The Exclusion of Ulster

Ronald McNeill
Chapter VIII

Within forty-eight hours of the Balmoral meeting the Prime Minister moved for leave to introduce the third Home Rule Bill in the House of Commons. Carson immediately stated the Ulster case in a powerful speech which left no room for doubt that, while every clause in the Bill would be contested, it was the setting up of an executive administration responsible to a Parliament in Dublin—that is to say, the central principle of the measure—that would be most strenuously opposed.

There is no occasion here to explain in detail the proposals contained in Mr. Asquith's Home Rule Bill. They form part of the general history of the period, and are accessible to all who care to examine them. Our concern is with the endeavour of Ulster to prevent, if possible, the passage of the Bill to the Statute-book, and, if that should prove impracticable, to prevent its enforcement "in those districts of which they had control." But one or two points that were made in the course of the debates which occupied Parliament for the rest of the year 1912 claim a moment's notice in their bearing on the subject in hand.

Mr. Bonar Law lost no time in fully redeeming the promises he made at Balmoral. Challenged to repeat in Parliament the charges he had made against the Government in Ulster, he not only repeated them with emphasis, but by closely-knit reasoning justified them with chapter and verse. As to Balmoral, "it really was not like a political demonstration; it was the expression of the soul of a people." He declared that "the gulf between the two peoples in Ireland was really far wider than the gulf between Ireland and Great Britain." He then dealt specifically with the threatened resistance of Ulster. "These people in Ulster," he said, "are under no illusion. They know they cannot fight the British Army. The people of Ulster know that, if the soldiers receive orders to shoot, it will be their duty to obey. They will have no ill-will against them for obeying. But they are ready, in what they believe to be the cause of justice and liberty, to lay down their lives. How are you going to overcome that resistance? Do Honourable Members believe that any Prime Minister could give orders to shoot down men whose only crime is that they refuse to be driven out of our community and be deprived of the privilege of British citizenship? The thing is impossible. All your talk about details, the union of hearts and the rest of it, is a sham. This is a reality. It is a rock, and on that rock this Bill will inevitably make shipwreck."

The Unionist leader then made a searching exposure of the traffic and bargaining between the Cabinet and the Nationalists by which the support of the latter had been bought for a Budget which they hated, the price paid being the Premier's improper advice to the Crown, leading to the mutilation of the Constitution; the acknowledgment in the preamble to the Parliament Act that an immediate reform of the Second Chamber was a "debt of honour"; the omission to redeem that debt, which had provided a new proverb—"Lying as a preamble"; and, finally, the determination to carry Home Rule after deliberately keeping it out of sight during the elections. The Prime Minister's "debt of honour must wait until he has paid his debt of shame"; and the latter debt was being paid by the proposals they were then debating. If those proposals had been submitted to the electors, "there would be a difference," said Mr. Bonar Law, "between the Unionists in England and the Unionists in Ireland. Now there is none. We can imagine nothing which the Unionists in Ireland can do which will not be justified against a trick of this kind."

Dissatisfaction with the financial clauses of the Bill was expressed at once by the General Council of County Councils in Ireland, a purely Nationalist body; but on the 23rd of April a Nationalist Convention in Dublin, under the influence of Mr. Redmond's oratory, accepted the whole of the Government's proposals with enthusiasm. The first and second readings of the Bill were duly carried by the normal Government majority of about a hundred Liberal, Labour, and Irish Nationalist votes, and the committee stage opened on the 11th of June. On that day an amendment was down for debate which required the most careful consideration by the representatives of Ulster, since their attitude now might have an important bearing on their future policy, and a false step at this stage might easily prove embarrassing later on. The author of this amendment was Mr. Agar-Robartes, a Cornish Liberal Member, whose proposal was to exclude the four counties of Antrim, Derry, Down, and Armagh from the jurisdiction of the proposed Irish Parliament, a gratifying proof that Craigavon and Balmoral were bearing fruit.

A conference of Ulster Members and Peers, and some English Members closely identified with Irish affairs, of whom Mr. Walter Long was one, met at Londonderry House before the sitting of the House on the 11th of June to decide what course to take on this proposal.

