The Story Arc of the Covenant

What do the friezes on Edward Carson's statue remind you of?

When they asked me to review Peroni I thought it was Christmas. So when I found myself at PRONI, the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland, I was slightly discombobulated; there wasn’t even a bar.

We’re here for the fourth and final lecture in PRONI’s Change, Conflict and Transformation, 1912-1922 series of lectures on the history of the province, this one dedicated to the centenary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant. Or rather we aren’t, for this is a curiously meta-discussion; it’s a talk about the making of the film that the speakers, William Crawley and Brian Henry Martin, are airing on BBC1 later in the evening (giving the audience just enough time to nip home and watch it).

The film The Story Arc of the Covenant is a one hour documentary and an exercise in what Crawley calls consensus history; an attempt to put aside the many myths surrounding the signing of the covenant and investigate only the historically verifiable information. And it isn’t easy. The Pathe news footage of the signing has been almost completely lost. It was only due to the pair’s diligent investigation that they managed to uncover a minute-long piece of the film, wedged into another documentary made in the 1970s. They quickly despatched this nugget to Pathe to get it archived.

It’s not the only thing that’s lost. While PRONI holds almost the complete original document, which Crawley calls 'the birth certificate of Northern Ireland' (facetiously adding that it was an unplanned pregnancy), the first two pages have been lost, including the first signature, that of Edward Carson.

The figure of Carson looms large over proceedings, as well he might. He seems in some ways an unusual figure to have been the architect for a new Ulster, something that he never intended to become. He was a Dublin Unionist, educated at Trinity and, after being called to the bar, created a QC in 1889. He never considered himself an Ulsterman but an Irishman, and claimed not to know Belfast well, living for much of his career in London, where he was eventually created a Law Lord. He had a brilliant legal career; he led the defence in Oscar Wilde’s action for libel against the Marquess of Queenbury, leading to Wilde’s ruin and subsequent imprisonment. The two had known each at Trinity, leading Wilde to quip: 'No doubt he will pursue his case with all the added bitterness of an old friend.' His other high profile case was the Archer-Shee case, later dramatised by Terrence Rattigan as the Winslow Boy.

Carson campaigned against Home Rule, spoke against the Bill in the House of Commons and organised rallies in Ireland. At one he told a crowd of 50,000 that a provisional government for 'the Protestant province of Ulster' should be ready, should a third Home Rule Bill come into law.

We get a number of edited highlights of the film ahead of broadcast. The film shows a number of interesting incidental details. Crawley finds another William Crawley amongst the signatures, a factory worker living in the Ormeau Road, though there seems to be no link between the two men.

One of the most remarkable things revealed by the film is how many of the important locations relevant to the events are still extant and relatively untouched. Craigavon House, owned by James Craig, and where the first provisional Government of Northern Ireland sat, in the billiard room, and which was offered in 1915 for the treatment of sick and wounded soldiers, is still there, though latterly it has been unoccupied. Carson’s birthplace in Dublin has fared less well: now a hotel it was, for many years, the headquarters for Sinn Fein. At least he has a plaque.

Crawley recreates the signing of the covenant in the film with Carson’s actual pen. The City Hall require him to wear gloves throughout, lending him the appearance of a snooker referee bending over the green baize. Behind him stand a wall of stout yeoman types, one of whom, rather too stout, doesn’t quite fit into his Edwardian costume. A waistcoat is hastily photo-shopped over his historically inaccurate paunch. The union flag draped over the table for the photo opportunity is revealed to have been made by the costume designer from Game of Thrones, a revelation that leaves the majority of spectators decidedly nonplussed.

The audience lap it up, many of them have been to all of the lectures, and there is familiar jocularity amongst the group, save for one audible gasp as Crawley points out that the friezes on the base of Carson’s statue at Stormont remind him of the Stations of the Cross. Perhaps that’s going too far.