Mr. Churchill in Belfast

Ronald McNeill
Chapter VI

At the women's meeting at the Ulster Hall on the 18th of January, 1912,[14] Lord Londonderry took occasion to recall once more to the memory of his audience the celebrated speech delivered by Lord Randolph Churchill in the same building twenty-six years before. That clarion was, indeed, in no danger of being forgotten; but there happened at that particular moment to be a very special reason for Ulstermen to remember it, and the incident which was present in Londonderry's mind—a Resolution passed by the Standing Committee of the Ulster Unionist Council two days earlier—proved to be so distinct a turning-point in the history of Ulster's stand for the Union that it claims more than a passing mention.

"Diligence and vigilance should be your watchword, so that the blow, if it is coming, may not come upon you as a thief in the night, and may not find you unready and taken by surprise." Such had been Lord Randolph's warning. It was now learnt, with feelings in which disgust and indignation were equally mingled, that Lord Randolph's son was bent on coming to Belfast, not indeed as a thief in the night, but with challenging audacity, to give his countenance, encouragement, and support to the adherents of disloyalty whom Lord Randolph had told Ulster to resist to the death. And not only was he coming to Belfast; he was coming to the Ulster Hall—to the very building which his father's oration had, as it were, consecrated to the Unionist cause, and which had come to be regarded as almost a loyalist shrine.

It is no doubt difficult for those who are unfamiliar with the psychology of the North of Ireland to understand the anger which this projected visit of Mr. Winston Churchill aroused in Belfast. His change of political allegiance from the party which his father had so brilliantly served and led, to the party which his father had so pitilessly chastised, was of course displeasing to Conservatives everywhere. Politicians who leave their friends to join their opponents are never popular with those they abandon, and Mr. Winston Churchill was certainly no exception. But such desertions, after the first burst of wrath has evaporated, are generally accepted with a philosophic shrug in what journalists call "political circles" in London, where plenty of precedents for lapses from party virtue can be quoted. In the provinces, even in England, resentment dies down less easily, and forgiveness is of slow growth; but in Ulster, where a political creed is held with a religious fervour, or, as a hostile critic might put it, with an intolerance unknown in England, and where the dividing line between "loyalty" and "disloyalty" is regarded almost as a matter of faith, the man who passes from the one to the other arouses the same bitterness of anger and contempt which soldiers feel for a deserter in face of the enemy.

To such sentiments there was added, in the case of Mr. Winston Churchill, a shocked feeling that his appearance in the Ulster Hall as an emissary of Home Rule would be an act not only of political apostasy but of filial impiety. The prevailing sentiment in Belfast at the time was expressed somewhat brutally, perhaps, in the local Press—"he is coming to dance on his father's coffin." It was an outrage on their feelings which the people of Belfast could not and would not tolerate. If Mr. Churchill was determined to flaunt the green flag let him find a more suitable site than the very citadel in which they had been exhorted by his father to keep the Union Jack flying to the last.

If anything could have added to the anger excited by this announcement it would have been the fact that the Cabinet Minister was to be accompanied on the platform of the Ulster Hall by Mr. Redmond and Mr. Devlin, and that Lord Pirrie was to be his chairman. There was no more unpopular citizen of Belfast than Lord Pirrie; and the reason was neatly explained to English readers by the Special Correspondent of The Times. "Lord Pirrie," he wrote, "deserted Unionism about the time the Liberals acceded to power, and soon afterwards was made a Peer; whether propter hoc or only post hoc I am quite unable to say, though no Ulster Unionist has any doubts on the subject."[15] But that was not quite the whole reason. That Lord Pirrie was an example of apostasy "just for a riband to stick in his coat," was the general belief; but it was also resented that a man who had amassed, not "a handful of silver," but an enormous fortune, through a trade created by an eminent Unionist firm, and under conditions brought about in Belfast by the Union with Great Britain, should have kicked away the ladder by which he had climbed from obscurity to wealth and rank. An additional cause of offence, moreover, was that he was at that time trying to persuade credulous people in England that there was in Ulster a party of Liberals and Protestant Home Rulers, of which he posed as leader, although everyone on the spot knew that the "party" would not fill a tramcar. Of this party the same Correspondent of The Times very truly said:

"Nearly every prominent man in it has received an office or a decoration—and the fact that, with all the power of patronage in their hands for the last six years, the Government had been able to make so small an inroad into the solid square of Ulster Unionism is a remarkable testimony to the strength of the sentiment which gives it cohesion."

