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Ulster's loyal defender

by Ralph Harrison

Sir Edward Carson (1854 - 1935) might justly be described as the founding father of Northern Ireland.

A Protestant Dubliner, he threw in his lot with the northern unionists to become their acknowledged leader, some would say their national saviour. It is largely due to his efforts that the six north-eastern counties of Ulster remain to this day in union with Great Britain under the Crown.

Carson rose to high office in both politics and the law, becoming First Lord of the Admiralty in David Lloyd George’s war cabinet and, as Lord Carson of Duncairn, a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary (that is to say, one of the Law Lords). Yet he was notably lacking in personal ambition and turned down the opportunity of becoming Northern Ireland’s first Prime Minister.

With single-minded determination Carson dedicated his political life to opposing Irish Home Rule. He regarded England as the fount of liberty and justice, and believed that continued Irish representation in the Westminster Parliament was of inestimable value to Ireland. The rationale of his political outlook was straightforward enough: the political unity of the British Isles should be preserved and Ireland should be treated constitutionally in the same way as any other part of the Kingdom. Carson began his legal career as a radical representing tenants in ‘fair rent’ cases, but he declined an invitation by Parnell’s Land League to stand as a parliamentary candidate because he was firmly for the Union. Accordingly, when Gladstone introduced his first Home Rule Bill in 1886 Carson joined Joseph Chamberlain’s (q.v.) newly-founded Liberal Unionists.

The Bill’s defeat led to a general election and a landslide victory for the Conservative Party under Lord Salisbury. A Crimes Act was introduced to combat the ‘Plan of Campaign’, which was a series of protests about rents that led to a reign of violence and murder by Irish extremists. The Crimes Act largely succeeded in curbing this rampant lawlessness and so its provisions must interest us to-day. The Act made ‘boycotting’ punishable by law; the Lord Lieutenant was given power to suppress any association by proclaiming it to be dangerous; an entire district could also be ‘proclaimed’, so that criminal trials might be held in another district under a special property qualification jury. Offences such as intimidation, conspiracy and unlawful assembly could be tried without a jury, witnesses being obliged to give evidence, even if self-incriminating.

Carson became intimately involved with the operation of the Crimes Act on his appointment to the post of Counsel to the Attorney-General, a post popularly known as the ‘Attorney’s Devil’ and vigorously carried out his duties under the Act, despite threats to his life, thereby earning himself the sobriquet of ‘Coercion Carson’. There is no doubt, however, that the law-abiding portion of the population had reason to be grateful for order restored.

After becoming Ireland’s youngest ever Queen’s Counsel at the age of thirty-five and then Solicitor General for Ireland, he was elected in 1892 as a Liberal Unionist MP for Dublin University. It was an opportune moment because Gladstone was about to introduce his second Home Rule Bill, and Carson was able to bring his intimate knowledge of Irish agrarian violence to bear in the debate. The Lords threw out the Bill, but Gladstone set up a commission to examine the cases of evicted Irish tenants. This led to the Evicted Tenants Act of 1894, which aimed to restore tenants who had been evicted up to fifteen years previously for deliberately withholding rent during political protests. Of course, it also necessitated the displacement of those co-operative tenants who had assumed occupancy of the land in the meantime. During the debate, Carson declared: “It is equivalent to telling people that, if they will only commit a sufficient number of outrages, they will bring the question they desire to raise within the sphere of practical politics.” That seems to be a lesson which liberal-minded British governments have never learned and Irish Republicans have never forgotten.

The General Election of 1895 saw the return to power of the Unionists under Lord Salisbury, but now it was the Unionists’ turn to placate Irish nationalist discontent with an Irish Land Act of their own. This caused a rift with the Irish Unionists: “it is part of the everlasting attempt to make peace in Ireland by giving sops to one party at the expense of the other,” declared Carson. He led a walk-out of Irish Unionists during the debate on the Bill and then relinquished the party whip. It was now apparent that he had assumed the mantle of leadership amongst the Irish Unionists.

