Wednesday, February 15, 2006


Today in History - Dungannon Convention

A historic buildingIt was on this day, 15th February, 1782, that the first Dungannon Convention of the Ulster Volunteers called for an independent Irish parliament. This was the parliament that Henry Grattan also campaigned for and which was to later be known as 'Grattan's parliament' (pictured left in what is now the home of the Bank of Ireland).

Perhaps some background information ought to be offered on the Volunteers as many of you may only be aware of the Irish volunteer movements of the early 20th century. Essentially, the Irish Volunteers were a part-time military force whose original purpose was to guard against invasion and to preserve law and order when regular troops were being sent to America during the War of Independence. Members were drawn mainly from the Protestant urban and rural middle classes and the movement soon began to take on a political importance.

The first corps of Volunteers was formed in Belfast and the movement spread rapidly across Ireland. By 1782 there were 40,000 enlisted in the Volunteers, half of them in Ulster. Strongly influenced by American ideas, though loyal to the Crown, the Volunteers demanded greater legislative freedom for the Dublin Parliament.

The Dungannon Convention, which occurred on this day in history in 1782, was a key moment in the eventual granting of legislative independence to Ireland.

At the time, all proposed Irish legislation had to be submitted to the English privy council for its approval under the great seal of England before being passed by the Irish parliament. English Acts emphasised the complete dependence of the Irish parliament on its English counterpart and English Houses claimed and exercised the power to legislate directly for Ireland - even without the agreement of the parliament in Dublin.

The Ulster Volunteers who assembled in Dungannon, County Tyrone, demanded change. Prior to this, the Volunteers had received the thanks of the Irish parliament for their stance but in the House of Commons, the British had 'won over' a majority of that assembly, which led to a resistance of further concessions. Thus, the 315 volunteers in Ulster at the Dungannon convention promised:

"to root out corruption and court influence from the legislative body," and "to deliberate on the present alarming situation of public affairs."

The Convention was held in a church and was conducted in a very civil manner. The Volunteers agreed, almost unanimously, to resolutions declaring the right of Ireland to legislative and judicial independence, as well as free trade. A week later, Grattan, in a great speech, moved an address of the Commons to His Majesty, asserting the same principles but his motion was defeated. So too was another motion by Henry Flood, declaring the legislative independence of the Irish Parliament.

However the British soon realised they could resist the agitation no longer. It was through ranks of Volunteers drawn up outside the parliament house in Dublin that Grattan passed on April 16, 1782, amidst unparalleled popular enthusiasm, to move a declaration of the independence of the Irish parliament.

"I found Ireland on her knees," Grattan exclaimed, "I watched over her with a paternal solicitude; I have traced her progress from injuries to arms, and from arms to liberty. Spirit of Swift, spirit of Molyneux, your genius has prevailed! Ireland is now a nation!"

After a month of negotiations, legislative independence was granted to Ireland.

I feel this is a very significant moment in Irish history for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it was an assertion of nationhood by the Volunteers and Irish parliamentarians. Here we have Irish Protestants informing the English that Ireland is a distinct and unique entity and one worthy of being ruled as such, as opposed to direct rule from England, and we also have an acknowledgement by Westminster that the Protestants have a case. I think the stance of the Protestants is important, particularly when one considers how later generations of Protestants basically did a U-turn on these types of principles.

Secondly, I feel it is a significant moment as it reveals the true reality of the north-south relationship and its importance both culturally and historically. Only the other day I posted up the comments of DUP MEP Jim Allistair who spoke of "unnatural and politically-motivated north-southery". It could be argued that "north-southery" is politically motivated but I don't think it can be argued that it is unnatural as this small but significant moment in history highlights. North-south relations were quite natural and they were also quite effective to boot.

Lastly, I think this event in history is significant in terms of the issue of Irish reunification. I'm sure I don't need to point out to you the hostility that many Protestants felt in the 20th century about the notion of Home Rule from Dublin, or 'Rome Rule' as it was termed. However, as I pointed out above, this view is effectively a U-turn on the stance of the Protestants of 1782. While Ulster Volunteers in Dungannon in 1782 were calling for extra power for Dublin, Ulster Volunteers in 1912 were actually attempting to prevent extra power for Dublin! It's one of those curious role reversals in history which seems to come up quite often in this little island of ours.

It seems to me that throughout Irish history, there has been a failure to acknowledge the other side. We've had our wires crossed. In the 18th century, we had Irish Protestants asserting proudly their Irishness - but it was at the expense of giving acknowledgement to the Catholic position. In the 19th century we had Irish Catholics begin to express their Irishness - but at the expense of giving proper acknowledgement to Protestants. In the 20th century, all this comes to a head as both sides are disgruntled and the crossing of wires almost leads to an outbreak of civil war.

Let me suggest to you all that here in the 21st century, we achieve what our forefathers in Ireland failed to achieve - an acknowledgment of the other side's position. In Irish history, Irish Protestants sought to have powers for Ireland with links to Britain, but it was at the expense of the Catholic viewpoint. Similarly, Irish Catholics became fed up at their position being ignored and felt the proper solution was to seriously limit the links with Britain, however they ended up ignoring the Protestant viewpoint themselves. In the 20th century, both sides were so eager for acknowledgement that they were willing to assert their points of view through force of arms and this in turn led to serious ignorance towards the views of the other side.

How about in the 21st century we finally, at long last, right the wrongs of history and find a compromise? A solution that acknowledges both sides and gives credence to all views. An Ireland that is no longer divided in two but which retains serious links to Britain. An Ireland where no side is seen as being short-changed or disrespected but rather an Ireland where each side is a winner.

It is time to right the wrongs of Ireland's past. The Dungannon Convention of 1782 offers us a reminder that things can be better if we approach the important issues openly and sensibly. It offers us an incentive to try and make "north-southery" work and work well. It offers us the inspiration required to make Ireland a place that future generations can be proud of.

It offers us hope.


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