Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Man who conceived Ulster's Solemn League and Covenant: BWD Montgomery (1853-1917)


Boughey William Dolling Montgomery (1853 - 1917) was born on 18 September at Ballykeel House, Dromore. His father was Rev Thomas Hassard Montgomery of Dromore and his mother Emily was daughter of Rev Boughey William Dolling of Magheralin. BWD was educated at Parkgate in Cheshire and abroad. He served in the 3rd Volunteer Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers and became a Lieutenant on 22 May 1886; he became a Captain on 29 March 1890 but resigned his commission on 20 November 1895. His father died in 1865; some years later, in 1908, BWD had a memorial window to his parents installed at Magheralin Parish Church. The church also has a Dolling family memorial window.

BWD became a partner in the firm of John Preston and Company, a member of the Ulster Club, a prominent Freemason, and lived at 'The Drift' and 'Mount Lyons' on the Antrim Road in Belfast. In 1893 he was a founder of the 'Ulster Defence Union', whose membership was 'fully representative of the Unionism of the Imperial Province'. He became Secretary of the Belfast Unionist Club. In his commercial life, he filed US Patents for a new type of bleaching vat on 8 July 1902 (see PDF file here).

Ronald McNeill's 1922 book Ulster's Stand for Union (link here) tells the story of how it was BWD who conceived the Ulster Covenant:


#alttext#'...Speaking in Edinburgh on the 1st of November, 1911, that is, shortly after the Craigavon meeting, Lord Rosebery told his Scottish audience that "he loved Highlanders and he loved Lowlanders, but when he came to the branch of their race which had been grafted on to the Ulster stem he took off his hat with reverence and awe. They were without exception the toughest, the most dominant, the most irresistible race that existed in the universe."

The kinship of this tough people with the Lowlanders of Scotland, in character as in blood, was never more signally demonstrated than when they decided, in one of the most intense crises of their history, to emulate the example of their Scottish forefathers in binding themselves together by a solemn League and Covenant to resist what they deemed to be a tyrannical encroachment on their liberties and rights...

...the decision to invite the Ulster people to bind themselves together by some form of written bond or oath was one which Carson did not come to hastily.

While the matter was still only being talked about by a few intimate friends, and had not been in any way formally proposed, Captain James Craig happened to be occupying himself one day at the Constitutional Club in London with pencil and paper, making experimental drafts that might do for the proposed purpose, when he was joined by Mr. B.W.D. Montgomery, Secretary of the Ulster Club in Belfast, who asked what he was doing.

“Trying to draft an oath for our people at home,” replied Craig, “and it’s no easy matter to get at what will suit.”

“You couldn’t do better,” said Montgomery, “than take the old Scotch Covenant. It is a fine old document, full of grand phrases, and thoroughly characteristic of the Ulster tone of mind at this day.”

Thereupon the two men went to the library, where, with the help of the club librarian, they found a History of Scotland containing the full text of the celebrated bond of the Covenanters (first drawn up, by a curious coincidence of names, by John Craig, in 1581), a verbatim copy of which was made from the book.

The first idea was to adapt this famous manifesto of militant Protestantism by making only such abbreviations and alterations as would render it suitable for the purpose in view. But when it was ultimately decided to go forward with the proposal, and the task of preparing the document was entrusted to the Special Commission, it was at once realised that, however strongly the fine old Jacobean language and the historical associations of the Solemn League and Covenant might appeal to the imagination of a few, it was far too involved and long-winded, no matter how drastically revised, to serve as an actual working agreement between men of to-day, or as a rallying-point for a modern democratic community. What was needed was something quite short and easily intelligible, setting forth in as few words as possible a purpose which the least learned could grasp at a glance, and which all who so desired could sign with full comprehension of what they were doing.