It was not surprising to find that there were sharp differences of opinion among those present, for there were obvious objections to supporting the amendment and equally obvious objections to voting against it. The opposition of Ulster for more than a quarter of a century had been directed against Home Rule for any part of Ireland and in any shape or form. No suggestion had ever been made by any of her spokesmen that the Protestant North, or any part of it, should be dealt with separately from the rest of the island, although Carson and others had pointed out that all the arguments in support of Home Rule were equally valid for treating Ulster as a unit. There were both economic and administrative difficulties in such a scheme which were sufficiently obvious, though by no means insuperable; but what weighed far more heavily in the minds of the Ulster members was the anticipation that their acceptance of the proposal would probably be represented by enemies as a desertion of all the Irish Loyalists outside the four counties named in the amendment, with whom there was in every part of Ulster the most powerful sentiment of solidarity. The idea of taking any action apart from these friends and associates, and of adopting a policy that might seem to imply the abandonment of their opposition to the main principle of the Bill, was one that could not be entertained except under the most compelling necessity.

But, had not that necessity now arisen? The Ulster members had to keep in view the ultimate policy to which they were already committed. That policy, as laid down at Craigavon, was to take over, in the event of the Home Rule Bill being carried, the government "of those districts which they could control" in trust for the Imperial Parliament, and to resist by force if necessary the establishment of the Dublin jurisdiction over those districts. The policy of resistance was always recognised as being strictly limited in area; no one ever supposed that Ulster could forcibly resist Home Rule being set up in the south and west. The likelihood of failure to bring about a dissolution before the Bill became law had to be faced, and if no General Election took place there would be no alternative to resistance. If, then, it were decided to vote against an amendment offering salvation to the four most loyalist counties, what would be their position if ultimately driven to take up arms? Except as to a matter of detail concerning the precise area proposed to be excluded from the Bill, would they not be told that they were fighting for what they might have had by legislation, and what they had deliberately refused to accept? And if they so acted, could they expect not to forfeit the support of the great and growing volume of public opinion which now sympathised with Ulster? They could not, of course, secure themselves against malicious misrepresentation of their motives, but the Ulster members sincerely believed, and many in the South shared the opinion, that if it came to the worst they could be of more use to the Southern Unionists outside a Dublin Parliament than as members of it, where they would be an impotent minority. Moreover, it was perfectly understood that Ulster was resolved in any case not to enter a legislature in College Green, and there would, therefore, be no more "desertion" of Unionists outside the excluded area if the exclusion were effected by an amendment to the Bill, than if it were the result of what Mr. Bonar Law had called "trusting to themselves."

The considerations thus briefly summarised were thoroughly discussed in all their bearings at the conference at Londonderry House. It was one of many occasions when Sir Edward Carson's colleagues had an opportunity of perceiving how his penetrating intellect explored the intricate windings of a complicated political problem, weighing all the alternatives of procedure with a clear insight into the appearance that any line of conduct would present to other and perhaps hostile minds, calculating like a chess-master move and counter-move far ahead of the present, and, while adhering undeviatingly to principle, using the judgment of a consummate strategist to decide upon the action to be taken at any given moment. He had an astonishing faculty of discarding everything that was unessential and fastening on the thing that really mattered in any situation. His strength in counsel lay in the rare combination of these qualities of the trained lawyer with the gift of intuition, which women claim as their distinguishing characteristic; and it often extorted from Nationalists the melancholy admission that if Carson had been on their side their cause would have triumphed long ago.

His advice now was that the Agar-Robartes amendment should be supported; and, although some of those present required a good deal of persuasion, it was ultimately decided unanimously that this course should be followed. The wisdom of the decision was never afterwards questioned, and, indeed, was abundantly confirmed by subsequent events.

Mr. Agar-Robartes moved his amendment the same afternoon, summarising his argument in the dictum, denied by Mr. William Redmond, that "Orange bitters will not mix with Irish whisky." The debate, which lasted three days, was the most important that took place in committee on the Bill, for in the course of it the whole Ulster question was exhaustively discussed. Sir Edward Grey and Mr. Churchill had thrown out hints in the second reading debate that the Government might do something to meet the Ulster case. The Prime Minister was now pressed to say what these hints meant. Had the Government any policy in regard to Ulster? Had they considered how they could deal with the threatened resistance? Mr. Bonar Law told the Government that they must know that, if they employed troops to coerce the Ulster Loyalists, Ministers who gave the order "would run a greater risk of being lynched in London than the Loyalists of Ulster would run of being shot in Belfast." Every argument in favour of Home Rule was, he said, equally cogent against subjecting Ulster to Home Rule contrary to her own desire. If the South of Ireland objected to being governed from Westminster, the North of Ireland quite as strongly objected to being ruled from Dublin. If England, as was alleged, was incapable of governing Ireland according to Irish ideas, the Nationalists were fully as incapable of governing the northern counties according to Ulster ideas. If Ireland, with only one-fifteenth of the population of the United Kingdom, had a right to choose its own form of government, by what equity could the same right be denied to Ulster, with one-fourth of the population of Ireland?

