The Parliament Act: Craigavon

Ronald McNeill
Chapter IV

A good many months were to elapse before the Unionist rank and file in Ulster were brought into close personal touch with the new leader of the Irish Unionist Parliamentary Party. The work to be done in 1910 lay chiefly in London, where the constitutional struggle arising out of the rejection of the "People's Budget" was raging. But shortly before the General Election of December a demonstration was held in the Ulster Hall in Belfast, in the hope of opening the eyes of the English and Scottish electors to the danger of Home Rule. Mr. Walter Long was the principal speaker, and Sir Edward Carson, in supporting the resolution, ended his speech by quoting Lord Randolph Churchill's famous jingling phrase, "Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right."

On the 31st of January, 1911, when the elections were over, he went over from London to preside at an important meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council. The Annual Report of the Standing Committee, in welcoming his succession to Mr. Long in the leadership, spoke of his requiring no introduction to Ulstermen; and it is true that he had occasionally spoken at meetings in Belfast, and that his recent speech in the Ulster Hall had made an excellent impression. But he was not yet a really familiar figure even in Belfast, while outside the city he was practically unknown, except of course by repute. That a man of his sagacity would quickly make his weight felt was never in doubt; but few at that time can have anticipated the extent to which a stranger—with an accent proclaiming an origin south of the Boyne—was in a short time to captivate the hearts, and become literally the idolised leader, of the Ulster democracy.

For the latter are a people who certainly do not wear their hearts on their sleeves for daws to peck at. In the eyes of the more volatile southern Celts they seem a "dour" people. They are naturally reserved, laconic of speech, without "gush," far from lavish in compliment, slow to commit themselves or to give their confidence without good and proved reason.

Opportunity for the populace to get into closer touch with the leader did not, however, come till the autumn. He was unable to attend the Orange celebration on the 12th of July, when the anniversary, which preceded by less than a month the "removal of the last obstacle to Home Rule" by the passing of the Parliament Act, was kept with more than the usual fervour, and the speeches proved that the gravity of the situation was fully appreciated. The Marquis of Londonderry, addressing an immense concourse of Belfast Lodges, stated that it was the first time an Ex-Viceroy had been present at an Orange gathering, but that he had deliberately created the precedent owing to his sense of the danger threatening the Loyalist cause.

It was the first of innumerable similar actions by which Lord Londonderry identified himself whole-heartedly with the popular movement, throwing aside all the conventional restraints of rank and wealth, and thereby endearing himself to every man and woman in Protestant Ulster. There was no more familiar figure in the streets of Belfast. Barefooted street urchins, catching sight of him on the steps of the Ulster Club, would gather round and, with free-and-easy familiarity, shout "Three cheers for Londonderry." He knew everybody and was everybody's friend. There was no aristocratic hauteur or aloofness about his genial personality. He was in the habit of entertaining the whole Unionist Council, some five hundred strong, at luncheon or dinner as the occasion required, when important meetings of the delegates took place. Distinguished political visitors from England could always be invited over without thought for their entertainment, since a welcome at Mount Stewart was never wanting. His financial support of the political movement was equally open-handed.

But, helpful as were his hospitality and his subscriptions, it was the countenance and support of a man who had held high Cabinet office, and especially the great position of Viceroy of Ireland, that made Lord Londonderry's full participation an asset of incalculable value to the cause he espoused. Moreover, while he was always ready to cross the Channel, even if for a few hours only, when wanted for any conference or public meeting, never pleading his innumerable social and political engagements in London or the North of England as an excuse for absence, his natural modesty of character made it easy for him to act under the leadership of another. Indeed, he underrated his own abilities; but there are probably not many men of his prominence and antecedents who, if similarly placed, would have been able to give, without a trace of amour-propre, to a leader who had in former years been his own official subordinate, the consistently loyal backing that Lord Londonderry gave to Sir Edward Carson.

