By Edward T. O’Donnell
Ninety-one years ago this week, on Feb. 21, 1910, Sir Edward Carson became head of the Irish Unionist Party. Bringing to his new job a famous name and a charismatic personality, Carson quickly emerged as the leading voice of intractable Unionism at a critical moment in Irish history. Northern Ireland’s Unionist Protestants would need him, for at that very moment a third Home Rule bill for Ireland was about to be introduced in Parliament.
Edward Carson was born into a middle-class family in Dublin. He graduated from Trinity College and was admitted to the Irish Bar in 1889. Joining the government as a prosecutor, he gained a wide reputation for his successes in several high-profile cases, including the sensational trial and conviction of Oscar Wilde in 1895. He served in Parliament (and in several cabinet positions) from 1892 until 1918.
Despite his middle-class origins and reform-minded politics, when it came to the question of Ireland, Carson was a resolute Tory. He cherished the union between Ireland and England and viewed Irish nationalism as violent and misguided. Even Home Rule, the most moderate and constitutional demand for greater Irish self-government through the re-establishment of an Irish parliament (abolished in 1800 in the wake of the United Irishmen uprising) was out of the question.
So even before Prime Minister Asquith’s Liberal government introduced a new Home Rule bill in 1912 (two earlier bills had been defeated in 1886 and 1893), Carson launched an all-out campaign to defeat it. He went on the stump and delivered blistering speeches denouncing Home Rule as surrender and pleaded with Ireland’s unionists to resist it — by force, if necessary.
Meanwhile, back in London, the Home Rule Bill was introduced (April 1912). Twice in 1913 (January and July) the bill passed in the House of Commons only to be rejected by the House of Lords. But because the Lords had recently been stripped of its absolute veto power, the bill’s supporters only needed to pass it a third time for it to eventually take effect. Unable to stop this constitutional enactment of Home Rule, Carson resorted to radical civil disobedience. In September 1912 he persuaded nearly half of Ulster’s Protestant population to sign a Solemn Oath and Covenant pledging their resistance to Home Rule. He also set up a "provisional government," which he claimed would assume control of Ulster in the event that a Home Rule bill was passed.
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In January 1913 at the height of the Home Rule crisis, Carson and his lieutenant, James Craig, helped hard-line Ulster unionists merge several independent militia groups to form the Ulster Volunteer Force. Led by former British army officers, its membership soared to 100,000. In April 1914, Carson played an important role in a brazen smuggling operation that put 25,000 rifles and 3 million rounds of ammunition into the hands of the UVF.
Carson’s goal was clear. Unlike his unionist predecessors, who went to great pains to stress their loyalty to Parliament and the constitutional nature of their opposition to Home Rule, Carson boldly threatened civil war. By arming the UVF and ostentatiously drilling its member in public places, Carson hoped to frighten Parliament into withdrawing the Home Rule bill. When Irish nationalists in Dublin formed their own militia, the Irish Volunteers, to counter the UVF, the specter of civil war loomed ever larger.
Several people, including Winston Churchill, warned Carson that he was courting treason (surely an odd position for one seeking to demonstrate Ulster’s loyalty to the Crown), but he dismissed the charge out of hand. "I do not care twopence whether it is treason or not," he once said. "I do not even shrink from the horrors of civil commotion."
Asquith, however, did shrink, especially when in March 1914 a British cavalry regiment at the Curragh in County Kildare made it clear that it would not carry out orders to suppress the UVF.
By that time, Carson had modified his demands. He would support the Home Rule bill that was due to take effect in the summer if an amendment were added to it excluding Ulster. But before any agreement could be reached on the Ulster question, World War I broke out. Unwilling to support a major constitutional change on the eve of war, Asquith suspended the Home Rule bill until the war’s end.
Carson’s campaign had succeeded in preventing Home Rule and ultimately Parliament adopted his plan to keep much of Ulster under British rule. Yet Carson’s actions also fired up the hardliners in both the unionist and nationalist camps. In the years to come, they would be the ones ultimately to decide the Irish question. Known as the "uncrowned king of Ulster," Edward Carson is more accurately remembered at the father of Partitition.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Feb. 24, 1850: Rev. Paul Cullen named Archbishop of Armagh.
Feb. 24, 1984: Writer Anthony Kennedy wins the Pulitzer Prize for his novel "Ironweed."
Feb. 26, 1847: Parliament passes the first acts establishing soup kitchens in Ireland during the Famine.
Feb. 27, 1941: Director John Ford wins his second Academy Award, for "The Grapes of Wrath."
Feb. 22, 1932: Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, born in Brookline, Mass.
Feb. 26, 1846: Frontiersman and showman William "Buffalo Bill" Cody born in Scott County, Iowa.
Feb. 26, 1916: Actor Jackie Gleason born in Brooklyn.
Feb. 27, 1904: Writer James T. Farrell born in Chicago.
Readers can reach Edward T. O’Donnell at odonnell@PastWise.com.