With the centenary of the signing of the firmly in the rear-view mirror and with the 100-year anniversary of the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) bordering the horizon in January 2013, it is time for loyalists to take stock of what this radical document really says about the use of force for political purposes.
As the Covenant indicated, Unionists were prepared to employ “all means which may be found necessary” – from parliamentary debate to the employment of lethal force – in resisting Home Rule.
Since the Home Rule crisis, of course, armed force has not only been the preserve of unionists. Republicans frequently lambast unionists for having “introduced the gun into Irish politics” and, to an extent, this is true. However, they are all too prone to forget that it was republicans who kept the gun in Irish politics.
Almost half a century after the signing of the Covenant, the IRA was engaged in a six-year-long terror campaign. In the end, it was Stormont’s stern counter-insurgency drive, mixed with nationalist apathy, which forced the IRA to dump arms in 1962.
The 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising prompted the resurgence of militant loyalism, with a shadowy organisation formed under the auspices of a new UVF.
It failed to command any real support within the Protestant working class and, following several sectarian murders, was outlawed and its leading lights imprisoned.
When the ‘troubles’ between Catholics and Protestants returned in 1969, some unionists looked to the Covenant’s principle of ‘armed resistance’.
This new breed of ‘loyalist’ embarked on violence that left many middle class unionists looking on in horror.
Principles of Loyalism Redux
One of those who took up the gun and joined the ‘new UVF’ in 1970 was the late Billy Mitchell, a former Sunday school teacher and committed Paisleyite, who rose to command the organisation in the mid-1970s.
He was arrested in 1976 and handed a life-sentence for UVF activities.
Upon his release from prison in the early 1990s, he set about educating loyalists about the real significance of the Covenant and how it provided the basis for peaceful Unionist thought and action in the 21st Century.
He articulated the need to revisit the Covenant’s principles of equal citizenship within the UK, civil and religious liberty, and the pluralism that formed the cornerstone of civic unionism. It was a radical, class-based analysis of the Covenant few had applied up until that point.
To Billy – pace A.T.Q. Stewart – the Covenant was ‘the birth certificate of modern Ulster’.
And Billy knew better than anyone the consequences of Protestants resorting to lethal force to supplement their political arguments.
In later years he came to doubt the ability of unionism to convince its political opponents of the merits of maintaining the union through the barrel of a gun. Instead, he advocated dialogue between sworn enemies.
90 years after the signing of the Covenant, Billy finally drafted the Principles of Loyalism (November 2002), a document which charted a new course for the Protestant working class.
As a practical document, rather than a work of abstract theorising, the Principles provide a roadmap for the PUP, UVF and Red Hand Commando.
At its heart lies the view that, even with the prospect of decommissioning (which was by no means certain in 2002) and the jettisoning of the strategy of ‘armed resistance’, it would not automatically lead to what his comrade Billy Hutchinson called the ‘decommissioning of mindsets’.
‘This is an ongoing process that has only just begun’, he argued. ‘It will take years, perhaps even decades, to complete and even then it will require structural changes in Northern Irish society to remove the causes and justifications for ‘armed resistance’’.
For those of us who remain committed to ensuring that those ‘causes and justifications’ are removed, Billy Mitchell’s words continue to hold considerable purchase.
The Principles were drafted by Billy in the immediate aftermath of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, although its key ideas have a much longer genesis dating back to his early involvement in the UVF.
A decade on from when they were published, the language in the Principles is remarkable for its thoroughness and intellectual vigour.
The document was the direct by-product of Billy’s faith in Christian socialism. And it was also framed according to the pre-existing political strands of liberal and socialist unionism, which were given sustenance in the ranks of the Progressive Unionist Party in the 1930s and the Northern Ireland Labour Party during the post-war era.
Both parties organised working class people against social inequality and, in the case of the latter, opted to oppose the overweening conservativism of the dominant political traditions of Unionism and Nationalism on a class basis.
In articulating this unique brand of socialist unionism, loyalists like Billy Mitchell were really advocating what his colleague David Ervine called ‘working-class’ism’.
In an interview I did with Billy Mitchell six months before his untimely death in July 2006, he explained that his rationale for writing up the Principles was ‘about getting the whole constituency back to the Covenant and its relevance now, in the context of the modern era, for example, equal citizenship’.
Thus, for Billy, it was not about aping republican ‘revisionism’, rather it was an exercise of catharsis that loyalists from his constituency had to undergo in order to get back to the roots of loyalism, while giving them a real stake in the contemporary socio-economic and political environment.
In this sense, in the sense that Billy Mitchell understood it, looking back at the past could be both comforting and cathartic as much as it could be destructive and exclusionary.
The past, he opined, could give working class communities a real sense of their cultural heritage and traditions, while orientating them towards the future.
Billy argued that it was incumbent on successive generations to avoid corrupting the historical record by revising the past in order to justify renewed violence.
Instead, the past should be ploughed for its creative, healing potential.
Beyond armed resistance
Almost 86 years after the signing of the Covenant, in altogether very different circumstances, the signatories of the Belfast Agreement recognised how it was now unwarranted for neither community to countenance ‘any use or threat of force… for any political purpose’.
The framers of the Agreement recognised the truism that ‘armed struggle’ has never worked as a means of securing political goals in Ireland. It was a position that Billy Mitchell and his comrades in the PUP had been manning since the negotiations leading up to the Agreement.
And it is a theme to which PUP leader, Billy Hutchinson, has chosen to return recently.
As he observed in a speech to his party’s conference in October 2012, it was time for progressive loyalists to go on the offensive, to turn their energies to what he termed “the political war”:
One of the things that I was taught while in Long Kesh was that people who fight wars, fight wars to bring peace, and the politicians, they make the decisions. Let me say this, politics is war without bloodshed, while war is politics with bloodshed.
And what I want to see for future generations is that politics of war without the bloodshed because I believe that, irrespective of what’s going on in this society. People who decided to fight this war, whether they were in the security services or whether they were in the paramilitaries, they should now take up this political war. That political war is about defining the issues with which we need to deal.
Few of us working closely with him on conflict transformation issues, would doubt Billy’s sincerity in seeking to return to the ‘political war’, or at least to confronting the political fault-lines that continue to underpin the conflict in Northern Ireland.
Whether loyalists will succeed in ‘defining the issues that we need to deal with’ has yet to be fully realised.
Nonetheless, it is vital that in analysing how progressive loyalists choose to conduct that ‘political war’, in advocating ‘unarmed resistance’, we take into account the roadmap provided by the Principles of Loyalism.