By Colin Reid




In the hours before becoming First Minister of Northern Ireland in January, Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, caused a political storm by announcing her refusal to officially mark the centenary of the Easter Rising. ‘Easter 1916 was a very violent attack on the state’, Foster argued. ‘And it wasn’t just an attack on the state. It was an attack against democracy at that time’.[i] The democratic legitimacy or otherwise of the Rising has long been a source of contention within political culture in Ireland. This is especially true in Northern Ireland, where the antagonism that underpinned the Irish revolution (c.1912-22) remains cryogenically frozen.

One aspect of this debate is an assumption there is a clear dichotomy between ‘democracy’ and ‘rebellion’. The logic is simple. The Rising was a rebellion, so cannot have been democratic; those who opposed the Rising were democrats. In a rare example of a welcome act of ‘whataboutery’, Colum Eastwood, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, reminded Foster that ‘the initial rebellion of this period was conducted by one of her heroes, Edward Carson’. Democracy and rebellion are not the yin and yang of the Irish historical world; rather, one blurs into the other, making judgements partial and subjective. Rebellions can be democratic, and democrats can be rebels. A more fruitful way to examine the history of the Irish revolution is to ask not if, but how unionists and separatists appealed to democratic principles.

The Ulster Solemn League and Covenant of 1912 and the Proclamation of the Irish Republic of 1916, the foundational documents of twentieth-century unionism and separatism respectively, offer a window into competing ideas of democracy and national right in Ireland. Both texts advocated resistance to the British state in Ireland for very different ends. The Covenant threatened to defy the implementation of self-government in Ireland; the Proclamation affirmed that force of arms was a legitimate means to achieve Irish independence. Through such armed resistance, the norms of constitutional politics were turned upside down between 1912 and 1922. Given this, what were the democratic credentials of the Covenant and Proclamation?

The Covenant was unveiled amidst much political pageantry at a mass demonstration in Belfast on ‘Ulster Day’, 28 September 1912. In front of thousands of people, Sir Edward Carson, the leader of Ulster unionism, scribbled his name on the document, which affirmed the right to resist the implementation of Home Rule ‘by any means necessary’. The Covenant took the form of a petition, with more than 218,000 men across Ulster following Carson’s lead; almost 229,000 women signed a separate declaration of support. As such, it was akin to a unionist ‘People’s Charter’, the founding document of the nineteenth-century Chartist movement. Like the Chartists, unionists, through the ritual of the Covenant, constructed a temporary unity of purpose, and gave the ordinary man and woman a taste of, and stake in, mass political protest.

The Proclamation was a rather different affair, and styling it as a separatist ‘People’s Charter’ is more complicated. Read aloud by (we think) Patrick Pearse outside the General Post Office in Dublin to no-doubt perplexed passers-by, the Proclamation was debuted, like the Covenant, in theatrical style. The Proclamation, which asserted Ireland’s rights as a sovereign and independent nation, was signed by seven men who declared themselves the ‘Provisional Government’ of Ireland. As it was conceived as the trigger for a rebellion, there was, of course, no ‘Ulster Day’-style mass signings, no desire to court popular opinion. Instead, the leaders of the Rising styled themselves as a Lenin-esque vanguard elite, tasked with leading the revolutionary charge and dragging the masses behind in their wake. In this, they were astonishingly successful. Thousands of the Irish electorate in effect endorsed the Proclamation’s sentiment at the elections of 1918 and 1920, granting democratic legitimacy to the idea of independence, at least for a large portion of the country, after the event.

So, we are dealing with two decisive pronouncements of political legitimacy, and two very different conceptions of democratic action. The right to resist rested in an appeal to the ‘men of Ulster’ in the case of the Covenant, and the ‘people of Ireland’ in the Proclamation. Contrasting conceptions of popular sovereignty thus justified the threat and actual use of violence against the state in both cases.

