Organisation and Leadership

Ronald McNeill
Chapter III

From the day when Gladstone first made Home Rule for Ireland the leading issue in British polities, the Loyalists of Ulster—who, as already explained, included practically all the Protestant population of the Province both Conservative and Liberal, besides a small number of Catholics who had no separatist sympathies—set to work to organise themselves for effective opposition to the new policy. In the hour of their dismay over Gladstone's surrender Lord Randolph Churchill, hurrying from London to encourage and inspirit them, told them in the Ulster Hall on the 22nd of February, 1886, that "the Loyalists in Ulster should wait and watch—organise and prepare."[9] They followed his advice. Propaganda among themselves was indeed unnecessary, for no one required conversion except those who were known to be inconvertible. The chief work to be done was to send speakers to British constituencies; and in the decade from 1885 to 1895 Ulster speakers, many of whom were ministers of the different Protestant Churches, were in request on English and Scottish platforms.

A number of organisations were formed for this purpose, some of which, like the Irish Unionist Alliance, represented Unionist opinion throughout Ireland, and not in Ulster alone. Others were exclusively concerned with the northern Province, where from the first the opposition was naturally more concentrated than elsewhere. In the early days, the Ulster Loyalist and Patriotic Union, organised by Lord Ranfurly and Mr. W. R. Young, carried on an active and sustained campaign in Great Britain, and the Unionist Clubs initiated by Lord Templetown provided a useful organisation in the smaller country towns, which still exists as an effective force. The Loyal Orange Institution, founded at the end of the eighteenth century to commemorate, and to keep alive the principles of, the Whig Revolution of 1688, had fallen into not unmerited disrepute prior to 1886. Few men of education or standing belonged to it, and the lodge meetings and anniversary celebrations had become little better than occasions for conviviality wholly inconsistent with the irreproachable formularies of the Order. But its system of local Lodges, affiliated to a Grand Lodge in each county, supplied the ready-made framework of an effective organisation. Immediately after the introduction of Gladstone's first Bill in 1886 it received an immense accession of strength. Large numbers of country gentlemen, clergymen of all Protestant denominations, business and professional men, farmers, and the better class of artisans in Belfast and other towns, joined the local Lodges, the management of which passed into capable hands; the character of the Society was thereby completely and rapidly transformed, and, instead of being a somewhat disreputable and obsolete survival, it became a highly respectable as well as an exceedingly powerful political organisation, the whole weight of whose influence has been on the side of the Union.

A rallying cry was given to the Ulster Loyalists in the famous phrase contained in a letter from Lord Randolph Churchill to a correspondent in May 1886: "Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right." From this time forward the idea that resort to physical resistance would be preferable to submission to a Parliament in Dublin controlled by the "rebel party" took hold of the popular mind in Ulster, although after the elections of 1886 there was no serious apprehension that the necessity would arise, until the return to power of Mr. Gladstone at the head of a small majority in 1892 brought about a fresh crisis.

The work of organisation was then undertaken with greater energy and thoroughness than before. It was now that Lord Templetown founded the Unionist Clubs, which spread in an affiliated network through Ulster, and proved so valuable that, after falling into neglect during the ten years of Conservative Government, they were revived at the special request of the Ulster Unionist Council in December 1910. Nothing, however, did so much to stimulate organisation and concentration of effort as the great Convention held in Belfast on the 19th of June 1892, representing on a democratic basis all the constituencies in Ulster. Numerous preliminary meetings were arranged for the purpose of electing the delegates; and of these the Special Correspondent of The Times wrote:

"Nothing has struck me more in the present movement than the perfect order and regularity with which the preliminary meetings for the election of delegates has been conducted. From city and town and village come reports of crowded and enthusiastic gatherings, all animated by an equal ardour, all marked by the same spirit of quiet determination. There has been no 'tall talk,' no overstatement; the speeches have been dignified, sensible, and practical. One of the most marked features in the meetings has been the appearance of men who have never before taken part in public life, who have never till now stood on a public platform. Now for the first time they have broken with the tranquil traditions of a lifetime, and have come forward to take their share and their responsibility in the grave danger which threatens their country."[10]

There being no building large enough to hold the delegates, numbering nearly twelve thousand, every one of whom was a registered voter appointed by the polling districts to attend the Convention, a pavilion, the largest ever used for a political meeting in the kingdom, was specially constructed close to the Botanical Gardens in Belfast. It covered 33,000 square feet, and, owing to the enthusiasm of the workmen employed on the building, it was erected (at a cost of over £3,000) within three weeks. It provided seating accommodation for 13,000 people, but the number who actually gained admittance to the Convention was nearly 21,000, while outside an assemblage, estimated by the correspondent of The Times at 300,000, was also addressed by the principal speakers.

