Preparations and Proposals

Ronald McNeill
Chapter XV

We have seen in a former chapter how the Ulster Volunteer Force originated. It was never formally established by the act of any recognised authority, but rather grew spontaneously from the zeal of the Unionist Clubs and the Orange Lodges to present an effective and formidable appearance at the demonstrations which marked the progress of the movement after the meeting at Craigavon in 1911. By the following summer it had attained considerable numbers and respectable efficiency, and was becoming organised, without violation of the law, on a territorial basis under local officers, many of whom had served in the Army. Early in 1913 the Standing Committee resolved that these units should be combined into a single force, to be called The Ulster Volunteer Force, which was to be raised and limited to a strength of 100,000 men, all of whom should be men who had signed the Covenant.

When this organisation took place it became obvious that a serious defect was the want of a Commander-in-Chief of the whole force, to give it unity and cohesion. This defect was pressed on the attention of the leaders of the movement, who then began to look about for a suitable officer of rank and military experience to take command of the U.V.F. Among English Members of the House of Commons there was no firmer friend of Ulster than Colonel Thomas Hickman, C.B., D.S.O., who has been mentioned as one of those who consented to serve in the Provisional Government. Hickman had seen a lot of active service, having served with great distinction in Egypt and the Soudan under Kitchener, and in the South African War. It was natural to take him into confidence in the search for a general; and, when he was approached, it was decided that he should consult Lord Roberts, whose warm sympathy with the Ulster cause was well known to the leaders of the movement, and whose knowledge of army officers of high rank was, of course, unequalled. Moreover, the illustrious Field-Marshal had dropped hints which led those concerned to conjecture that in the last resort he might not himself be unwilling to lend his matchless prestige and genius to the loyalist cause in Ireland. The contingency which might bring about such an accession had not, however, yet arisen, and might never arise; in the meantime, Lord Roberts gave a ready ear to Hickman's application, which, after some weeks of delay, he answered in the following letter, which was at once communicated to Carson and those in his immediate confidence:

"Englemere, Ascot, Berks.

"4th June, 1913.

"Dear Hickman,

"I have been a long time finding a Senior Officer to help in the Ulster business, but I think I have got one now. His name is Lieut.-General Sir George Richardson, K.C.B., c/o Messrs. Henry S. King & Co., Pall Mall, S.W. He is a retired Indian officer, active and in good health. He is not an Irishman, but has settled in Ireland. . . . Richardson will be in London for about a month, and is ready to meet you at any time.

"I am sorry to read about the capture of rifles.

"Believe me,

"Yours sincerely,


The matter was quickly arranged, and within a few weeks Sir George Richardson had taken up his residence in Belfast, and his duties as G.O.C. the Ulster Volunteer Force.

He was a distinguished soldier. He served under Roberts in the Afghan Campaign of 1879-80; he took part in the Waziri Expedition of 1881, and the Zhob Valley Field Force operations of 1890. He was in command of a Flying Column in the Tirah Expedition of 1897-8, and of a Cavalry Brigade in the China Expeditionary Force in 1900, and had commanded a Division at Poona for three years before retiring in 1907. He had been three times mentioned in despatches, besides receiving a brevet and many medals and clasps. He was at this time sixty-six years of age, but, like the great soldier who recommended him to Ulster, he was an active little man both in body and mind, with no symptom of approaching old age.

General Richardson was not long in making himself popular, not only with the force under his command, but with all classes in Ulster. There were unavoidable difficulties in handling troops whose officers had no statutory powers of discipline, who had inherited no military traditions, and who formed part of a population conspicuously independent in character. But Sir George Richardson was as full of tact as of good humour, and he soon found that the keenness of the officers and men, to whom dismissal from the U.V.F. would have been the severest of punishments, more than counterbalanced the difficulties referred to.

When the new G.O.C. went to Belfast in July, 1913, he found his command between fifty and sixty thousand strong, with recruits joining every day. In September a number of parades were held in different localities, at which the General was accompanied by Sir Edward Carson, Mr. F. E. Smith, Captain James Craig, and other Members of Parliament. The local battalions were in many cases commanded by retired or half-pay officers of the regular army. At all these inspections Carson addressed the men, many of whom were now seeing their Commander-in-Chief for the first time, and pointed out that the U.V.F., being now under a single command, was no longer a mere collection of unrelated units, but an army. At an inspection at Antrim on the 21st of September, he made a disclosure which startled the country not a little next day when it appeared in the headlines of English newspapers. "I tell the Government," he said, "that we have pledges and promises from some of the greatest generals in the army, who have given their word that, when the time comes, if it is necessary, they will come over and help us to keep the old flag flying." These promises were entirely spontaneous and unsolicited. More than one of those who made them did fine service to the Empire in the impending time of trial which none of them foresaw in 1913.

