The Ulster Parliament

Ronald McNeill
Chapter XXIV

On the 25th of November, 1918, the Parliament elected in December 1910 was at last dissolved, a few days after the Armistice with Germany. The new House of Commons was very different from the old. Seventy-two Sinn Fein members were returned from Ireland, sweeping away all but half a dozen of the old Nationalist party; but, in accordance with their fixed policy, the Sinn Fein members never presented themselves at Westminster to take the oath and their seats. That quarter of the House of Commons which for thirty years had been packed with the most fierce and disciplined of the political parties was therefore now given over to mild supporters of the Coalition Government, the only remnant of so-called "constitutional Nationalism" being Mr. T. P. O'Connor, Mr. Devlin, Captain Redmond, and two or three less prominent companions, who survived like monuments of a bygone age.

Ulster Unionists, on the other hand, were greatly strengthened by the recent Redistribution Act. Sir Edward Carson was elected member for the great working-class constituency of the Duncairn Division of Belfast, instead of for Dublin University, which he had so long represented, and twenty-two ardent supporters accompanied him from Ulster to Westminster. In the reconstruction of the Government which followed the election, Carson was pressed to return to office, but declined. Colonel James Craig, whose war services in connection with the Ulster Division were rewarded by a baronetcy, became Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions, and the Marquis of Londonderry accepted office as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Air Ministry.

Although the termination of hostilities by the Armistice was not in the legal sense the "end of the war," it brought it within sight. No one in January 1919 dreamt that the process of making peace and ratifying the necessary treaties would drag on for a seemingly interminable length of time, and it was realised, with grave misgiving in Ulster, that the Home Rule Act of 1914 would necessarily come into force as soon as peace was finally declared, while as yet nothing had been done to redeem the promise of an Amending Bill given by Mr. Asquith, and reiterated by Mr. Lloyd George. The compact between the latter and the Unionist Party, on which the Coalition had swept the country, had made it clear that fresh Irish legislation was to be expected, and the general lines on which it would be based were laid down; but there was also an intimation that a settlement must wait till the condition of Ireland should warrant it.[104]

The state of Ireland was certainly not such as to make it appear probable that any sane Government would take the risk of handing over control of the country immediately to the Sinn Feiners, whom the recent elections had proved to be in an overwhelming majority in the three southern provinces. By the law, not of England alone, but of every civilised State, that party was tainted through and through with high treason. It had attempted to "succour the King's enemies" in every way in its power. The Government had in its possession evidence of two conspiracies, in which, during the late frightful war, these Irishmen had been in league with the Germans to bring defeat and disaster upon England and her Allies, and the second of these plots was only made possible by the misconceived clemency of the Government in releasing from custody the ringleaders in the first.

And these Sinn Fein rebels left the Government no excuse for any illusion as to their being either chastened or contrite in spirit. Contemptuously ignoring their election as members of the Imperial Parliament, where they never put in an appearance because it would require them to take an oath of allegiance to the Crown, they openly held a Congress in Dublin in January 1919 where a Declaration of Independence was read, and a demand made for the evacuation of Ireland by the forces of the Crown. A "Ministry" was also appointed, which purported to make itself responsible for administration in Ireland. Outrages of a daring character became more and more frequent, and gave evidence of being the work of efficient organisation.

President Wilson's coinage of the unfortunate and ambiguous expression "self-determination" made it a catch-penny cry in relation to Ireland; but, in reply to Mr. Devlin's demand for a recognition of that "principle," Mr. Lloyd George pointed out that it had been tried in the Convention, with the result that both Nationalists and Unionists had been divided among themselves, and he said he despaired of any settlement in Ireland until Irishmen could agree. Nevertheless, in October 1919 he appointed a Cabinet Committee, with Mr. Walter Long as Chairman, to make recommendations for dealing with the question of Irish Government.

But murders of soldiers and police had now become so scandalously frequent that in November a Proclamation was issued suppressing Sinn Fein and kindred organisations. It did nothing to improve the state of the country, which grew worse than ever in the last few weeks of the year. On the 19th of December a carefully planned attempt on the life of the Lord-Lieutenant, Lord French, proved how complete was the impunity relied upon by the organised assassins who, calling themselves an Irish Republican Army, terrorised the country.

It was in such conditions that, just before the close of the parliamentary session, the Prime Minister disclosed the intentions of the Government. He laid down three "basic facts," which he said governed the situation: (1) Three-fourths of the Irish people were bitterly hostile, and were at heart rebels against the Crown and Government. (2) Ulster was a complete contrast, which would make it an outrage to place her people under the rest of Ireland.[105] (3) No separation from the Empire could be tolerated, and any attempt to force it would be fought as the United States had fought against secession. On these considerations he based the proposals which were to be embodied in legislation in the next session. Sir Edward Carson, who in the light of past experience was too wary to take all Mr. Lloyd George's declarations at their face value, said at once that he could give no support to the policy outlined by the Prime Minister until he was convinced that the latter intended to go through with it to the end.