As had been anticipated at Londonderry House, Mr. Asquith and some of his followers did their best to drive a wedge between the Ulstermen and the Southern Unionists, by contending that the former, in supporting the amendment, were deserting their friends. Mr. Balfour declared in answer to this that "nothing could relieve Unionists in the rest of Ireland except the defeat of the measure as a whole"; and a crushing reply was given by Mr. J. H. Campbell and Mr. Walter Guinness, both of whom were Unionists from the South of Ireland. Mr. Guinness frankly acknowledged that "it was the duty of Ulster members to take this opportunity of trying to secure for their constituents freedom from this iniquitous measure.

It would be merely a dog-in-the-manger policy for those who lived outside Ulster to grudge relief to their coreligionists merely because they could not share it. Such self-denial on Ulster's part would in no way help them (the Southerners) and it would only injure their compatriots in the North."

Sir Edward Carson, in supporting the amendment, insisted that "Ulster was not asking for anything" except to be left within the Imperial Constitution; she "had not demanded any separate Parliament." He accepted the "basic principle" of the amendment, but would not be content with the four counties which alone it proposed to exclude from the Bill. He only accepted it, however, on two assumptions—first, that the Bill was to become law; and, second, that it was to be, as Mr. Asquith had assured them, part of a federal system for the United Kingdom. If the first steps were being taken to construct a federal system, there was no precedent for coercing Ulster to form part of a federal unit which she refused to join. He had been Solicitor-General when the Act establishing the Commonwealth of Australia was being discussed, and it never would have passed, he declared, "if every single clause had not been agreed to by every single one of the communities concerned." Ministers were always basing their Irish policy on Dominion analogies, but could anyone, Carson asked, imagine the Imperial Government sending troops to compel the Transvaal or New South Wales to come into a federal system against their will?

The arguments in favour of the amendment were also stated with uncompromising force by Mr. William Moore, Mr. Charles Craig, and his brother Captain James Craig, the last-mentioned taking up a challenge thrown down by Mr. Birrell in a maladroit speech which had expressed doubt as to the reality of the danger to be apprehended in Ulster. Captain Craig said they would immediately take steps in Ulster to convince the Chief Secretary of their sincerity. Lord Hugh Cecil, in an outspoken speech, greatly to the taste of English Unionists, "had no hesitation in saying that Ulster would be perfectly right in resisting, and he hoped she would be successful."

In the division on Mr. Agar-Robartes's amendment the Government majority fell to sixty-nine, both the "Tellers" being usual supporters of the Ministry. Mr. F. E. Smith, in a vigorous speech to the Belfast Orangemen on the 12th of July, declared that "on the part of the Government the discussion (on Mr. Agar-Robartes's amendment) was a trap. . . . The Government hoped that Ulster would decline the amendment in order that the Coalition might protest to the constituencies: 'We offered Ulster exclusion and Ulster refused exclusion—where is the grievance of Ulster? where her justification for armed revolt?'" The snare was avoided; but the debate was a landmark in the movement, for it was then that the spokesmen of Ulster for the first time publicly accepted the idea of separate treatment for themselves as a possible alternative policy to the integral maintenance of the Union.

The Government, for their part, made no response to the demand of Bonar Law and Carson that they should declare their intentions for dealing with resistance in Ulster. It was clearly more than ever necessary for the Ulstermen to "trust in themselves." The debates on the Bill occupied Parliament till the end of the year, and beyond it, and great blocks of clauses were carried under the guillotine closure without a word of discussion, although they were packed with constitutional points, many of which were of the highest moment. Over in Ulster, at the same time, those preparations were industriously carried forward which Captain Craig told the House of Commons would be necessary to cure the scepticism of the Chief Secretary.

In England and Scotland, also, Unionists did their utmost to make public opinion realise the gravity of the crisis towards which the country was drifting under the Wait-and-See Ministry. Never before, probably, had so many great political meetings been held in any year as were held in every part of the country in 1912. With the exception of those that took place in Ireland, the most striking was a monster gathering at Blenheim on the 27th of July, which was attended by delegates from every Unionist Association in the United Kingdom.

A notable defeat of the Government in a by-election at Crewe, news of which reached the meeting while the audience of some fifteen thousand people was assembling, was an encouraging sign of the trend of opinion in the country, and added confidence to the note of defiance that sounded in the speeches of Mr. Bonar Law, Mr. F. E. Smith, and Sir Edward Carson.