Of the men inspected on that day, numbering about 5,000, it was said by the Special Correspondent of The Yorkshire Post, who was present—

"As far as I could detect in a very careful observation, there were not half a dozen of them unqualified by physique or age to play a manly part. They reminded me more than anything else—except that but few of them were beyond the best fighting age—of the finest class of our National Reserve. There was certainly nothing of the mock soldier about them. Led by keen, smart-looking officers, they marched past in quarter column with fine, swinging steps, as if they had been in training for years. Officers who have had the teaching of them tell me that the rapidity with which they have become efficient is greater than has ever come within their experience in training recruits for either the Territorials or the Regular Service."[56]

The 24th of September, it will be remembered, was the day when the formation of the Provisional Government and the Indemnity Fund (with the subscription of a quarter of a million sterling in two hours) was made public; on Saturday the 27th, the country parades of Volunteers of the preceding weeks reached a climax in a grand review in Belfast itself, when some 15,000 men were drawn up on the same ground where the Balmoral meeting had been held eighteen months before. They were reviewed by Sir George Richardson, G.O.C., and it was on this occasion that Mr. F. E. Smith became famous as "galloper" to the General. The Commanders of the four regiments on parade—one from each parliamentary division of the city—comprising fourteen battalions, were: Colonel Wallace, Major F. H. Crawford, Major McCalmont, M.P., and Captain the Hon. A. C. Chichester. More than 30,000 sympathetic spectators watched the arrival and the review of the troops.

Among these spectators were a large number of special military correspondents of English newspapers, whose impressions of this memorable event were studied in every part of the United Kingdom on the following Monday morning. That which appeared in a great Lancashire journal may be quoted as a fair and dispassionate account of the scene:

"It is quite certain that the review of Volunteers at Balmoral to-day will go down into history as one of the most extraordinary events in the annals of these islands. Not since the marshalling of Cromwell's Puritan army have we had anything approaching a parallel; but, whereas the Puritans took up arms against a king of whom they disapproved, the men of Ulster strongly protest their loyalty to the British Throne. The great crowd which lined the enclosure was eager, earnest, and sympathetic. It was not a boisterous crowd. On the contrary, beyond the demonstration following the call for cheers for the Union there was comparatively little cheering. The crowd seemed burdened with a heavy sense of the importance of the occasion. The conduct of the gathering was serious to the point of positive solemnity.

"The Volunteers from their own ranks policed the grounds, not a solitary member of the Royal Irish Constabulary being seen in the enclosure. The sun shone brilliantly as Colonel Wallace led the men of the North division into the enclosure. Amidst subdued cheers he marched them across the field in fours, forming up in quarter column by the right, facing left. For an hour and a quarter the procession filed through the gates, the men taking up their positions with perfect movement and not the faintest suggestion of confusion. As the men from the West took up their position the crowd broke into a great cheer. They mustered only two battalions, but they had come from Mr. Devlin's constituency!

"As a body the men were magnificent. The hardy sons of toil from shipyards and factories marched shoulder to shoulder with clergy and doctors, professional men and clerks. From the saluting base General Richardson took command, and almost immediately Sir Edward Carson took up his position on the platform, with Lord Londonderry and Captain Craig in attendance. Then followed a scene that will live long in the memories of that vast concourse of people. With the men standing to 'Attention,' the bands struck up the 'British Grenadiers,' and the whole division advanced in review order, in perfect lines and unison.

"The supreme moment had arrived. The men took off their hats, and the G.O.C. shouted, ' I call upon the men to give three cheers for the Union, taking their time from me. Hip, hip-—-'

"Well, people who were not there must imagine the rest. Out of the deafening cheers came the strains of 'Rule, Britannia!' from the bands; the monster Union Jack was unfurled in the centre of the ground, and the mighty gathering stood bare-headed to 'God save the King.' It was solemn, impressive, thrilling."[57]

The following day, Sunday, was "Ulster Day," the first anniversary of the signing of the Covenant, and it was celebrated in Belfast and many other places in Ulster by holding special services in all places of worship, which had the effect of sustaining that spirit of high seriousness which struck all observers as remarkable in the behaviour of the people.

