Passing the Bill

Ronald McNeill
Chapter XI

No part of Great Britain displayed a more constant and whole-hearted sympathy with the attitude of Ulster than the city of Liverpool. There was much in common between Belfast and the great commercial port on the Mersey. Both were the home of a robust Protestantism, which perhaps was reinforced by the presence in both of a quarter where Irish Nationalists predominated. Just as West Belfast gave a seat in Parliament to the most forceful of the younger Nationalist generation, Mr. Devlin, the Scotland Division of Liverpool had for a generation been represented by Mr. T. P. O'Connor, one of the veteran leaders of the Parnellite period. In each case the whole of the rest of the city was uncompromisingly Conservative, and among the members for Liverpool at the time was Mr. F. E. Smith, unquestionably the most brilliant of the rising generation of Conservatives, who had already conspicuously identified himself with the Ulster Movement, and was a close friend as well as a political adherent of Carson. Among local leaders of opinion in Liverpool Alderman Salvidge exercised a wide and powerful influence on the Unionist side.

It was in accordance with the fitness of things, therefore, that Liverpool should have wished to associate itself in no doubtful manner with the men who had just subscribed to the Covenant on the other side of the Channel. Having left Belfast amid the wonderful scenes described in the last chapter, Carson, Londonderry, F. E. Smith, Beresford, and the rest of the distinguished visitors awoke next morning—if the rollers of the Irish Sea permitted sleep—in the oily waters of the Mersey, to find at the landing-stage a crowd that in dimensions and demeanour seemed to be a duplicate of the one they had left outside the dock gates at Belfast. Except that the point round which everything had centred in Belfast, the signing of the Covenant, was of course missing in Liverpool, the Unionists of Liverpool were not to be outdone by the Ulstermen themselves in their demonstration of loyalty to the Union.

The packet that carried the group of leaders across the Channel happened to be, appropriately enough, the R.M.S. Patriotic. As she steamed slowly up the river towards Prince's Landing-stage in the chilly atmosphere of early morning it was at once evident that more than the members of the deputation who had arranged to present addresses to Carson were out to welcome him to Liverpool, and when the workers who thronged the river bank started singing "O God, our help in ages past," the sound was strangely familiar in ears fresh from Ulster.

An address from the Unionist working men of Liverpool and district, presented by Alderman Salvidge, thanked Carson for his "magnificent efforts to preserve the integrity of the Empire," and assured him that they, "Unionist workers of the port which is connected with Belfast in so many ways, stand by Ulster in this great struggle." Scenes of intense enthusiasm in the streets culminated in a monster demonstration in Shiel Park, at which it was estimated that close on 200,000 people were present. In all the speeches delivered and the resolutions adopted during this memorable Liverpool visit the same note was sounded, of full approval of the Covenanters and of determination to support them whatever might befall.

The events of the last three months, and especially the signing of the Covenant, had concentrated on Ulster the attention of the whole United Kingdom, not to speak of America and the British oversea Dominions. This was not of unmixed advantage to the cause for which Ulster was making so determined a stand. There was a tendency more and more to regard the opposition to Irish Home Rule as an Ulster question, and nothing else. The Unionist protagonists of the earlier, the Gladstonian, period of the struggle, men like Salisbury, Randolph Churchill, Devonshire, Chamberlain, and Goschen, had treated it mainly as an Imperial question, which it certainly was. In their eyes the Irish Loyalists, of whom the Ulstermen were the most important merely because they happened to be geographically concentrated, were valuable allies in a contest vital to the safety and prosperity of the British Empire; but, although the particular interests of these Loyalists were recognised as possessing a powerful claim on British sympathy and support, this was a consideration quite secondary in comparison with the larger aspects of Imperial policy raised by the demand for Home Rule. It was an unfortunate result of the prominence into which Ulster was forced after the introduction of Mr. Asquith's measure that these larger aspects gradually dropped away, and the defence of the Union came to be identified almost completely in England and Scotland with support of the Ulster Loyalists. It was to this aspect of the case that Mr. Kipling gave prominence in the poem published on the day of the Balmoral meeting,[40] although no one was less prone than he to magnify a "side-show" in Imperial policy; and it was the same note that again was sounded on the eve of the Covenant by another distinguished English poet. The general feeling of bewilderment and indignation that the only part of Ireland which had consistently upheld the British connection should now be not only thrown over by the British Government but denounced for its obstinate refusal to co-operate in a separatist movement, was finely expressed in Mr. William Watson's challenging poem, "Ulster's Reward," which appeared in The Times a few days before the signing of the Covenant in Belfast:

"What is the wage the faithful earn?

What is a recompense fair and meet?

Trample their fealty under your feet—

That is a fitting and just return.

Flout them, buffet them, over them ride,

Fling them aside!

