Lord Loreburn's Letter

Ronald McNeill
Chapter XIV

Whatever might be the state of public opinion in England, it was realised that the Government, if they chose, were in a position to disregard it; and in Ulster the tension was becoming almost unbearable. The leaders were apprehensive lest outbreaks of violence should occur, which they knew would gravely prejudice the movement; and there is no doubt that it was only the discipline which the rank and file had now gained, and the extraordinary restraining influence which Carson exercised, that prevented serious rioting in many places. Incidents like the attack by Nationalist roughs in Belfast on a carriage conveying crippled children to a holiday outing on the 31st of May because it was decorated with Union Jacks might at any moment lead to trouble. There was some disorder in Belfast in the early hours of the 12th of July; and an outbreak occurred in August in Derry, always a storm centre, when a procession was attacked, and a Protestant was shot while watching it from his own upper window. The incident started rioting, which continued for several days, and a battalion of troops had to be called in to restore order.

Meantime, throughout the summer, while the Government were complacently carrying their Bill through Parliament for the second time, the Press was packed with suggestions for averting the crisis which everybody except the Cabinet recognised as impending.

It began to be whispered in the clubs and lobbies that the King might exercise the prerogative of veto, and even men like Lord St. Aldwyn and the veteran Earl of Halsbury, both of them ex-Cabinet Ministers, encouraged the idea; but there was no widespread acceptance of the notion that even in so exceptional a case His Majesty would reject the advice of his responsible Ministers. But in a letter to The Times on the 4th of September, Mr. George Cave, K.C., M.P. (afterwards Home Secretary, and ultimately Lord of Appeal), suggested that the King might "exercise his undoubted right" to dissolve Parliament before the beginning of the next session, in order to inform himself as to whether the policy of his Ministers was endorsed by the people.

But a much greater sensation was created a few days later by a letter which appeared in The Times on the 11th of the same month over the signature of Lord Loreburn. Lord Loreburn had been Lord Chancellor at the time the Home Rule Bill was first introduced, but had retired from the Government in June 1912, being replaced on the Woolsack by Lord Haldane. When the first draft of the Home Rule Bill was under discussion in the Cabinet in preparation for its introduction in the House of Commons, two of the younger Ministers, Mr. Lloyd George and Mr. Winston Churchill, proposed that an attempt should be made to avert the stern opposition to be expected from Ulster, by treating the northern Province, or a portion of it, separately from the rest of Ireland. This proposal was not acceptable to the Cabinet as a whole, and its authors were roundly rated by Lord Loreburn for so unprincipled a lapse from orthodox Gladstonian doctrine. What, therefore, must have been the astonishment of the heretics when they found their mentor, less than two years later, publicly reproving the Government which he had left for having got into such a sad mess over the Ulster difficulty! They might be forgiven some indignation at finding themselves reproved by Lord Loreburn for faulty statesmanship of which Lord Loreburn was the principal author.

Those, however, who had not the same ground for exasperation as Mr. Lloyd George and Mr. Churchill thought Lord Loreburn's letter very sound sense. He pointed out that if the Bill were to become law in 1914, as it stood in September 1913, there would be, if not civil war, at any rate very serious rioting in the North of Ireland, and when the riots had been quelled by the Government the spirit that prompted them would remain. Everybody concerned would suffer from fighting it out to a finish. The Ex-Chancellor felt bound to assume that "up to the last, Ministers, who assuredly have not taken leave of their senses, would be willing to consider proposals for accommodation," and he therefore suggested that a Conference should be held behind closed doors with a view to a settlement by consent. If Lord Loreburn had perceived at the time the draft Bill was before the Cabinet that it was not the Ministers who proposed separate treatment for Ulster who had "taken leave of their senses," but those, including himself, who had resisted that proposal, his wisdom would have been more timely; but it was better late than never, and his unexpected intervention had a decided influence on opinion in the country.

The comment of The Times was very much to the point:

"On the eve of a great political crisis, it may be of national disaster, a distinguished Liberal statesman makes public confession of his belief that, as a permanent solution, the Irish policy of the Government is indefensible."

