Tonight was the inaugural meeting of the Grand Unionist Centenary Committee and , as Chairman, Personal Advisor on History and Culture to Rev Doctor Ian Paisley and Honorary Historian of the Ulster Unionist Party, I drew up the following Historical Synopsis and Mission Statement:
From 1912 – 1921 there were a series of events that occurred which had a significant impact on how Unionism was to evolve over the decades. Some of the centenary anniversaries of these events are fast approaching and as a result a wide spectrum of Unionism has come together to give guidance and leadership to the community on how those events could be remembered/celebrated. A Grand Unionist Centenary Committee has been formed consisting of various organisations/groups that have agreed to work diligently to co-ordinate events, events which we hope all can participate in. The first six major events selected bythe Committee are as follows:-
April 2012 – Balmoral Review
The Ulster Covenant was part of a response by Unionists in Ulster to the efforts of successive Westminster Governments to settle the Irish Question as they saw it by giving Ireland a degree of local autonomy known as Home Rule. The first two Home Rule Bills in 1886 and 1893 had been rejected by Parliament following pressure from Unionists in Great Britain and Ireland. In June 1892 a massive popular demonstration took place in Belfast, the Ulster Convention, which attracted some 20,000 opponents of Home Rule from throughout Ulster. This was chaired by the Duke of Abercorn. In April 1912 the British Prime Minister, Asquith, introduced a third Home Rule Bill in which the authority of the United Kingdom Government over all persons, matters and things in Ireland was clearly acknowledged. On the eve of the Bill’s introduction on 9th April another mass demonstration was held at Balmoral, attended by some 200,000 Unionists, including contingents from the Orange Order and Unionist Clubs who marched from the City Centre. This demonstration was addressed by Sir Edward Carson, the Leader of the Irish Unionist Party, and was supported by a large number of English and Scottish Conservative MPs and by their new Leader Andrew Bonar Law, who issued an assurance that the Ulster People were not alone, as their cause was also that of the Empire. This demonstration became known as the Balmoral Review.
September 2012 – Ulster Day
The Balmoral Review gave the Leadership of the Unionist people the idea of an Oath or a Pledge to resist Home Rule which could be taken up by the whole Unionist population and James Craig was asked to frame it. In this task he was assisted by a Belfast businessman and Secretary of the Ulster Club in Belfast B.D.W. Montgomery. When Montgomery suggested that Craig look at the Scottish Covenant of 1581 this gave an impetus to the drafting of what was to become Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant. Thomas Sinclair, who was Ulster’s foremost Liberal Unionist as well as Unionism’s finest wordsmith, completed the task of drafting the Covenant. He took the title of the document from the 1643 Scottish Solemn League and Covenant but in spirit it owed much to the Scottish National Covenant of 1638. Sinclair had formulated the concept of an Ulster Unionist Convention 20 years earlier. The text was forwarded to the Protestant Churches and the Presbyterian Church advised that its terms should be confined to the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland rather than a binding opposition in perpetuity. In August 1912 Carson was forwarded the text and he wrote to Craig on 21st August saying “I would not alter a word in the declaration which I consider excellent”. On 19th September from the steps of Craigavon House, Craig’s home, where he had addressed a large demonstration approximately 12 months earlier, Carson read out the text of the Covenant. The Ulster Unionist Council approved this text on 23rd December 1912 and the campaign to promote the signing of the Covenant on 28th September, which was designated Ulster Day, was commenced. In the end virtually the entire community put their signatures to the Covenant. In Ulster 218,206 men signed the Covenant and 228,991 women signed a parallel declaration associating themselves with the men in their uncompromising opposition of the new Home Rule Bill now before Parliament. A further 19,162 men and 5,055 women of Ulster origin signed in Dublin, Edinburgh, Glasgow, York, Liverpool, London, Manchester and Bristol. By the end of that historic Ulster Day the Unionist population had demonstrated their resolve to the Westminster Parliament, to the rest of the British people and to the world.
January 2013 – Formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force
The original Ulster Volunteers were formed by Edward Carson and James Craig as a Unionist militia to resist Home Rule for Ireland. On 13th January 1913 the Ulster Volunteer Force was formally established by the Ulster Unionist Council. Recruitment at this time was to be limited to 100,000 men to be aged between 17 and 65 years who had signed the Covenant and were to come under the charge of Lieutenant General Sir George Richardson KCB. Edward Carson stated that this Army of the People would be used to defend Ulster at all costs in any attempt to force it out of the Union. They would take as their motto the wording of the Covenant and the phrase ‘For God and Ulster’ was adopted as the UVF was formally instituted. They began drilling and marching and by the end of 1913 Carson’s volunteers numbered approximately 90,000 men. The Belfast based Young Citizens Volunteers, YCV, held its first meeting prior to the signing of the Solemn League and Covenant in Belfast City Hall. On the Committee was Major Fred Crawford and the President was the Robert James McMordie, the then Lord Mayor of Belfast, who was largely responsible for its formation. It was later to merge with the UVF.