Carson, who practised first at the Irish and then at the English Bar throughout his political career, became Solicitor- General for England in 1900 and was knighted. Around this time he led for the prosecution in the trial for treason of ‘Colonel’ Arthur Lynch, Member of Parliament for Galway, and commander of the Irish Brigade that had fought against the British in the Boer War. Although sentenced to death Lynch was reprieved and released after a few months in prison - a case of justice mocked and treason rewarded. Among other well-known cases which Carson undertook, some have been immortalised in literature and film. They include his defence of Lord Queensberry on a charge of criminal libel brought by the playwright Oscar Wilde, his defence of a thirteen year old naval cadet, George Archer-Shee (‘The Winslow Boy’) wrongly accused of petty theft, and his prosecution of the man who many believe was the real ‘Jack the Ripper’, Severin Klosowski alias George Chapman, who was condemned to death for murder by poison and duly hanged.

The Liberal victory at the election of 1906 and the repeal of the Crimes Act encouraged a further campaign of lawlessness. About this time two of Carson’s relatives were murdered on coming out of church. Carson protested in the Commons against the Liberals’ acquiescence in Irish terrorism: “Only three or four weeks ago my own kinsmen were shot as they were leaving their place of worship on Sunday in the presence of a jeering and cheering crowd. This is a disgrace to civilisation under the British flag...I was taught at my mother’s knee that no nation, either in history or at the present day, was so keen and anxious for justice and liberty as the English nation. I believed it. I am beginning to doubt it when I see people in this country standing up and giving consideration and welcome to those who they know have only one object and that is to sever your country from mine.” Despite the passage of time such words have lost none of their relevance to-day.

The Lords’ rejection of Lloyd George’s so-called ‘People’s Budget’ provoked the constitutional crisis of 1910. Liberals and Nationalists were determined to abolish the Lords’ veto by means of a Veto Bill. Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, weary of the Liberal/Nationalist alliance, secretly proposed a Liberal/Conservative coalition based on a ‘common programme’, which would include a measure of Home Rule. This proposal found favour with senior Conservatives desperate for office, such as Austen Chamberlain and F.E. Smith (later Lord Birkenhead). Carson was alarmed. The Unionist cause was to be betrayed from within the ranks of the Conservative Party! From this point we can date the ‘Ulster Crisis’ that lasted until the outbreak of war in 1914.

The Liberals threatened to use the Veto Bill to force through Home Rule without the agreement of the Lords, and to impose it on the unionist North. Irish Unionists of both North and South began to realise that the best deal that they could secure was the exclusion of Ulster from a future Dublin-based parliament.

The Ulster Unionist Council (UUC) was set up in 1905 to represent all shades of unionism in the North. It now invited Carson to Ulster to organise resistance. On 23rd September, 1911 a ‘monster’ meeting attended by 100,000 Ulstermen was held at Craigavon on the shores of Belfast Lough. Carson’s speech marked him as a potential rebel:

“We must be prepared in the event of a Home Rule Bill passing, to take such measures as will enable us to carry on the government of those districts of which we have control. We must be prepared, the morning Home Rule passes, ourselves to become responsible for the government of the Protestant province of Ulster.”

Two days later the UUC convened to draft a constitution for a provisional government of Ulster. Ulstermen now began drilling and training in the use of arms. This led to the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) under Colonel R.H. Wallace.

Another monster meeting of over 100,000 souls took place on 9th April, 1912 in the Belfast suburb of Balmoral. It took three hours for the UVF men to march past four abreast and the meeting was attended by all Ulster’s prominent personalities and around seventy Conservative MPs from Great Britain, including Andrew Bonar Law (q.v.), an Ulsterman by descent, whose words of defiance resounded loud: “Once again you hold the pass for the Empire. You are a besieged city(1).”

Despite this agitation, the Liberals were determined to impose Dublin rule on Ulster against the population’s wishes and the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, introduced the third Home Rule Bill. An amendment put forward by a Liberal MP excluding Counties Antrim, Down, Londonderry and Armagh from the jurisdiction of the Dublin Parliament was supported by the Irish Unionists but defeated all the same. Ulstermen, it seemed, were not entitled to self-determination. The government told Carson: “We will accept the declaration of war.”

