On the Brink of Civil War

Ronald McNeill
Chapter XIX

The arrangements that had been made for the landing and disposal of the arms when they arrived in port were the work of an extremely efficient and complete organisation. In the previous summer Captain Spender, it will be remembered, had been appointed to a position on Sir George Richardson's staff which included in its duties that of the organisation of transport. A railway board, a supply board, and a transport board had been formed, on which leading business men willingly served; every U.V.F. unit had its horse transport, and in addition a special motor corps, organised in squadrons, and a special corps of motor-lorries were formed.

More than half the owners of motor-cars in Ulster placed their cars at the disposal of the motor corps, to be used as and when required. The corps was organised in sections of four cars each, and in squadrons of seventeen cars each, with motor cyclist despatch-riders; a signalling corps of despatch-riders and signallers completed the organisation. The lively interest aroused by the practice and displays of the last-mentioned corps did much to promote the high standard of proficiency attained by its "flag-waggers," many of whom were women and girls. In particular the signalling-station at Bangor gained a reputation which attracted many English sympathisers with Ulster to pay it a visit when they came to Belfast for the great Unionist demonstrations.

The despatch-riders on motor-cycles made the Ulster Council independent of the Post Office, which for very good reasons they used as little as possible. Post-houses were opened at all the most important centres in Ulster, between which messages were transmitted by despatch-rider or signal according to the nature of the intervening country. Along the coast of Down and Antrim the organisation of signals was complete and effective. The usefulness of the despatch-riders' corps was fully tested and proved during the Curragh Incident, when news of all that was taking place at the Curragh was received by this means two or three times a day at the Old Town Hall in Belfast, where there was much information of what was going on that was unknown at the Irish Office in London.

All this organisation was at the disposal of the leaders for handling the arms brought in the hold of the Mountjoy II. The perfection of the arrangements for the immediate distribution of the rifles and ammunition among the loyalist population, and the almost miraculous precision with which they were carried out on that memorable Friday night, extorted the admiration even of the most inveterate political enemies of Ulster. The smoothness with which the machinery of organisation worked was only possible on account of the hearty willingness of all the workers, combined with the discipline to which they gladly submitted themselves.

The whole U.V.F. was warned for a trial mobilisation on the evening of the 24th of April, and the owners of all motor-cars and lorries were requested to co-operate. Very few either of the Volunteers or the motor owners knew that anything more than manoeuvres by night for practice purposes was to take place. All motors from certain specified districts were ordered to be at Larne by 8 o'clock in the evening; from other districts the vehicles were to assemble at Bangor and Donaghadee respectively, at a later hour. All the roads leading to these ports were patrolled by volunteers, and at every cross-roads over the greater part of nine counties men of the local battalions were stationed to give directions to motor-drivers who might not be familiar with the roads. At certain points these men were provided with reserve supplies of petrol, and with repairing tools that might be needed in case of breakdown. It is a remarkable testimony to the zeal of these men for the cause that, although none of them knew he was taking part in an exciting adventure, not one, so far as is known, left his post throughout a cold and wet night, having received orders not to go home till daybreak. And these were men, it must be remembered, who before putting on the felt hats, puttees, and bandoliers which constituted their uniform, had already done a full day's work, and were not to receive a sixpence for their night's job.

At the three ports of discharge large forces of volunteers were concentrated. Sir George Richardson, G.O.C. in C., remained in Belfast through the night, being kept fully and constantly informed of the progress of events by signal and motor-cyclist despatch-riders. Captain James Craig was in charge of the operations at Bangor; at Larne General Sir William Adair was in command, with Captain Spender as Staff officer.