The commencement of the proceedings with prayer, conducted by the Primate of all Ireland and the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, set a precedent which was extensively followed in later years throughout Ulster, marking the spirit of seriousness which struck numerous observers as characteristic of the Ulster Movement. The speakers were men representative of all the varied interests of the Province—religious, agricultural, commercial, and industrial—and among them were two men, Mr. Thomas Sinclair and Mr. Thomas Andrews, who had been life-long Liberals, but who from this time forward were distinguished and trusted leaders of Unionist opinion in Ulster. It was Mr. Andrews who touched a chord that vibrated through the vast audience, making them leap to their feet, cheering for several minutes. "As a last resource," he cried, "we will be prepared to defend ourselves." But the climax of this memorable assembly was reached when the chairman, the Duke of Abercorn, with upraised arm, and calling on the audience solemnly to repeat the words one by one after him, gave out what became for the future the motto and watchword of Ulster loyalty: "We will not have Home Rule." It was felt that this simple negation constituted a solemn vow taken by the delegates, both for themselves and for those they represented—an act of self-dedication to which every loyal man and woman in Ulster was committed, and from which there could be no turning back.

The principal Resolution, adopted unanimously by the Convention, formulated the grounds on which the people of the Province based their hostility to the separatist policy of Home Rule; and as frequent reference was made to it in after-years as an authoritative definition of Ulster policy, it may be worth while to recall its terms:

"That this Convention, consisting of 11,879 delegates representing the Unionists of every creed, class, and party throughout Ulster, appointed at public meetings held in every electoral division of the Province, hereby solemnly resolves and declares: 'That we express the devoted loyalty of Ulster Unionists to the Crown and Constitution of the United Kingdom; that we avow our fixed resolve to retain unchanged our present position as an integral portion of the United Kingdom, and protest in the most unequivocal manner against the passage of any measure that would rob us of our inheritance in the Imperial Parliament, under the protection of which our capital has been invested and our homes and rights safeguarded; that we record our determination to have nothing to do with a Parliament certain to be controlled by men responsible for the crime and outrages of the Land League, the dishonesty of the Plan of Campaign, and the cruelties of boycotting, many of whom have shown themselves the ready instruments of clerical domination; that we declare to the people of Great Britain our conviction that the attempt to set up such a Parliament in Ireland will inevitably result in disorder, violence, and bloodshed, such as have not been experienced in this century, and announce our resolve to take no part in the election or proceedings of such a Parliament, the authority of which, should it ever be constituted, we shall be forced to repudiate; that we protest against this great question, which involves our lives, property, and civil rights, being treated as a mere side-issue in the impending electoral struggle; that we appeal to those of our fellow countrymen who have hitherto been in favour of a separate Parliament to abandon a demand which hopelessly divides Irishmen, and to unite with us under the Imperial Legislature in developing the resources and furthering the best interests of our common country.'"

There can be no doubt that the Ulster Convention of 1892, and the numerous less imposing demonstrations which followed on both sides of the Channel and took their tone from it, of which the most notable was the great meeting at the Albert Hall in London on the 22nd of April, 1893, had much effect in impressing and instructing public opinion, and thus preparing the way for the smashing defeat of the Liberal Home Rule Party in the General Election of 1895. After that event vigilance again relaxed during the ten years of Unionist predominance which followed. But the organisation was kept intact, and its democratic method of appointing delegates in every polling district provided a permanent electoral machinery for the Unionist Party in the constituencies, as well as the framework for the Ulster Unionist Council, which was brought into existence in 1905, largely through the efforts of Mr. William Moore, M.P. for North Armagh. This Council, with its executive Standing Committee, was thenceforward the acknowledged authority for determining all questions of Unionist policy in Ulster.

