parades, which represent 23% of the total, include civic parades, charity events, galas and ex-service
    organisations.

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