Historic citadel where Unionists will decide

Ulster's future: Tonight's election of a new UUP leader is being held in Belfast's first bastion of loyalism
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The Independent Online

Ireland Correspondent

The Ulster Hall, where the Ulster Unionist Party chooses its new leader tonight, has played a pivotal role in the political, religious and cultural life of Bel-fast for more than a century.

It has played host to notables as diverse as King George V, Lord Randolph Churchill, the Rev Ian Paisley, various wrestlers and, earlier this year, Martha and the Vandellas. It has particular historical links with the Churchill family.

Above all, it is associated with the beginnings of the Ulster Unionist movement and the foundation of Northern Ireland itself. With the province possibly on the brink of a once-in-a-generation opportunity for peace, tonight's meeting could prove to be a historic moment.

The hall, in Belfast city centre, has an undistinguished exterior, described by the acerbic architectural commentator Charles Brett as "rather lumpish and elephantine". He adds: "It was originally crowned by a rather pleasant coat of arms, but in 1959 the loyal burgesses of Belfast rendered themselves ridiculous by removing this and replacing it with a crude concrete red hand, from which the paint is continually peeling."

It was here in 1886 that Lord Randolph Churchill urged thousands of Protestants to resist Home Rule, declaring: "Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right." He was given a rapturous reception as he concluded: "Wave Ulster, all thy banners wave, and charge with all thy chivalry."

A quarter of a century later, Lord Randolph's son, Winston, then First Lord of the Admiralty, was invited to speak in the same hall. But in one of the great ironies of the history of Unionism, Winston was at that point, in 1912, a Liberal and a supporter of Home Rule.

A crisis developed as Unionists, outraged by the idea of a Churchill using the hallowed Ulster Hall to advocate Home Rule, said they would prevent the meeting taking place.

After a few days of stand-off Churchill announced that he was switching venues, telling Unionists with heavy sarcasm: "There will thus be no necessity for your friends to endure the hardships of a vigil or sustain the anxieties of a siege." He did go to Belfast, but spoke instead in a nationalist area near the Falls Road. He was cheered by Catholics but loyalists jeered him, threw rotten fish and almost overturned his car.

In 1912, the Ulster Hall was one of the venues used by Edward Carson, James Craig and other Unionist leaders to express their determination to use force to resist Home Rule. At a huge rally, Carson was presented with a silk banner said to have been carried before William III at the Battle of the Boyne.

The following day, 28 September, the leaders gathered in the hall for a religious service. Then, escorted by a guard of honour, they walked to City Hall to become the first of the 471,000 loyalists who signed a covenant pledging themselves to oppose Home Rule by "all means which may be found necessary".

Thereafter, the Ulster Hall became something of a citadel of Unionism whose honour had to be defended. When three Labour candidates booked the hall in 1921, Protestants barricaded it against them and proclaimed in a telegram: "Mass meeting of loyal shipyard workers have captured Ulster Hall from Bolsheviks."

As the years passed it was used for dances, concerts and boxing and wrestling matches. In the 1960s, the Rolling Stones performed there; so did the Rev Ian Paisley, who used it for many of his early rallies.

Tonight, more than 800 Unionist delegates will gather in the same hall where their forefathers successfully defied the British government 83 years ago. That was a defining moment for Unionism: this election could be another one.

Fermanagh view, Section Two