Negotiations for Settlement

Ronald McNeill
Chapter XXI

The position in which Ulster was now placed was, from the political point of view, a very anxious one. Had the war not broken out when it did, there was a very prevalent belief that the Government could not have avoided a general election either before, or immediately after, the placing of Home Rule on the Statute-book; and as to the result of such an election no Unionist had any misgiving. Even if the Government had remained content to disregard the electorate, it would have been impossible for them to subject Ulster to a Dublin Parliament. The organisation there was powerful enough to prevent it, by force if necessary, and the Curragh Incident had proved that the Army could not be employed against the Loyalists.

But the whole outlook had now changed. The war had put off all thought of a General Election till an indefinite future; the Ulster Volunteers, and every other wheel in the very effective machinery prepared for resistance to Home Rule, were now diverted to a wholly different purpose; and at the same time the hated Bill had become an Act, and the only alleviation was the promise, for what it might be worth, of an Amending Bill the scope of which remained undefined. While, therefore, the Ulster leaders and people threw themselves with all their energy into the patriotic work to which the war gave the call, the situation so created at home caused them much uneasiness.

No one felt it more than Lord Londonderry. Indeed, as the autumn of 1914 wore on, the despondency he fell into was so marked that his friends could not avoid disquietude on his personal account in addition to all the other grounds for anxiety. He and Lady Londonderry, it is true, took a leading part in all the activities to which the war gave rise—encouraging recruiting, organising hospitals, and making provision of every kind for soldiers and their dependents, in Ulster and in the County of Durham. But when in London in November, Lord Londonderry would sit moodily at the Carlton Club, speaking to few except intimate friends, and apparently overcome by depression. He was pessimistic about the war. His only son was at the front, and he seemed persuaded he would never return. The affairs of Ulster, to which he had given his whole heart, looked black; and he went about as if all his purpose in life was gone. He went with Lady Londonderry to Mount Stewart for Christmas, and one or two intimate friends who visited him there in January 1915 were greatly disturbed in mind on his account. But the public in Belfast, who saw him going in and out of the Ulster Club as usual, did not know anything was amiss, and were terribly shocked as well as grieved when they heard of his sudden death at Wynyard on the 8th of February.

The death of Lord Londonderry was felt by many thousands in Ulster as a personal bereavement. If he did not arouse the unbounded, and almost delirious, devotion which none but Sir Edward Carson ever evoked in the North of Ireland, the deep respect and warm affection felt towards him by all who knew him, and by great numbers who did not, was a tribute which his modesty and integrity of character and genial friendliness of disposition richly deserved. He was faithfully described by Carson himself to the Ulster Unionist Council several months after his death as "a great leader, a great and devoted public servant, a great patriot, a great gentleman, and above all the greatest of great friends."

Ulster, meantime, had already had a foretaste of the sacrifices the war was to demand when the Division should go to the front. In November 1914 Captain the Hon. Arthur O'Neill, M.P. for Mid Antrim, who had gone to the front with the first expeditionary force, was killed in action in France. There was a certain sense of sad pride in the reflection that the first member of the House of Commons to give his life for King and country was a representative of Ulster; and the constituency which suffered the loss of a promising young member by the death of this gallant Life Guardsman consoled itself by electing in his place his younger brother, Major Hugh O'Neill, then serving in the Ulster Division, who afterwards proved himself a most valuable member of the Ulster Parliamentary Party, and eventually became the first Speaker of the Ulster Parliament created by the Act of 1920.

Notwithstanding the bitter outbreak of party passion caused by the Government's action in putting the Home Rule Bill on the Statute-book in September, the party truce was well maintained throughout the autumn and winter. And the most striking proof of the transformation wrought by the war was seen when Mr. Asquith, when constrained to form a truly national Administration in May 1915, included Sir Edward Carson in his Cabinet with the office of Attorney-General. Mr. Redmond was at the same time invited to join the Government, and his refusal to do so when the British Unionists, the Labour leaders, and the Ulster leaders all responded to the Prime Minister's appeal to their patriotism, did not appear in the eyes of Ulstermen to confirm the Nationalist leader's profession of loyalty to the Empire; though they did him the justice of believing that he would have accepted office if he had felt free to follow his own inclination. His inability to do so, and the complaints of his followers, including Mr. Dillon, at the admission of Carson to the Cabinet, revealed the incapacity of the Nationalists to rise to a level above party.

Carson, however, did not remain very long in the Government. Disapproving of the policy pursued in relation to our Allies in the Balkans, he resigned on the 20th of October, 1915. But he had remained long enough to prove his value in council to the most energetic of his colleagues in the Cabinet. Men like Mr. Churchill and Mr. Lloyd George, although they had been the bitterest of Carson's opponents eighteen months previously, seldom omitted from this time forward to seek his advice in times of difficulty; and the latter of these two, when things were going badly with the Allies more than a year later, endeavoured to persuade Mr. Asquith to include Carson in a Committee of four to be charged with the entire conduct of the war.

