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Reflections on Edward Carson and the 100th Anniversary of the Ulster Covenant

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This weekend Northern Ireland's unionists are celebrating the life of Sir Edward Carson and the centenary of the signing of the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant.

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Exactly a century ago Britain and Ireland stood on the edge of a bloody civil war.

At the time the whole of Ireland was ruled from Westminster, however a Bill introduced before the House of Commons by Lord Asquith's Liberal government planned to bring an end to direct London rule over the island.

The Bill was designed not to give Ireland independence, but rather devolved powers of self governance. By establishing a separate parliament in Dublin, the proposed legislation would have given Ireland's capital extensive powers to determine Irish affairs.

To Ulster Protestants the Bill was an attack on their very personhood; it was to be to them, if enacted, a political death sentence.

In a breathtaking act of resistance against the proposed legislation, half a million unionist Protestants signed their names to what became known as the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant, and pledged, if necessary, to take up arms.

It was in essence, a conditional declaration of war.

The first person to sign the Covenant was the talismanic Edward Carson. He was the leader and figurehead for Ulster unionist defiance; a man, whose courage and implacable protestations made him revered still to this day.

He, liked the others, swore an oath to resist the dissolution of the United Kingdom by any means necessary.

Over the next two years the Home Rule crisis played out: an unprecedented standoff between unionists and Asquith's Liberal government that threatened a military insurrection in Ireland and violence in the streets of Britain.

However before civil war could unfold in Britain and Ireland relations in Europe disintegrated and the Great War took centre stage and ultimately distracted unionist grievances against Home Rule.

The rest is history and within a decade home rule came to Ireland when the Irish Free State was established in 1922.

But in this post I want to take a look at the contradictions, half truths and omissions that surround the the story of Edward Carson and unionism to this day.

It is a truism of social anthropology that societies around the world tend to have founding myths, which bind them together and maintain their positions. These founding myths typically incorporate intellectual contradictions that adherents prefer to ignore.

This is a truth of Northern Ireland and the pious Carsonists.

Hailed as the founding father of Ulster unionism, Edward Carson was called to be the defender of the Protestant unionists of Ulster in the face of Home Rule, yet this was a province and people that he had little experience or knowledge of. He was a man born and educated in Dublin who played GAA and, raised in a middle class southern Irish family, lived by a different culture.

Further, Edward Carson is buried in Belfast yet he never lived there and he is known to have said it was a city he hardly knew.

Moreover, the Orange Order, possibly the greatest champion of Carson, was derided by the very man, who said: their speeches reminded him of the unrolling of a mummy, all old bones and rotten rags.

Further again, isn't it bizarre that unionists under Carson took up arms against the Crown, the very Crown that they pledged such solemn loyalty to?

Then finally, the unionist campaign under Carson directed at opposing a devolved parliament in Ireland in the end created just that: the partition of Ireland resulted in the creation of two devolved legislatures in Ireland, Leinster House in Dublin and the Stormont Parliament in Belfast.

Ostensibly there is a flawed collective narrative that surrounds the Northern Ireland unionist's past; a national myth with deep symbolic meaning but that is in reality full of exaggerations, omissions and factual errors.

Ultimately the question is: what would Sir Edward Carson have made of the weekend's events?

Yes, as I've noted there are many contradictions in the unionist story, but all in all I believe that the chiseled-faced barrister would have been proud of unionist turnout, their pride and passion and emboldened by the fact that the union is safe as far as Northern Ireland is concerned.