But a score of individuals in possession of an office equipped with stamped stationery, and with a titled chairman of fabulous wealth, have no difficulty in deluding strangers at a distance into the belief that they are an influential and representative body of men. It was in furtherance of the scheme for creating this false impression across the Channel that Lord Pirrie and his so-called "Ulster Liberal Association" invited Mr. Winston Churchill and the two Nationalist leaders to speak in the Ulster Hall on the 8th of February, 1912, and that the announcement of the fixture was made in the Press some three weeks earlier.

The Unionist leaders were not long left in ignorance of the public excitement which this news created in the city. A specially summoned meeting of the Standing Committee, with Londonderry in the chair, was held on the 16th of January to consider what action, if any, should be taken; but it was no simple matter they had to decide, especially in the absence of their leader, Sir Edward Carson, who was kept in England by great Unionist meetings which he was addressing in Lancashire.

The reasons, on the one hand, for doing nothing were obvious enough. No one, of course, suggested the possibility of preventing Mr. Churchill coming to Belfast; but could even the Ulster Hall itself, the Loyalist sanctuary, be preserved from the threatened desecration? It was the property of the Corporation, and the Unionist political organisation had no exclusive title to its use. The meeting could only be frustrated by force in some form, or by a combination of force and stratagem. The Standing Committee, all men of solid sense and judgment, several of whom were Privy Councillors, were very fully alive to the objections to any resort to force in such a matter. They valued freedom of speech as highly as any Englishman, and they realised the odium that interference with it might bring both on themselves and their cause; and the last thing they desired at the present crisis was to alienate public sympathy in Great Britain. The force of such considerations was felt strongly by several members, indeed by all, of the Committee, and not least by Lord Londonderry himself, whose counsel naturally carried great weight.

But, on the other hand, the danger of a passive attitude was also fully recognised. It was perfectly well understood that one of the chief desires of the Liberal Government and its followers at this time was to make the world believe that Ulster's opposition to Home Rule had declined in strength in recent years; that there really was a considerable body of Protestant opinion in agreement with Lord Pirrie, and prepared to support Home Rule on "Liberal," if not on avowedly "Nationalist" principles, and that the policy for which Carson, Londonderry, and the Unionist Council stood was a gigantic piece of bluff which only required to be exposed to disappear in general derision.

From this point of view the Churchill meeting could only be regarded as a deliberate challenge and provocation to Ulster. It seemed probable that the First Lord of the Admiralty had been selected for the mission in preference to any other Minister precisely because he was Lord Randolph's son. All this bluster about "fight and be right" was traceable, so Liberal Ministers doubtless reasoned, to that unhappy speech of "Winston's father"; let Winston go over to the same place and explain his father away. If he obtained a hearing in the Ulster Hall in the company of Redmond, Devlin, and Pirrie the legend of Ulster as an impregnable loyalist stronghold would be wiped out, and Randolph's rant could be made to appear a foolish joke in comparison with the more mature and discriminating wisdom of Winston.

It cannot, of course, be definitely asserted that the situation was thus weighed deliberately by the Cabinet, or by Mr. Churchill himself. But, if it was not, they must have been deficient in foresight; for there can be no doubt, as several writers in the Press perceived, that the transaction would so have presented itself to the mind of the public; the psychological result would inure to the benefit of the Home Rulers.

