"What Answer from the North?"

Ronald McNeill
Chapter VII

Public curiosity as to the proposals that the coming Home Rule Bill might contain was not set at rest by Mr. Churchill's oration in Belfast. The constitution-mongers were hard at work with suggestions. Attempts were made to conciliate hesitating opinion by representing Irish Home Rule as a step in the direction of a general federal system for the United Kingdom, and by tracing an analogy with the constitutions already granted to the self-governing Dominions. Closely connected with the federal idea was the question of finance. There was lively speculation as to what measure of control over taxation the Bill would confer on the Irish Parliament, and especially whether it would be given the power to impose duties of Customs and Excise. Home Rulers themselves were sharply divided on the question. At a conference held at the London School of Economics on the 10th of January, 1912, Professor T. M. Kettle, Mr. Erskine Childers, and Mr. Thomas Lough, M.P., declared themselves in favour of Irish fiscal autonomy, while Lord Macdonnell opposed the idea as irreconcilable with the fiscal policy of Great Britain.[22] The latter opinion was very forcibly maintained a few weeks later by a member of the Government with some reputation as an economist. Speaking to a branch of the United Irish League in London, Mr. J. M. Robertson, Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade, summarily rejected fiscal autonomy for Ireland, which, he said, "really meant a claim for separation." "To give fiscal autonomy," he added, "would mean disintegration of the United Kingdom. Fiscal autonomy for Ireland put an end altogether to all talk of Federal Home Rule, and he could see no hope for a Home Rule Bill if it included fiscal autonomy."[23]

Although the Secretary to the Board of Trade was probably not in the confidence of the Cabinet, many people took Mr. Robertson's speech as an indication of the limits of financial control that the Bill would give to Ireland. On the same day that it was delivered the Dublin Correspondent of The Times reported that the demand of the Nationalists for control of Customs and Excise was rapidly growing, and that any Bill which withheld it, even if it could scrape through a National Convention, "would never survive the two succeeding years of agitation and criticism"; and he agreed with Mr. Robertson that if, on the other hand, fiscal autonomy should be conceded, it would destroy all prospect of a settlement on federal lines, and would "establish virtual separation between Ireland and Great Britain." He predicted that "Ulster, of course, would resist to the bitter end."[24]

Ulster, in point of fact, took but a secondary interest in the question. Her people were indeed opposed to anything that would enlarge the separation from England, or emphasise it, and, as they realised, like the Secretary to the Board of Trade, that fiscal autonomy would have this effect, they opposed fiscal autonomy; but they cared little about the thing in itself one way or the other. Nor did they greatly concern themselves whether Home Rule proceeded on federal lines or any other lines; nor whether some apt analogy could or could not be found between Ireland and the Dominions of the Crown thousands of miles oversea. Having made up their minds that no Dublin Parliament should exercise jurisdiction over themselves, they did not worry themselves much about the powers with which such a Parliament might be endowed. It is noteworthy, however, in view of the importance which the question afterwards attained, that so early as January 1912 Sir Edward Carson, speaking in Manchester, maintained that without fiscal autonomy Home Rule was impossible,[25] and that some months later Mr. Bonar Law, in a speech at Glasgow on the 21st of May, said that if the Unionist Party were in a position where they had to concede Home Rule to Ireland they would include fiscal autonomy in the grant.[26] These leaders, who, unlike the Liberal Ministers, had some knowledge of the Irish temperament, realised from the first the absurdity of Mr. Asquith's attempt to satisfy the demands of "the rebel party" by offering something very different from what that party demanded. The Ulster leader and the leader of the Unionist Party knew as well as anybody that fiscal autonomy meant "virtual separation between Ireland and Great Britain," but they also knew that separation was the ultimate aim of Nationalist policy, and that there could be no finality in the Liberal compromise; and they no doubt agreed with the forcible language used by Mr. Balfour in the previous autumn, when he said that "the rotten hybrid system of a Parliament with municipal duties and a national feeling seemed to be the dream of political idiots."