Its first meeting was held on the 3rd of March, 1905, under the presidency of Colonel James McCalmont, M.P. for East Antrim. The first ten members of the Standing Committee were nominated by Colonel Saunderson, M.P., as chairman of the Ulster Parliamentary Party. They were, in addition to the chairman himself, the Duke of Abercorn, the Marquis of Londonderry, the Earl of Erne, the Earl of Ranfurly, Colonel James McCalmont, M.P., the Hon. R. T. O'Neill, M.P., Mr. G. Wolff, M.P., Mr. J. B. Lonsdale, M.P., and Mr. William Moore, K.C., M.P. These nominations were confirmed by a ballot of the members of the Council, and twenty other members were elected forthwith to form the Standing Committee. This first Executive Committee of the organisation which for the next fifteen years directed the policy of Ulster Unionism included several names that were from this time forward among the most prominent in the movement. There were the two eminent Liberals, Mr. Thomas Sinclair and Mr. Thomas Andrews, and Mr. John Young, all three of whom were members of the Irish Privy Council; Colonel R. H. Wallace, C.B., Mr. W. H. H. Lyons, and Sir James Stronge, leaders of the Orangemen; Colonel Sharman-Crawford, Mr. E. M. Archdale, Mr. W. J. Allen, Mr. R. H. Reade, and Sir William Ewart. Among several "Unionist candidates for Ulster constituencies" who were at the same meeting co-opted to the Council, we find the names of Captain James Craig and Mr. Denis Henry, K.C. The Duke of Abercorn accepted the position of President of the Council, and Mr. E. M. Archdale was elected chairman of the Standing Committee. Mr. T. H. Gibson was appointed secretary. In October 1906 the latter resigned his post owing to failing health, and, on the motion of Mr. William Moore, M.P., Mr. Richard Dawson Bates, a solicitor practising in Belfast, was "temporarily" appointed to fill the vacancy. This temporary appointment was never formally made permanent, but no question in regard to the secretaryship was ever raised, for Mr. Bates performed the duties year after year to the complete satisfaction of everyone connected with the organisation, and in a manner that earned the gratitude of all Ulster Unionists. The funds at the disposal of the Council in 1906 only enabled a salary of £100 a year to be paid to the secretary—a salary that was purely nominal in the case of a professional gentleman of Mr. Bates's standing; but the spirit in which he took up his duties was seen two years later, when it was found that out of this salary he had himself been paying for clerical assistance; and then, of course, this matter was properly adjusted, which the improved financial position of the Council happily rendered possible.

The declared purpose of the Ulster Unionist Council was to form a union of all local Unionist Associations in Ulster; to keep the latter in constant touch with their parliamentary representatives; and "to be the medium of expressing Ulster Unionist opinion as current events may from time to time require." It consisted at first of not more than 200 members, of whom 100 represented local Associations, and 50 represented the Orange Lodges, the remaining 50 being made up of Ulster members of both Houses of Parliament and of certain "distinguished residents in or natives of Ulster" to be co-opted by the Council. As time went on the Council was considerably enlarged, and its representative character improved. In 1911 the elected membership was raised to 370, and included representatives of local Associations, Orange Lodges, Unionist Clubs, and the Derry Apprentice Boys. In 1918 representatives of the Women's Associations were added, and the total elected membership was increased to 432. The delegates elected by the various constituent bodies were in the fullest sense representative men; they were drawn from all classes of the population; and, by the regularity with which they attended meetings of the Council whenever business of any importance was to be transacted, they made it the most effective political organisation in the United Kingdom.