This week, in which occurred the proclamation of the Provisional Government, the great review of the Belfast Volunteers, and the second celebration of Ulster Day, was a notable landmark in the movement. The Press in England and Scotland gave the widest publicity to every picturesque and impressive detail, and there can be little doubt that the idea of attempting to arrive at some agreed settlement, started by Lord Loreburn's letter to The Times, was greatly stimulated by these fresh and convincing proofs of the grim determination of the Ulster people.

At all events, the autumn produced more than the usual plethora of political meetings addressed by "front bench" politicians on both sides, each answering each like an antiphonal choir; scraps of olive-branch were timidly held out, only to be snatched back next day in panic lest someone had blundered in saying too much; while day by day a clamorous Liberal Press, to whom Ulster's loyalty to King and Empire was an unforgivable offence, alternated between execration of Ulster wickedness and affected ridicule of Ulster bluff. But it was evident that genuine misgiving was beginning to be felt in responsible Liberal quarters. A Correspondent of The Manchester Guardian on the 25th of November made a proposal for special treatment of Ulster; on the 1st of December Mr. Massingham, in The Daily News, urged that an effort should be made to conciliate the northern Protestants; and on the 6th Mr. Asquith displayed a more conciliatory spirit than usual in a speech at Manchester. A most active campaign of propaganda in England and Scotland was also carried on during the autumn by Ulster speakers, among whom women bore their full share. The Ulster Women's Unionist Association employed 93 voluntary workers, who visited over 90 constituencies in Great Britain, addressing 230 important meetings. It was reckoned that not less than 100,000 electors heard the Ulster case from the lips of earnest Ulster women.

On the 5th of December two Royal Proclamations were issued by the Government, prohibiting the importation of arms and ammunition into Ireland. But during the Christmas holidays the impression gained ground that the Government contemplated making concessions to Ulster, and communications in private between the Prime Minister and Sir Edward Carson did in fact take place at this time. The truth, however, was that the Government were not their own masters, and, as Mr. Bonar Law bluntly declared at Bristol on the 15th of January, 1914, they were compelled by the Nationalists, on whom they depended for existence, to refuse any genuine concession. In the same speech Mr. Bonar Law replied to the allegation that Ulster was crying out before she was hurt, by saying that the American colonies had done the same thing—they had revolted on a question of principle while suffering was still distant, and for a cause that in itself was trivial in comparison with that of Ulster.[58]

Most of the leaders on both sides were speaking on various platforms in January. On the 17th Carson, at an inspection of the East Belfast U.V.F., said he had lately visited Mr. Joseph Chamberlain, and that the dying statesman, clear-sighted and valiant as ever, had said to him at parting, "I would fight it out." In the same spirit Mr. Austen Chamberlain, in a speech at Skipton a fortnight later, ridiculed any concession that fell short of the exclusion of Ulster from the Irish Parliament, and asserted that what the policy of the Government amounted to was that England was to conquer a province and hold it down at the expense of her friends for the benefit of her enemies.[59]

Public attention was, however, not allowed to concentrate wholly on Ireland. The Radicals, instigated by Sir John Brunner, President of the National Liberal Federation, were doing their best to prevent the strengthening of the Navy, the time being opportune for parsimony in Mr. Lloyd George's opinion because our relations with Germany were "far more friendly than for years past."[60] The militant women suffragists were carrying on a lively campaign of arson and assault all over the country. Labour unrest was in a condition of ferment. Land agitation was exciting the "single-taxers" and other fanatics; and the Tariff question had not ceased to be a cause of division in the Unionist Party. But, while these matters were sharing with the Irish problem the attention of the Press and the public, "conversations" were being held behind the scenes with a view to averting what everyone now agreed would be a dangerous crisis if Ulster proved implacable.

When Parliament met on the 10th of February, 1914, Mr. Asquith referred to these conversations; but while he congratulated everyone concerned on the fact that the Press had been successfully kept in the dark for months regarding them, he had to admit that they had produced no result. But there were, he said, "schemes and suggestions of settlement in the air," among them the exclusion of Ulster from the Bill, a proposal on which he would not at that moment "pronounce, or attempt to pronounce, any final judgment"; and he then announced that, as soon as the financial business of the year was disposed of, he would bring forward proposals for the purpose of arriving at an agreement "which will consult not only the interests but the susceptibilities of all concerned."

