Neither Foresight nor Backbone (1912-'13-'14)

"Ulster" proved the rock on which Liberal Home Rule went to pieces. The first cause of the shipwreck was that the Liberal "Home Rule Government"—doubtless by the ill-advice of the Hibernians —began by ignoring the existence of "Ulster"; the next was that they met the first preparations of "Ulster," not with the concessions which everybody (and nobody more generously than the Irish Republicans) now recognize to be the obvious wisdom of the case, but with inconceivably silly taunts and jeers; and the worst of all was that when they came to realize that Ulster had got arms in her hands, their ridicule was given up in a panic, and Sir E. Carson's right to arm for rebellion against the law of the Imperial Parliament was abjectly conceded by the nerveless custodians of "Law and Order." The ignoble Odyssey began with sorry jokes and ended with Partition.

Mr. Redmond's hard necessity for following the Hibernian lead at any price, on the plea that his compliance meant Unity, cannot altogether be accepted as an excuse for the astounding indiscretion of the boast with which he commenced his campaign for the Home Rule Bill: "There is no longer an Ulster Difficulty." He might well have been warned by the fate of a similar oracle of his in 1898, when he balmily proclaimed: "There is no longer an Irish Land Question," on the eve of the long and bitter struggle which forced a Unionist Coercion Government to abolish landlordism root and branch. His inacquaintance with the deeper realities of Irish feeling and opinion was one of the principal sources of his weakness as an Irish leader. It is quite certain that, if he could give rein to his own secret convictions, nobody understood better than he the permanent value to the Irish Nation of conciliating the Protestant minority, or would be less likely to give practical effect to the threat of putting down the opposition of Ulster "with the strong hand" into which he was betrayed in another incautious moment.

It is to be remarked that during the first twelve months' debates on the Home Rule Bill, nobody—not even the most fanatical of the Ulster Party—had any thought of Partition in its subsequent sense. The first Clause "On and after the appointed day there shall be in Ireland an Irish Parliament consisting of His Majesty the King and two houses, namely, the Irish Senate and the Irish House of Commons"—affirmed once for all the integrity of Ireland, and was the only Clause on which Partition could have been suggested in Committee. Neither Sir E. Carson nor any member of the Ulster Party put down any amendment with that object. The sole amendment on the subject debated was raised by one of the only two anti-Home Rulers in the Liberal Party, Mr. Agar-Robartes, and it only proposed "the exclusion from the provisions of this Act of the four counties of Antrim, Armagh, Down and Londonderry." Sir E. Carson's own speech made no disguise of the fact that he only supported the Amendment as a means of wrecking the Bill. The separation of Ulster, he declared, in his opening sentence, was one as to which "I may say at the outset that, so far as I know, there is no difference at all as between the Irish members." Ulster had never asked for a separate Parliament and would never consent "to anything that would be in the nature of desertion of any of the Southern provinces." He frankly owned the only attraction of the amendment for him was that "if Ulster succeeds, Home Rule is dead."

One passage of the Ulster leader's speech is of lasting interest as disclosing the anything but irreconcileable temper, even then, of the Protestant minority, and the temper on the Hibernian side which convinced them that any genuine overtures of conciliation from the Nationalists were not to be looked for:

"I know that the Prime Minister believes that when this Bill is passed and when the controversy is out of the way that Ulster will get a fair share of the Government of Ireland. . . . Where have we, even in the last twenty years since this Home Rule question has been before the country, any single instance in the whole conduct of the majority in Ireland of encouragement to believe that we can expect fair play at their hands? Not one in twenty years. There has been an attempt, and I admit it freely and frankly, by some few of the Irish Members, led, I believe by the hon. Member for Cork (laughter). See how it is laughed at. The hon. Member for Cork is a Home Ruler. I differ from him just as much as I differ from any other, but let me say that movement was a movement of conciliation. It ended, or, at least, it commenced to a large extent in the Land Act that was passed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Wyndham). The hon. Member for Cork, seeing the benefits of that Act as they resulted to Ireland, has rigidly adhered to it, and to every word and every promise he made at that time, and largely because of that he is now driven outside the Irish party. When the hon. Gentleman and some others proceeded to what they called trying to reconcile Ulster and the Protestants from Ulster and Ireland generally, they made speeches which, if they had been made by the majority of them for the last twenty years might, I admit, possibly have had some effect on some of the Unionists in Ireland. Their idea was certainly a worthy idea, nobody can deny that, of bringing about reconciliation and better feeling, and the moment they do that they are denounced, and they are boycotted, and they are persecuted, and they can hardly hold an election in Ireland. The hon. Member for Cork——"