But there was also another consideration which could not be ignored by the Standing Committee—namely, the attitude of that important individual, the "man in the street." Among the innumerable misrepresentations levelled at the Ulster Movement none was more common than that it was confined to a handful of lords, landlords, and wealthy employers of labour; and, as a corollary, that all the trouble was caused by the perversity of a few individuals, of whom the most guilty was Sir Edward Carson. The truth was very different. Even at the zenith of his influence and popularity Sir Edward himself would have been instantly disowned by the Ulster democracy if he had given away anything fundamental to the Unionist cause. More than to anything else he owed his power to his pledge, never violated, that he would never commit his followers to any irretraceable step without the consent of the Council, in which they were fully represented on a democratic basis. At the particular crisis now reached popular feeling could not be safely disregarded, and it was clearly understood by the Standing Committee that public excitement over the coming visit of Mr. Churchill was only being kept within bounds by the belief of the public that their leaders would not "let them down."

All these considerations were most carefully balanced at the meeting on the 16th of January, and there were prolonged deliberations before the decision was arrived at that some action must be taken to prevent the Churchill meeting being held in the Ulster Hall, but that no obstacle could, of course, be made to his speaking in any other building in Belfast. The further question as to what this action should be was under discussion when Colonel R. H. Wallace, C.B., Grand Master of the Belfast Orangemen, and a man of great influence with all classes in the city as well as in the neighbouring counties, entered the room and told the Committee that people outside were expecting the Unionist Council to devise means for stopping the Ulster Hall meeting; that they were quite resolved to take matters into their own hands if the Council remained passive; and that, in his judgment, the result in that event would probably be very serious disorder and bloodshed, and the loss of all control over the Unionist rank and file by their leaders.

This information arrived too late to influence the decision on the main question, but it confirmed its wisdom and set at rest the doubts which some of the Committee had at first entertained. It was reported at the time that there had been a dissenting minority consisting of Lord Londonderry, Mr. Sinclair, and Mr. John Young, the last-mentioned being a Privy Councillor, a trusted leader of the Presbyterians, and a man of moderate views whose great influence throughout the north-eastern counties was due to his high character and the soundness of his judgment. There was, however, no truth in this report, which Londonderry publicly contradicted; but it is probable that the concurrence of the men mentioned, and perhaps of others, was owing to their well-founded conviction that the course decided upon, however high-handed it might appear to onlookers at a distance, was in reality the only means of averting much more deplorable consequences.

On the following day, January 17th, an immense sensation was created by the publication of the Resolution which had been unanimously adopted on the motion of Captain James Craig, M.P. It was:

"That the Standing Committee of the Ulster Unionist Council observes with astonishment the deliberate challenge thrown down by Mr. Winston Churchill, Mr. John Redmond, Mr. Joseph Devlin, and Lord Pirrie in announcing their intention to hold a Home Rule meeting in the centre of the loyal city of Belfast, and resolves to take steps to prevent its being held."

There was an immediate outpouring of vituperation by the Ministerial Press in England, as had been anticipated by the Standing Committee. Special Correspondents trooped over to Belfast, whence they filled their papers with telegrams, articles, and interviews, ringing the changes on the audacity of this unwarranted interference with freedom of speech, and speculating as to the manner in which the threat was likely to be carried out. Scribes of "Open Letters" had a fine opportunity to display their gift of insolent invective. Cartoonists and caricaturists had a time of rare enjoyment, and let their pencils run riot. Writers in the Liberal Press for the most part assumed that Mr. Churchill would bid defiance to the Ulster Unionist Council; others urged him to do so and to fulfil his engagement; some, with more prudence, suggested that he might be extricated from the difficulty without loss of dignity if the Chief Secretary would prohibit the meeting, as likely to produce a breach of peace, and it was pointed out that Dublin Castle would certainly forbid a meeting in Tipperary organised by the Ulster Unionist Council, with Sir Edward Carson as principal speaker.