The ferment of speculation as to the Government's intentions continued during the early weeks of the Parliamentary session, which opened on the 14th of February, but all inquiries by members of the House of Commons were met by variations on the theme "Wait and See." Unionists, however, realised that it was not in Parliament, but outside, that the only effective work could be done, in the hope of forcing a dissolution of Parliament before the Bill could become law. A vigorous campaign was conducted throughout the country, especially in Lancashire, and arrangements were made for a monster demonstration in Belfast, which should serve both as a counterblast to the Churchill fiasco, and for enabling English and Scottish Unionists to test for themselves the temper of the Ulster resistance. In the belief that the Home Rule Bill would be introduced before Easter, it was decided to hold this meeting in the Recess, as Mr. Bonar Law had promised to speak, and a number of English Members of Parliament wished to be present. At the last moment the Government announced that the Bill would not be presented till the 11th of April, after Parliament reassembled, and its provisions were therefore still unknown when the demonstration took place on the 9th in the Show Ground of the Royal Agricultural Society at Balmoral, a suburb of Belfast.

Feeling ran high as the date of the double event approached, and the indignant sense of wrong that prevailed in Ulster was finely voiced in a poem, entitled "Ulster 1912," written by Mr. Kipling for the occasion which appeared in The Morning Post on the day of the Balmoral demonstration, of which the first and last stanzas were:

"The dark eleventh hour

Draws on, and sees us sold

To every evil Power

We fought against of old.

Rebellion, rapine, hate,

Oppression, wrong, and greed

Are loosed to rule our fate,

By England's act and deed.

"Believe, we dare not boast,

Believe, we do not fear—

We stand to pay the cost

In all that men hold dear.

What answer from the North?

One Law, One Land, One Throne.

If England drive us forth

We shall not fall alone!"

The preparations for the Unionist leader's coming visit to Belfast had excited the keenest interest throughout England and Scotland. Coinciding as it did with the introduction of the Government's Bill, it was recognised to be the formal countersigning by the whole Unionist Party of Great Britain of Ulster's proclamation of her determination to resist her forcible degradation in constitutional status. The same note of mingled reproach and defiance which sounded in Kipling's verses was heard in the grave warning addressed by The Times to the country in a leading article on the morning of the meeting:

"Nobody of common judgment and common knowledge of political movements can honestly doubt the exceptional gravity of the occasion, and least of all can any such doubt be felt by any who know the men of Ulster. To make light of the deep-rooted convictions which fill the minds of those who will listen to Mr. Bonar Law to-day is a shallow and an idle affectation, or a token of levity and of ignorance. Enlightened Liberalism may smile at the beliefs and the passions of the Ulster Protestants, but it was those same beliefs and passions, in the forefathers of the men who will gather in Belfast to-day, which saved Ireland for the British Crown, and freed the cause of civil and religious liberty in these islands from its last dangerous foes. ... It is useless to argue that they are mistaken. They have reasons, never answered yet, for believing that they are not mistaken. . . . Their temper is an ultimate fact which British statesmen and British citizens have to face. These men cannot be persuaded to submit to Home Rule. Are Englishmen and Scotchmen prepared to fasten it upon them by military force? That is the real Ulster question."

Other great English newspapers wrote in similar strain, and the support thus given was of the greatest possible encouragement to the Ulster people, who were thereby assured that their standpoint was not misunderstood and that the justice of their "loyalist" claims was appreciated across the Channel.

Among the numberless popular demonstrations which marked the history of Ulster's stand against Home Rule, four stand out pre-eminent in the impressiveness of their size and character. Those who attended the Ulster Convention of 1892 were persuaded that no political meeting could ever be more inspiring; but many of them lived to acknowledge that it was far surpassed at Craigavon in 1911. The Craigavon meeting, though in some respects as important as any of the series, was, from a spectacular point of view, much less imposing than the assemblage which listened to Mr. Bonar Law at Balmoral on Easter Tuesday, 1912; and the latter occasion, though never surpassed in splendour and magnitude by any single gathering, was in significance but a prelude to the magnificent climax reached in the following September on the day when the Covenant was signed throughout Ulster.