At this critical point the Liberal Chairman of Committees (Mr. Whitley) brusquely interfered to call Sir E. Carson to order, amidst the taunting cheers of the Hibernians, and no more was heard of the Ulster leader's reasons for believing that if the All-for-Ireland policy had been supported, instead of thwarted by the majority of the Irish Party, the objections of Ulster might have been overcome.

Sir E. Carson in dropping the subject on compulsion from the Chair was only able to add: "I can only say with great respect that I am surprised if I am not entitled to show why these counties in Ulster cannot trust the majority and give that as a reason why they should be excluded from the Bill." (Hansard, June, 1912, p. 1070).

In my own brief speech on the amendment will be found at that early date, what no other section of the House, British or Irish, are likely to claim for themselves, a precise exposition of the attitude of my colleagues and myself towards Ulster which we never had reason to alter in the smallest degree and which, it is not too much to claim, the bulk of men of all parties have since got reason to deplore was not their own attitude all along. An extract or two may be forgiven:

"There are very few compromises indeed to which I, for one, would not gladly assent if the effect was to conciliate the Protestant minority. The Amendment under consideration is almost the sole exception. This is the one compromise which to Irishmen is intolerable and impossible. Some of us, at all events, would prefer to the end of our days to be ruled by this Parliament or by the Grand Turk for that matter, rather than be assenting parties to the mutilation of a country which the hand of God and the whole course of history have made one. That is one of the things on which all Irish Protestants, as well as all Irish Catholics, think alike. That is I venture to say if the hon. Gentleman, the Member for Walton (Mr. F. E. Smith) who is not an Irishman himself, will give me leave to say so, one of the common instincts, one of the common ties of unity, one of the facts of our common mentality, which no human law can override, and which, no matter what any man may say, do constitute us one nation and not two nations. Whatever other differences we may have, we are, I think, all proud of being Irishmen; Irishmen not merely of the North or North East, or South, or South West, but Irishmen all round the compass.

And again—

"The Right Hon. Member for Dublin University (Sir E. Carson) in his most candid speech, has made it as clear as crystal that every Irishman for whom he speaks, as well as those we can speak for, thinks that any proposal to cut Ireland up into Protestant or Catholic concentration camps is unthinkable and impossible. ... So far as the Nationalists are concerned, there is no possibility of our entertaining for one moment such a proposal as is contained in this Amendment. ... I repeat this amendment is an impossible and hateful one both to Protestants and Catholics. It is almost the only compromise I can conceive to which those who think as I do would object if the result were to allay the suspicions and win the co-operation of our Protestant fellow-countrymen. I daresay you would rule me out of order if I were on this particular occasion to go into the nature of the compromises we believe to be practical ones; but Irish Nationalists would as soon cut off their hands as cut off from Ireland the province which is sacred ground to all of us, from the earliest dawn of our history by thousands of our most cherished national traditions. It was the home of long dynasties of the most heroic Gaelic princes, men like Shan O'Neil, Hugh O'Neil and Owen Roe; it was the home of those Anglo-Irish Protestant patriots of the Dungannon Convention and of the United Irishmen's days, whose names are worshipped to-day in every Catholic cabin in the South just as ardently as that of any Irish Catholic of whom our history tells us. We cannot and will not for any consideration part with our historical inheritance—we cannot part with a single Irishman within the shores of the island. On the other hand, within those shores, we respectfully invite and welcome our Protestant fellow countrymen to seek and find every form of power and honour in their own country, short of actual ascendancy. I go further—no matter how my words may be misrepresented in Ireland—and I say I should look forward to an Irish Parliament with very mixed feelings if I did not feel sure that upon the day when our Protestant fellow-countrymen can see their way to join us in organising a great National Peace Party in Ireland, exempt from all the old party trammels and passions of the past, they will find themselves in a position not merely to defend themselves against persecution, but to defend themselves far better than this House can ever defend them—nay, that in future years by their own qualities and by the natural bias of the Irish character, they will find themselves amongst the most effective and powerful elements in the governing majority of the Irish Parliament and the Irish Ministry. ... I end as I began by saying that whenever they make up their minds to put forward proposals intended not to kill this Bill, but to make it acceptable to every reasonable Unionist in Ireland, I for one will be with them to the death and aid them in holding their ground in honour and in power in the land which is their native land as well as it is mine."