This appeared to be a notable change of attitude on the part of the Government; but it was received with not a little suspicion by the Unionist leaders. Whether or not the change was due, as Mr. William Moore bluntly asserted, to the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force, which had now reached its full strength of 100,000 men, the question of interest was whether the promised proposals would render that force unnecessary. Mr. Austen Chamberlain asked why the Government's proposals should be kept bottled up until a date suspiciously near All Fools' Day; and Sir Edward Carson, in one of the most impressive speeches he ever made in Parliament, which wrung from Mr. Lloyd George the acknowledgment that it had "entranced the House," joined Chamberlain in demanding that the country should not be kept in anxious suspense. The only proper way of making the proposals known was, he said, by embodying them at once in a Bill to amend the Home Rule Bill. He confirmed Chamberlain's statement that nothing short of the exclusion of Ulster would be of the slightest use. The Covenanters were not men who would have acted as they had done for the sake of minor details that could be adjusted by "paper safeguards," they were "fighting for a great principle and a great ideal," and if their determination to resist was not morally justified he "did not see how resistance could ever be justified in history at all." But if the exclusion of Ulster was to be offered, he would immediately go to Belfast and lay the proposal before his followers. He did not intend "that Ulster should be a pawn in any political game," and would not allow himself to be manoeuvred into a position where it could afterwards be said that Ulster had resorted to arms to secure something that had been rejected when offered by legislation. The sympathy of Ulstermen with Loyalists in other parts of Ireland was as deep and sincere as ever, but no one had ever supposed that Ulster could by force of arms do more than preserve her own territory from subjection to Dublin. As for the Nationalists, they would never succeed in coercing Ulster, but "by showing that good government can come under Home Rule they might try and win her over to the case of the rest of Ireland." That was a plan that had never yet been tried.

The significance of the announcement which Mr. Asquith had now made lay in the fact that it was an acknowledgment by the Government for the first time that there was an "Ulster Question" to be dealt with—that Ulster was not, as had hitherto been the Liberal theory, like any other minority who must submit to the will of the majority opposed to it, but a distinct community, conditioned by special circumstances entitling it to special treatment. The Prime Minister had thus, as Mr. Bonar Law insisted, "destroyed utterly the whole foundation on which for the last two years the treatment extended to Ulster in this Bill has been justified." From that day it became impossible ever again to contend that Ulster was merely a recalcitrant minority in a larger unity, without rights of her own.

The speeches of the Unionist leaders in the House of Commons showed clearly enough how little faith they had that the Government intended to do anything that could lead to an agreed settlement. The interval that passed before the nature of the Government's proposals was made known increased rather than diminished this distrust. The air was full of suggestions, the most notable of which was put forward by the veteran constitutional lawyer, Mr. Frederic Harrison, who proposed that Ulster should be governed by a separate committee elected by its own constituencies, with full legislative, administrative, and financial powers, subject only to the Crown and the Imperial Parliament.[61] Unionists did not believe that the Liberal Cabinet would be allowed by their Nationalist masters to offer anything so liberal to Ulster; nor did that Province desire autonomy for itself. They believed that the chief desire of the Government was not to appease Ulster, but to put her in a tactically indefensible position. This fear had been expressed by Lord Lansdowne as long before as the previous October, when he wrote privately to Carson in reference to Lord Loreburn's suggested Conference that he suspected the intention of the Government to be "to offer us terms which they know we cannot accept, and then throw on us the odium of having obstructed a settlement." Mr. Walter Long had the same apprehension in March 1914 as to the purpose of Mr. Asquith's unknown proposals. Both these leaders herein showed insight and prescience, for not only Mr. Asquith's Government, but also that which succeeded it, had resort on many subsequent occasions to the manoeuvre suspected by Lord Lansdowne.