It was, perhaps, fortunate that the Ulster leader was not a member of the Government when the rebellion broke out in the South of Ireland at Easter 1916. For this event suddenly brought to the front again the whole Home Rule question, which everybody had hoped might be allowed to sleep till the end of the war; and it would have been a misfortune if Carson had not then been in a position of independence to play his part in this new act of the Irish drama.

The Government had many warnings of what was brewing. But Mr. Birrell, the Chief Secretary, who in frivolity seemed a contemporary embodiment of Nero, deemed cheap wit a sufficient reply to all remonstrances, and had to confess afterwards that he had utterly miscalculated the forces with which he had to deal. He was completely taken by surprise when, on the 20th of April, an attempt to land weapons from a German vessel, escorted by a submarine from which Sir Roger Casement landed in the West of Ireland, proved that the Irish rebels were in league with the enemy; and even after this ominous event, he did nothing to provide against the outbreak that occurred in Dublin four days later. The rising in the capital, and in several other places in the South of Ireland, was not got under for a week, during which time more than 170 houses had been burnt, £2,000,000 sterling worth of property destroyed or damaged, and 1,315 casualties had been suffered, of which 304 were fatal.

The aims of the insurgents were disclosed in a proclamation which referred to the administration in Ireland as a "long usurpation by a foreign people and government." It declared that the Irish Republican Brotherhood—the same organisation that planned and carried out the Phoenix Park murders in 1882—had now seized the right moment for "reviving the old traditions of Irish nationhood," and announced that the new Irish Republic was a sovereign independent State, which was entitled to claim the allegiance of every Irish man and woman.

The rebellion was the subject of debates in both Houses of Parliament on the 10th and 11th of May—Mr. Birrell having in the interval, to use a phrase of Carlyle's, "taken himself and his incompetence elsewhere"—when Mr. Dillon, speaking for the Nationalist Party, poured forth a flood of passionate sympathy with the rebels, declaring that he was proud of youths who could boast of having slaughtered British soldiers, and he denounced the Government for suppressing the rising in "a sea of blood." The actual fact was, that out of a large number of prisoners taken red-handed in the act of armed rebellion who were condemned to death after trial by court-martial, the great majority were reprieved, and thirteen in all were executed. Whether such measures deserved the frightful description coined by Mr. Dillon's flamboyant rhetoric everybody can judge for himself, after considering whether in any other country or at any other period of the world's history, active assistance of a foreign enemy—for that is what it amounted to—has been visited with a more lenient retribution.

On the same day that Mr. Dillon thus justified the whole basis of Ulster's unchanging attitude towards Nationalism by blurting out his sympathy with England's enemies, Mr. Asquith announced that he was himself going to Ireland to investigate matters on the spot. These two events, Mr. Dillon's speech and the Prime Minister's visit to Dublin—where he certainly exhibited no stern anger against the rebels, even if the stories were exaggerated which reported him to have shown them ostentatious friendliness—went far to transform what had been a wretched fiasco into a success. Cowed at first by their complete failure, the rebels found encouragement in the complacency of the Prime Minister, and the fear or sympathy, whichever it was, of the Nationalist Party. From that moment they rapidly increased in influence, until they proved two years later that they had become the predominant power all over Ireland except in Ulster.

In Ulster the rebellion was regarded with mixed feelings. The strongest sentiment was one of horror at the treacherous blow dealt to the Empire while engaged in a life-and-death struggle with a foreign enemy. But, was it unpardonably Pharisaic if there was also some self-glorification in the thought that Ulstermen in this respect were not as other men were? There was also a prevalent feeling that after what had occurred they would hear no more of Home Rule, at any rate during the war. It appeared inconceivable that any sane Government could think of handing over the control of Ireland in time of war to people who had just proved their active hostility to Great Britain in so unmistakable a fashion.

But they were soon undeceived. Mr. Asquith, on his return, told the House of Commons what he had learnt during his few days' sojourn in Ireland. His first proposition was that the existing machinery of Government in Ireland had completely broken down. That was undeniable. It was the natural fruit of the Birrell regime. Mr. Asquith was himself responsible for it. But no more strange or illogical conclusion could be drawn from it than that which Mr. Asquith proceeded to propound. This was that there was now "a unique opportunity for a new departure for the settlement of outstanding problems"—which, when translated from Asquithian into plain English, meant that now was the time for Home Rule. The pledge to postpone the question till after the war was to be swept aside, and, instead of building up by sound and sensible administration what Mr. Birrell's abnegation of government had allowed to crumble into "breakdown," the rebels were to be rewarded for traffic with the enemy and destruction of the central parts of Dublin, with great loss of life, by being allowed to point to the triumphant success of their activity, which was certain to prove the most effective of all possible propaganda for their political ideals in Ireland.