The Balmoral demonstration had, however, one distinctive feature. At it the Unionist Party of Great Britain met and grasped the hand of Ulster Loyalism. It gave the leader and a large number of his followers an opportunity to judge for themselves the strength and sincerity of Ulster, and at the same time it served to show the Ulstermen the weight of British opinion ready to back them. Mr. Bonar Law was accompanied to Belfast by no less than seventy Members of Parliament, representing English, Scottish, and Welsh constituencies, not a few of whom had already attained, or afterwards rose to, political distinction. Among them were Mr. Walter Long, Lord Hugh Cecil, Sir Robert Finlay, Lord Charles Beresford, Lord Castlereagh, Mr. Amery, Mr. J. D. Baird, Sir Arthur Griffith-Boscawen, Mr. Ian Malcolm, Lord Claud Hamilton, Mr. J. G. Butcher, Mr. Ernest Pollock, Mr. George Cave, Mr. Felix Cassel, Mr. Ormsby-Gore, Mr. Scott Dickson, Mr. W. Peel, Captain Gilmour, Mr. George Lloyd, Mr. J. W. Hills, Mr. George Lane-Fox, Mr. Stuart-Wortley, Mr. J. F. P. Rawlinson, Mr. H. J. Mackinder, and Mr. Herbert Nield.

The reception of the Unionist Leader at Larne on Easter Monday was wonderful, even to those who knew what a Larne welcome to loyalist leaders could be, and who recalled the scenes there during the historic visits of Lord Randolph Churchill, Lord Salisbury, and Mr. Balfour. "If this is how you treat your friends," said Mr. Bonar Law simply, in reply to one of the innumerable addresses presented to him, "I am glad I am not an enemy." Before reaching Belfast he had ample opportunity at every stopping-place of his train to note the fervour of the populace. "Are all these people landlords?" he asked (in humorous allusion to the Liberal legend that Ulster Unionism was manufactured by a few aristocratic landowners), as he saw every platform thronged with enthusiastic crowds of men and women, the majority of whom were evidently of the poorer classes. In Belfast the concourse of people was so dense in the streets that the motor-car in which Mr. Bonar Law and Sir Edward Carson sat side by side found it difficult to make its way to the Reform Club, the headquarters of what had once been Ulster Liberalism, where an address was presented in which it was stated that the conduct of the Government "will justify loyal Ulster in resorting to the most extreme measures in resisting Home Rule." In his reply Mr. Bonar Law gave them "on behalf of the Unionist Party this message—though the brunt of the battle will be yours, there will not be wanting help from 'across the Channel.'" At Comber, where a stop was made on the way to Mount Stewart, he asked himself how Radical Scotsmen would like to be treated as the Government were treating Protestant Ulster. "I know Scotland well," he replied to his own question, "and I believe that, rather than submit to such fate, the Scottish people would face a second Bannockburn or a second Flodden."

These few quotations from the first utterances of Mr. Bonar Law on his arrival are sufficient to show how complete was the understanding between him and the Ulster people even before the great demonstration of the following day. He had, as The Times Correspondent noted, "already found favour with the Belfast crowd. All the way from Larne by train to Belfast and through Belfast by motorcar to Newtownards and Mount Stewart, his progress was a triumph."

The remarks of the same experienced observer on the eve of the Balmoral meeting are worth recording, especially as his anticipations were amply fulfilled.

"To-morrow's demonstration," he telegraphed from Belfast, "both in numbers and enthusiasm, promises to be the most remarkable ever seen in Ireland. If expectations are realised the assemblage of men will be twice as numerous as the whole white population of the Witwatersrand, whose grievances led to the South African War, and they will represent a community greater in numbers than the white population of South Africa as a whole. Unless all the signs are misleading, it will be the demonstration of a community in the deadliest earnest. By the Protestant community of Ulster, Home Rule is regarded as a menace to their faith, to their material well-being and prosperity, and to their freedom and national traditions, and thus all the most potent motives which in history have stirred men to their greatest efforts are here in operation."

