The Craigavon Policy and the U.V.F

Ronald McNeill
Chapter V

No time was lost in giving practical shape to the policy outlined at Craigavon, and in taking steps to give effect to it. On the 25th of September a meeting of four hundred delegates representing the Ulster Unionist Council, the County Grand Orange Lodges, and the Unionist Clubs, was held in Belfast, and, after lengthy discussion in private, when the only differences of opinion were as to the most effective methods of proceeding, two resolutions were unanimously adopted and published. It is noteworthy that, at this early stage in the movement, out of nearly four hundred popularly elected delegates, numbers of whom were men holding responsible positions or engaged in commercial business, not one raised an objection to the policy itself, although its grave possibilities were thoroughly appreciated by all present. Both Lord Londonderry, who presided, and Sir Edward Carson left no room for doubt in that respect; the developments they might be called upon to face were thoroughly searched and explained, and the fullest opportunity to draw back was offered to any present who might shrink from going on.

The first Resolution registered a "call upon our leaders to take any steps they may consider necessary to resist the establishment of Home Rule in Ireland, solemnly pledging ourselves that under no conditions shall we acknowledge any such Government"; and it gave an assurance that those whom the delegates represented would give the leaders "their unwavering support in any danger they may be called upon to face." The second decided that "the time has now come when we consider it our imperative duty to make arrangements for the provisional government of Ulster," and for that purpose it went on to appoint a Commission of five leading local men, namely, Captain James Craig, M.P., Colonel Sharman Crawford, M.P., the Right Hon. Thomas Sinclair, Colonel R. H. Wallace, C.B., and Mr. Edward Sclater, Secretary of the Unionist Clubs, whose duties were (a) "to keep Sir Edward Carson in constant and close touch with the feeling of Unionist Ulster," and (b) "to take immediate steps, in consultation with Sir Edward Carson, to frame and submit a Constitution for a Provisional Government of Ulster, having due regard to the interests of the Loyalists in other parts of Ireland: the powers and duration of such Provisional Government to come into operation on the day of the passage of any Home Rule Bill, to remain in force until Ulster shall again resume unimpaired her citizenship in the United Kingdom."

At the luncheon given by Lord Londonderry after this business conference, Carson took occasion to refer to a particularly contemptible slander to which currency had been given some days previously by Sir John Benn, one of the Eighty Club strolling seekers after truth. It was perhaps hardly worth while to notice a statement so silly as that the Ulster leader had been ready a few weeks previously to betray Ulster in order to save the House of Lords, but Carson did not yet realise the degree to which he had already won the confidence of his followers; moreover, the incident proved useful as an opportunity of emphasising the uninterrupted mutual confidence between Lord Londonderry and himself, in spite of their divergence of opinion over the Parliament Bill. It also gave those present a glimpse of their leader's power of shrivelling meanness with a few caustic drops of scorn.

The proceedings at Craigavon and at the Conference naturally created a sensation on both sides of the Channel. They brought the question of Ireland once more, for the first time since 1895, into the forefront of British politics. The House of Commons might spend the autumn ploughing its way through the intricacies of the National Insurance Bill, but everyone knew that the last and bitterest battle against Home Rule was now approaching. And, now that the Parliament Act was safely on the Statute-book, Ministers had no further interest in concealment. During the elections, from which alone they could procure authority for legislation of so fundamental a character, Mr. Asquith, as we have seen, regarded any inquiry as to his intentions as "confusing the issue." But now that he had the constituencies in his pocket for five years and nothing further was to be feared from that quarter, his cards were placed on the table.

On the 3rd of October Mr. Winston Churchill told his followers at Dundee that the Government would introduce a Home Rule Bill next session "and press it forward with all their strength," and he added the characteristic injunction that "they must not take Sir Edward Carson too seriously." But that advice did not prevent Mr. Herbert Samuel, another member of the Cabinet, from putting in an appearance in Belfast four days later, where he threw himself into a ludicrously unequal combat with Carson, exerting himself to calm the fears of business men as to the effect of Home Rule on their prosperity; while, in the same week, Carson himself, at a great Unionist demonstration in Dublin, described the growth of Irish prosperity in the last twenty years as "almost a fairy tale," which would be cut short by Home Rule. On the 19th of the same month Mr. Birrell, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, in a speech at Ilfracombe, gave some scraps of meagre information in regard to the provisions that would be included in the coming Home Rule Bill; and on the 21st Mr. Redmond announced that the drafting of the Bill was almost completed, and that the measure would be "satisfactory to Nationalists both in principle and detail."[13]

So the autumn of 1911 wore through—Ministers doling out snippets of information; members of Parliament and the Press urging them to give more. The people of Ulster, on the other hand, were not worrying over details. They did not require to be told that the principle would be "satisfactory to Nationalists," for they knew that the Government had to "toe the line"; nor were they in doubt that what was satisfactory to Nationalists must be unsatisfactory to themselves. What they were thinking about was not what the Bill would or would not contain, but the preparations they were making to resist its operation.

