Provisional Government and Propaganda

Ronald McNeill
Chapter XIII

By the death of the Duke of Abercorn on the 3rd of January, 1913, the Ulster Loyalists lost a leader who had for many years occupied a very special place in their affection and confidence. Owing to failing health he had been unable to take an active part in the exciting events of the past two years, but the messages of encouragement and support which were read from him at Craigavon, Balmoral, and other meetings for organising resistance, were always received with an enthusiasm which showed, and was intended to show, that the great part he had played in former years, and especially his inspiring leadership as Chairman of the Ulster Convention in 1893, had never been forgotten.

His death inflicted also, indirectly, another blow which at this particular moment was galling to loyalists out of all proportion to its intrinsic importance. The removal to the House of Lords of the Marquis of Hamilton, the member for Derry city, created a vacancy which was filled at the ensuing by-election by a Liberal Home Ruler. To lose a seat anywhere in the north-eastern counties at such a critical time in the movement was bad enough, but the unfading halo of the historic siege rested on Derry as on a sanctuary of Protestantism and loyalty, so that the capture of the "Maiden City" by the enemy wounded loyalist sentiment far more deeply than the loss of any other constituency. The two parties had been for some time very nearly evenly balanced there, and every electioneering art and device, including that of bringing to the poll voters who had long rested in the cemetery, was practised in Derry with unfailing zeal and zest by party managers. For some time past trade, especially shipbuilding, had been in a state of depression in Derry, with the result that a good many of the better class of artisans, who were uniformly Unionist, had gone to Belfast and elsewhere to find work, leaving the political fortunes of the city at the mercy of the casual labourer who drifted in from the wilds of Donegal, and who at this election managed to place the Home Rule candidate in a majority of fifty-seven.

It was a matter of course that the late Duke's place as President of the Ulster Unionist Council should be taken by Lord Londonderry, and it happened that the annual meeting at which he was formally elected was held on the same day that witnessed the rejection of the Home Rule Bill by the House of Lords.

It was also at this annual meeting (31st January, 1913) that the special Commission who had been charged to prepare a scheme for the Provisional Government, presented their draft Report. The work had been done with great thoroughness and was adopted without substantial alteration by the Council, but was not made public for several months. The Council itself was, in the event of the Provisional Government being set up, to constitute a "Central Authority," and provision was made, with complete elaboration of detail, for carrying on all the necessary departments of administration by different Committees and Boards, whose respective functions were clearly defined. Among those who consented to serve in these departmental Committees, in addition to the recognised local leaders in the Ulster Movement, were Dr. Crozier, Archbishop of Armagh, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Lord Charles Beresford, Major-General Montgomery, Colonel Thomas Hickman, M.P., Lord Claud Hamilton, M.P., Sir Robert Kennedy, K.C.M.G., and Sir Charles Macnaghten, K.C., son of Lord Macnaghten, the distinguished Lord of Appeal. Ulster at this time gave a lead on the question of admitting women to political power, at a time when their claim to enfranchisement was being strenuously resisted in England, by including several women in the Provisional Government.

A most carefully drawn scheme for a separate judiciary in Ulster had been prepared with the assistance of some of the ablest lawyers in Ireland. It was in three parts, dealing respectively with (a) the Supreme Court, (b) the Land Commission, and (c) County Courts; it was drawn up as an Ordinance, in the usual form of a Parliamentary Bill, and it is an indication of the spirit in which Ulster was preparing to resist an Act of Parliament that the Ordinance bore the introductory heading: "It is Hereby Enacted by the Central Authority in the name of the King's Most Excellent Majesty that-—-" Similarly, the form of "Oath or Declaration of Adherence" to be taken by Judges, Magistrates, Coroners, and other officers of the Courts, set out in a Schedule to the Ordinance, was: "I...of . . . being about to serve in the Courts of the Provisional Government as the Central Authority for His Majesty the King, etc."

It will be remembered that the original resolution by which the Council decided to set up a Provisional Government limited its duration until Ulster should "again resume unimpaired her citizenship in the United Kingdom,"[48] and at a later date it was explicitly stated that it was to act as trustee for the Imperial Parliament. All the forms prepared for use while it remained in being purported to be issued in the name of the King. And the Resolution adopted by the Unionist Council immediately after constituting itself the Central Authority of the Provisional Government, in which the reasons for that policy were recorded, concluded with the statement that "we, for our part, in the course we have determined to pursue, are inspired not alone by regard to the true welfare of our own country, but by devotion to the interests of our world-wide Empire and loyalty to our beloved King." If this was the language of rebels, it struck a note that can never before have been heard in a chorus of disaffection.

The demonstrations against the Government's policy which had been held during the last eighteen months, of which some account has been given, were so impressive that those which followed were inevitably less remarkable by comparison. They were, too, necessarily to a large extent, repetitions of what had gone before. There might be, and there were, plenty of variations on the old theme, but there was no new theme to introduce. Propaganda to the extent possible with the resources at the disposal of the Ulster Unionist Council was carried on in the British constituencies in 1913, the cost being defrayed chiefly through generous subscriptions collected by the energy and influence of Mr. Walter Long; but many were beginning to share the opinion of Mr. Charles Craig, M.P., who scandalised the Radicals by saying at Antrim in March that, while it was incumbent on Ulstermen to do their best to educate the electorate, "he believed that, as an argument, ten thousand pounds spent on rifles would be a thousand times stronger than the same amount spent on meetings, speeches, and pamphlets."