This letter of the ex-Lord Chancellor gave rise to prolonged discussion in the Press and on the platform. At Durham, on the 13th of September, Carson declared that he would welcome a Conference if the question was how to provide a genuine expansion of self-government, but that, if Ulster was to be not only expelled from the Union but placed under a Parliament in Dublin, then "they were going to make Home Rule impossible by steady and persistent opposition." The Government seemed unable to agree whether a conciliatory or a defiant attitude was their wiser policy, though it is true that the latter recommended itself mostly to the least prominent of its members, such as Mr. J. M. Robertson, Secretary of the Board of Trade, who in a speech at Newcastle on the 25th of September announced scornfully that Ministers were not going to turn "King Carson" into "Saint Carson" by prosecuting him, and that "the Government would know how to deal with him."[50] But more important Ministers were beginning to perceive the unwisdom of this sort of bluster. Lord Morley, in the House of Lords, denied that he had ever underrated the Ulster difficulty, and said that for twenty-five years he had never thought that Ulster was guilty of bluff. Mr. Churchill, at Dundee, on the 9th of October, no longer talked as he had the previous year about "not taking Sir Edward Carson too seriously," though he still appeared to be ignorant of the fact that there was in Ulster anybody except Orangemen. "The Orange Leaders," he said, "used violent language, but Liberals should try to understand their position. Their claim for special consideration, if put forward with sincerity, could not be ignored by a Government depending on the existing House."[51]

The Prime Minister, less assured than his subordinate at the Board of Trade that "King Carson" was negligible, also displayed a somewhat chastened spirit at Ladybank on the 25th of October, when he acknowledged that it was "of supreme importance to the future well-being of Ireland that the new system should not start with the apparent triumph of one section over another," and he invited a "free and frank exchange of views."[52] Sir Edward Grey held out another little twig of olive two days later at Berwick.

To these overtures, if they deserve the name, Mr. Bonar Law replied in an address to a gathering of fifteen thousand people at Wallsend on the 29th, in the presence of Sir Edward Carson. Having repeated the Blenheim pledge, he praised the discipline and restraint shown by the Ulster people and their leaders, but warned his hearers that the nation was drifting towards the tragedy of civil war, the responsibility for which would rest on the Government. He expressed his readiness to respond to Mr. Asquith's invitation, but pointed out that there were only three alternatives open to the Government. They must either (1) go on as they were doing and provoke Ulster to resist—that was madness; (2) they could consult the electorate, whose decision would be accepted by the Unionist Party as a whole; or (3) they could try to arrange a settlement which would at least avert civil war.

There had been during the past six or eight months an unusual dearth of by-elections to test public opinion in regard to the Irish policy of the Government, and it must be borne in mind that the Unionist Party in Great Britain was still distracted by disputes over the Tariff question, which in January 1913 had very nearly led to the retirement of Mr. Bonar Law from the leadership. Nevertheless, in May the Unionists won two signal victories, one in Cambridgeshire, and one in Cheshire, where the Altrincham Division sent a staunch friend of Ulster to Parliament in the person of Mr. George C. Hamilton, who in his maiden speech declared that he had won the contest entirely on the Ulster Question. Even more significant, perhaps, were two elections which were fought while the interchange of party strokes over the Loreburn letter was in progress, and the results of both were declared on the 8th of November. At Reading, where the Unionists retained the seat, the Liberal candidate was constrained by pressure of opinion in the constituency to promise support for a policy of "separate and generous treatment for Ulster." At Linlithgow, a Liberal stronghold, where no such promise was forthcoming, the Liberal majority, in spite of a large Nationalist vote, was reduced by 1,500 votes as compared with the General Election. There were signs that Nonconformists, whose great leaders like Spurgeon and Dale had been hostile to Home Rule in Gladstone's time, were again becoming uneasy about handing over the Ulster Presbyterians and Methodists to the Roman hierarchy. A memorial against Home Rule, signed by 131,000 people, which had been presented to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in June, had no doubt had some effect on Nonconformist opinion in England, and it was just about the time when these elections took place that Carson was described at a large gathering of Nonconformists in London as "the best embodiment at this moment of the ancient spirit of Nonconformity."[53]

Meanwhile the people in Ulster were steadily maturing their plans. The arrangements already mentioned for setting up a Provisional Government were confirmed and finally adopted by the Unionist Council in Belfast on the 24th of September, and the Council by resolution delegated its powers to the Standing Committee, while the Commission of Five was at the same time appointed to act as an Executive. Carson, in accepting the chairmanship of the Central Authority, used the striking phrase, which precisely epitomised the situation, that "Ulster might be coerced into submission, but in that case would have to be governed as a conquered country." The Nationalist retort that the rest of Ireland was now being so treated, appeared forcible to those Englishmen only who could see no difference between controlling a disaffected population and chastising a loyal one.