"Ulster is ours to mock and spurn,

Ours to spit upon, ours to deride.

And let it be known and blazoned wide

That this is the wage the faithful earn:

Did she uphold us when others defied?

Then fling her aside.

"Where on the Earth was the like of it done

In the gaze of the sun?

She had pleaded and prayed to be counted still

As one of our household through good and ill,

And with scorn they replied;

Jeered at her loyalty, trod on her pride,

Spurned her, repulsed her,

Great-hearted Ulster;

Flung her aside."

Appreciating to the full the sympathy and support which their cause received from leading men of letters in England, it was not the fault of the Ulstermen themselves that the larger Imperial aspects of the question thus dropped into the background. They continually strove to make Englishmen realise that far more was involved than loyal support of England's only friends in Ireland; they quoted such pronouncements as Admiral Mahan's that "it is impossible for a military man, or a statesman with appreciation of military conditions, to look at a map and not perceive that if the ambition of the Irish Separatists were realised, it would be even more threatening to the national life of Britain than the secession of the South was to that of the American Republic. . . . An independent Parliament could not safely be trusted even to avowed friends"; and they showed over and over again, quoting chapter and verse from Nationalist utterances, and appealing to acknowledged facts in recent and contemporary history, that it was not to "avowed friends," but to avowed enemies, that Mr. Asquith was prepared to concede an independent Parliament.

But those were the days before the rude awakening from the dream that the world was to repose for ever in the soft wrappings of universal peace. Questions of national defence bored Englishmen. The judgment of the greatest strategical authority of the age weighed less than one of Lord Haldane's verbose platitudes, and the urgent warnings of Lord Roberts less than the impudent snub administered to him by an Under-Secretary. Speakers on public platforms found that sympathy with Ulster carried a more potent appeal to their audience than any other they could make on the Irish question, and they naturally therefore concentrated attention upon it.

Liberals, excited alternately to fury and to ridicule by the proceedings in Belfast, heaped denunciation on Carson and the Covenant, thereby impelling their opponents to vehement defence of both; and the result of all this was that before the end of 1912 the sun of Imperial policy which had drawn the homage of earlier defenders of the Union was almost totally eclipsed by the moon of Ulster.

When Parliament reassembled for the autumn session in October the Prime Minister immediately moved a "guillotine" resolution for allotting time for the remaining stages of the Home Rule Bill, and, in resisting this motion, Mr. Bonar Law made one of the most convincing of his many convincing speeches against the whole policy of the Bill. It stands for all time as the complete demonstration of a proposition which he argued over and over again—that Home Rule had never been submitted to the British electorate, and that that fact alone was full justification for Ulster's resolve to resist it. It was impossible for any democratic Minister to refute the contention that even if the principle of the Government's policy had been as frankly submitted to the electorate as it had in fact been carefully withheld, it would still remain true that the intensity of the Ulster opposition was itself a new factor in the situation upon which the people were entitled to be consulted. There was a limit, said Mr. Bonar Law, to the obligation to submit to legally constituted authority, and that limit was reached "in a free country when a body of men, whether they call themselves a Cabinet or not, propose to make a great change like this for which they have never received the sanction of the people."

It was, however, thoroughly understood by every member of the House of Commons that argument, no matter how irrefutable, had no effect on the situation, which was governed by the simple fact that the life of the Ministry depended on the good-will of the Nationalist section of the Coalition, which rigorously demanded the passage of the Bill in the current session, and feared nothing so much as the judgment of the English people upon it. Consequently, under the guillotine, great blocks of the Bill, containing the most far-reaching constitutional issues, and matters vital to the political and economic structure of the centre of the British Empire, were passed through the House of Commons by the ringing of the division bells without a word of discussion, exactly as they had come from the pen of the official draftsman, and destined under the exigencies of the Parliament Act procedure to be forced through the Legislature in the same raw condition in the two following sessions.

This last-mentioned fact suggested a consideration which weighed heavily on the minds of the Ulster leaders as the year 1912 drew to a close, and with it the debates on the Bill in Committee. Had the time come when they ought to put forward in Parliament an alternative policy to the absolute rejection of the Bill? They had not yet completely abandoned hope that Ministers, however reluctantly, might still find it impossible to stave off an appeal to the country; but the opposite hypothesis was the more probable. If the Bill became law in its present form they would have to fall back on the policy disclosed at Craigavon and embodied in the Covenant. But, although it is true that they had supported Mr. Agar-Robartes's amendment to exclude certain Ulster counties from the jurisdiction to be set up in Dublin, the Ulster representatives were reluctant to make proposals of their own which might be misrepresented as a desire to compromise their hostility to the principle of Home Rule. Under the Parliament Act procedure, however, they realised that no material change would be allowed to be made in the Bill after it first left the House of Commons, although two years would have to elapse before it could reach the Statute-book; if they were to propound any alternative to "No Home Rule" it was, therefore, a case of now or never.