The Bill to give effect to these proposals (which became the Government of Ireland Act, 1920) was formally introduced on the 25th of February, 1920, and Carson then went over to Belfast to consult with the Unionist Council as to the action to be taken by the Ulster members.

The measure was a long and complicated one of seventy clauses and six schedules. Its effect, stated briefly, was to set up two Parliaments in Ireland, one for the six Protestant counties of Ulster and the other for the rest of Ireland. In principle it was the "clean cut" which had been several times proposed, except that, instead of retaining Ulster in legislative union with Great Britain, she was to be endowed with local institutions of her own in every respect similar to, and commensurate with, those given to the Parliament in Dublin. In addition, a Council of Ireland was created, composed of an equal number of members from each of the two legislatures. This Council was given powers in regard to private bill legislation, and matters of minor importance affecting both parts of the island which the two Parliaments might mutually agree to commit to its administration. Power was given to the two Parliaments to establish by identical Acts at any time a Parliament for all Ireland to supersede the Council, and to form a single autonomous constitution for the whole of Ireland.

The Council of Ireland occupied a prominent place in the debates on the Bill. It was held up as a symbol of the "unity of Ireland," and the authors of the measure were able to point to it as supplying machinery by which "partition" could be terminated as soon as Irishmen agreed among themselves in wishing to have a single national Government. It was not a feature of the Bill that found favour in Ulster; but, as it could do no harm and provided an argument against those who denounced "partition," the Ulster members did not think it worth while to oppose it.

But when Carson met the Ulster Unionist Council on the 6th of March the most difficult point he had to deal with was the same that had given so much trouble in the negotiations of 1916. The Bill defined the area subject to the "Parliament of Northern Ireland" as the six counties which the Ulster Council had agreed four years earlier to accept as the area to be excluded from the Home Rule Act. The question now to be decided was whether this same area should still be accepted, or an amendment moved for including in Northern Ireland the other three counties of the Province of Ulster. The same harrowing experience which the Council had undergone in 1916 was repeated in an aggravated form.[106] To separate themselves from fellow loyalists in Monaghan, Cavan, and Donegal was hateful to every delegate from the other six counties, and it was heartrending to be compelled to resist another moving appeal by so valued a friend as Lord Farnham. But the inexorable index of statistics demonstrated that, although Unionists were in a majority when geographical Ulster was considered as a unit, yet the distribution of population made it certain that a separate Parliament for the whole Province would have a precarious existence, while its administration of purely Nationalist districts would mean unending conflict.

It was, therefore, decided that no proposal for extending the area should be made by the Ulster members. Carson made it clear in the debates on the Bill that Ulster had not moved from her old position of desiring nothing except the Union; that he was still convinced there was "no alternative to the Union unless separation"; but that, while he would take no responsibility for a Bill which Ulster did not want, he and his colleagues would not actively oppose its progress to the Statute-book.

It did not, however, receive the Royal Assent until two days before Christmas, and during all these months the condition of Ireland was one of increasing anarchy. The Act provided that, if the people of Southern Ireland refused to work the new Constitution, the administration should be carried on by a system similar to Crown Colony government. Carson gave an assurance that in Ulster they would do their best to make the Act a success, and immediate steps were taken in Belfast to make good this undertaking.

To the people of Ulster the Act of 1920, though it involved the sacrifice of much that they had ardently hoped to preserve, came as a relief to their worst fears. It was represented as a final settlement, and finality was what they chiefly desired, if they could get it without being forced to submit to a Dublin Parliament. The disloyal conduct of Nationalist Ireland during the war, and the treason and terrorism organised by Sinn Fein after the war, had widened the already broad gulf between North and South. The determination never to submit to an all-Ireland Parliament was more firmly fixed than ever. The Act of 1920, which repealed Mr. Asquith's Act of 1914, gave Ulster what she had prepared to fight for, if necessary, before the war. It was the fulfilment of the Craigavon resolution—to take over the government "of those districts which they could control."[107] The Parliament of Northern Ireland established by the Act was in fact the legalisation of the Ulster Provisional Government of 1913. It placed Ulster in a position of equality with the South, both politically and economically. The two Legislatures in Ireland possessed the same powers, and were subject to an equal reservation of authority to the Imperial Parliament.