Some regard, however, was still to be paid to the promise of an Amending Bill. The Prime Minister repeated that no one contemplated the coercion of Ulster; that an attempt must be made to come to agreement about the terms on which the Home Rule Act could be brought into immediate operation; and that the Cabinet had deputed to Mr. Lloyd George the task of negotiating to this end with both parties in Ireland. Accordingly, Mr. Lloyd George, then Secretary of State for War, interviewed Sir Edward Carson on the one hand and Mr. Redmond and Mr. Devlin on the other, and submitted to them separately the proposals which he said the Cabinet were prepared to make.[93]

On the 6th of June Carson explained the Cabinet's proposals at a special meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council held in private. His task was an extremely difficult one, for the advice he had to offer was utterly detestable to himself, and he knew it would be no less so to his hearers. And the latter, profound as was their trust in him as their leader, were men of singularly independent judgment and quite capable of respectfully declining to take any course they did not themselves approve. Indeed, Carson emphasised the fact that he could not, and had not attempted to, bind the Council to take the same view of the situation as himself. At the same time he clearly and frankly stated what his own opinion was, saying: "I would indeed be a poor leader of a great movement if I hesitated to express my own views of any proposition put before you."[94]

His speech, which took nearly two hours in delivery, was a perfect model of lucid exposition and convincing argument. He reviewed in close detail the course of events that had led to the present situation. He maintained from first to last the highest ground of patriotism. Mentioning that numerous correspondents had asked why he did not challenge the Nationalist professions of loyalty two years before at the beginning of the war, which had since then been so signally falsified, he answered:

"Because I had no desire to show a dissentient Ireland to the Germans. I am glad, even with what has happened, that we played the game, and if we had to do it again we would play the game. And then suddenly came the rebellion in Dublin. I cannot find words to describe my own horror when I heard of it. For I am bound to admit to you that I was not thinking merely of Ulster; I was thinking of the war; I was thinking, as I am always thinking, of what will happen if we are beaten in the war. I was thinking of the sacrifice of human lives at the front, and in Gallipoli, and at Kut, when suddenly I heard that the whole thing was interrupted by, forsooth, an Irish rebellion—by what Mr. Dillon in the House of Commons called a clean fight! It is not Ulster or Ireland that is now at stake: it is the British Empire. We have therefore to consider not merely a local problem, but a great Imperial problem—how to win the war."

He then outlined the representations that had been made to him by the Cabinet as to the injury to the Allied cause resulting from the unsettled Irish question—the disturbance of good relations with the United States, whence we were obtaining vast quantities of munitions; the bad effect of our local differences on opinion in Allied and neutral countries. He admitted that these evil effects were largely due to false and hostile propaganda to which the British Government weakly neglected to provide an antidote; he believed they were grossly exaggerated. But in time of war they could not contend with their own Government nor be deaf to its appeals, especially when that Government contained all their own party leaders, on whose support they had hitherto leaned.

One of Carson's chief difficulties was to make men grasp the significance of the fact that Home Rule was now actually established by Act of Parliament. The point that the Act was on the Statute-book was constantly lost sight of, with all that it implied. He drove home the unwelcome truth that simple repeal of that Act was not practical politics. The only hope for Ulster to escape going under a Parliament in Dublin lay in the promised Amending Bill. But they had no assurance how much that Bill, when produced, would do for them. Was it likely, he asked, to do more than was now offered by the Government?

He then told the Council what Mr. Lloyd George's proposals were. The Cabinet offered on the one hand a "clean cut," not indeed of the whole of Ulster, but of the six most Protestant counties, and on the other to bring the Home Rule Act, so modified, into immediate operation. He pointed out that none of them could contemplate using the U.V.F. for fighting purposes at home after the war; and that, even if such a thing were thinkable, they could not expect to get more by forcible resistance to the Act than what was now offered by legislation.

But to Carson himself, and to all who listened to him that day, the heartrending question was whether they could suffer a separation to be made between the Loyalists in the six counties and those in the other three counties of the Province. It could only be done, Carson declared, if, after considering all the circumstances of the case as he unfolded it to them, the delegates from Cavan, Monaghan, and Donegal could make the self-sacrifice of releasing the other counties from the obligation to stand or fall together. Carson ended by saying that he did not intend to take a vote—he "could be no party to having Ulstermen vote one against the other." What was to be done must be done by agreement, or not at all. He offered to confer separately with the delegates from the three omitted counties, and the Council adjourned till the 12th of June to enable this conference to be held.