No written description, unless by the pen of some gifted imaginative writer, could convey any true impression of the scenes that were witnessed the following day in the Show Ground at Balmoral and the roads leading to it from the heart of the city. The photographs published at the time give some idea of the apparently unbounded ocean of earnest, upturned faces, closely packed round the several platforms, and stretching away far into a dim and distant background; but even they could not record the impressive stillness of the vast multitude, its orderliness, which required the presence of not a single policeman, its spirit of almost religious solemnity which struck every observant onlooker. No profusion of superlative adjectives can avail to reproduce such scenes, any more than words, no matter how skilfully chosen, can convey the tone of a violin in the hands of a master. Even the mere number of those who took part in the demonstration cannot be guessed with any real accuracy. There was a procession of men, whose fine physique and military smartness were noticed by visitors from England, which was reported to have taken three hours to pass a given point marching in fours, and was estimated to be not less than 100,000 strong, while those who went independently to the ground or crowded the route were reckoned to be at least as many more. The Correspondent of The Times declared that "it was hardly by hyperbole that Sir Edward Carson claimed that it was one of the largest assemblies in the history of the world."

But the moral effect of such gatherings is not to be gauged by numbers alone. The demeanour of the people, which no organisation or stage management could influence, impressed the English journalists and Members of Parliament even more than the gigantic scale of the demonstration. There was not a trace of the picnic spirit. There was no drunkenness, no noisy buffoonery, no unseemly behaviour. The Ulster habit of combining politics and prayer—which was not departed from at Balmoral, where the proceedings were opened by the Primate of All Ireland and the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church—was jeered at by people who never witnessed an Ulster loyalist meeting; but the Editor of The Observer, himself a Roman Catholic, remarked with more insight that "the Protestant mind does not use prayer simply as part of a parade;" and The Times Correspondent, who has already been more than once quoted, was struck by the fervour with which at Balmoral "the whole of the vast gathering joined in singing the 90th Psalm," and he added the very just comment that "it is the custom in Ulster to mark in this solemn manner the serious nature of the issue when the Union is the question, as something different from a question of mere party politics."

The spectacular aspect of the demonstration was admirably managed. A saluting point was so arranged that the procession, on entering the enclosure, could divide into two columns, one passing each side of a small pavilion where Mr. Bonar Law, Sir Edward Carson, Lord Londonderry, and Mr. Walter Long stood to take the salute before proceeding to the stand which held the principal platform for the delivery of the speeches. In the centre of the ground was a signalling-tower with a flagstaff 90 feet high, on which a Union Jack measuring 48 feet by 25 and said to be the largest ever woven, was broken at the moment when the Resolution against Home Rule was put to the meeting.

Mr. Bonar Law, visibly moved by the scene before him, made a speech that profoundly affected his audience, although it was characteristically free from rhetorical display. A recent incident in Dublin, where the sight of the British Flag flying within view of a Nationalist meeting had been denounced as "an intolerable insult," supplied him, when he compared it with the spectacle presented by the meeting, with an apt illustration of the contrast between "the two nations" in Ireland—the loyal and the disloyal. He told the Ulstermen that he had come to them as the leader of the Unionist Party to give them the assurance that "that party regard your cause, not as yours alone, nor as ours alone, but as the cause of the Empire"; the meeting, which he had expected to be a great gathering but which far exceeded his expectation, proved that Ulster's hostility to Home Rule, far from having slackened, as enemies had alleged, had increased and solidified with the passing years; they were men "animated by a unity of purpose, by a fixity of resolution which nothing can shake and which must prove irresistible," to whom he would apply Cromwell's words to his Ironsides "You are men who know what you are fighting for, and love what you know." Then, after an analysis of the practical evils that Home Rule would engender and the benefits which legislative union secured, he again emphasised the lack of mandate for the Government policy. His hearers, he said, "knew the shameful story": how the Radicals had twice failed to obtain the sanction of the British people for Home Rule, "and now for the third time they were trying to carry it not only without the sanction, but against the will, of the British people."

