Was Resistance Justifiable?

Ronald McNeill
Chapter XII

A story is told of Queen Victoria that in her youthful days, when studying constitutional history, she once asked Lord Melbourne whether under any circumstances citizens were justified in resisting legal authority; to which the old courtier replied: "When asked that question by a Sovereign of the House of Hanover I feel bound to answer in the affirmative." If one can imagine a similar question being asked of an Ulsterman by Mr. Asquith, Mr. Lloyd George, or Sir Edward Grey, in 1912, the reply would surely have been that such a question asked by a statesman claiming to be a guardian of Liberal principles and of the Whig tradition could only be answered in the affirmative. This, at all events, was the view of the late Duke of Devonshire, who more than any other statesman of our time could claim to be a representative in his own person of the Whig tradition handed down from 1688.[41] Passive obedience has, indeed, been preached as a political dogma in the course of English history, but never by apostles of Liberalism. Forcible resistance to legally constituted authority, even when it involved repudiation of existing allegiance, has often, both in our own and in foreign countries, won the approval and sympathy of English Liberals. A long line of illustrious names, from Cromwell and Lord Halifax in England to Kossuth and Mazzini on the Continent, might be quoted in support of such a proposition if anyone were likely to challenge it.

When, then, Liberals professed to be unutterably shocked by Ulster's declared intention to resist Home Rule both actively and passively, they could not have based their attitude on the principle that under no circumstances could such resistance be morally justified. Indeed, in the case in question, there were circumstances that would have made the condemnation of Ulster by the English Liberal Party not a little hypocritical if referred to any general ethical principle. For that party had itself been for a generation in the closest political alliance with Irishmen whose leader had boasted that they were as much rebels as their fathers were in 1798, and whose power in Ireland had been built up by long-sustained and systematic defiance of the law. Yet the same politicians who had excused, if they had not applauded, the "Plan of Campaign," and the organised boycotting and cattle-driving which had for years characterised the agitation for Home Rule, were unspeakably shocked when Ulster formed a disciplined Volunteer force which never committed an outrage, and prepared to set up a Provisional Government rather than be ruled by an assembly of cattle-drivers in Dublin. Moreover, many of Mr. Asquith's supporters, and one at least of his most distinguished colleagues in the Cabinet of 1912, had themselves organised resistance to an Education Act which they disliked but had been unable to defeat in Parliament.

Nevertheless, it must, of course, be freely admitted that the question as to what conditions justify resistance to the legal authority in the State—or rebellion, if the more blunt expression be preferred—is an exceedingly difficult one to answer. It would sound cynical to say, though Carlyle hardly shrinks from maintaining, that success, and success alone, redeems rebellion from wickedness and folly. Yet it would be difficult to explain on any other principle why posterity has applauded the Parliamentarians of 1643 and the Whigs of 1688, while condemning Monmouth and Charles Edward; or why Mr. Gladstone sympathised with Jefferson Davis when he looked like winning and withdrew that sympathy when he had lost. But if success is not the test, what is? Is it the aim of the men who resist? The aim that appears honourable and heroic to one onlooker appears quite the opposite to another, and so the test resolves itself into a matter of personal partisanship.

That is probably as near as one can get to a solution of the question. Those who happen to agree with the purpose for which a rebellion takes place think the rebels in the right; those who disagree think them in the wrong. As Mr. Winston Churchill succinctly puts it when commenting on the strictures passed on his father for "inciting" Ulster to resist Home Rule, "Constitutional authorities will measure their censures according to their political opinions." He reminds us, moreover, that when Lord Randolph was denounced as a "rebel in the skin of a Tory," the latter "was able to cite the authority of Lord Althorp, Sir Robert Peel, Mr. Morley, and the Prime Minister (Gladstone) himself, in support of the contention that circumstances might justify morally, if not technically, violent resistance and even civil war."[42]