But, although there never was the slightest friction between the two men, a difference of opinion between them on an important point showed itself within a few months of Carson's acceptance of the leadership. In July 1911 the excitement over the Parliament Bill reached its climax. When the Government announced that the King had given his assent to the creation of whatever number of peerages might be required for carrying the measure through the Upper House, the party known as "Die Hards" were for rejecting it and taking the consequences; while against this policy were ranged Lord Lansdowne, Lord Curzon, and other Unionist leaders, who advocated the acceptance of the Bill under protest. On the 20th of July Carson told Lansdowne that in his judgment "the disgrace and ignominy of surrender on the question far outweighed any temporary advantage" to be gained by the two years' delay of Home Rule which the Parliament Bill would secure.[12] Lord Londonderry, on the other hand, supported the view taken by Lord Lansdowne, and he voted with the majority who carried the Bill on the 10th of August. This step temporarily clouded his popularity in Ulster, but not many weeks passed before he completely regained the confidence and affection of the people, and the difference of opinion never in the smallest degree interrupted the harmony of his relations with Sir Edward Carson.

The true position of affairs in relation to Home Rule had not yet been grasped by the British public. As explained in a former chapter, it had not been in any real sense an issue in the two General Elections of the previous year, and throughout the spring and summer of 1911 popular interest in England and Scotland was still wholly occupied with the fight between "Peers and People" and the impending blow to the power of the Second Chamber; and the coronation festivities also helped to divert attention from the political consequences to which the authors of the Parliament Bill intended it to lead.

The first real awakening was brought about by an immense demonstration held at Craigavon, on the outskirts of Belfast, on the 23rd of September. The main purpose of this historic gathering was to bring the populace of Ulster face to face with their new leader, and to give him an opportunity of making a definite pronouncement of a policy for Ulster, in view of the entirely novel situation resulting from the passing of the Parliament Act.

For that Act made it possible for the first time for the Liberal Home Rule Party to repeal the Act of Union without an appeal to the country. It enacted that any Bill which in three successive sessions was passed without substantial alteration through the House of Commons might be presented for the Royal Assent without the consent of the Lords; and an amendment to exclude a Home Rule Bill from its operation had been successfully resisted by the Government. It also reduced the maximum legal duration of a Parliament from seven to five years; but the existing Parliament was still in its first session, and there was therefore ample time, under the provisions of the new Constitution, to pass a Home Rule Bill before the next General Election, as the coalition of parties in favour of Home Rule constituted a substantial majority in the House of Commons.

The question, therefore, which the Ulster people had now to decide was no longer simply how they could bring about the rejection of a Home Rule Bill by propaganda in the British constituencies, as they had hitherto done with unfailing success, although that object was still kept in view, but what course they should adopt if a Home Rule Act should be placed on the Statute-book without those constituencies being consulted. Was the day at last approaching when Lord Randolph Churchill's exhortation must be obeyed? Or were they to be compelled, because the Cabinet had coerced the Sovereign and tricked the people by straining the royal prerogative in a manner described by Mr. Balfour as "a gross violation of constitutional liberty," to submit with resignation to the government of their country by the "rebel party"—the party controlled by clerical influence, and boasting of the identity of its aims with those of Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet? This was the real problem in the minds of those who flocked to Craigavon on Saturday, the 23rd of September, 1911, to hear what proposals Sir Edward Carson had to lay before his followers.

Craigavon was the residence of Captain James Craig, Member of Parliament for East Down. It is a spacious country house standing on a hill above the road leading from Belfast to Holywood, with a fine view of Belfast Lough and the distant Antrim coast beyond the estuary. The lawn in front of the house, sloping steeply to the shore road, forms a sort of natural amphitheatre offering ideal conditions for out-of-door oratory to an unlimited audience. At the meeting on the 23rd of September the platform was erected near the crest of the hill, enabling the vast audience to spread out fan-wise over the lower levels, where even the most distant had the speakers clearly in view, even if many of them, owing to the size of the gathering, were unable to hear the spoken word.