On the other hand, there were encouraging signs in the country. To the intense satisfaction of Unionists, Mr. C. F. G. Masterman, who had just been promoted to the Cabinet, lost his seat in East London when he sought reelection in February, and a day or two later the Government suffered another defeat in Scotland. On the 27th of February Lord Milner, a fearless supporter of the Ulster cause, wrote to Carson that a British Covenant had been drawn up in support of the Ulster Covenanters, and that the first signatures, in addition to his own, were those of Field-Marshal Lord Roberts, Admiral of the Fleet Sir E. Seymour, the Duke of Portland, Lord Balfour of Burleigh, Lord Desborough, Lord Lovat, Mr. Rudyard Kipling, Sir W. Ramsay, F.R.S., the Dean of Canterbury, Professors Dicey and Goudy, Sir George Hayter Chubb, and Mr. Salvidge, the influential alderman of Liverpool. On the 6th of March Mr. Walter Long, writing from the office of the Union Defence League, of which he was President, was able to inform Carson that there was "a rush to sign the Covenant—we are really almost overpowered." This was supplemented by a women's Covenant, which, like the men's, "had been numerously and influentially signed, about 3 or 4 per cent. of the signatories, it was said, being Liberals."[62] Long believed from this and other evidence that had reached him that "public opinion was now really aroused in the country," and that the steadfast policy of Ulster had the undoubted support of the electorate.

Only those who were in the confidence of Mr. Asquith and his colleagues at the beginning of 1914 can know whether the "proposals" they then made were ever seriously put forward as an effort towards appeasement. If they were sincerely meant for such, it implied a degree of ignorance of the chief factor in the problem with which it is difficult to credit able Ministers who had been face to face with that problem for years. They must have supposed that their leading opponents were capable of saying emphatically one thing and meaning quite another. For the Unionist leaders had stated over and over again in the most unmistakable terms, both in the recent debate on the Address, and on innumerable former occasions, that nothing except the "exclusion of Ulster" could furnish a basis for negotiation towards settlement.

And yet, when the Prime Minister at last put his cards on the table on the 9th of March, in moving the second reading of the Home Rule Bill—which now entered on its third and last lap under the Parliament Act—it was found that his much-trumpeted proposals were derisory to the last degree. The scheme was that which came to be known as county option with a time limit. Any county in Ulster, including the cities of Belfast and Derry, was to be given the right to vote itself out of the Home Rule jurisdiction, on a requisition signed by a specified proportion of its parliamentary electorate, for a period of six years.

Mr. Bonar Law said at once, on behalf of the Unionist Party, that apart from all other objections to the Government scheme, and they were many, the time limit for exclusion made the whole proposal a mockery. All that it meant was that when the preparations in Ulster for resistance to Home Rule had been got rid of—for it would be practically impossible to keep them in full swing for six years—Ulster should then be compelled to submit to the very thing to which she refused to submit now. Carson described the proposal as a "sentence of death with a stay of execution for six years." He noted with satisfaction indeed the admission of the principle of exclusion, but expressed his conviction that the time limit had been introduced merely in order to make it impossible for Ulster to accept. Ulster wanted the question settled once for all, so that she might turn her attention from politics to her ordinary business. The time limit would keep the fever of political agitation at a high temperature for six years, and at the end of that period forcible resistance would be as necessary as ever, while in the interval all administration would be paralysed by the unworkable nature of the system to be introduced for six years. Although there were other gross blots on the scheme outlined by the Prime Minister, yet, if the time limit were dropped, Carson said he would submit it to a convention in Belfast; but he utterly declined to do so if the time limit was to be retained.

The debate was adjourned indefinitely, and before it could be resumed the whole situation was rendered still more grave by the events to be narrated in the next chapter, and by a menacing speech delivered by Mr. Churchill at Bradford on the 14th of March. He hinted that, if Ulster persisted in refusing the offer made by the Prime Minister, which was the Government's last word, the forces of the Crown would have to be employed against her; there were, he said, "worse things than bloodshed even on an extended scale"; and he ended by saying, "Let us go forward together and put these grave matters to the proof."[63] Two days later Mr. Asquith, in answer to questions in the House of Commons, announced that no particulars of the Government scheme would be given unless the principle of the proposals were accepted as a basis of agreement.

The leader of the Unionist Party replied by moving a vote of censure on the Government on the 19th of March. Mr. Churchill's Bradford speech, and one no less defiant by Mr. Devlin the day following it, had charged with inflammable material the atmosphere in which the debate was conducted. Sir Edward Carson began his speech by saying that, after these recent events, "I feel that I ought not to be here, but in Belfast." There were some sharp passages between him and Churchill, whom he accused of being anxious to provoke the Ulster people to make an attack on the soldiers. A highly provocative speech by Mr. Devlin followed, at the end of which Carson rose and left the House, saying audibly, "I am off to Belfast." He was accompanied out of the Chamber by eight Ulster members, and was followed by ringing and sustained cheers of encouragement and approval from the crowded Unionist benches. It was a scene which those who witnessed it are not likely to forget.

The idea of accommodation between the combatant parties was at an end.

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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