The attention of the Customs authorities in Belfast was diverted by a clever stratagem. A tramp steamer was brought up the Musgrave Channel after dark, her conduct being as furtive and suspicious as it was possible to make it appear. At the same time a large wagon was brought to the docks as if awaiting a load. The skipper of the tramp took an unconscionable time, by skilful blundering, in bringing his craft to her moorings. The suspicions of the authorities were successfully aroused; but every possible hindrance was put in their way when they began to investigate. The hour was too late: could they not wait till daylight? No? Well, then, what was their authority? When that was settled, it appeared that the skipper had mislaid his keys and could not produce the ship's papers—and so on. By these devices the belief of the officers that they had caught the offender they were after was increasingly confirmed every minute, while several hours passed before they were allowed to realise that they had discovered a mare's-nest. For when at last they "would stand no more nonsense," and had the hatches opened and the papers produced, the latter were quite in order, and the cargo—which they wasted a little additional time in turning over—contained nothing but coal.

Meantime the real business was proceeding twenty miles away. All communications by wire from the three ports were blocked by "earthing" the wires, so as to cause short circuit. The police and coast-guards were "peacefully picketed," as trade unionists would call it, in their various barracks—they were shut in and strongly guarded. No conflict took place anywhere between the authorities and the volunteers, and the only casualty of any kind was the unfortunate death of one coast-guardsman from heart disease at Donaghadee.

At Larne, where much the largest portion of the Mountjoy's cargo was landed, a triple cordon of Volunteers surrounded the town and harbour, and no one without a pass was allowed through. The motors arrived with a punctuality that was wonderful, considering that many of them had come from long distances. As the drivers arrived near the town and found themselves in an apparently endless procession of similar vehicles, their astonishment and excitement became intense. Only when close to the harbour did they learn what they were there for, and received instructions how to proceed. They had more than two hours to wait in drizzling rain before the Mountjoy appeared round the point of Islandmagee, although her approach had been made known to Spender by signal at dusk. There were about five hundred motor vehicles assembled at Larne alone, and such an invasion of flaring head-lights gave the inhabitants of the little town unwonted excitement. Practically all the able-bodied men of the place were either on duty as Volunteers or were willing workers in the landing of the arms. The women stood at their doors and gave encouraging greeting to the drivers; many of them ran improvised canteens, which supplied the workers with welcome refreshments during the night.

There was a not unnatural tendency at first on the part of some of the motor-drivers to look upon the event more in the light of a meet of hounds than of the gravest possible business, and to hang about discussing the adventure with the other "sportsmen." But the use of vigorous language brought them back to recognition of the seriousness of the work before them, and the discharge of the cargo proceeded hour after hour with the utmost rapidity and with the regularity of a well-oiled machine. The cars drew up beside the Mountjoy in an endless queue; each received its quota of bales according to its carrying capacity, and was despatched on its homeward journey without a moment's delay.

The wisdom of Crawford's system of packing was fully vindicated. There was no confusion, no waiting to bring ammunition from one part of the ship's hold to match with rifles brought from another, and bayonets from a third. The packages, as they were carried from the steamer or the cranes, were counted by checking clerks, and their destination noted as each car received its load. But even the large number of vehicles available would have been insufficient for the purpose on hand if each had been limited to a single load; dumps had therefore been formed at a number of selected places in the surrounding districts, where the arms were temporarily deposited so as to allow the cars to return and perform the same duty several times during the night.

While the Mountjoy was discharging the Larne consignment on to the quay, she was at the same time transhipping a smaller quantity into a motor-boat, moored against her side, which when laden hurried off to Donaghadee; and she left Larne at 5 in the morning to discharge the last portion of her cargo at Bangor, which was successfully accomplished in broad daylight after her arrival there about 7.30.