A campaign of public meetings in England and Scotland conducted jointly by the Ulster Unionist Council and the Irish Unionist Alliance in 1908 led to a scheme of cooperation between the two bodies, the one representing Unionists in the North and the other those in the southern Provinces, which worked smoothly and effectively. A joint Committee of the Unionist Associations of Ireland was therefore formed in the same year, the organisations represented on it being the two already named and the Ulster Loyalist Anti-Repeal Union. The latter, which in earlier years had done excellent spade-work under the fostering zeal of Lord Ranfurly and Mr. William Robert Young, was before 1911 amalgamated with the Unionist Council, so that all rivalry and overlapping was thenceforward eliminated from the organisation of Unionism in Ulster. The Council in the North and the Irish Unionist Alliance in Dublin worked in complete harmony both with each other and with the Union Defence League in London, whose operations were carried on under the direction of its founder, Mr. Walter Long.

The women of Ulster were scarcely less active than the men in the matter of organisation. Although, of course, as yet unenfranchised, they took as a rule a keener interest in political matters—meaning thereby the one absorbing question of the Union—than their sex in other parts of the United Kingdom. When critical times for the Union arrived there was, therefore, no apathy to be overcome by the Protestant women in Ulster. Early in 1911 the "Ulster Women's Unionist Council" was formed under the presidency of the Duchess of Abercorn, and very quickly became a most effective organisation side by side with that of the men. The leading spirit was the Marchioness of Londonderry, but that it was no aristocratic affair of titled ladies may be inferred from the fact that within twelve months of its formation between forty and fifty thousand members were enrolled. A branch in Mr. Devlin's constituency of West Belfast, which over four thousand women joined in its first month of existence, of whom over 80 per cent. were mill-workers and shop-girls in the district, held a very effective demonstration on the 11th of January, 1912, at which Mr. Thomas Sinclair, the most universally respected of Belfast's business men, made one of his many telling speeches which familiarised the people with the commercial and financial aspects of Home Rule, as it would be felt in Ulster. The central Women's Council followed this up with a more imposing gathering in the Ulster Hall on the 18th, which adopted with intense enthusiasm the declaration: "We will stand by our husbands, our brothers, and our sons, in whatever steps they may be forced to take in defending our liberties against the tyranny of Home Rule."

Thus before the end of 1911 men and women alike were firmly organised in Ulster for the support of their loyalist principles. But the most effective organisation is impotent without leadership. Among the declared "objects" of the Ulster Unionist Council was that of acting "as a connecting link between Ulster Unionists and their parliamentary representatives." In the House of Commons the Ulster Unionist Members, although they recognised Colonel Edward Saunderson, M.P., as their leader until his death in 1906, did not during his lifetime, or for some years afterwards, constitute a separate party or group. When Colonel Saunderson died the Right Hon. Walter Long, who had held the office of Chief Secretary in the last year of the Unionist Administration, and who had been elected for South Dublin in 1906, became leader of the Irish Unionists—with whom those representing Ulster constituencies were included. But in the elections of January 1910 Mr. Long was returned for a London seat, and it therefore became necessary for Irish Unionists to select another leader.

By this time the Home Rule question had, as the people of Ulster perceived, become once more a matter of vital urgency, although, as explained in the preceding chapter, the electors of Great Britain were too engrossed by other matters to give it a thought, and the Liberal Ministers were doing everything in their power to keep it in the background. The Ulster Members of the House of Commons realised, therefore, the grave importance of finding a leader of the calibre necessary for dealing on equal terms with such orators and Parliamentarians as Mr. Asquith and Mr. John Redmond. They did not deceive themselves into thinking that such a leader was to be found among their own number. They could produce several capable speakers, and men of judgment and good sense; but something more was needed for the critical times they saw ahead. After careful consideration, they took a step which in the event proved to be of momentous importance, and of extreme good fortune, for the enterprise that the immediate future had in store for them. Mr. J. B. Lonsdale, Member for Mid Armagh, Hon. Secretary of the Irish Unionist Parliamentary Party, was deputed to request Sir Edward Carson, K.C., to accept the leadership of the Irish Unionist party in the House of Commons.