The peroration which followed made an irresistible appeal to a people always mindful of the glories of the relief of Derry. Mr. Bonar Law warned them that the Ministerial majority in the House of Commons, "now cemented by £400 a year," could not be broken up, but would have their own way. He therefore said to them:

"With all solemnity—you must trust in yourselves. Once again you hold the pass—the pass for the Empire. You are a besieged city. The timid have left you; your Lundys have betrayed you; but you have closed your gates. The Government have erected by their Parliament Act a boom against you to shut you off from the help of the British people. You will burst that boom. That help will come, and when the crisis is over men will say to you in words not unlike those used by Pitt—you have saved yourselves by your exertions and you will save the Empire by your example."

The overwhelming ovation with which Sir Edward Carson was received upon taking the president's chair at the chief platform, in the absence through illness of the Duke of Abercorn, proved that he had already won the confidence and the affection of the Ulster people to a degree that seemed to leave little room for growth, although every subsequent appearance he made among them in the years that lay ahead seemed to add intensity to their demonstrations of personal devotion. The most dramatic moment at Balmoral—if for once the word so hackneyed and misused by journalists may be given its true signification—the most dramatic moment was when the Ulster leader and the leader of the whole Unionist Party each grasped the other's hand in view of the assembled multitude, as though formally ratifying a compact made thus publicly on the eve of battle. It was the consummation of the purpose of this assembly of the Unionist hosts on Ulster soil, and gave assurance of unity of aim and undivided command in the coming struggle.

Of the other speeches delivered, many of them of a high quality, especially, perhaps, those of Lord Hugh Cecil, Sir Robert Finlay, and Mr. Scott Dickson, it is enough to say that they all conveyed the same message of encouragement to Ulster, the same promise of undeviating support. One detail, however, deserves mention, because it shows the direction in which men's thoughts were then moving. Mr. Walter Long, whose great services to the cause of the Union procured him a welcome second in warmth to that of no other leader, after thanking Londonderry and Carson "for the great lead they have given us in recent difficult weeks"—an allusion to the Churchill incident that was not lost on the audience—added with a blunt, directness characteristic of the speaker: "If they are going to put Lord Londonderry and Sir Edward Carson into the dock, they will have to find one large enough to hold the whole Unionist Party."

The Balmoral demonstration was recognised on all sides as one of the chief landmarks in the Ulster Movement. The Craigavon policy was not only reaffirmed with greater emphasis than before by the people of Ulster themselves, but it received the deliberate endorsement of the Unionist Party in England and Scotland. Moreover, as Mr. Long's speech explicitly promised, and Mr. Bonar Law's speech unmistakably implied, British support was not to be dependent on Ulster's opposition to Home Rule being kept within strictly legal limits. Indeed, it had become increasingly evident that opposition so limited must be impotent, since, as Mr. Bonar Law pointed out, Ministers and their majority in the House of Commons were in Mr. Redmond's pocket, and had no choice but to "toe the line," while the "boom" which they had erected by the Parliament Act cut off Ulster from access to the British constituencies, unless that boom could be burst as the boom across the Foyle was broken by the Mountjoy in 1689. The Unionist leader had warned the Ulstermen that in these circumstances they must expect nothing from Parliament, but must trust in themselves. They did not mistake his meaning, and they were quite ready to take his advice.

Coming, as it did, two days before the introduction of the Government's Bill, the Balmoral demonstration profoundly influenced opinion in the country. The average Englishman, when his political party is in a minority, damns the Government, shrugs his shoulders, and goes on his way, not rejoicing indeed, but with apathetic resignation till the pendulum swings again. He now awoke to the fact that the Ulstermen meant business. He realised that a political crisis of the first magnitude was visible on the horizon. The vague talk about "civil war" began to look as if it might have something in it, and it was evident that the provisions of the forthcoming Bill, about which there had been so much eager anticipation, would be of quite secondary importance since neither the Cabinet nor the House of Commons would have the last word.