Crawford refused to leave the ship at either Larne or Bangor, feeling himself bound in honour to remain with the crew until they were safe from arrest by the naval authorities. It was well known in Belfast that a look-out was being kept for the Fanny, which had figured in the Press as "the mystery ship" ever since the affair at Langeland, and had several times been reported to have been viewed at all sorts of odd places on the map, from the Orkneys to Tory Island. Just as Agnew was casting off from Bangor, when the last bale of arms had gone ashore, a message from U.V.F. headquarters informed him that a thirty-knot cruiser was out looking for the Fanny. To mislead the coast-guards on shore a course was immediately set for the Clyde—the very quarter from which a cruiser coming from Lamlash was to be expected—and when some way out to sea Crawford cut the cords holding the canvas sheets that bore the name of the Mountjoy, so that within five minutes the filibustering pirate had again become the staid old collier Clydevalley, which for months past had carried her regular weekly cargo of coal from Scotland to Belfast. As before at Langeland, so now at Copeland, fog providentially covered retreat, and through it the Clydevalley made her way undetected down the Irish Sea. At daybreak next morning Crawford landed at Rosslare; and Agnew then proceeded along the French and Danish coasts to the Baltic to the rendezvous with the Fanny, in order to bring back the Ulstermen members of her crew, after which "the mystery ship" was finally disposed of at Hamburg.

Sir Edward Carson and Lord Londonderry were both in London on the 24th of April. At an early hour next morning a telegram was delivered to each of them, containing the single word "Lion." It was a code message signifying that the landing of the arms had been carried out without a hitch. Before long special editions of the newspapers proclaimed the news to all the world, and as fresh details appeared in every successive issue during the day the public excitement grew in intensity. Wherever two or three Unionists were gathered together exultation was the prevailing mood, and eagerness to send congratulations to friends in Ulster.

Soon after breakfast a visitor to Sir Edward Carson found a motor brougham standing at his door, and on being admitted was told that "Lord Roberts is with Sir Edward." The great little Field-Marshal, on learning the news, had lost not a moment in coming to offer his congratulations to the Ulster leader. "Magnificent!" he exclaimed, on entering the room and holding out his hand, "magnificent! nothing could have been better done; it was a piece of organisation that any army in Europe might be proud of."

But it was not to be expected that the Government and its supporters would relish the news. The Radical Press, of course, rang all the changes of angry vituperation, especially those papers which had been prominent in ridiculing "Ulster bluff" and "King Carson's wooden guns"; and they now speculated as to whether Carson could be "convicted of complicity" in what Mr. Asquith in the House of Commons described as "this grave and unprecedented outrage." Carson soon set that question at rest by quietly rising in his place in the House and saying that he took full responsibility for everything that had been done. The Prime Minister, amid the frenzied cheers of his followers, assured the House that "His Majesty's Government will take, without delay, appropriate steps to vindicate the authority of the law." For a short time there was some curiosity as to what the appropriate steps would be. None, however, of any sort were taken; the Government contented itself with sending a few destroyers to patrol for a short time the coasts of Antrim and Down, where they were saluted by the Ulster Signalling Stations, and their officers hospitably entertained on shore by loyalist residents.

On the 28th of April a further debate on the Curragh Incident took place in the House of Commons, which was a curious example of the rapid changes of mood that characterise that Assembly. Most of the speeches both from the front and back benches were, if possible, even more bitter, angry, and defiant than usual. But at the close of one of the bitterest of them all Mr. Churchill read a typewritten passage that was recognised as a tiny olive-branch held out to Ulster. Carson responded next day in a conciliatory tone, and the Prime Minister was thought to suggest a renewal of negotiations in private. For some time nothing came of this hint; but on the 12th of May Mr. Asquith announced that the third reading of the Home Rule Bill (for the third successive year, as required by the Parliament Act before being presented for the signature of the King) would be taken before Whitsuntide, but that the Government intended to make another attempt to appease Ulster by introducing "an amending proposal, in the hope that a settlement by agreement may be arrived at"; and that the two Bills—the Home Rule Bill and the Bill to amend it—might become law practically at the same time. But he gave no hint as to what the "amending proposal" was to be, and the reception of the announcement by the Opposition did not seem to presage agreement.