On the 27th of March a letter appeared in the London newspapers announcing the formation of a "British League for the support of Ulster and the Union," with an office in London. It was signed by a hundred Peers and 120 Unionist Members of the House of Commons. The manifesto emphasised the Imperial aspect of the great struggle that was going on, asserting that it was "quite clear that the men of Ulster are not fighting only for their own liberties. Ulster will be the field on which the privileges of the whole nation will be lost or won." A small executive Committee was appointed, with the Duke of Bedford as Chairman, and within a few weeks large numbers of people in all parts of the country joined the new organisation. A conference attended by upwards of 150 honorary agents from all parts of the country was held at Londonderry House on the 4th of June, where the work of the League was discussed, and its future policy arranged. Its operations were not ostentatious, but they were far from being negligible, especially in connection with later developments of the movement in the following year. This proof of British support was most encouraging to the people of Ulster, and the Dublin correspondent of The Times reported that it gave no less satisfaction to loyalists in other parts of Ireland, among whom, as the position became more desperate every day, there was "not the least sign of giving way, of accepting the inevitable."

Every month that passed in uncertainty as to what fate was reserved for Ulster, and especially every visit of the leader to Belfast, endeared him more intensely to his followers, who had long since learnt to give him their unquestioning trust; and his bereavement by the death of his wife in April 1913 brought him the profound and affectionate sympathy of a warm-hearted people, which manifested itself in most moving fashion at a great meeting a month later on the 16th of May, when, at the opening of a new drill hall in the most industrial district of Belfast, Sir Edward exclaimed, in response to a tumultuous reception, "Heaven knows, my one affection left me is my love of Ireland."

He took occasion at the same meeting to impress upon his followers the spirit by which all their actions should be guided, and which always guided his own. With a significant reference to the purposes for which the new drill hall might be used, he added, "Always remember—this is essential—always remember you have no quarrel with individuals. We welcome and we love every individual Irishman, even though he may be opposed to us. Our quarrel is with the Government." When the feelings of masses of men are deeply stirred in political conflict such exhortations are never superfluous; and there never was a leader who could give them with better grace than Sir Edward Carson, who himself combined to an extraordinary degree strength of conviction with entire freedom from bitterness towards individual opponents.[49]

In this same speech he showed that there was no slackening of determination to pursue to the end the policy of the Covenant. There had been rumours that the Government were making secret inquiries with a view to taking legal proceedings, and in allusion to them Carson moved his audience to one of the most wonderful demonstrations of personal devotion that even he ever evoked, by saying: "If they want to test the legality of anything we are doing, let them not attack humble men—I am responsible for everything, and they know where to find me."

The Bill was running its course for the second time through Parliament, a course that was now farcically perfunctory, and Carson returned to London to repeat in the House of Commons on the 10th of June his defiant acceptance of responsibility for the Ulster preparations. He was back in Belfast for the 12th of July celebrations, when 150,000 Orangemen assembled at Craigavon to hear another speech from their leader fall of confident challenge, and to receive another message of encouragement from Mr. Bonar Law, who assured them that "whatever steps they might feel compelled to take, whether they were constitutional, or whether in the long run they were unconstitutional, they had the whole of the Unionist Party under his leadership behind them."

The leader of the Unionist Party had good reason to know that his message to Ulster was endorsed by his followers. That had been demonstrated beyond all possibility of doubt during the preceding month. The Ulster Unionist Members of the House of Commons, with Carson at their head, had during June made a tour of some of the principal towns of Scotland and the North of England, receiving a resounding welcome wherever they went. The usual custom of political meetings, where one or two prominent speakers have the platform to themselves, was departed from; the whole parliamentary contingent kept together throughout the tour as a deputation from Ulster to the constituencies visited, taking in turn the duty of supporting Carson, who was everywhere the principal speaker.

There were wonderful demonstrations at Glasgow and Edinburgh, both in the streets and the principal halls, proving, as was aptly said by The Yorkshire Post, that "the cry of the new Covenanters is not unheeded by the descendants of the old"; and thence they went south, drawing great cheering crowds to welcome them and to present encouraging addresses at the railway stations at Berwick, Newcastle, Darlington, and York, to Leeds, where the two largest buildings in the city were packed to over-flowing with Yorkshiremen eager to see and hear the Ulster leader, and to show their sympathy with the loyalist cause. Similar scenes were witnessed at Norwich and Bristol, and the tour left no doubt in the minds of those who followed it, and who studied the comments of the Press upon it, that not only was the whole Unionist Party in Great Britain solidly behind the Ulstermen in their resolve to resist being subjected to a Parliament in Dublin, but that the general drift of opinion detached from party was increasingly on the same side.

Read "Ulster's Stand for Union" at your leisure

Ulster's Stand for Union

Read Ulster's Stand for Union at your leisure and help support this free Irish library.

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.

The ebook is available in .mobi (for Kindle), .epub (for iBooks, etc.), and .pdf formats, and a sample PDF can be downloaded. For more information on the book see details ».