Not a stir was made from the Ministerial side, save to scoff at every reference to the seriousness of the Ulster problem.

Thus proceeded the debates to the Third Reading on January 15, 1913, without the offer of the smallest concession to the special mentality and historical environment of Ulster; Mr. Redmond intervening on rare occasions with ceremonious speeches "faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null"; Mr. Dillon and Mr. Devlin deserving honourable mention only for their silence; the Hibernian Party in general ranged on their benches like so many automata mechanically wound up on the touching of a spring to vote, to roar out their Hallelujah choruses at the right moments in the speeches of their demi-gods on the Treasury Bench, or to supply more offensive music when it was a question of worrying or coughing down all who differed with them—a spectacle of intellectual feebleness and insignificance not easily to be forgiven to the representatives of a nation, who for the first time and for the last, might have been the masters of the situation.

While the programme of the Downing St. breakfast-party was being thus hustled through the House of Commons "according to plan," Sir E. Carson and the Unionist leader, Mr. Bonar Law (now his sworn confederate in contingent treason) had been more formidably engaged in rousing Ulster to armed resistance. More unhappily still, the eloquence of the Hibernian leaders had been diverted to platform work in Ireland which was even more effective than Sir E. Carson himself in setting ablaze the passions of the most furibund of his Orange partisans. We have already seen the disastrous consequences of the adventure—beginning in insolence and ending in pusillanimity—into which they tempted Mr. Winston Churchill in Belfast. Those consequences were every day exercising a more grievous influence on the temper of the North. The most moderate as well as the most fanatical could scarcely fail to see they were dealing with a Government from whom they had neither conciliation to hope for nor firmness to dread.

We have now to tell a story of open and advised illegality by the highest officers of the law for which history, or indeed romance furnishes no equal in a civilized State, unless it be the five years' war which the Irish Republican Army was afterwards enabled to carry on by copying and improving upon the methods taught them by Sir E. Carson's Provisional Government and his army equipped from Germany.

On September 24th, 1913, the conspiracy to resist Home Rule "by all means in their power, including force," took definite shape in the proclamation in Belfast of a "Central Authority for the Provisional Government of Ulster," under the presidency of Sir E. Carson. A Military Council of 84 members, together with the Officers Commanding, for the time being, the divisions and regiments of the Ulster Volunteer Force, was appointed. An Indemnity Fund of £1,000,000 was set on foot for the grim purpose of "assisting the widows and orphans, the wounded and disabled"who might suffer in the course of active service. What the active service was to be was not disguised, was indeed noisily proclaimed. It was to resist the law of the King and the Imperial Parliament—naked treason, blood-boultered rebellion. What the means were to be was made no less clear by the signing, four days afterwards, of "The Solemn League and Covenant" by which (as it was claimed) 250,000 men pledged their oaths to "stand by one another in using all means which may be found necessary." The means that were at once "found necessary" were to brigade this enormous army of Covenanters into divisions and regiments, to drill them and manoeuvre them in the public sight under officers in the King's pay, and to arm them to the teeth—first indeed with "the wooden guns" which excited Mr. Devlin's hilarity, but presently with Mauser rifles and machine-guns "made in Germany." These preparations for civil war were carried on and instigated for many months by ex-Cabinet Ministers, Privy Councillors and army officers in innumerable speeches, for any one of which the Sinn Féin rebels of a later day would have been hanged or shot without ceremony.

Sir E. Carson, the ex-Solicitor-General, was foremost in bidding defiance to the King and his Parliament. His recklessness makes one suspect he was taking a leaf out of our own book, for we always calculated that the best means of avoiding prosecution was to seem to court it. Here are but a few pearls from the interminable string of his treasons:

" We will shortly challenge the Government to interfere with us if they dare. We will do this regardless of all consequences. They may tell us, if they like, that that is treason. We are prepared to take the consequences. (Blenheim, 27th July, 1912).