To this distinguished catalogue of authorities an Ulster apologist might have added the name of the Chief Secretary for Ireland in Mr. Asquith's own Cabinet, who admitted in 1912 that "if the religion of the Protestants were oppressed or their property despoiled they would be right to fight [43];" which meant that Mr. Birrell did not condemn fighting in itself, provided he were allowed to decide when the occasion for it had arisen. Greater authorities than Mr. Birrell held that the Ulster case for resistance was a good and valid one as it stood. No English statesman of the last half-century has deservedly enjoyed a higher reputation for political probity, combined with sound common sense, than the eighth Duke of Devonshire. As long ago as 1893, when this same issue had already been raised in circumstances much less favourable to Ulster than after the passing of the Parliament Act in 1911, the Duke of Devonshire said:

"The people of Ulster believe, rightly or wrongly, that under a Government responsible to an Imperial Parliament they possess at present the fullest security which they can possess of their personal freedom, their liberties, and their right to transact their own business in their own way. You have no right to offer them any inferior security to that; and if, after weighing the character of the Government which it is sought to impose upon them, they resolve that they are no longer bound to obey a law which does not give them equal and just protection with their fellow subjects, who can say—how at all events can the descendants of those who resisted King James II say, that they have not a right, if they think fit, to resist, if they think they have the power, the imposition of a Government put upon them by force?"[44]

All the same, there never was a community on the face of the earth to whom "rebellion" in any real sense of the word was more hateful than to the people of Ulster. They traditionally were the champions of "law and order" in Ireland; they prided themselves above all things on their "loyalty" to their King and to the British flag. And they never entertained the idea that the movement which they started at Craigavon in 1911, and to which they solemnly pledged themselves by their Covenant in the following year, was in the slightest degree a departure from their cherished "loyalty"—on the contrary, it was an emphatic assertion of it. They held firmly, as Mr. Bonar Law and the whole Unionist party in Great Britain held also, that Mr. Asquith and his Government were forcing Home Rule upon them by unconstitutional methods. They did not believe that loyalty in the best sense—loyalty to the Sovereign, to the Empire, to the majesty of the law—required of them passive obedience to an Act of Parliament placed by such means on the Statute-book, which they were convinced, moreover, was wholly repugnant to the great majority of the British people.

This aspect of the matter was admirably and soberly presented by The Times in one of the many weighty articles in which that great journal gave undeviating support to the Ulster cause.

"A free community cannot justly, or even constitutionally, be deprived of its privileges or its position in the realm by any measure that is not stamped with the considered and unquestionable approval of the great body of electors of the United Kingdom. Any attempt so to deprive them is a fraud upon their fundamental rights, which they are justified in resisting, as an act of violence, by any means in their power. This is elementary doctrine, borne out by the whole course of English history."[45]

That the position was paradoxical calls for no denial; but the pith of the paradox lay in the fact that a movement denounced as "rebellious" by its political opponents was warmly supported not only by large masses, probably by the majority, of the people of this country, but by numbers of individuals of the highest character, occupying stations of great responsibility. Whatever may be thought of men engaged in actual political conflict, whom some people appear to think capable of any wickedness, no one can seriously suggest that men like Lord Macnaghten, like the late and present Primates of Ireland, like the late Provost of Trinity, like many other sober thinkers who supported Ulster, were men who would lightly lend themselves to "rebellion," or any other wild and irresponsible adventure. As The Times very truly observed in a leading article in 1912:

"We remember no precedent in our domestic history since the Revolution of 1688 for a movement among citizens, law-abiding by temperament and habit, which resembles the present movement of the Ulster Protestants. It is no rabble who have undertaken it. It is the work of orderly, prosperous, and deeply religious men."[46]

