Unionist Letter to President Wilson

Ronald McNeill

City Hall, Belfast,

August 1st, 1918.

To the President of the United States of America


A manifesto signed by the leader of the Irish Nationalist Party and certain other Irish gentlemen has been widely circulated in the United Kingdom, in the form of a letter purporting to have been addressed to your Excellency.[110]

Its purpose appears to be to offer an explanation of, and an excuse for, the conduct of the Nationalist Party in obstructing the extension to Ireland of compulsory military service, which the rest of the United Kingdom has felt compelled to adopt as the necessary means of defeating the German design to dominate the world. At a time when all the free democracies of the world have, with whatever reluctance, accepted the burden of conscription as the only alternative to the destruction of free institutions and of international justice, it is easily intelligible that those who maintain Ireland's right to solitary and privileged exemption from the same obligation should betray their consciousness that an apologia is required to enable them to escape condemnation at the bar of civilised, and especially of American, opinion. But, inasmuch as the document referred to would give to anyone not intimately familiar with British domestic affairs the impression that it represents the unanimous opinion of Irishmen, it is important that your Excellency and the American people should be assured that this is very far from being the case.

There is in Ireland a minority, whom we claim to represent, comprising one-fourth to one-third of the total population of the island, located mainly, but not exclusively, in the province of Ulster, who dissent emphatically from the views of Mr. Dillon and his associates. This minority, through their representatives in Parliament, have maintained throughout the present war that the same obligations should in all respects be borne by Ireland as by Great Britain, and it has caused them as Irishmen a keen sense of shame that their country has not submitted to this equality of sacrifice.

Your Excellency does not need to be informed that this question has become entangled in the ancient controversy concerning the constitutional status of Ireland in the United Kingdom. This is, indeed, sufficiently clear from the terms of the Nationalist manifesto addressed to you, every paragraph of which is coloured by allusion to bygone history and threadbare political disputes.

It is not our intention to traverse the same ground. There is in the manifesto almost no assertion with regard to past events which is not either a distortion or a misinterpretation of historical fact. But we consider that this is not the moment for discussing the faults and follies of the past, still less for rehearsing ancient grievances, whether well or ill founded, in language of extravagant rhetoric. At a time when the very existence of civilisation hangs in the balance, all smaller issues, whatever their merits or however they may affect our internal political problems, should in our judgment have remained in abeyance, while the parties interested in their solution should have joined in whole-hearted co-operation against the common enemy.

There is, however, one matter to which reference must be made, in order to make clear the position of the Irish minority whom we represent. The Nationalist Party have based their claim to American sympathy on the historic appeal addressed to Irishmen by the British colonists who fought for independence in America a hundred and fifty years ago. By no Irishmen was that appeal received with a more lively sympathy than by the Protestants of Ulster, the ancestors of those for whom we speak to-day—a fact that was not surprising in view of the circumstance that more than one-sixth part of the entire colonial population in America at the time of the Declaration of Independence consisted of emigrants from Ulster.

The Ulstermen of to-day, forming as they do the chief industrial community in Ireland, are as devoted adherents to the cause of democratic freedom as were their forefathers in the eighteenth century. But the experience of a century of social and economic progress under the legislative Union with Great Britain has convinced them that under no other system of government could more complete liberty be enjoyed by the Irish people. This, however, is not the occasion for a reasoned defence of "Unionist" policy. Our sole purpose in referring to the matter is to show, whatever be the merits of the dispute, that a very substantial volume of Irish opinion is warmly attached to the existing Constitution of the United Kingdom, and regards as wholly unwarranted the theory that our political status affords any sort of parallel to that of the "small nations" oppressed by alien rule, for whose emancipation the Allied democracies are fighting in this war.

The Irish representation in the Imperial Parliament throws a significant sidelight on this prevalent fiction. Whereas England is only represented by one member for every 75,000 of population, and Scotland by one for every 65,000, Ireland has a member for every 42,000 of her people. With a population below that of Scotland, Ireland has 31 more members in the House of Commons, and 39 more than she could claim on a basis of representation strictly proportionate to population in the United Kingdom.