"I do not care twopence whether it is treason or not; it is what we are going to do." (Coleraine, 21 st September, 1912).

"The Covenant was a challenge to the Government and they dare not take it up. . . . It was signed by soldiers in uniform and policemen in uniform and men in the pay of the Government, and they dare not touch one of them." (Belfast, May 19th, 1913).

"I know a great deal of that will involve statutory illegality, but it will also involve moral righteousness. . . . We have the repeated pledges of our great leader, Mr. Bonar Law, that . . . whatever steps we may feel compelled to take, whether they be constitutional or whether in the long run they be unconstitutional, we will have the whole of the Unionist Party under his leadership behind us. . . . The Government know perfectly well that they could not to-morrow rely on the Army to shoot down the people of Ulster." (Belfast, July 12th, 1913).

"I hope we (the Provisional Government) shall go on sitting there from day to day until we have absolutely completed our arrangements for taking over the Government ourselves. ... It might be, probably it will be, an illegal procedure. Well, if it is, we give the challenge to the Government to interfere with us if they dare. . . . But the Government won't interfere. They have not the courage." (Belfast, July 26th, 1913).

"I see by an announcement that his Majesty's Government are reported to have issued a warrant for my arrest. I know nothing about it and I care less. One thing I feel certain of is that the Government will never produce it, and will never execute it." (Portrush, 4th August, 1913).

"I don't hesitate to tell you that you ought to set yourselves against the constituted authority in the land. . . . We will set up a Government of our own. ... I am told that it will be illegal. Of course it will. Drilling is illegal; I was reading an Act of Parliament forbidding it. The Volunteers are illegal and the Government know they are illegal and the Government dare not interfere with them." (Newry, September 7th, 1913).

"I see it has created something of a commotion that they have at length ascertained that we have this great General (Sir George Richardson) amongst us. ... I tell the Government more than that. I tell them we have pledges and promises from some of the greatest generals in the Army that when the time comes and if it is necessary they will come over and help us." (Antrim, September 26th, 1913).

No Law Officer of the Crown, if consulted, could advise otherwise than that such speeches (and they were repeated in hundreds before reviews of many thousands of drilled rebels) must have led to the Ulster leader's conviction for treason felony if he were indicted for levying war against the King and seducing the Army from their allegiance. Sir E. Carson avowed and gloried in the statutable illegality of his words and of his preparations for civil war. Any sensational punishment, when things had been allowed to go so far, might have only stimulated a reaction in his favour. On the other hand, imbecile inaction while a province was being openly organised for rebellion against the law of the King and Parliament was the abdication of the first duty of Government, and could only convince Sir E. Carson's followers that he was right when he boasted that the feeble folk in command at Dublin Castle were cowed by his blood-thirsty threats that "if they dare to come to attack us the red blood will flow." For many months there was no real danger of "the red blood flowing" if the Government had only availed themselves of the Perpetual Coercion Act which Sir E. Carson and his friends had themselves placed at their disposal, and which the Hibernian Party had failed to use their omnipotent power to repeal. When the Ulster Provisional Government was appointed, Dublin Castle had only to publish a notice in the Gazette proclaiming the Provisional Government and its army as "an illegal association," and to summon Sir E. Carson under the Act of Edward III. to give securities for his good behaviour, according to the procedure he had himself made so familiar against his political opponents, and the prosaic ignominy of his fate as a warrior chief would have done more to give an amused satisfaction to all sensible citizens than to excite any commotion which the local police could not deal with. Whenever the archives of Dublin Castle yield up their secrets, it will be found that Mr. Birrell's Resident Magistrates and Police

Officers in the North assured him that at any date up to the landing of the "Fanny's" cargo of German arms, the dissolution of the Volunteers could have been effected without firing a shot, but warned him that it might soon be too late. They were chaffed for their pains and sent home with intimations that their warnings were unwelcome. Shouts of "Carson, King of the Bluffers"—the inscription on the breast of the effigy burned on the Falls Road—continued to represent the wisdom of the Hibernians and their happy-hearted Chief Secretary.