The Covenant was an open petition, supported by an impressive number of unionists. Indeed, mass mobilisation was a crucial part of the unionist stand against Home Rule. The formation of the Ulster Unionist Council in 1905 simultaneously synchronised and democratised the multiple strands of unionism, culminating in the formation of a unified, cross-class movement by 1912. As well as this popular activism, unionists pointed to a consistent and sustained anti-Home Rule vote in northern constituencies in every parliamentary election since 1874. As a majority within the north of Ireland, unionists keenly articulated the language of democracy to refute the legitimacy of Home Rule. If the state recognised that Irish nationalists had the right of self-determination, then it should also concede that unionists in Ulster had the same right.

But unionists saw themselves within a British democratic tradition, and used a ‘two majorities’ theory to refute Home Rule. As well as their own internal majority in Ulster, they reasoned that there was one polity which spanned the two islands of Britain and Ireland. As such, any major constitutional reform needed the consent of the majority across the entire United Kingdom. Given that the Liberal government failed to win a workable majority in two elections in 1910, and were wholly reliant on Irish Party votes in the House of Commons (and thus open to the charge of political blackmail), unionists believed there was no democratic mandate for Home Rule, from any angle.

This was uncharted territory for all the players in this drama. While ideas of what constituted a ‘representative government’ had been floating around for some time before the Irish revolution, the idea of a democratic right to self-determination was a new departure in political argument. The will of the majority had emerged as a key plank in the discourse of the day. But the really important, and largely sidestepped, questions were which majority, and what should happen to minorities trapped in a jurisdiction to which they don’t ‘belong’?

Home Rulers, like Repealers before them, were at pains to point to majority opinion in Ireland in favour of self-government. There was, however, no mention of this democratic argument in the Proclamation. The legitimacy for the Rising, as the Proclamation makes clear, was an unbreakable ‘contract’ with the past, in which the living were entrusted with the legacies of ‘dead generations’. But the Proclamation also contains a concise interpretation of popular sovereignty in the infamous assertion that the Irish Republic ‘is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman’. This bypassed the objections of unionists and, indeed, Home Rulers. In its absolutism, this phrase is leaden with a rather undemocratic conception of popular sovereignty. It prefaced, however, the most progressive and admirable segment of the Proclamation, which affirmed that Irish citizenship in the Republic was built on equality of rights and universal suffrage. The document as a whole, then is a blend of separatist predestination, historical duty and an exclusive conception of sovereignty, all in the name of the ‘people’.

Public opinion in Ireland probably didn’t support the separatist stance in April 1916. But by 1918, the general will in nationalist constituencies certainly had swung in favour of the sentiments expressed in the Proclamation. Democratic legitimacy in the case of the separatists, then, worked backwards. The Proclamation spoke for a minority, but was transformed in the few years after 1916 as a sacred text of a nation. That nation could not, however, absorb Ulster unionism.

This was the crux of the matter. Both unionists and separatists viewed the world through the lens of majoritarian democracy. As most of the people in Ulster favoured the Union, and most of the people in Ireland favoured some form of self-government, these were taken by their adherents as undeniable political rights of the entire territorial bloc. The arguments presented in the Covenant and the Proclamation were based on ideas of popular sovereignty, but with little regard to minority opinion in the two identified territories. Both the Covenant and Proclamation made a case for citizenship based on equality, but at heart neither unionists nor nationalists believed ‘the other side’ was capable of delivering on this.

Without equality, there is no democracy; majority rule in of itself is not necessarily democratic. Arlene Foster should know from the history of unionist rule in Northern Ireland that rebellion is not the only method to attack democracy. Democracy and rebellion rarely follow linear paths, and there are just rebellions and bad democracies.


Colin Reid teaches History at Northumbria University. He is the author of The Lost Ireland of Stephen Gwynn: Irish Constitutional Nationalism and Cultural Politics, 1864-1950 (2011; pbk edn. 2015). He is currently working on a history of Irish political thought.

[i] Irish Times, 11 January 2016.

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