It was on this occasion that Captain Craig, by the care with which every minute detail of the arrangements was thought out and provided for, first gave evidence of his remarkable gift for organisation that was to prove so invaluable to the Ulster cause in the next few years. The greater part of the audience arrived in procession, which, starting from the centre of the city of Belfast, took over two hours to pass a given point, at the quick march in fours. All the Belfast Orange Lodges, and representative detachments from the County Grand Lodges, together with Lord Templetown's Unionist Clubs, and other organisations, including the Women's Association, took part in the procession. But immense numbers of people attended the meeting independently; it was calculated that not less than a hundred thousand were present during the delivery of Sir Edward Carson's speech, and although there must have been very many of them who could hear nothing, the complete silence maintained by all was a remarkable proof—or so it appeared to men experienced in out-door political demonstrations—of the earnestness of spirit that prevailed. To some it may appear still more remarkable that, with such a concourse of people within a couple of miles of Belfast, not a single policeman was present, and that none was required; no disturbance of any sort occurred during the day, nor was a single case of drunkenness observed.

It had been intended that the Duke of Abercorn, whose inspiring exhortation as chairman of the Ulster Convention in 1892 had never been forgotten, should preside over the meeting; but, as he was prevented by a family bereavement from being present, his place was taken by the Earl of Erne, Grand Master of the Orange Order. The scene, when he rose to open the proceedings, was indescribable in its impressiveness. Some members of the Eighty Club happened to be in Ireland at the time, for the purpose of "seeing for themselves" in the familiar fashion of such political tourists; but they did not think it worth while to witness what Ulster was doing at Craigavon. If they had, they could have made a report to their political leaders which, had it been truthful, might have averted some irreparable blunders; for they could hardly have looked upon that sea of eager faces, or have observed the enthusiasm that possessed such a host of earnest and resolute men, without revising the opinion, which they had accepted from Mr. Redmond, that there was "no Ulster question."

The meeting took the form of according a welcome to Sir Edward Carson as the new leader of Irish Loyalism, and of Ulster in particular. But before he rose to speak a significant note had already been sounded. Lord Erne struck it when he quoted words which were to become very familiar in Ulster—the letter from Gustavus Hamilton, Governor of Enniskillen in 1689, to "divers of the nobility and gentry in the north-east part of Ulster," in which he declared: "We stand upon our guard, and do resolve by the blessing of God to meet our danger rather than to await it." And the veteran Liberal, Mr. Thomas Andrews, in moving the resolution of welcome to the leader, expressed the universal sentiment of the multitude when he exclaimed, "We will never, never bow the knee to the disloyal factions led by Mr. John Redmond. We will never submit to be governed by rebels who acknowledge no law but the laws of the Land League and illegal societies."

A great number of Addresses from representative organisations were then presented to Sir Edward Carson, in many of which the determination to resist the jurisdiction of a Dublin Parliament was plainly declared. But such declarations, although they undoubtedly expressed the mind of the people, were after all in quite general terms. For a quarter of a century innumerable variations on the theme "Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right," had been fiddled on Ulster platforms, so that there was some excuse for the belief of those who were wholly ignorant of North Irish character that these utterances were no more than the commonplaces of Ulster rhetoric. The time had only now come, however, when their reality could be put to the test. Carson's speech at Craigavon crystallised them into practical politics.

Sir Edward Carson's public speaking has always been entirely free from rhetorical artifice. He seldom made use of metaphor or imagery, or elaborate periods, or variety of gesture. His language was extremely simple and straightforward; but his mobile expression—so variable that his enemies saw in it a suggestion of Mephistopheles, and his friends a resemblance to Dante—his measured diction, and his skilful use of a deep-toned voice, gave a remarkable impressiveness to all he said—even, indeed, to utterances which, if spoken by another, would sometimes have sounded commonplace or obvious. Sarcasm he could use with effect, and a telling point was often made by an epigrammatic phrase which delighted his hearers. And, more than all else, his meaning was never in doubt. In lucidity of statement he excelled many much greater orators, and was surpassed by none; and these qualities, added to his unmistakable sincerity and candour, made him one of the most persuasive of speakers on the platform, as he was also, of course, in the Law Courts.