April 2014 – The Larne Gun-running
The Larne Gun-running was a major operation organised by Major Fredrick H Crawford and Captain William Spender for the Ulster Unionist Council to equip the Ulster Volunteer Force. This operation involved the smuggling of almost 25,000 rifles and 3,000,000 rounds of ammunition from Germany with the shipments landing in Larne, Donaghadee and Bangor in the early hours between Friday 24th and Saturday 25th April 1914. This was probably the first time in history that motor vehicles had been used in a large scale for a military purpose with a striking success. Major Crawford had written to five arms manufacturers seeking quotations for the arms. With the use of aliases and disguises, Crawford attempted to smuggle in arms bought in mainland Britain and Germany but without success. He then secured the services of the SS Fanny which transported 216 tonnes of guns and ammunition he had purchased from an arms dealer in Hamburg. On 30th March 1914 these weapons were loaded onto the SS Fanny on the Baltic Island of Langeland. In an effort to evade the authorities as the ship neared Ireland Major Crawford purchased the SS Clyde Valley in Glasgow. On the 19th and 20th April off Tuskar Rock, Co. Wexford the entire cache of weapons was transported to the new ship which was renamed the Mountjoy II The UVF motor corps was summoned by the Co. Antrim Commander General Sir William Adair. The whole proceedings went well and nothing but the most perfect organisation and loyal co-operation on the part of all concerned carried it through without a single case of bloodshed.
May 2015 — March past City Call of the 36th Ulster Division
On the outbreak of the 1st World War an Ulster Division was formed of Lord Kitchener’s New Army. It was made up of members of the Ulster Volunteer Force who formed 13 additional battalions, with 3 existing regiments, The Royal Irish Fusiliers, The Royal Irish Rifles and The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, as well as The Young Citizen Volunteers. Training camps were built at Clandeboye, Ballykinlar, and Newtownards in the East, and Finner on the Donegal coast. The people of Ulster were given an opportunity to see their Division as a whole on 8th May 1915. A March Past took place through Belfast, the salute being taken by Major-General Sir Hugh McCalmont at the City Hall. It was a fine day; the City was dressed in bunting, and the main streets were filled with a mass of spectators, who had come by special trains from all over the Province. The troops were to remain two more months longer in Ireland, but that was the real farewell of Ulster to the Division she had given so nobly to the nation.
July 2016 — Battle of the Somme
On 1st July 1916 the 36th Ulster Division was deployed along the marshy valley of the river Ancre and the higher ground south of the river. Their immediate task was to cross the ridge and the German Second Line near Grandcourt, but in their path was not only the German Front Line but the Intermediate Line within which was the Schwaben Redoubt. On 1st July following the preliminary bombardment they quickly took the German Front Line but with the rest of the Division attacking under creep bombardment, that is artillery fired in front over men as they advance, the Ulstermen came under attack from their own bombardment. Yet they still advanced, moving so rapidly that the Germans had no time to come up from their dugouts in the Schwaben Redoubt, which was also taken. The advance was so successful that by 10am some had reached the German Second Line, but again they came under their own barrage due to finish until 10:10. However this successful penetration was unmatched by those at its flanks. The Ulstermen were thus exposed in a narrow salient open to attack on three sides. Running out of ammunition and supplies they were forced to withdraw at 22:00 hours following a full German counter attack. The Ulstermen had gained their advantage in that day of battle by not sticking to the rigid orders which had been issued. Because both the German and British Generals considered the men of the New Army as insufficiently trained, their battle tactics were more strict and regimented of that of the regular army. The Ulstermen however advanced by pushing forward small trenches and cutting the barbed wire, which was 30 inches in depth and height in places, so that when the bombardment stopped they attacked very quickly. The Ulstermen were unique in that they were there by choice. On that first day of battle British casualties were 57,740 of which 19,240 died. Of these casualties 5,500 were Ulstermen. After the war had ended, King George V paid tribute to the Division saying “Throughout the long years of struggle the men of Ulster have proved how nobly they fight and die”.
Set as Ulster is at the north-eastern corner of Ireland, facing Britain across a narrow sea, the characteristics of her people have been moulded by movements, large and small since the dawn of human history.
As we enter the decade of centenaries which mark her entry on to the stage of world history, the Grand Unionist Centenary Committee (GUCC) takes as its Mission Statement the Ulster Covenant, which was the Declaration of Ulster of her right to exist as a free people under God.
Today we must use this decade to establish in Ulster a cultural consensus, irrespective of political conviction, religion or ethnic origin, using a broader perspective of our past to create a deeper sense of belonging to the country of our ancient British ancestors.
For this Land of the Cruthin is our Homeland and we are her children. We have a right to her name and her nationality. We have a right to belong here, a right to be heard here, a right to be free; free from suspicion, free from violence and free from fear. We must therefore develop the vision of a new and united Ulster, to which all can give their allegiance, so we may achieve a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people. For only in the complete expression of our Ulster Identity lies the basis of that genuine peace, stamped with the hallmarks of justice, goodness and truth, which will end at last the war in Ireland.
For we are a Risen People and Liberation is our song.