But with the passing of the Act the long and consummate leadership of Sir Edward Carson came to an end. If he had not succeeded in bringing the Ulster people into a Promised Land, he had at least conducted an orderly retreat to a position of safety. The almost miraculous skill with which he had directed all the operations of a protracted and harassing campaign, avoiding traps and pitfalls at every step, foreseeing and providing against countless crises, frustrating with unfailing adroitness the manoeuvres both of implacable enemies and treacherous "friends," was fully appreciated by his grateful followers, who had for years past regarded him with an intensity of personal devotion seldom given even to the greatest of political leaders. But he felt that the task of opening a new chapter in the history of Ulster, and of inaugurating the new institutions now established, was work for younger hands. Hard as he was pressed to accept the position of first Prime Minister of Ulster, he firmly persisted in his refusal; and on his recommendation the man who had been his able and faithful lieutenant throughout the long Ulster Movement was unanimously chosen to succeed him in the leadership.

Sir James Craig did not hesitate to respond to the call, although to do so he had to resign an important post in the British Government, that of Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty, with excellent prospects of further promotion. As soon as the elections in "Northern Ireland," conducted under the system of Proportional Representation, as provided by the Act of 1920, were complete, Sir James, whose followers numbered forty as against a Nationalist and Sinn Fein minority of twelve, was sent for by the Viceroy and commissioned to form a Ministry. He immediately set himself to his new and exceedingly difficult duties with characteristic thoroughness. The whole apparatus of government administration had to be built up from the foundation. Departments, for which there was no existing office accommodation or personnel, had to be called into existence and efficiently organised, and all this preliminary work had to be undertaken at a time when the territory subject to the new Government was beset by open and concealed enemies working havoc with bombs and revolvers, with which the Government had not yet legal power to cope.

But Sir James Craig pressed on with the work, undismayed by the difficulties, and resolved that the Parliament in Belfast should be opened at the earliest possible date. The Marquis of Londonderry gave a fresh proof of his Ulster patriotism by resigning his office in the Imperial Government and accepting the portfolio of Education in Sir James Craig's Cabinet, and with it the leadership of the Ulster Senate; in which the Duke of Abercorn also, to the great satisfaction of the Ulster people, consented to take a seat. Mr. Dawson Bates, the indefatigable Secretary of the Ulster Unionist Council during the whole of the Ulster Movement, was appointed Minister for Home Affairs, and Mr. E. M. Archdale became Minister for Agriculture. The first act of the House of Commons of Northern Ireland was to choose Major Hugh O'Neill as their Speaker, while the important position of Chairman of Committees was entrusted to Mr. Thomas Moles, one of the ablest recruits of the Ulster Parliamentary Party, whom the General Election of 1918 had sent to Westminster as one of the members for Belfast, and who had given ample evidence of his capacity both in the Imperial Parliament and on the Secretarial Staff of the Irish Convention of 1917.

Meantime, in the South the Act of 1920 was treated with absolute contempt; no step was taken to hold elections or to form an Administration, although it must be remembered that the flouted Act conferred a larger measure of Home Rule than had ever been offered by previous Bills. Thus by one of those curious ironies that have continually marked the history of Ireland, the only part of the island where Home Rule operated was the part that had never desired it, while the provinces that had demanded Home Rule for generations refused to use it when it was granted them.

In Ulster the new order of things was accepted with acquiescence rather than with enthusiasm. But the warmer emotion was immediately called forth when it became known that His Majesty the King had decided to open the Ulster Parliament in person on the 22nd of June, 1921, especially as it was fully realised that, owing to the anarchical condition of the country, the King's presence in Belfast would be a characteristic disregard of personal danger in the discharge of public duty. And when, on the eve of the royal visit, it was intimated that the Queen had been graciously pleased to accede to Sir James Craig's request that she should accompany the King to Belfast, the enthusiasm of the loyal people of the North rose to fever heat.

At any time, and under any circumstances, the reigning Sovereign and his Consort would have been received by a population so noted for its sentiment of loyalty to the Throne as that of Ulster with demonstrations of devotion exceeding the ordinary. But the present occasion was felt to have a very special significance. The opening of Parliament by the King in State is one of the most ancient and splendid of ceremonial pageants illustrating the history of British institutions. It was felt in Ulster that the association of this time-honoured ceremonial with the baptism, so to speak, of the latest offspring of the Mother of Parliaments stamped the Royal Seal upon the achievement of Ulster, and gave it a dignity, prestige, and promise of permanence which might otherwise have been lacking. No city in the United Kingdom had witnessed so many extraordinary displays of popular enthusiasm in the last ten years as Belfast, some of which had left on the minds of observers a firm belief that such intensity of emotion in a great concourse of people could not be exceeded. The scene in the streets when the King and Queen drove from the quay, on the arrival of the royal yacht, to the City Hall, was held by general consent to equal, since it could not surpass, any of those great demonstrations of the past in popular fervour. At any rate, persons of long experience in attendance on the Royal Family gave it as their opinion in the evening that they had never before seen so impressive a display of public devotion to the person of the Sovereign.