In the interval a large number of the delegates held meetings of their local associations, most of which passed resolutions in favour of accepting the Government's proposals. But there was undoubtedly a widespread feeling that it would be a betrayal of the Loyalists of Cavan, Monaghan, and Donegal, and even a positive breach of the Covenant, to accept exclusion from the Home Rule Act for only a portion of Ulster. This was, it is true, a misunderstanding of the strict meaning of the Covenant, which had been expressly conditioned so as not to extend to such unforeseen circumstances as the war had brought about [95]; but there was a general desire to avoid if possible taking technical points, and both Carson himself and the Council were ready to sacrifice the opportunity for a tolerable settlement should the representatives of the three counties not freely consent to what was proposed.

In a spirit of self-sacrifice which deeply touched every member of the Council, this consent was given. Carson had obtained leave for Lord Farnham to return from the Army in France to be present at the meeting. Lord Farnham, as a delegate from Cavan, made a speech at the adjourned meeting on the 12th which filled his hearers with admiration. That he was almost heart-broken by the turn events had taken he made no attempt to conceal; and his distress was shared by those who heard his moving words. But he showed that he possessed the instinct of statesmanship which compelled him to recognise, in spite of the powerful pull of sentiment and self-interest in the opposite direction, that the course recommended by Carson was the path of wisdom. With breaking voice he thanked the latter "for the clearness, and the fairness, and the manliness with which he has put the deplorable situation that has arisen before us, and for his manly advice as leader"; and he then read a resolution that had been passed earlier in the day by the delegates of the three counties, which, after recording a protest against any settlement excluding them from Ulster, expressed sorrowful acquiescence, on grounds of the larger patriotism, in whatever decision might be come to in the matter by their colleagues from the six counties.

It was the saddest hour the Ulster Unionist Council ever spent. Men not prone to emotion shed tears. It was the most poignant ordeal the Ulster leader ever passed through. But it was just one of those occasions when far-seeing statesmanship demands the ruthless silencing of promptings that spring from emotion. Many of those who on that terrible 12th of June were most torn by doubt as to the necessity for the decision arrived at, realised before long that their leader had never been guided by surer insight than in the counsel he gave them that day.

The Resolution adopted by the Council was a lengthy one. After reciting the unaltered attachment of Ulster to the Union, it placed on record the appeal that had been made by the Government on patriotic grounds for a settlement of the Irish difficulty, which the Council did not think it right at such a time of national emergency to resist; but it was careful to reserve, in case the negotiations should break down from any other cause, complete freedom to revert to "opposition to the whole policy of Home Rule for Ireland."

Meantime the Nationalist leaders had been submitting Mr. Lloyd George's proposals to their own people, and on the 10th of June Mr. Redmond made a speech in Dublin from which it appeared that he was submitting a very different proposal to that explained by Carson in Belfast. For Mr. Redmond told his Dublin audience that, while the Home Rule Act was to come into operation at once, the exclusion of the six counties was to be only for the period of the war and twelve months afterwards. That would, of course, have been even less favourable to Ulster than the terms offered by Mr. Asquith and rejected by Carson in March 1914. Exclusion for the period of the war meant nothing; it would have been useless to Ulster; it was no concession whatever; and Carson would have refused, as he did in 1914, even to submit it to the Unionist Council in Belfast. Mr. Lloyd George, who must have known this, had told him quite clearly that there was to be a "definite clean cut," with no suggestion of a time limit. There was, however, an idea that after the war an Imperial Conference would be held, at which the whole constitutional relations of the component nations of the British Empire would be reviewed, and that the permanent status of Ireland would then come under reconsideration with the rest. In this sense the arrangement now proposed was spoken of as "provisional"; but both Mr. Lloyd George and the Prime Minister made it perfectly plain that the proposed exclusion of the six Ulster counties from Home Rule could never be reversed except by a fresh Act of Parliament.

But when the question was raised by Mr. Redmond in the House of Commons on the 24th of July, in a speech of marked moderation, he explained that he had understood the exclusion, like all the rest of the scheme, to be strictly "provisional," with the consequence that it would come to an end automatically at the end of the specified period unless prolonged by new legislation; and he refused to respond to an earnest appeal by Mr. Asquith not to let slip this opportunity of obtaining, with the consent of the Unionist Party, immediate Home Rule for the greater part of Ireland, more especially as Mr. Redmond himself had disclaimed any desire to bring Ulster within the Home Rule jurisdiction without her own consent.

The negotiations for settlement thus fell to the ground, and the bitter sacrifice which Ulster had brought herself to offer, in response to the Government's urgent appeal, bore no fruit, unless it was to afford one more proof of her loyalty to England and the Empire. She was to find that such proofs were for the most part thrown away, and merely were used by her enemies, and by some who professed to be her friends, as a starting-point for demands on her for further concessions. But, although all British parties in turn did their best to impress upon Ulster that loyalty did not pay, she never succeeded in learning the lesson sufficiently to be guided by it in her political conduct.

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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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