At the same meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council on the 24th of September a guarantee fund was established for providing means to compensate members of the U.V.F. for any loss or disability they might suffer as a result of their service, and the widows and dependents of any who might lose their lives. This was a matter that had caused Carson anxiety for some time. He was extremely sensitive to the moral responsibility he would incur towards those who so eagerly followed his lead, in the event of their suffering loss of life or limb in the service of Ulster. His proposal that a guarantee fund of a million sterling should be started, met with a ready response from the Council, and from the wealthier classes in and about Belfast. The form of "Indemnity Guarantee" provided for the payment to those entitled to benefit under it of sums not less than they would have been entitled to under the Fatal Accidents Act, the Employers' Liability Act, and the Workman's Compensation Act, as the circumstances of the case might be. The list was headed by Sir Edward Carson, Lord Londonderry, Captain Craig, Sir John Lonsdale, Sir George Clark, and Lord Dunleath, with a subscription of £10,000 each, and their example was followed by Mr. Kerr Smiley, M.P., Mr. R. M. Liddell, Mr. George Preston, Mr. Henry Musgrave, Mr. C. E. Allen, and Mr. Frank Workman, who entered their names severally for the same amount. A quarter of a million sterling was guaranteed in the room before the Council separated; by the end of a week it had grown to £387,000; and before the 1st of January, 1914, the total amount of the Indemnity Guarantee Fund was £1,043,816.

It gave Carson and the other leaders the greatest possible satisfaction that the response to this appeal was so prompt and adequate. Not only was their anxiety relieved in regard to their responsibility to loyal followers of the rank and file who might become "casualties" in the movement, but they had been given a striking proof that the business community of Belfast did not consider its pocket more sacred than its principles. Moreover, if there had been doubt on that score in anyone's mind, it was set at rest by a memorable meeting for business men only held in Belfast on the 3rd of November. Between three and four thousand leaders of industry and commerce, the majority of whom had never hitherto taken any active share in political affairs, presided over by Mr. G. H. Ewart, President of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, gave an enthusiastic reception to Carson, who told them that he had come more to consult them as to the commercial aspects of the great political controversy than to impress his own views on the gathering. It was said that the men in the hall represented a capital of not less than £145,000,000 sterling,[54] and there can be no doubt that, even if that were an exaggerated estimate, they were not of a class to whom revolution, rebellion, or political upheaval could offer an attractive prospect. Nevertheless, the meeting passed with complete unanimity a resolution expressing confidence in Carson and approval of everything he had done, including the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force, and declaring that they would refuse to pay "all taxes which they could control" to an Irish Parliament in Dublin. This meeting was very satisfactory, for it proved that the "captains of industry" were entirely in accord with the working classes, whose support of the movement had never been in doubt. It showed that Ulster was solid behind Carson; and the unanimity was emphasised rather than disturbed by a little handful of cranks, calling themselves "Protestant Home Rulers," who met on the 24th of October at the village of Ballymoney "to protest against the lawless policy of Carsonism." The principal stickler for propriety of conduct in public life on this occasion was Sir Roger Casement.

While the unity and steadfastness—which enemies called obstinacy—of the Ulster people were being thus made manifest, the public in England were hearing a good deal about the growth of the Ulster Volunteer Force in numbers and efficiency. As will be seen later, the anniversary of the Covenant was celebrated with great military display at the very time when the newspapers across the Channel were busy discussing Lord Loreburn's letter, and at a parade service in the Ulster Hall, Canon Harding, after pronouncing the Benediction, called on the congregation to raise their right hands and pledge themselves thereby "to follow wherever Sir Edward Carson shall lead us."

The events of September 1913—the setting up of the Provisional Government, the wonderful and instantaneous response to the appeal for an Indemnity Guarantee Fund, the rapid formation of an effective volunteer army—were given the fullest publicity in the English Press. Every newspaper of importance had its special correspondent in Belfast, whose telegrams filled columns every day, adorned with all the varieties of sensational headline type. The Radicals were becoming restive. The idea that Carson was "not to be taken too seriously," had apparently missed fire. It was the Ministerial affectation of contempt that no one was taking seriously; in fact, to borrow an expression from current slang, the "King Carson" stunt was a "wash-out."

The Nation suggested that, instead of being laughed at, the Ulster leader should be prosecuted, or, at any rate, removed from the Privy Council, and other Liberal papers feverishly took up the suggestion, debating whether the indictment should be under the Treason Felony Act of 1848, the Crimes Act of 1887, or the Unlawful Drilling Act of 1819. One of them, however, which succeeded in keeping its head, did not believe that a prosecution would succeed; and, as to the Privy Council, if Carson's name were removed, what about Londonderry and F. E. Smith, Walter Long, and Bonar Law? In fact, "it would be difficult to know where to stop."[55] It would have been. The Privy Council would have had to be reduced to a committee of Radical politicians; and, if Carson had been prosecuted, room would have had to be found in the dock, not only for the whole Unionist Party, but for the proprietors and editors of most of the leading journals. The Government stopped short of that supreme folly; but their impotence was the measure of the prevailing sympathy with Ulster.

lord loreburn's letter,walter long

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

Ulster's Stand for Union

Read Ulster's Stand for Union at your leisure and help support this free Irish library.

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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