Several days elapsed before they received an answer; but when it came it was, happily for Ulster, an acceptance. It is easy to understand Sir Edward Carson's hesitation before consenting to assume the leadership. After carrying all before him in the Irish Courts, where he had been Law Officer of the Crown, he had migrated to London, where he had been Solicitor-General during the last six years of the Unionist Administration, and by 1910 had attained a position of supremacy at the English Bar, with the certain prospect of the highest legal advancement, and with an extremely lucrative practice, which his family circumstances made it no light matter for him to sacrifice, but which he knew it would be impossible for him to retain in conjunction with the political duties he was now urged to undertake. Although only in his fifty-seventh year, he was never one of those who feel younger than their age; nor did he minimise in his own mind the disability caused by his too frequent physical ailments, which inclined him to shrink from embarking upon fresh work the extent and nature of which could not be exactly foreseen. As to ambition, there are few men who ever were less moved by it, but he could not leave altogether out of consideration his firm conviction—which ultimately proved to have been ill-founded—that acceptance of the Ulster leadership would cut him off from all promotion, whether political or legal.[11]

Moreover, although for the moment it was the leadership of a parliamentary group to which he was formally invited, it was obvious that much more was really involved; the people in Ulster itself needed guidance in the crisis that was visibly approaching. Ever since Lord Randolph Churchill, with the concurrence of Lord Salisbury, first inspired them in 1886 with the spirit of resistance in the last resort to being placed under a Dublin Parliament, and assured them of British sympathy and support if driven to that extremity, the determination of Ulster in this respect was known to all who had any familiarity with the temper of her people. Any man who undertook to lead them at such a juncture as had been reached in 1910 must make that determination the starting-point of his policy. It was a task that would require not only statesmanship, but political courage of a high order. Lord Randolph Churchill, in his famous Ulster Hall speech, had said that "no portentous change such as the repeal of the Union, no change so gigantic, could be accomplished by the mere passing of a law; the history of the United States will teach us a different lesson." Ulster always took her stand on the American precedent, though the exemplar was Lincoln rather than Washington. But although the scale of operations was, of course, infinitely smaller, the Ulster leader would, if it came to the worst, be confronted by certain difficulties from which Abraham Lincoln was free. He might have to follow the example of the latter in forcibly resisting secession, but his legal position would be very different. He might be called upon to resist technically legal authority, whereas Lincoln had it at his back. To guide and control a headstrong people, smarting under a sense of betrayal, when entering on a movement pregnant with these issues, and at the same time to stand up against a powerful Government on the floor of the House of Commons, was an enterprise upon which any far-seeing man might well hesitate to embark.

Pondering over the invitation conveyed to him in his Chambers in the Temple, Carson may, therefore, well have asked himself what inducement there was for him to accept it. He was not an Ulsterman. As a Southerner he was not familiar with the psychology of the northern Irish; the sectarian narrowness popularly attributed to them outside their province was wholly alien to his character; he was as far removed by nature from a fire-eater as it was possible for man to be; he was not fond of unnecessary exertion; he preferred the law to politics, and disliked addressing political assemblies. In Parliament he represented, not a popular constituency, but the University of Dublin. But, on the other hand, he was to the innermost core of his nature an Irish Loyalist. His youthful political sympathies had, indeed, been with the Liberal Party, but he instantly severed his connection with it when Gladstone joined hands with Parnell. He had made his name at the Irish Bar as Crown Prosecutor in the troubled period of Mr. Balfour's Chief Secretaryship, and this experience had bred in him a hearty detestation of the whining sentimentality, the tawdry and exaggerated rhetoric, and the manufactured discontent that found vent in Nationalist politics. A sincere lover of Ireland, he had too much sound sense to credit the notion that either the freedom or the prosperity of the country would be increased by loosening the tie with Great Britain. Although he as yet knew little of Ulster, he admired her resolute stand for the Union, her passionate loyalty to the Crown; he watched with disgust the way in which her defences were being sapped by the Liberal Party in England; and the thought that such a people were perhaps on the eve of being driven into subjection to the men whose character he had had so much opportunity to gauge in the days of the Land League filled him with indignation.

If, therefore, he could be of service in helping to avert so great a wrong Sir Edward Carson came to the conclusion that it would be shirking a call of duty were he to decline the leadership that had been offered him. Realising to the full all that it meant for himself—inevitable sacrifice of income, of ease, of chances of promotion, a burden of responsibility, a probability of danger—he gave his consent; and the day he gave it—the 21st of February, 1910—should be marked for all time as a red-letter day in the Ulster calendar.

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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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