Mr. Bonar Law insisted that the House of Commons ought to be told what the Amending Bill would propose, before it was asked finally to pass the Home Rule Bill. But the real fact was, as every member of the House of Commons fully realised, that Mr. Asquith was not a free agent in this matter. The Nationalists were not at all pleased at the attempts already made, trivial as they were, to satisfy Ulster, and Mr. Redmond protested against the promise of an Amending Bill of any kind. Mr. Asquith could make no proposal sufficient to allay the hostility of Ulster that would not alienate the Nationalists, whose support was essential to the continuance of his Government in office.

On the same day as this debate in Parliament the result of a by-election at Grimsby was announced in which the Unionist candidate retained the seat; a week later the Unionists won a seat in Derbyshire; and two days afterwards crowned these successes with a resounding victory at Ipswich. The last-mentioned contest was considered so important that Mr. Lloyd George and Sir Edward Carson went down to speak the evening before the poll for their respective sides. Mr. Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, made his appeal to the cupidity of the constituency, which was informed that it would gain £15,000 a year from his new Budget, in addition to large sums, of which he gave the figure, for old age pensions and under the Government's Health Insurance Act.[88] Sir Edward Carson laid stress on Ulster's determination to resist Home Rule by force. The Unionist candidate won the seat next day in this essentially working-class constituency by a substantial majority, although his Liberal opponent, Mr. Masterman, was a Cabinet Minister trying for the second time to return to Parliament. Out of seven elections since the beginning of the session the Government had lost four.

It happened that the two latest new members took their seats on the 25th of May, on which date the Home Rule Bill was passed by the House of Commons on third reading for the last time. The occasion was celebrated by the Nationalists, not unnaturally, by a great demonstration of triumph, both in the House itself and outside in Palace Yard. Men on the other side reflected that the tragedy of civil war had been brought one stage nearer.

The reply of Ulster to the passing of the Bill was a series of reviews of the U.V.F. during the Whitsuntide recess. Carson, Londonderry, Craig, and most of the other Ulster members attended these parades, which excited intense enthusiasm through the country, more especially as the arms brought by the Mountjoy were now seen for the first time in the hands of the Volunteers. Several battalions were presented with Colours which had been provided by Lady Londonderry, Lady Massereene, Mrs. Craig, and other local ladies, and the ceremony included the dedication of these Colours by the Bishop of Down and the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church. Many visitors from England witnessed these displays, and among them were several deputations of Liberal and Labour working men, who reported on their return that what they had seen had converted them to sympathy with Ulster.[89]

After the recess the promised Amending Bill was introduced in the House of Lords on the 23rd of June by the Marquis of Crewe, who explained that it embodied Mr. Asquith's proposals of the 9th of March, and that he invited amendments. Lord Lansdowne at once declared that these proposals, which had been rejected as inadequate three months ago, were doubly insufficient now. But the invitation to amend the Bill was accepted, Lord Londonderry asking the pertinent question whether the Government would tell Mr. Redmond that they would insist on acceptance of any amendments made in response to Lord Crewe's invitation—a question to which no answer was forthcoming. Lord Milner, in the course of the debate, said the Bill would have to be entirely remodelled, and he laid stress on the point that if Ulster were coerced to join the rest of Ireland it would make a united Ireland for ever impossible, and that the employment of the Army and Navy for the purpose of coercion would give a shock to the Empire which it would not long survive; to which Lord Roberts added that such a policy would mean the utter destruction of the Army, as he had warned the Prime Minister before the incident at the Curragh.

On the 8th of July the Bill was amended by substituting the permanent exclusion of the whole province of Ulster—which Mr. Balfour had named "the clean cut"—for the proposed county option with a time limit; and several other alterations of minor importance were also made. The Bill as amended passed the third reading on the 14th, when Lord Lansdowne predicted that, whatever might be the fate of the measure and of the Home Rule Bill which it modified, the one thing certain was that the idea of coercing Ulster was dead.