The Unionist leader repeated, with added emphasis, what he had already said in the House of Commons, that he could imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster might go in which he and the overwhelming majority of the British people would not be ready to give support. He again said that resistance would be justified only because the people had not been consulted, and the Government's policy was "part of a corrupt parliamentary bargain." He refused to acknowledge the right of the Government "to carry such a Revolution by such means," and as they appeared to be resolved to do so, Mr. Bonar Law and the party he led "would use any means to deprive them of the power they had usurped, and to compel them to face the people they had deceived." Mr. F. E. Smith expressed the same thought in a more epigrammatic antithesis: "We have come to a clear issue between the party which says 'We will judge for the democracy,' and the party which says 'The democracy shall judge you.'"

The tremendous enthusiasm evoked by Mr. Bonar Law's pledge of support to Ulster, and by Sir Edward Carson's announcement that they in Ulster "would shortly challenge the Government to interfere with them if they dared, and would with equanimity await the result," was a sufficient proof, if proof were needed, that the intention of the Ulstermen to offer forcible resistance to Home Rule had the whole-hearted sympathy and approval of the entire Unionist party in Great Britain, whose representatives from every corner of the country were assembled at Blenheim.

Liberals hoped and believed that this promise of support for the "rebellious" attitude of Ulster would alienate British opinion from the Unionist party. The supporters of the Government in the Press daily proclaimed that it was doing so. When Parliament adjourned for the summer recess, at the beginning of what journalists call "the silly season," Mr. Churchill published two letters to a constituent in Scotland which were intended to be a crushing indictment both of Ulster and of her sympathisers in Great Britain. The Ulster menace was in his eyes nothing but "melodramatic stuff," and he sneeringly suggested that the Unionist leaders would be "unspeakably shocked and frightened" if anything came of their "foolish and wicked words." The letter was lengthy, and contained some telling phrases such as Mr. Churchill has always been skilful in coining; but the "turgid homily—a mixture of sophistry, insult, and menace," as The Times not unfairly described it, was less effective than the terse and simple rejoinder in which Mr. Bonar Law pointed out that Mr. Churchill's onslaught wounded his father's memory more deeply than it touched his living opponents, since Lord Randolph's "incitement" of Ulster was at a time when Ulster could not be cast out from the Union without the consent of the British electors.

Mr. Churchill's epistles to Scottish Liberals started a correspondence which reverberated through the Press for weeks, breaking the monotony of the holiday season; but they entirely failed in their purpose, which was to break the sympathy for Ulster in England and Scotland. In March the Unionists had won a seat at a by-election in South Manchester; the victory at Crewe in July, which so cheered the gathering at Blenheim, was followed by still more striking victories in North-west Manchester in August, and in Midlothian—Gladstone's old constituency—in September; and perhaps a not less significant indication of the trend of opinion so far as the Unionist party was concerned, was given by the local Unionist Association at Rochdale, which promptly repudiated its selected candidate who had ventured to protest against the Blenheim speech of the Unionist leader. In an analysis of electoral statistics published by The Times on the 24th of August it was shown that, in thirty-eight contests since the General Election in December 1910, the Unionists had gained an advantage of more than 32,000 votes over Liberals. And shortly afterwards, at a dinner in London to three newly elected Unionists, Mr. Bonar Law pointed out that the results of by-elections, if realised in the same proportion all over the country, would have given a substantial Unionist majority in the House of Commons.

The Ulster people had, therefore, much to encourage them at a time when they were preparing the most significant forward step in the movement, and the most solemn pronouncement of their unfaltering resolution never to submit to the Dublin Parliament—the signing of the Ulster Covenant. Their policy of resistance, first propounded at Craigavon, reiterated at Balmoral, endorsed by British sympathisers at Blenheim, and specifically defended in Parliament both by Unionist leaders like Mr. Bonar Law and Mr. Long and by prominent members of the Unionist rank and file like Lord Hugh Cecil, had won the approval and support of great popular constituencies in Lancashire and in Scotland, and had alienated no section of Unionist opinion or of the Unionist Press. It was in no merely satirical spirit that Carson wrote in August that he was grateful to Mr. Churchill "for having twice within a few weeks done something to focus public opinion on the stern realities of the situation in Ulster."[27] For that was the actual result of the "turgid homily." It proved of real service to the Ulster cause by bringing to light the complete solidarity of Unionist opinion in its support. That meant, in the light of the electoral returns, that certainly more than half the nation sympathised with the measures that were being taken in Ulster, and that Ulster could well afford to smile at the mockery which English Home Rulers deemed a sufficient weapon to demolish the "wooden guns" and the "military playacting of King Carson's Army."

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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