Having regard to the extreme gravity of the course to be followed in Ulster in the event of the measure passing into law, it was decided that the most honest and straightforward thing to do was to put forward at the juncture now reached a policy for dealing with Ulster separately from the rest of Ireland. But in fulfilment of the promise, from which he never deviated, to take no important step without first consulting his supporters in Ulster, Carson went over to attend a meeting of the Standing Committee in Belfast on the 13th of December, where he explained fully the reasons why this policy was recommended by himself and all his parliamentary colleagues. It was not accepted by the Standing Committee without considerable discussion, but in the end the decision was unanimous, and the resolution adopting it laid it down that "in taking this course the Standing Committee firmly believes the interests of Unionists in the three other provinces of Ireland will be best conserved." In order to emphasise that the course resolved upon implied no compromise of their opposition to the Bill as a whole, Sir Edward Carson wrote a letter to the Prime Minister during the Christmas recess, which was published in the Press, and which made this point clear; and he pressed it home in the House of Commons on the 1st of January, 1913, when he moved to exclude "the Province of Ulster" from the operation of the Bill in a speech of wonderfully persuasive eloquence which deeply impressed the House, and which was truly described by Mr. Asquith as "very powerful and moving," and by Mr. Redmond as "serious and solemn."

Carson's proposal was altogether different from what was subsequently enacted in 1920. It was consistent with the uninterrupted demand of Ulster to be let alone, it asked for no special privilege, except the privilege, which was also claimed as an inalienable right, to remain a part of the United Kingdom with full representation at Westminster and nowhere else; it required the creation of no fresh subordinate constitution raising the difficult question as to the precise area which its jurisdiction could effectively administer.

Carson's amendment was, of course, rejected by the Government's invariably docile majority, and on the 16th of January the Home Rule Bill passed the third reading in the House of Commons, without the smallest concession having been made to the Ulster opposition, or the slightest indication as to how the Government intended to meet the opposition of a different character which was being organised in the North of Ireland.

When the Bill went to the Upper House at the end of January the whole subject was threshed out in a series of exceedingly able speeches; but the impotence of the Second Chamber under the Parliament Act gave an air of pathetic unreality to the proceedings, which was neatly epitomised by Lord Londonderry in the sentence: "The position is, that while the House of Commons can vote but not speak, the Lords can speak but not vote." Nevertheless, such speeches as those of the Archbishop of York, Earl Grey, the Duke of Devonshire, and Lord Londonderry, were not without effect on opinion outside. Earl Grey, an admitted authority on federal constitutions, urged that if, as the Government were continually assuring the country, Home Rule was the first step in the federalisation of the United Kingdom, there was every reason why Ulster should be a distinct unit in the federal system. The Archbishop dealt more fully with the Ulster question. Admitting that he had formerly believed "that this attitude of Ulster was something of a scarecrow made up out of old and outworn prejudices," he had now to acknowledge that the men of Ulster were "of all men the least likely to be 'drugged with the wine of words,' and were men who of all other men mean and do what they say." Behind all the glowing eloquence of Mr. Asquith and Mr. Redmond, he discerned "this figure of Ulster, grim, determined, menacing, which no eloquence can exorcise and no live statesmanship can ignore." If the result of this legislation should be actual bloodshed, then, on whomsoever might rest the responsibility for it, it would mean the shattering of all the hopes of a united and contented Ireland which it was the aim of the Bill to create. If Ulster made good her threat of forcible resistance there was, said the Archbishop, one condition, and one condition only, on which her coercion could be justified, and that was that the Government "should have received from the people of this country an authority clear and explicit" to carry it out.

But among the numerous striking passages in the debate which occupied the Peers for four days, none was more telling than Lord Curzon's picturesque description of how Ulster was to be treated. "You are compelling Ulster," he said, "to divorce her present husband, to whom she is not unfaithful, and you compel her to marry someone else whom she cordially dislikes, with whom she does not want to live; and you do it because she happens to be rich, and because her new partner has a large and ravenous offspring to provide for. You are asking rather too much of human nature."

That the Home Rule Bill would be rejected on second reading by the Lords was a foregone conclusion, and it was so rejected by a majority of 257 on the 31st of January, 1913. The Bill then entered into its period of gestation under the Parliament Act. The session did not come to an end until the 7th of March, and the new session began three days afterwards. It is unnecessary to follow the fortunes of the Bill in Parliament in 1913, for the process was purely mechanical, in order to satisfy the requirements of the Parliament Act. The preparations for dealing with the mischief it would work went forward with unflagging energy elsewhere.

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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