Supporters of the Government in the Press could think of nothing better to do in these circumstances than to pour out abuse, occasionally varied by ridicule, on the Unionist leaders, of which Sir Edward Carson came in for the most generous portion. He was by turns everything that was bad, dangerous, and absurd, from Mephistopheles to a madman. "F. C. G." summarised the Balmoral meeting pictorially in a Westminster Gazette cartoon as a costermonger's donkey-cart in which Carson, Londonderry, and Bonar Law, refreshed by "Orangeade," took "an Easter Jaunt in Ulster," and other caricaturists used their pencils with less humour and more malice with the same object of belittling the demonstration with ridicule. But ridicule is not so potent a weapon in England or in Ulster as it is said to be in France. It did nothing to weaken the Ulster cause; it even strengthened it in some ways. It was about this time that hostile writers began to refer to "King Carson," and to represent him as exercising regal sway over his "subjects" in Ulster. Those "subjects" were delighted; they took it as a compliment to their leader's position and power, and did not in the least resent the role assigned to themselves.

On the other hand, they did resent very hotly the vulgar insolence often levelled at their "Sir Edward." He himself was always quite indifferent to it, sometimes even amused by it. On one occasion, when something particularly outrageous had appeared with reference to him in some Radical paper, he delighted a public meeting by solemnly reading the passage, and when the angry cries of "Shame, shame" had subsided, saying with a smile: "This sort of thing is only the manure that fertilises my reputation with you who know me."

And that was true. If Home Rulers, whether in Ireland or in Great Britain, ever seriously thought of conciliating Ulster, as Mr. Redmond professed to desire, they never made a greater mistake than in saying and writing insulting things about Carson. It only endeared him more and more to his followers, and it intensified the bitterness of their feeling against the Nationalists and all their works. An almost equally short-sighted error on the part of hostile critics was the idea that the attitude of Ulster as exhibited at Craigavon and Balmoral should be represented as mere bluster and bluff, to which the only proper reply was contempt. There never was anything further removed from the truth, as anyone ought to have known who had the smallest acquaintance with Irish history or with the character of the race that had supplied the backbone of Washington's army; but, if there had been at any time an element of bluff in their attitude, their contemptuous critics took the surest means of converting it into grim earnestness of purpose. Mr. Redmond himself was ill-advised enough to set an example in this respect. In an article published by Reynold's Newspaper in January he had scoffed at the "stupid, hollow, and unpatriotic bellowings" of the Loyalists in Belfast. Some few opponents had enough sense to take a different line in their comments on Balmoral. One article in particular which appeared in The Star on the day of the demonstration attracted much attention for this reason.

"We have never yielded," it said, "to the temptation to deride or to belittle the resistance of Ulster to Home Rule. . . . The subjugation of Protestant Ulster by force is one of those things that do not happen in our politics. ... It is, we know, a popular delusion that Ulster is a braggart whose words are empty bluff. We are convinced that Ulster means what she says, and that she will make good every one of her warnings."

The Star went on to implore Liberals not to be driven "into an attitude of bitter hostility to the Ulster Protestants," with whom it declared they had much in common.

After Balmoral there was certainly more disposition than before on the part of Liberal Home Rulers to acknowledge the sincerity of Ulster and the gravity of the position created by her opposition, and this disposition showed itself in the debates on the Bill; but, speaking generally, the warning of The Star was disregarded by its political adherents, and its neglect contributed not a little to the embitterment of the controversy.

Read "Ulster's Stand for Union" at your leisure

Ulster's Stand for Union

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Ronald McNeill provides a truly fascinating account of the Home Rule Crisis of 1912 from a Unionist perspective. The book covers, inter alia, the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the drafting and signing of the Solemn League and Covenant, gun-running to Larne and Donaghadee, Ulster in the Great War, and the establishment of the Ulster Parliament in 1921.

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