Hamill’s Beat - Why the Ulster Covenant was a tragic mistake

“Let me through, I’m the chief whip,” or words to that effect, shouted a Tory MP to a police officer in Downing Street. Andrew Mitchell may be important but he clearly isn’t street wise. He broke the first rule of the Ladybird book on how to insult the police and get away with it. But then, not being a “pleb” he wouldn’t know about that sort of thing.

One hundred years ago, my grandfather signed the Ulster Covenant.

I wouldn’t have touched it with a barge pole, or at least that’s what I like to think. I can’t, however, be too critical of my grandfather as it’s unfair to judge people outside the context of their time. Earlier ancestors had been active United Irishmen.

They were determined to break the link with England, at any cost. So why the change?

It came about gradually during the 19th century as the Catholic Church increased its power and influence. Sadly, the institutional churches have had an unhelpful influence on the island’s political development.

By the time it came to the third Home Rule ‘crisis’ only a few Hamills were in favour of the Bill.

Most of the former rebels had thrown in their lot with the unionists.

By 1912 they shared the common fear that home rule would be Rome rule and they also recognised there were powerful economic arguments in favour of the union with Britain, particularly here in the industrialised north.

As it turned out, the fears of those who were worried about Rome rule were substantially vindicated.

Nevertheless, I’m convinced the unionists made a profound mistake in 1912 and in the following years.

They should have been far more self-confident.

They should have followed the tiny minority of Protestant leaders who supported Irish separatism.

Then we wouldn’t have had a narrow agrarian Catholic theocracy in the south and a “Protestant parliament for a Protestant people” in the north. In addition, the north was severely afflicted by bitter sectarianism.

Without partition, Catholics and Protestants would have had to come to much more respectful terms with each other.

We could have had the great prize of a genuinely pluralist Ireland.

As it was, the Ulster Covenant led the island into a desperately divided and unhappy century, particularly here in the dysfunctional north. It has cost endless bitterness and many thousands of lives.

Now, we need to work hard towards putting things right.

We need clear separation of church and state and we need to work towards the creation of a new secular Ireland of equals, to paraphrase one party’s well-worn mantra.

Whatyecallit’ annoys Peter Robinson

Those who call the north, the north are annoying the first minister. Speaking at a civic dinner in Belfast, Peter Robinson said, “Surely it’s not too much” to expect people to refer to the “country” by its name. In a departure from his prepared script, he said he thinks it’s “disrespectful,” not to.

Some of his audience felt it was the wrong note to strike at a civic as distinct from a political function.

In any case, Robinson’s complaint is a bit rich. He doesn’t refer to the “country” by its name, himself. He calls this place, “Northern Ahland”. It’s an irritating mispronunciation that has become surprisingly common. Radio presenter Stephen Nolan is another “Northern Ahland” man. (He does, however, sometimes say, “Northern Ireland”.) It’s not clear whether or not the mispronunciation reflects a reluctance to use the dreaded, “I” word, or is it just intended to sound posh, or is it the Belfast accent, or even a slight speech defect?

Anyway, even “Northern Ahland” is probably an improvement on, “Northern Island”. A succession of British proconsuls here thought they were in, “Northern Island,” except when they reverted to the expression, “over here” or to the even more telling and irritating, “out here”.

Incidentally, a friend of mine in college in Dublin used to send letters home to his mother in, “Ballymoney, County Antrim, British Occupied Ireland.” But then, he was only jesting. He was trying to be annoying although exactly who he was trying to annoy wasn’t entirely clear. By the way, the expression, “British Occupied Ireland” may be mildly humorous but it isn’t accurate, in case anyone else is tempted to adopt it.

In fact, the north isn’t occupied by the British but by Irish people who say they’re loyal to the British. Here in Derry we know how tricky names can be. Still, there are a good few alternatives to chose from. There’s, the six counties (an expression first used by Edward Carson), the sick counties, Norn Iron, Nrn Irn, the fourth green field or just ‘here.’ We’re spoiled for choice, really. The only problem is that all of them will annoy somebody. Still, maybe that’s fair enough so long as the annoyance is spread around.

If we all did what Peter wants and opted for “Northern Ireland” then unionists would be happy but nationalists would be even more annoyed than ever. So how, exactly, would that be an advance? Unless that’s what the first minister meant when he told us a while ago that there was to be no more, “them and us”?