However, on the 25th of January Mr. Churchill addressed a letter, dated from the Admiralty, to Lord Londonderry at Mount Stewart, in which he said he was prepared to give up the idea of speaking in the Ulster Hall, and would arrange for his meeting to be held elsewhere in the city, as "it was not a point of any importance to him where he spoke in Belfast." He did not explain why, if that were the case, he had ever made a plan that so obviously constituted a direct premeditated challenge to Ulster. Lord Londonderry, in his reply, said that the Ulster Unionist Council had no intention of interfering with any meeting Mr. Churchill might arrange "outside the districts which passionately resent your action," but that, "having regard to the intense state of feeling" which had been aroused, the Council could accept no responsibility for anything that might occur during the visit.

Mr. Churchill's prudent change of plan relieved the extreme tension of the situation, and there was much speculation as to what influence had produced a result so satisfactory to the Ulster Unionist Council. The truth seems to be that the Council's Resolution had impaled the Government on the horns of a very awkward dilemma, completely turning the tables on Ministers, whose design had been to compel the Belfast Unionists either to adopt, on the one hand, an attitude of apparent intolerance which would put them in the wrong in the eyes of the British public, or, on the other, to submit to the flagrant misrepresentation of their whole position which would be the outcome of a Nationalist meeting in the Ulster Hall presided over by the President of the illusory "Ulster Liberal Association," and with Lord Randolph Churchill's son as the protagonist of Home Rule. The threat to stop the meeting forced the Government to consider how the First Lord of the Admiralty and his friends were to be protected and enabled to fulfil their programme. The Irish Executive, according to the Dublin Correspondent of The Times, objected to the employment of troops for this purpose; because—

"If the Belfast Unionists decided to resist the soldiers, bloodshed and disorder on a large scale must have ensued. If, on the other hand, they yielded to the force majeure of British bayonets, and Mr. Churchill was enabled to speak in the Ulster Hall, they would still have carried their point; they would have proved to the English people that Home Rule could only be thrust upon Ulster by an overwhelming employment of military force. The Executive preferred to depend on the services of a large police force. And this meant that Mr. Churchill could not speak in the Ulster Hall; for the Belfast democracy, though it might yield to soldiers, would certainly offer a fierce resistance to the police. It seemed, therefore, that the Government's only safe and prudent course was to prevent Mr. Churchill from trying to speak in that Hall."[16]

The Government, in fact, had been completely outmanoeuvred. They had given the Ulster Unionist Council an opportunity to show its own constituents and the outside world that, where the occasion demanded action, it could act with decision; and they had failed utterly to drive a wedge between Ulster and the Unionist Party in England and in the South of Ireland, as they hoped to do by goading Belfast into illegality. On the other hand, they had aroused some misgiving in the ranks of their own supporters. A political observer in London reported that the incident had—

"Caused a feeling of considerable apprehension in Radical circles. The pretence that Ulster does not mean to fight is now almost abandoned even by the most fanatical Home Rulers."[17]

Unionist journals in Great Britain, almost without exception, applauded the conduct of the Council, and proved by their comments that they understood its motive, and sympathised with the feelings of Ulster. The Saturday Review expressed the general view when it wrote:

"With the indignation of the loyal Ulstermen at this proposal we are in complete sympathy. Where there is a question of Home Rule, the Ulster Hall is sacred ground, and to the Ulster mind and, indeed, to the mind of any calm outsider, there is something both impudent and impious in the proposal that this temple of Unionism should be profaned by the son of a man who assisted at its consecration."[18]

The southern Unionists of Ireland thoroughly appreciated the difficulty that had confronted their friends in the North, and approved the way it had been met. This was natural enough, since, as the Dublin Correspondent of The Times pointed out—