Speaking in Dublin on the 1st of July, 1915, the late Mr. John Redmond gave the following description of the present condition of Ireland, which offers a striking contrast to the extravagant declamation that represents that country as downtrodden by a harsh and unsympathetic system of government:

"To-day," he said, "the people, broadly speaking, own the soil. To-day the labourers live in decent habitations. To-day there is absolute freedom in local government and local taxation of the country. To-day we have the widest parliamentary and municipal franchise. The congested districts, the scene of some of the most awful horrors of the old famine days, have been transformed. The farms have been enlarged, decent dwellings have been provided, and a new spirit of hope and independence is to-day among the people. In towns legislation has been passed facilitating the housing of the working classes—a piece of legislation far in advance of anything obtained for the town tenants of England. We have a system of old-age pensions in Ireland whereby every old man and woman over seventy is safe from the workhouse and free to spend their last days in comparative comfort."

Such are the conditions which, in the eyes of Nationalist politicians, constitute a tyranny so intolerable as to justify Ireland in repudiating her fair share in the burden of war against the enemies of civilisation.

The appeal which the Nationalists make to the principle of "self-determination" strikes Ulster Protestants as singularly inappropriate. Mr. Dillon and his co-signatories have been careful not to inform your Excellency that it was their own opposition that prevented the question of Irish Government being settled in accordance with that principle in 1916. The British Government were prepared at that time to bring the Home Rule Act of 1914 into immediate operation, if the Nationalists had consented to exclude from its scope the distinctively Protestant population of the North, who desired to adhere to the Union. This compromise was rejected by the Nationalist leaders, whose policy was thus shown to be one of "self-determination" for themselves, combined with coercive domination over us.

It is because the British Government, while prepared to concede the principle of self-determination impartially to both divisions in Ireland, has declined to drive us forcibly into such subjection that the Nationalist Party conceive themselves entitled to resist the law of conscription. And the method by which this resistance has been made effective is, in our view, not less deplorable than the spirit that dictated it. The most active opponents of conscription in Ireland are men who have been twice detected during the war in treasonable traffic with the enemy, and their most powerful support has been that of ecclesiastics, who have not scrupled to employ weapons of spiritual terrorism which have elsewhere in the civilised world fallen out of political use since the Middle Ages.

The claim of these men, in league with Germany on the one hand, and with the forces of clericalism on the other, to resist a law passed by Parliament as necessary for national defence is, moreover, inconsistent with any political status short of independent sovereignty—a status which could only be attained by Ireland by an act of secession from the United Kingdom, such as the American Union averted only by resort to civil war. In every Federal or other Constitution embracing subordinate legislatures the raising and control of military forces are matters reserved for the supreme legislative authority alone, and they are so reserved for the Imperial Parliament of the United Kingdom in the Home Rule Act of 1914, the "withholding" of which during the war is complained of by the Nationalists who have addressed your Excellency. The contention of these gentlemen that until the internal government of Ireland is changed in accordance with their demands, Ireland is justified in resisting the law of Conscription, is one that finds support in no intelligible theory of political science.

To us as Irishmen—convinced as we are of the righteousness of the cause for which we are fighting, and resolved that no sacrifice can be too great to "make the world safe for democracy"—it is a matter of poignant regret that the conduct of the Nationalist leaders in refusing to lay aside matters of domestic dispute, in order to put forth the whole strength of the country against Germany should have cast a stain on the good name of Ireland. We have done everything in our power to dissociate ourselves from their action, and we disclaim responsibility for it at the bar of posterity and history.

Edward Carson.

James Johnston, Lord Mayor of Belfast.

H. M. Pollock, President Belfast Chamber of Commerce.

R. N. Anderson, Mayor of Londonderry, and President Londonderry Chamber of Commerce.

John M. Andrews, Chairman Ulster Unionist Labour Association.

James A. Turkington, Vice-Chairman Ulster Unionist Labour Association, and Secretary Power-loom and Allied Trades Friendly Society, and ex-Secretary Power-loom Tenters' Trade Union of Ireland.

Thompson Donald, Hon. Secretary Ulster Unionist Labour Association, and ex-District Secretary Shipwrights' Association.

Henry Fleming, Hon. Secretary Ulster Unionist Labour Association, Member of Boilermakers' Iron and Steel Shipbuilders' Society.

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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