In Ulster itself, meanwhile, the people were bent on making Lord Lansdowne's certainty doubly sure. Carson went over for the Boyne celebration on the 12th of July. The frequency of his visits did nothing to damp the ardour with which his arrival was always hailed by his followers. The same wonderful scenes, whether at Larne or at the Belfast docks, were repeated time after time without appearing to grow stale by repetition. They gave colour to the Radical jeer at "King Carson," for no royal personage could have been given a more regal reception than was accorded to "Sir Edward" (as everybody affectionately called him in Belfast) half a dozen times within a few months.

This occasion, when he arrived on the 10th by the Liverpool steamer, accompanied by Mr. Walter Long, was no exception. His route had been announced in the Press. Countless Union Jacks were displayed in every village along both shores of the Lough. Every vessel at anchor, including the gigantic White Star Liner Britannic, was dressed; every fog-horn bellowed a welcome; the multitude of men at work in the great ship-yards crowded to places commanding a view of the incoming packet, and waved handkerchiefs and raised cheers for Sir Edward; fellow passengers jostled each other to get sight of him as he went down the gangway and to give him a parting cheer from the deck; the dock sheds were packed with people, many of them bare-headed and bare-footed women, who pressed close in the hope of touching his hand, or hearing one of his kindly and humorous greetings. It was the same in the streets all the way from the docks to the centre of the city, and out through the working-class district of Ballymacarret to the country beyond, and in every hamlet on the road to Newtownards and Mount Stewart—people congregating to give him a cheer as he passed in Lord Londonderry's motor-car, or pausing in their work on the land to wave a greeting from fields bordering the road.

Radical newspapers in England believed—or at any rate tried to make their readers believe—that the "Northcliffe Press," particularly The Times and Daily Mail, gave an exaggerated account of these extraordinary demonstrations of welcome to Carson, and of the impressiveness of the great meetings which he addressed. But the accounts in Lord Northcliffe's papers did not differ materially from those in other journals like The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Express, The Standard, The Morning Post, The Observer, The Scotsman, and The Spectator. There was no exaggeration. The special correspondents gave faithful accounts of what they saw and heard, and no more. Editorial support was a different matter. Lord Northcliffe's papers were unfailing in their support of the Ulster cause, as were many other great British journals; and even when at a later period Lord Northcliffe's attitude on the general question of Irish government underwent a change that was profoundly disappointing to Ulstermen, his papers never countenanced the idea of applying coercion to Ulster. In the years 1911 to 1914 The Times remained true to the tradition started by John Walter, who, himself a Liberal, went personally to Belfast in 1886 to inform himself on the question, then for the first time raised by Gladstone; and, having done so, supported the loyalist cause in Ireland till his death. A series of weighty articles in 1913 and 1914 approved and encouraged the resistance threatened by Ulster to Home Rule, and justified the measures taken in preparation for it. Whatever may have been the reason for a different attitude at a later date, Ulster owed a debt of gratitude to The Times in those troubled years.

The long-expected crisis appeared to be very close when Carson arrived in Belfast on the 10th of July, 1914. He had come to attend a meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council—sitting for the first time as the Provisional Government. Craig communicated to the Press the previous day the Preamble and some of the articles of the Constitution of the Provisional Government, hitherto kept strictly secret, one article being that the administration would be taken over "in trust for the Constitution of the United Kingdom," and that "upon the restoration of direct Imperial Government, the Provisional Government shall cease to exist."

At this session on the 10th, the proceedings of which were private, Carson explained the extreme gravity of the situation now reached. The Home Rule Bill would become law probably in a few weeks. It was pretty certain that the Nationalists would not permit the Government to accept the Amending Bill in the altered form in which it had left the Upper House. In that case, nothing remained for them in Ulster but to carry out the policy they had resolved upon long ago, and to make good the Covenant. After his forty minutes' speech a quiet and business-like discussion followed. Plenary authority to take any action necessary in emergency was conferred unanimously on the executive. The course to be followed in assuming the administration was explained and agreed to, and when they separated all the members felt that the crisis for which they had been preparing so long had at last come upon them. There was no flinching.