At the Balmoral meeting it had been proposed that unionists should bind themselves to oppose Home Rule by a solemn oath. Carson asked James Craig MP to devise a suitable form of words based on the text of the Solemn League and Covenant. To promote Ulster’s Covenant Carson began a vigorous speaking campaign among Protestant workers in the shipyards and factories, which led to the foundation of the Ulster Unionist Labour Association. On 28th September, ‘Ulster Day’, the mass signatures began with those of the dignitaries of the Lords, Commons, Church, councils, clubs and lodges and by the end of the first day 80,000 signatures had been collected, many made in the signatories’ own blood. Nearly half a million signatures were collected throughout the kingdom. Alarmed at the worsening crisis, King George V called the leading politicians to meet at Balmoral, Scotland. Bonar Law made it clear that the Conservative Party would back Carson if he proclaimed a provisional government in Ulster and that if the Army were to use force against the Province, “undoubtedly we should regard it as civil war and should urge the officers of the Army to ignore the government’s orders.”

Carson now turned his attention to arming the UVF, commissioning Major Fred Crawford to purchase 30,000 rifles and ammunition overseas and smuggle them into the Province. Carson was prepared “to go to prison for it”. The Larne gun running followed. It is still possible to see one of the smuggled rifles bearing UVF markings to-day. It is on display in the Imperial War Museum, London. In 1914, the so-called ‘Curragh Mutiny’ occurred, when Asquith’s government ordered the Army in Ireland to be mobilised to march on Ulster but the officers resigned en masse and so the government’s attempt to coerce the Province was foiled. Powerless to impose its will by force of arms, the Liberal government nonetheless put the Home Rule bill on the statute book.

The King convened another all-party conference, which met at Buckingham Palace, warning the delegates that “to-day the cry of civil war is on the lips of the most responsible and sober-minded of my people,” but no agreement was reached. In the South Arthur Griffith(2) had begun recruiting armed militias for Sinn Fein, advocating not Home Rule, but a republic. Carson, addressing a Twelfth of July rally, averred: “I can see no hopes of my opinion the great climax and the great crisis of our fate, and the fate of our country, cannot be delayed for many weeks - unless something happens - when we shall have once more to assert the manhood of our race.”

Something quite unforeseen did indeed happen. On 24th July, 1914, the day that the breakdown of the conference was announced, Austria-Hungary issued the ultimatum to Serbia which was to spark off the Great War. Carson had already prepared his “Go ahead!” message to the UVF, but now the Ulster crisis was to be deferred and an incipient civil war was superseded by a World War. Ulster played a valiant part in the war. Carson patriotically placed the UVF at the disposal of the authorities for Home Defence and 35,000 Ulster volunteers immediately enlisted. “England’s difficulty is not Ulster’s opportunity; England’s difficulty is our difficulty and England’s sorrows have always been our sorrows,” Carson affirmed(3). He joined the war cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty, co- operating with Lloyd George, who was critical of Asquith’s uncertain leadership and Churchill’s disastrous Dardanelles folly.

England’s difficulty did, as expected, prove to be Sinn Fein’s opportunity. At Easter 1916, at the height of the war, it launched its bloody rebellion in Dublin (the ‘Easter Rising’) followed by a terrorist campaign in the South. Southern Irish opinion abandoned all moderation and at the post- Armistice election of 1918 Sinn Fein swept the board, almost wiping out John Redmond’s Nationalist Party, which, for all its faults, had never sought finally to repudiate the Union. Refusing to take their seats at Westminster, the Sinn Fein MPs convened at the Mansion House in Dublin in early 1919, styling themselves the Dail Eireann.

In February 1920, the Liberal/Conservative coalition introduced the fourth Home Rule Bill known as the Government of Ireland Act, which repealed Asquith’s pre-war Act and provided for two devolved parliaments, one in Belfast for the six counties of Northern Ireland, and one in Dublin for the rest. Although Carson had always wanted to preserve full legislative union under the Westminster parliament he recommended acceptance of this arrangement as it at least ensured that the majority of unionists would be excluded from Dublin’s jurisdiction.