"They understand Ulster's position better than it can be understood in England. They realise that the provocation has been extreme. There has been a deliberate conspiracy to persuade the English people, first, that Ulster is weakening in its opposition to Home Rule; and, next, that its declared refusal to accept Home Rule in any form is mere bluff. It became necessary for Ulster to defeat this conspiracy, and the Ulster Council's Resolution has defeated it."[19]

A few days later a still more valuable token of sympathy and support from across the Channel gave fresh encouragement to Ulster. On the 26th of January Mr. Bonar Law made his first public speech as leader of the Unionist Party, when he addressed an audience of ten thousand people in the Albert Hall in London. In the course of a masterly analysis of the dangers inseparable from Home Rule, he once more drew attention to "the dishonesty with which the Government hid Home Rule before the election, and now propose to carry it after the election"; but the passage which gave the greatest satisfaction in Ulster was that in which, speaking for the whole Unionist Party—which meant at least half, and probably more than half, the British nation—Mr. Bonar Law, in reference to the recent occurrence in Belfast, said:

"We hear a great deal about the intolerance of Ulster. It is easy to be tolerant for other people. We who represent the Unionist Party in England and Scotland have supported, and we mean to support to the end, the loyal minority. We support them not because we are intolerant, but because their claims are just."

Meanwhile, Mr. Churchill's friends were seeking a building in Belfast where the baffled Minister could hold his meeting on the 8th of February, and in the course of the search the director of the Belfast Opera-house was offered a knighthood as well as a large sum of money for the use of his theatre,[20] a fact that possibly explains the statement made by the London Correspondent of The Freeman's Journal on the 28th of January, that the Government's Chief Whip and Patronage Secretary was busying himself with the arrangement.[21] Captain Frederick Guest, M.P., one of the junior whips, arrived in Belfast on the 25th to give assistance on the spot; but no suitable hall with an auspicious genius loci could apparently be found, for eventually a marquee was imported from Scotland and erected on the Celtic football ground, in the Nationalist quarter of the city.

The question of maintaining order on the day of the meeting was at the same time engaging the attention both of the Government in Dublin and the Unionist Council in Belfast. The former decided to strengthen the garrison of Belfast by five battalions of infantry and two squadrons of cavalry, while at the Old Town Hall anxious consultations were held as to the best means of securing that the soldiers should have nothing to do. The Unionist leaders had not yet gained the full influence they were able to exercise later, nor were their followers as disciplined as they afterwards became. The Orange Lodges were the only section of the population in any sense under discipline; and this section was a much smaller proportion of the Unionist rank and file than English Liberals supposed, who were in the habit of speaking as if "Orangemen" were a correct cognomen of the whole Protestant population of Ulster. It was, however, only through the Lodges and the Unionist Clubs that the Standing Committee could hope to exert influence in keeping the peace. That Committee, accordingly, passed a Resolution on the 5th of February, moved by Colonel Wallace, the most influential of the Belfast Orangemen, which "strongly urged all Unionists," in view of the Ulster Hall victory, "to abstain from any interference with the meeting at the Celtic football ground, and to do everything in their power to avoid any action that might lead to any disturbance."

The Resolution was circulated to all the Orange Lodges and Unionist Clubs in Belfast and the neighbouring districts—for it was expected that some 30,000 or 40,000 people might come into the city from outside on the day of the meeting—with urgent injunctions to the officers to bring it to the notice of all members; it was also extensively placarded on all the hoardings of Belfast. Of even greater importance perhaps, in the interests of peace, was the decision that Carson and Londonderry should themselves remain in Belfast on the 8th. This, as The Times Correspondent in Belfast had the insight to observe, was "the strongest guarantee of order" that could be given, and there is no doubt that their appearance, together with Captain Craig, M.P., and Lord Templetown, on the balcony of the Ulster Club had a calming effect on the excited crowd that surged round Mr. Churchill's hotel, and served as a reminder throughout the day of the advice which these leaders had issued to their adherents.