A day or two after Craigavon the leader spoke at a great meeting in Portrush, after receiving, at every important station he passed en route from Belfast, enthusiastic addresses expressing confidence in himself and approval of the Craigavon declaration; and in this speech he considerably amplified what he had said at Craigavon. After explaining how the whole outlook had been changed by the Parliament Act, which cut them off from appeal to the sympathies of Englishmen, he pointed out to his hearers the only course now open to them, namely, that resolved upon at Craigavon.

"Some people," he continued, "say that I am preaching disorder. No, in the course I am advising I am preaching order, because I believe that, unless we are in a position ourselves to take over the government of those places we are able to control, the people of Ulster, if let loose without that organisation, and without that organised determination, might in a foolish moment find themselves in a condition of antagonism and grips with their foes which I believe even the present Government would lament. And therefore I say that the course we recommend—and it has been solemnly adopted by your four hundred representatives, after mature discussion in which every man understood what it was he was voting about—is the only course that I know of that is possible under the circumstances of this Province which is consistent with the maintenance of law and order and the prevention of bloodshed."

Superficially, these words may appear boldly paradoxical; but in fact they were prophetic, for the closest observers of the events of the next three years, familiar with Irish character and conditions, were in no doubt whatever that it was the disciplined organisation of the Ulster Unionists alone that prevented the outbreak of serious disorders in the North. There was, on the contrary, a diminution even of ordinary crime, accompanied by a marked improvement in the general demeanour, and especially in the sobriety, of the people.

The speaker then touched upon a question which naturally arose out of the Craigavon policy of resistance to Home Rule. He had been asked, he said, whether Ulster proposed to fight against the forces of the Crown. He had already contrasted their own methods with those of the Nationalists, saying that Ulstermen would never descend to action "from behind hedges or by maiming cattle, or by boycotting of individuals"; he now added that they were "not going to fight the Army and the Navy . . . God forbid that any loyal Irishman should ever shoot or think of shooting the British soldier or sailor. But, believe me, any Government will ponder long before it dares to shoot a loyal Ulster Protestant, devoted to his country and loyal to his King."

In newspaper reports of public meetings, sayings of pith and moment are often attributed to "A Voice" from the audience. On this occasion, when Sir Edward Carson referred to the Army and the Navy, "A Voice" cried "They are on our side." It was the truth, as subsequent events were to show. It would indeed have been strange had it been otherwise. Men wearing His Majesty's uniform, who had been quartered at one time in Belfast or Carrickfergus and at another in Cork or Limerick, could be under no illusion as to where that uniform was held in respect and where it was scorned. The certainty that the reality of their own loyalty was understood by the men who served the King was a sustaining thought to Ulstermen through these years of trial.

This Portrush speech cleared the air. It made known the modus operandi, as Craigavon had made known the policy. Henceforward Ulster Unionists had a definite idea of what was before them, and they had already unbounded confidence both in the sagacity and in the courage of the man who had become their leader.

The Craigavon meeting led, almost by accident as it were, to a development the importance of which was hardly foreseen at the time. Among the processionists who passed through Captain Craig's grounds there was a contingent of Orangemen from County Tyrone who attracted general attention by their smart appearance and the orderly precision of their marching. On inquiry it was learnt that these men had of their own accord been learning military drill. The spirit of emulation naturally suggested to others to follow the example of the Tyrone Lodges. It was soon followed, not by Orangemen alone, but by members of the Unionist Clubs, very many of whom belonged to no Orange Lodge. Within a few months drilling—of an elementary kind, it is true—had become popular in many parts of the country. Colonel R. H. Wallace, C.B., who had served with distinction in the South African War, where he commanded the 5th Royal Irish Rifles, was a prominent member of the Orange Institution, in which he was in 1911 Grand Master of the Belfast Lodges, and Grand Secretary of the Provincial Grand Orange Lodge of Ulster; and, being a man of marked ability and widespread popularity, his influence was powerful and extensive. He was a devoted adherent of Carson, and there was no keener spirit among the Ulster Loyalist leaders. Colonel Wallace was among the first to perceive the importance of this military drilling that was taking place throughout Ulster, and through his leading position in the Orange Institution his encouragement did much to extend the practice.

Having been a lawyer by profession before South Africa called him to serve his country in arms, Wallace was careful to ascertain how the law stood with regard to the drilling that was going on. He consulted Mr. James Campbell (afterwards Lord Chancellor of Ireland), who advised that any two Justices of the Peace had power to authorise drill and other military exercises within the area of their jurisdiction on certain conditions. The terms of the application made by Colonel Wallace himself to two Belfast magistrates show what the conditions were, and, under the circumstances of the time, are not without a flavour of humour. The request stated that Wallace and another officer of the Belfast Grand Lodge were—

"Authorised on behalf of the members thereof to apply for lawful authority to them to hold meetings of the members of the said Lodge and the Lodges under its jurisdiction for the purpose of training and drilling themselves and of being trained and drilled to the use of arms, and for the purpose of practising military exercises, movements, and evolutions. And we are authorised, on their behalf, to give their assurance that they desire this authority as faithful subjects of His Majesty the King, and their undertaking that such authority is sought and will be used by them only to make them more efficient citizens for the purpose of maintaining the constitution of the United Kingdom as now established and protecting their rights and liberties thereunder."