The moment he began to speak at Craigavon the immense multitude who had come to welcome him felt instinctively the grip of his power. The contrast to all the previous scene—the cheering, the enthusiasm, the marching, the singing, the waving of handkerchiefs and flags—was deeply impressive, when, after a hushed pause of some length, he called attention without preface to the realities of the situation in a few simple sentences of slow and almost solemn utterance:

"I know full well what the Resolution you have just passed means; I know what all these Addresses mean; I know the responsibility you are putting upon me to-day. In your presence I cheerfully accept it, grave as it is, and I now enter into a compact with you, and every one of you, and with the help of God you and I joined together—I giving you the best I can, and you giving me all your strength behind me—we will yet defeat the most nefarious conspiracy that has ever been hatched against a free people. But I know full well that this Resolution has a still wider meaning. It shows me that you realise the gravity of the situation that is before us, and it shows me that you are here to express your determination to see this fight out to a finish."

He went on to expose the hollowness of the allegation, then current in Liberal circles, that Ulster's repugnance to Home Rule was less uncompromising than it formerly had been. On the contrary, he believed that "there never was a moment at which men were more resolved than at he present, with all the force and strength that God has given them, to maintain the British connection and their rights as citizens of the United Kingdom." Apart from principle or sentiment, that was an attitude, he maintained, dictated by practical good sense. He showed how Ireland had been "advancing in prosperity in an unparalleled measure," for which he could quote the authority of Mr. Redmond himself, although the Nationalist leader had omitted to notice that this advance had taken place under the legislative Union, and, as Carson contended, in consequence of it. He laid special emphasis on the point, never forgotten, that the danger in which they stood was due to the hoodwinking of the British constituencies by Mr. Asquith's Ministry.

"Make no mistake; we are going to fight with men who are prepared to play with loaded dice. They are prepared to destroy their own Constitution, so that they may pass Home Rule, and they are prepared to destroy the very elements of constitutional government by withdrawing the question from the electorate, who on two previous occasions refused to be a party to it."

He ridiculed the "paper safeguards" which Liberal Ministers tried to persuade them would amply protect Ulster Protestants under a Dublin Parliament, giving a vivid picture of the plight they would be in under a Nationalist administration, which, he declared, meant "a tyranny to which we never can and never will submit"; and then, in a pregnant passage, he summarised the Ulster case:

"Our demand is a very simple one. We ask for no privileges, but we are determined that no one shall have privileges over us. We ask for no special rights, but we claim the same rights from the same Government as every other part of the United Kingdom. We ask for nothing more; we will take nothing less. It is our inalienable right as citizens of the British Empire, and Heaven help the men who try to take it from us."

It was all no doubt a mere restatement—though an admirably lucid and forcible restatement—of doctrine with which his hearers had long been familiar. The great question still awaited an answer—how was effect to be given to this resolve, now that there was no longer hope of salvation through the sympathy and support of public opinion in Great Britain? This was what the eager listeners at Craigavon hoped in hushed expectancy to hear from their new leader. He did not disappoint them:

"Mr. Asquith, the Prime Minister, says that we are not to be allowed to put our case before the British electorate. Very well. By that determination he drives you in the ultimate result to rely upon your own strength, and we must follow all that out to its logical conclusion. . . . That involves something more than that we do not accept Home Rule. We must be prepared, in the event of a Home Rule Bill passing, with such measures as will carry on for ourselves the government of those districts of which we have control. We must be prepared—and time is precious in these things—the morning Home Rule passes, ourselves to become responsible for the government of the Protestant Province of Ulster. We ask your leave at the meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council, to be held on Monday, there to discuss the matter, and to set to work, to take care that at no time and at no intervening interval shall we lack a Government in Ulster, which shall be a Government either by the Imperial Parliament, or by ourselves."

Here, then, was the first authoritative declaration of a definite policy to be pursued by Ulster in the circumstances then existing or foreseen, and it was a policy that was followed with undeviating consistency under Carson's leadership for the next nine years. To be left under the government of the Imperial Parliament was the alternative to be preferred, and was asserted to be an inalienable right; but, if all their efforts to that end should be defeated, then "a government by ourselves" was the only change that could be tolerated. Rather than submit to the jurisdiction of a Nationalist legislature and administration, they would themselves set up a Government "in those districts of which they had control." It was because, when the first of these alternatives had to be sorrowfully abandoned, the second was offered in the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 that Ulster did not actively oppose the passing of that statute.

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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