Mr. Thomas Sinclair, one of the Special Commission, was himself a draughtsman of exceptional skill, and in a matter of this kind his advice was always invaluable, and it was under his hand that the Ulster Covenant, after frequent amendment, took what was, with one important exception, its final shape. The last revision cut down the draft by more than one-half; but the portion discarded from the Covenant itself, in the interest of brevity, was retained as a Resolution of the Ulster Unionist Council which accompanied the Covenant and served as a sort of declaratory preamble to it.

The exception referred to was an amendment made to meet an objection raised by prominent representatives of the Presbyterian Church. The Special Commission, realising that the proposed Covenant ought not to be promulgated without the consent and approval of the Protestant Churches, submitted the agreed draft to the authorities of the Church of Ireland and of the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational Churches. The Moderator, and other leaders of the Presbyterians, including Mr. (afterwards Sir Alexander) McDowell, a man endowed with much of the wisdom of the serpent, while supporting without demur the policy of the Covenant, took exception to its terms in a single particular. They pointed out that the obligation to be accepted by the signatories would be, as the text then stood, of unlimited duration. They objected to undertaking such a responsibility without the possibility of modifying it to meet the changes which time and circumstance might bring about; and they insisted that, before they could advise their congregations to contract so solemn an engagement, the text of the Covenant must be amended by the introduction of words limiting its validity to the crisis which then confronted them.

This was accordingly done. Words were introduced which declared the pledge to be binding “throughout this our time of threatened calamity,” and its purpose to be the defeat of “the present conspiracy.” The language was as precise, and was as carefully chosen, as the language of a legal deed; but in an unhappy crisis which arose in 1916, in circumstances which no one in the world could have foreseen in 1912, there were some in Ulster who were not only tempted to strain the interpretation which the Covenant as a whole could legitimately bear, but who failed to appreciate the significance of the amendments that had been made in its text at the instance of the Presbyterian Church.

When these amendments had been incorporated in the Covenant by the Special Commission, a meeting of the Standing Committee was convened at Craigavon on the 19th of September to adopt it for recommendation to the Council. The Committee, standing in a group outside the door leading from the arcade at Craigavon to the tennis-lawn, listened while Sir Edward Carson read the Covenant aloud from a stone step which now bears an inscription recording the event. Those present showed by their demeanour that they realised the historic character of the transaction in which they were taking part, and the weight of responsibility they were about to assume. But no voice expressed dissent or hesitation. The Covenant was adopted unanimously and without amendment. Its terms were as follows:

Being convinced in our consciences that Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as of the whole of Ireland, subversive of our civil and religious freedom, destructive of our citizenship, and perilous to the unity of the Empire, we, whose names are underwritten, men of Ulster, loyal subjects of His Gracious Majesty King George V, humbly relying on the God whom our fathers in days of stress and trial confidently trusted, do hereby pledge ourselves in solemn Covenant throughout this our time of threatened calamity to stand by one another in defending for ourselves and our children our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom, and in using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland. And in the event of such a Parliament being forced upon us we further solemnly and mutually pledge ourselves to refuse to recognise its authority. In sure confidence that God will defend the right we hereto subscribe our names. And further, we individually declare that we have not already signed this Covenant.

God save the King.

(Photo above: Carson and Craig in later life)


BWD signed the Covenant at the City Hall (PRONI ref 5061, sheet no 63). He became Commander of the 6th Battalion of the North Belfast Regiment of Carson's original Ulster Volunteer Force in 1914, a battalion of 1500 men. BWD Montgomery died aged 64 on 4th October 1917 and was buried in the joint Montgomery & Dolling family plot at Magherlin Old Graveyard.


(Photo above © David McFarland, from this website)

(ps - it is always important to point out that the Ulster Covenant and the earlier Scottish Covenants are very different in content and purpose, but similar in concept. The Scottish ones are primarily religious, the Ulster Covenant is primarily political. The cultural significance of the old Scottish Covenants was well known to Ulster people, and is why these were so influential in the thinking of BWD, Craig and Sinclair)