The bona fides of an application couched in these terms, which followed well-established precedent, could not be questioned by any loyal subject of His Majesty. The purpose for which the licence was requested was stated with literal exactness and without subterfuge. There was nothing seditious or revolutionary in it, and the desire of men to make themselves more efficient citizens for maintaining the established government of their country, and their rights and liberties under it, was surely not merely innocent of offence, but praiseworthy.

Such, at all events, was the view taken by numbers of strictly conscientious holders of the Commission of the Peace throughout Ulster, with the result that the Ulster Volunteer Force sprang into existence within a few months without the smallest violation of the law. Originating in the Orange Lodges and the Unionist Clubs, it soon enrolled large numbers of men outside both those organisations. Men with military experience interested themselves in training the volunteers in their districts; the local bodies were before long drawn into a single coherent organisation on a territorial basis, which soon gave rise to an esprit de corps leading to friendly rivalry in efficiency between the local battalions.

This Ulster Volunteer Force had as yet no arms in their hands, but, as the first act of the Liberal Government on coming into power in 1906 had been to drop the "coercion" Act which prohibited the importation of firearms into Ireland, there was no reason why, in the course of time, the U.V.F. should not be fully armed with as complete an avoidance of illegality as that with which in the meantime they were acquiring some knowledge of military duties. But for the present they had to be content with wooden "dummy" rifles with which to learn their drill, an expedient which, as will be seen later on, excited the derisive mirth of the English Radical Press.

The application to the Belfast Justices for leave to drill the Orange Lodges was dated the 5th of January, 1912. For some months both before and after that date the formation of new battalions proceeded rapidly, so that by the summer of 1912 the force was of considerable strength and decent efficiency; but already in the autumn of 1911 it soon became apparent that the existence of such a force would give a backing to the Craigavon policy which nothing else could provide. At Craigavon the leader of the movement had foreshadowed the possibility of having to take charge of the government of those districts which the Loyalists could control. The U.V.F. made such control a practical proposition, and the consciousness of this throughout Ulster gave a solid reality to the movement which it must otherwise have lacked.

The special Commission of Five set to work immediately after the Craigavon meeting to carry out the task entrusted to them by the Council. But, as more than two years must elapse before the Home Rule Bill could become law under the Parliament Act, there was no immediate Urgency in making arrangements for setting up the Provisional Government resolved upon by the Council on the 25th of September, 1911, and the outside public heard nothing about what was being done in the matter for many months to come.

Meantime the Ulster Loyalists watched with something akin to dismay the dissensions in the Unionist party in England over the question of Tariff Reform, which made impossible a united front against the revived attack on the Union, and woefully weakened the effective force of the Opposition both in Parliament and the country. Public opinion was diverted from the one thing that really mattered—had Englishmen been able to realise it—from an Imperial standpoint, no less than from the standpoint of Irish Loyalists. On the 8th of November, 1911, mainly in consequence of these dissensions, Mr. Balfour resigned the leadership of the Unionist Party. This event was regarded in Ulster as a calamity. Mr. Balfour was the ablest and most zealous living defender of the Union, and the great services he had rendered to the country during his memorable Chief Secretaryship were not forgotten. Ulstermen, in whose eyes the tariff question was of very subordinate importance, feared that no one could be found to take command of the Unionist forces comparable with the Achilles who, as they supposed, was now retiring to his tent.

What happened in regard to the vacant leadership is well known—how Mr. Walter Long and Mr. Austen Chamberlain, after presenting themselves for a day or two as rival candidates, patriotically agreed to stand aside and give united support to Mr. Bonar Law in order to avoid a division in the ranks of the party. It is less generally known that Mr. Bonar Law, before consenting to his name being proposed, wrote and asked Sir Edward Carson if he would accept the leadership, and that it was only when he received an emphatic reply in the negative that he assumed the responsibility himself. If this had been known at the time in Ulster there can be little doubt that consternation would have been caused by the refusal of their own leader to place himself at the head of the whole Unionist Party. It is quite certain that Sir Edward Carson would have been acceptable to the party meeting at the Carlton Club, for he was then much better known to the party both in the House of Commons and in the country than was Mr. Bonar Law, whose great qualities as parliamentarian and statesman had not yet been revealed; but it is not less certain that, if his first thought was to be of service to Ulster, Carson acted wisely in maintaining a position of independence, in which all his powers could continue to be concentrated on a single aim of statecraft.

At all events, the new leader of the Unionist Party was not long in proving that the Ulster cause had suffered no set-back by the change, and his constant and courageous backing of the Ulster leader won him the unstinted admiration and affection of every Irish Loyalist. Mr. Balfour also soon showed that he was no sulking Achilles; his loyalty to the Unionist cause was undimmed; he never for a moment acted, as a meaner man might, as if his successor were a supplanter; and within the next few months he many times rose from beside Mr. Bonar Law in the House of Commons to deliver some of the best speeches he ever made on the question of Irish Government, full of cogent and crushing criticism of the Home Rule proposals of Mr. Asquith.

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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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