The subsequent election in Northern Ireland returned an overwhelming unionist majority and Carson was pressed to accept the premiership, but, believing it was for a younger man to open a new chapter in Ulster’s history, he declined in favour of Sir James Craig. On 22nd June, 1921 King George V opened the first session of the Parliament of Northern Ireland. The King expressed the hope that a similar ceremony could be held in Dublin (as the Act of 1920 provided) but when the Lord Lieutenant opened the Dublin Parliament a week later it was a fiasco, only four MPs turning up.

Lloyd George took this opportunity to invite Sinn Fein to negotiate a new settlement which resulted six months later in a ‘Treaty’ giving de facto independence to southern Ireland as the Irish Free State with Dominion status under the Crown. The British were to withdraw from the greater part of the island after a tenure of seven centuries and the British Isles were to be partitioned into two separate states. Amongst the negotiators of this surrender on the British side were Lloyd George, Churchill, and the Conservatives, Austen Chamberlain(4) and Lord Birkenhead (F.E. Smith). Parliament brought the Treaty into law even though the majority in both Houses consisted of so-called ‘Unionists’, who for the past thirty-five years had opposed the relatively mild form of devolved government proposed by Gladstone and later by Asquith. F.E. Smith had been a particularly intemperate opponent of Home Rule, yet was instrumental in pushing the Treaty through, but all the English Unionists, with the honourable exception of Bonar Law, had combined with the Liberals to smash the Union. And all this without any electoral mandate!

Carson, now a Law Lord, was vitriolic:

“What a fool I was! I was only a puppet, and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into power...these terms were not passed on their merits. Not at all. They were passed with a revolver pointed at your heads. And you know it...I ask your Lordships, ought Unionist leaders to have been a party to that - Unionist leaders who had undertaken to defend Unionist policy? Of all the men in my experience that I think the most loathsome it is those who will sell their friends for the purpose of conciliating their enemies(5).”

Ulster could not have been saved for the British Crown were it not for two factors: the rock-like doggedness of its loyalist people and Sir Edward Carson’s inspiring leadership. Ultimately it was the threat of armed defiance, the threat that ‘Ulster will fight!’ that wrung its right of self-determination from liberal-minded ministries and Sinn Fein murder gangs. To-day, we still repeat Carson’s perennial question: “Will liberal-minded governments ever learn that submission to lawlessness, so far from appeasing, only whets the appetite in Ireland?”


Marjoribanks’s Life of Carson is probably the leading text, but Montgomery Hyde’s Carson is also excellent. Notes

1.The reference is to the siege of Londonderry in 1690 by the Franco-Irish army of King James

2.An extreme example of that curious phenomenon well illustrated by Wolfe Tone, Parnell and Casement, the Protestant Fenian, Griffith led an Irish Catholic movement, despite being of Welsh extraction, and a Nonconformist Protestant. He later joined Michael Collins in signing the treaty that created the Irish Free State, becoming its first Head of State. Unlike Collins, he was lucky, or careful, enough to escape the murderous attentions of his former comrades and died in his bed of natural causes while still in office.

3.“England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity” was a well-known Fenian saying, to which the Republican movement has remained true, allying itself with England’s enemy of the day, from the Kaiser, to Hitler, the Russian Communists and more recently Colonel Gaddafi, as in former times Irish extremists had sought the alliance first of the French kings, then of the French revolutionaries and lastly of the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.

4.Austen Chamberlain was the son of Joseph Chamberlain (q.v.), who had led the unionists out of the Liberal party, while Winston Churchill was the son of Lord Randolph Churchill, who had famously declared: “Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right!” By a bitter irony the Union was thus destroyed by the sons of two of its staunchest defenders. Carson expressed his revulsion at Austen Chamberlain’s actions to Mrs Dugdale (Balfour’s niece) in these words: “...At the very end, when Austen said to me that the thing was inevitable, I said: ‘Rot. Joe would never have acquiesced!’ To think it was his own degenerate son!” Austen’s half- brother, Neville, who was on very close terms with Bonar Law, backed the unionist diehards, and consequently stood far higher in Carson’s estimation than Austen.

5.This remark was directed at Lord Birkenhead, who (as Lord Chancellor) was presiding over the debate. Such language has never been used since in the Lords.

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