Nor did the paradox end there. If the Ulster Movement was "rebellious," its purpose was as paradoxical as its circumstances. It had in it no subversive element. In this respect it stands (so far as the writer's knowledge goes) without precedent, a solitary instance in the history of mankind. The world has witnessed rebellions without number, designed to bring about many different results—to emancipate a people from oppression, to upset an obnoxious form of Government, to expel or to restore a rival dynasty, to transfer allegiance from one Sovereign or one State to another. But has there ever been a "rebellion" the object of which was to maintain the status quo? Yet that was the sole purpose of the Ulster-men in all they did from 1911 to 1914. That fact, which distinguished their movement from every rebellion or revolution in history, placed them on a far more solid ground of reasonable justification than the excuse offered by Mr. Churchill for their bellicose attitude in his father's day. Although he is no doubt right in saying that "When men are sufficiently in earnest they will back their words with more than votes," it is a plea that would cover alike the conduct of Halifax and the other Whigs who resisted the legal authority of James II, of the Jacobites who fought for his grandson, and of the contrivers of many another bloody or bloodless Revolution. But there was nothing revolutionary in the Ulster Movement. It was resistance to the transfer of a people's allegiance without their consent; to their forcible expulsion from a Constitution with which they were content and their forcible inclusion in a Constitution which they detested. This was the very antithesis of Revolution. English Radical writers and politicians might argue that no "transfer of allegiance" was contemplated; but Ulstermen thought they knew better, and the later development of the Irish question proved how right they were. Even had they been proved wrong instead of right in their conviction that the true aim of Irish Nationalism (a term in which Sinn Fein is included) was essentially separatist, they knew better than Englishmen how little reality there was in the theory that under the proposed Home Rule their allegiance would be unaffected and their political status suffer no degradation. They claimed to occupy a position similar to that of the North in the American Civil War—with this difference, which, so far as it went, told in their favour, that whereas Lincoln took up arms to resist secession, they were prepared to do so to resist expulsion, the purpose in both cases, however, being to preserve union. The practical view of the question, as it would appear in the eyes of ordinary men, was well expressed by Lord Curzon in the House of Lords, when he said:

"The people of this country will be very loth to condemn those whose only disloyalty it will be to have been excessive in their loyalty to the King. Do not suppose that the people of this country will call those 'rebels' whose only form of rebellion is to insist on remaining under the Imperial Parliament."[47]

Of course, men like Sir Edward Carson, Lord Londonderry, Mr. Thomas Sinclair, and other Ulster leaders were too far-seeing not to realise that the course they were taking would expose them to the accusation of having set a bad example which others without the same grounds of justification might follow in very different circumstances. But this was a risk they had to shoulder, as have all who are not prepared to subscribe to the dogma of Passive Obedience without limit. They accepted it as the less of two evils. But there was something humorous in the pretence put forward in 1916 and afterwards that the violence to which the adherents of Sinn Fein had recourse was merely copying Ulster. As if Irish Nationalism in its extreme form required precedent for insurrection! Even the leader of "Constitutional Nationalism" himself had traced his political pedigree to convicted rebels like Tone and Emmet, and since the date of those heroes there had been at least two armed risings in Ireland against the British Crown and Government. If the taunt flung at Ulstermen had been that they had at last thrown overboard law and order and had stolen the Nationalist policy of active resistance, there would at least have been superficial plausibility in it. But when it was suggested or implied that the Ulster example was actually responsible in any degree whatever for violent outbreaks in the other provinces, a supercilious smile was the only possible retort from the lips of representatives of Ulster.

But what caused them some perplexity was the disposition manifested in certain quarters in England to look upon the two parties in Ireland in regard to "rebellion" as "six of one and half a dozen of the other." It has always, unhappily, been characteristic of a certain type of Englishman to see no difference between the friends and the enemies of his country, and, if he has a preference at all, to give it to the latter. Apart from all other circumstances which in the eyes of Ulstermen justified them up to the hilt in the policy they pursued, apart from everything that distinguished them historically and morally from Irish "rebels," there was the patent and all-important fact that the motive of their opponents was hostility to England, whereas their own motive was friendliness and loyalty to England. In that respect they never wavered. If the course of events had ever led to the employment of British troops to crush the resistance of Ulster to Home Rule, the extraordinary spectacle would have been presented to the wondering world of the King's soldiers shooting down men marching under the British flag and singing "God save the King."

It was no doubt because this was very generally understood in England that the sympathies of large masses of law-loving people were never for a moment alienated from the men of Ulster by all the striving of their enemies to brand them as rebels. Constitutional authorities may, as Mr. Churchill says, "measure their censures according to their political opinions," but the generality of men, who are not constitutional authorities, whose political opinions, if they have any, are fluctuating, and who care little for "juridical niceties," will measure their censures according to their instinctive sympathies. And the sound instinct of Englishmen forbade them to blame men who, if rebels in law, were their firm friends in fact, for taking exceptional and even illegal measures, when all others failed, to preserve the full unity which they regarded as the fruit of that friendship.

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 ».