The First Lord of the Admiralty was accompanied to Belfast by Mrs. Churchill, his Secretary, and two Liberal Members of Parliament, Mr. Fiennes and Mr. Hamar Greenwood—for the last-mentioned of whom fate was reserving a more intimate connection with Irish trouble than could be got from a fleeting flirtation with disloyalty in West Belfast. They were greeted at Larne by a large crowd vociferously cheering Carson, and singing the National Anthem. A still larger concourse of people, though it could not be more hostile, awaited Mr. Churchill at the Midland Station in Belfast and along the route to the Grand Central Hotel. When he started from the hotel early in the afternoon for the football field the crowd in Royal Avenue was densely packed and actively demonstrating its unfavourable opinion of the distinguished visitor; on whom, however, none desired or attempted to inflict any physical injury, although the involuntary swaying of so great a mass of men was in danger for a moment of overturning the motor-car in which he and his wife were seated.

The way to the meeting took the Minister from the Unionist to the Nationalist district and afforded him a practical demonstration of the gulf between the "two nations" which he and his colleagues were bent upon treating as one. The moment he crossed the boundary, the booing and groaning of one area was succeeded by enthusiastic cheers in the other; grotesque effigies of Redmond and of himself in one street were replaced by equally unflattering effigies of Londonderry and Carson in the next; in Royal Avenue both men and women looked like tearing him in pieces, in Falls Road they thronged so close to shake his hand that "Mr. Hamar Greenwood found it necessary" (so the Times Correspondent reported) "to stand on the footboard outside the car and relieve the pressure."

It was expected that Mr. Churchill would return to his hotel after the meeting, and there had been no shrinkage in the crowd in the interval, nor any change in its sentiments. The police decided that it would be wiser for him to depart by another route. He was therefore taken by back streets to the Midland terminus, and without waiting for the ordinary train by which he had arranged to travel, was as hastily as possible despatched to Larne by a special train before it was generally known that Royal Avenue and York Street were to see him no more. Mr. Churchill tells us in his brilliant biography of his father that when Lord Randolph arrived at Larne in 1886 "he was welcomed like a King." His own arrival at the same port was anything but regal, and his departure more resembled that of the "thief in the night," of whom Lord Randolph had bidden Ulster beware.

So this memorable pilgrimage ended. Of the speech itself which Mr. Churchill delivered to some thousands of Nationalists, many of whom were brought by special train from Dublin, it is unnecessary here to say more than that Sir Edward Carson described it a few days later as a "speech full of eloquent platitudes," and that it certainly did little to satisfy the demand for information about the Home Rule Bill which was to be produced in the coming session of Parliament.

The undoubted importance which this visit of Mr. Churchill to Belfast and its attendant circumstances had in the development of the Ulster Movement is the justification for treating it in what may appear to be disproportionate detail. From it dates the first clear realisation even by hostile critics in England, and probably by Ministers themselves, that the policy of Ulster as laid down at Craigavon could not be dismissed with a sneer, although it is true that there were many Home Rulers who never openly abandoned the pretence that it could. Not less important was the effect in Ulster itself. The Unionist Council had proved itself in earnest; it could, and was prepared to, do more than organise imposing political demonstrations; and so the rank and file gained confidence in leaders who could act as well as make speeches, and who had shown themselves in an emergency to be in thorough accord with popular sentiment; the belief grew that the men who met in the Old Town Hall would know how to handle any crisis that might arise, would not timidly shrink from acting as occasion might require, and were quite able to hold their own with the Government in tactical manoeuvres. This confidence improved discipline. The Lodges and the Clubs and the general body of shipyard and other workers had less temptation to take matters into their own hands; they were content to wait for instructions from headquarters now that they could trust their leaders to give the necessary instructions at the proper time.

The net result, therefore, of an expedition which was designed to expose the hollowness and the weakness of the Ulster case was to augment the prestige of the Ulster leaders and the self-confidence of the Ulster people, and to make both leaders and followers understand better than before the strength of the position in which they were entrenched.

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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