Next day there was a parade of 3,000 U.V.F. at Larne. A distinguished American who was present said after the march past, "You could destroy these Volunteers, but you could not conquer them." Carson spoke with exceptional solemnity to the men, telling them candidly that, "unless something happens the evidence of which is not visible at present," he could discern nothing but darkness ahead, and no hope of peace. He ended by exhorting his followers throughout Ulster to preserve their self-control and to "commit no act against any individual or against any man's property which would sully the great name you have already won."

As usual, his influence was powerful enough to prevent disturbance. The Government had made extensive military preparations to maintain order on the 12th of July; but, as a well-known "character" in Belfast expressed it, "Sir Edward was worth twenty battalions in keeping order." The anniversary was celebrated everywhere by enormous masses of men in a state of tense excitement. Lord Londonderry addressed an immense gathering at Enniskillen; seventy thousand Orangemen marched from Belfast to Drumbeg to hear Carson, who sounded the same warning note as at Larne two days before. But nowhere throughout the Province was a single occurrence reported that called for action by the police.

When the Ulster leaders returned to London on the 14th they were met by reports of differences in the Cabinet over the Amending Bill, which was to be brought before the House of Commons on the following Monday. Nationalist pressure no doubt dictated the deletion of the amendments made by the Peers and the restoration of the Bill to its original shape. A minority of the Cabinet was said to be opposed to this course. Whether that was true or false, the Prime Minister must by this time have realised that he had allowed the country to drift to the brink of civil war, and that some genuine effort must be made to arrive at a peaceable solution.

Accordingly on Monday, the 20th, instead of introducing the Amending Bill, Mr. Asquith announced in the House of Commons that His Majesty the King, "in view of the grave situation which has arisen, has thought it right to summon representatives of parties, both British and Irish, to a conference at Buckingham Palace, with the object of discussing outstanding issues in relation to the problem of Irish Government." The Prime Minister added that at the King's suggestion the Speaker, Mr. James Lowther, would preside over the Conference, which would begin its proceedings the following day.

The Liberals, the British Unionists, the Nationalists, and the Ulstermen were respectively represented at the Buckingham Palace Conference by Mr. Asquith and Mr. Lloyd George, Lord Lansdowne and Mr. Bonar Law, Mr. Redmond and Mr. Dillon, Sir Edward Carson and Captain James Craig. The King opened the Conference in person on the 21st with a speech recognising the extreme gravity of the situation, and making an impressive appeal for a peaceful settlement of the question at issue. His Majesty then withdrew. The Conference deliberated for four days, but were unable to agree as to what area in Ulster should be excluded from the jurisdiction of the Parliament in Dublin. On the 24th Mr. Asquith announced the breakdown of the Conference, and said that in consequence the Amending Bill would be introduced in the House of Commons on Thursday, the 30th of July.

Here was the old deadlock. The last glimmer of hope that civil war might be averted seemed to be extinguished. Only ten days had elapsed since Carson had gloomily predicted at Larne that peace was impossible "unless something happens, the evidence of which is not visible at present." But that "something" did happen—though it was something infinitely more dreadful, infinitely more devastating in its consequences, even though less dishonouring to the nation, than the alternative from which it saved us. Balanced, as it seemed, on the brink of civil war, Great Britain and Ireland together toppled over on the other side into the maelstrom of world-wide war.

On the 30th of July, when the Amending Bill was to be discussed, the Prime Minister said that, with the concurrence of Mr. Bonar Law and Sir Edward Carson, it would be indefinitely postponed, in order that the country at this grave crisis in the history of the world "should present a united front and be able to speak and act with the authority of an undivided nation." To achieve this, all domestic quarrels must be laid aside, and he promised that "no business of a controversial character" would be undertaken.

Thus it happened that the Amending Bill was never seen by the House of Commons. Four days later the United Kingdom was at war with the greatest military Empire in the world. The opportunity had come for Ulster to prove whether her cherished loyalty was a reality or a sham.

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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