Two buildings in Belfast inseparably associated with Ulster's stand for union, the City Hall and the Ulster Hall, were the scenes of the chief events of the King's visit. The former, described by one of the English correspondents as "easily the most magnificent municipal building in the three Kingdoms,"[108] was placed at the disposal of the Ulster Government by the Corporation for temporary use as a Parliament House. The Council Chamber, a fine hall of dignified proportions with a dais and canopied chair at the upper end, made an appropriate frame for the ceremony of opening Parliament, and the arrangements both of the Chamber itself and of the approaches and entrances to it made it a simple matter to model the procedure as closely as possible on that followed at Westminster.

Among the many distinguished people who assembled in the Ulster Capital for the occasion, there was one notable absentee. Lord Carson of Duncairn—for this was the title that Sir Edward Carson had assumed on being appointed a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary a few weeks previously—was detained in London by judicial duty in the House of Lords; and possibly reasons of delicacy not difficult to understand restrained him from making arrangements for absence. But the marked ovation given to Lady Carson wherever she was recognised in the streets of Belfast showed that the great leader was not absent from the popular mind at this moment of vindication of his statesmanship.

Such an event as that which brought His Majesty to Belfast was naturally an occasion for bestowing marks of distinction for public service. Sir James Craig wisely made it also an occasion for letting bygones be bygones by recommending Lord Pirrie for a step in the Peerage. Among those who received honours were several whose names have appeared in the preceding chapters of this book. Mr. William Robert Young, for thirty years one of the most indefatigable workers for the Unionist cause in Ulster, and Colonel Wallace, one of the most influential of Carson's local lieutenants, were made Privy Councillors, as was also Colonel Percival-Maxwell, who raised and commanded a battalion of the Ulster Division in the war. Colonel F. H. Crawford and Colonel Spender were awarded the C.B.E. for services to the nation during the war; but Ulstermen did not forget services of another sort to the Ulster cause before the Germans came on the scene.[109] A knighthood was given to Mr. Dawson Bates, who had exchanged the Secretaryship of the Ulster Unionist Council for the portfolio of a Cabinet Minister.

These honours were bestowed by the King in person at an investiture held in the Ulster Hall in the afternoon. There must have been many present whose minds went back to some of the most stirring events of Ulster's domestic history which had been transacted in the same building within recent years. Did Sir Hamar Greenwood, the Chief Secretary, as he stood in attendance on the Sovereign in the resplendent uniform of a Privy Councillor, look in curiosity round the walls which he and Mr. Churchill had been prohibited from entering on a memorable occasion when they had to content themselves with an imported tent in a football field instead? Did Colonel Wallace's thoughts wander back to the scene of wild enthusiasm in that hall on the evening before the Covenant, when he presented the ancient Boyne flag to the Ulster leader? Did those who spontaneously started the National Anthem in the presence of the King without warrant from the prearranged programme, and made the Queen smile at the emphasis with which they "confounded politics" and "frustrated knavish tricks," remember the fervour with which on many a past occasion the same strains testified to Ulster's loyalty in the midst of perplexity and apprehension? If these memories crowded in, they must have added to the sense of relief arising from the conviction that the ceremony they were now witnessing was the realisation of the policy propounded by Carson, when he declared that Ulster must always be ruled either by the Imperial Parliament or by a Government of her own.

But the moment of all others on that memorable day that must have been suggestive of such reflections was when the King formally opened the first Parliament of Northern Ireland in the same building that had witnessed the signing of the Ulster Covenant. Without the earlier event the later could not have been. If 1921 could have been fully foreseen in 1912 it might have appeared to many Covenanters as the disappointment of a cherished ideal. But those who lived to listen to the King's Speech in the City Hall realised that it was the dissipation of foreboding. However regarded, it was, as King George himself pronounced, "a profoundly moving occasion in Irish history."

The Speech from the Throne in which these words occurred made a deep impression all over the world, and nowhere more than in Ulster itself. No people more ardently shared the touchingly expressed desire of the King that his coming to Ireland might "prove to be the first step towards an end of strife amongst her people, whatever their race or creed." So, too, when His Majesty told the Ulster Parliament that he "felt assured they would do their utmost to make it an instrument of happiness and good government for all parts of the community which they represented," the Ulster people believed that the King's confidence in them would not prove to have been misplaced.

Happily, no prophetic vision of those things that were shortly to come to pass broke in to disturb the sense of satisfaction with the haven that had been reached. The future, with its treachery, its alarms, its fresh causes of uncertainty and of conflict, was mercifully hidden from the eyes of the Ulster people when they acclaimed the inauguration of their Parliament by their King. They accepted responsibility for the efficient working of institutions thus placed in their keeping by the highest constitutional Authority in the British Empire, although they had never asked for them, and still believed that the system they had been driven to abandon was better than the new; and they opened this fresh chapter in their history in firm faith that what had received so striking a token of the Sovereign's sympathy and approval would never be taken from them except with their own consent.

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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