The time came when even Mr. Birrell found it necessary to do something that seemed serious. It was really something so little serious as a way of grappling with a great crisis, that it would rather have been taken for one of his jokes only that it was a sorry joke. In the December of 1913 he published a proclamation forbidding the importation of arms. Tardy, but excellent, if he had proceeded to give effect to it by vigilant preparations at the ports, and by seizing the arms already stored in dumps where his Resident Magistrates and Police Officers knew perfectly well to find them. As a matter of fact, neither then nor ever afterwards did the police lay hold of a single one of Sir E. Carson's rifles. Worse still, the Government made warlike faces at the Ulster rebels, and uttered threats from which they promptly ran away. Mr. Winston Churchill, as before, distinguished himself by announcing that the time had come "when these grave matters would have to be put to the test," and retorted from his own side if there should be any resistance Sir E. Carson's menace that "the red blood would flow." Nay, as First Lord of the Admiralty, he began business by ordering the Channel Fleet to Lamlash, within a few hours' steam of Belfast, and the air was full of preparations for a military expedition from the South as though it were no longer possible peacefully to move a regiment or a policeman in Ulster without the leave of Sir E. Carson's Provisional Government.

This fit of governmental hysteria spread to the Army. On March 20, 1914, Gen. Hubert Gough, commanding a Cavalry Brigade at the Curragh, was sent for by the Commander-in-Chief, Sir A. Paget, with the news that his Brigade was to be utilized for "active measures" in Ulster, and was timidly sounded as to whether he and his officers could be relied on to obey. The mutiny thus fatally invited did not fail to come off. Gough got two hours to consult his officers as to whether or not they would disobey their rudimentary duty as soldiers. The General, generous-hearted and hot-headed Irishman as he was, opted to send in his papers rather than march. His officers almost to a man resolved to follow their commander and telephoned their decision to the Marlborough Barracks, where the officers of a regiment of Lancers joined in the revolt, seventy out of the seventy-six officers pledging themselves to hand in their resignations. It was a serious manifestation directly provoked by irresolution at headquarters, and now to be crowned with triumph by further irresolution. General Gough has since made it clear that when he was summoned to London by the Secretary for War (Col. Seely) he would not have hesitated to obey orders like a soldier, if these orders were plainly given. He was, on the contrary, left under the impression that he was to be left free to judge for himself whether the expedition to the North was one he could approve of, and he returned to his command at the Curragh completely justified and glorified in the eyes of his brother mutineers, claiming that he had "got a signed guarantee that in no circumstances shall we be used to force Home Rule on the Ulster people." The effect upon the moral of the Army is accurately enough described by the story, if not true, assuredly ben trovato, told at the time of the reply of the Commander-in-Chief, Sir A. Paget, to the inquiry what his army would do if ordered to the North: "All would go well until we met the first of Carson's men somewhere north of the Boyne, when my fellows would go over to them to a man, and I should be sent as prisoner to Mount Stewart" (Lord Londonderry's place) "and have the time of my life." With a Secretary for War so apologetic, and a Commander-in-Chief so philosophic, there was no more to be said. The fit of active governmental hysterics died down. The Army was never ordered to the North, the Fleet was ingloriously ordered home from Lamlash, and Sir E. Carson might well boast louder than ever that the Army was at his beck when a campaign for the seduction of the Army, for which he might have been shot, went unpunished, and the officers who responded to his incitements were lionized for their indiscipline, in full sight of the German Emperor, who was at that moment making up his mind whether an English Army thus demoralized was worth counting in his impending World-war.

The famous proclamation for disarming Ulster was about to receive a still more contemptuous commentary even than the Curragh Mutiny, which it followed fast. On April 24, 1914 (according to the official organ of the Covenanters, the Northern Whig), "notwithstanding the Proclamation of the Government and the vigilance of the Customs Officers a cargo of over 35,000 magazine rifles and 2,500,000 rounds of ammunition purchased on the Continent was landed at Larne, Bangor, and Donaghadee." For days beforehand the affair was the talk of the province and the "many hundred private motor-cars" engaged in the slow work of discharging the cargo of the "Fanny" did not, of course escape the eye of the police, many of whom were actual lookers-on without daring to raise a hand. They were overawed, not by the gentlemen law-breakers of the private motor-cars, but by the fear how their zeal would be regarded by their superiors in Dublin Castle. Most of the hiding-places where this vast store of firearms were stowed away were also perfectly well-known to the police authorities, and were duly reported to headquarters, but not a single search for arms was ordered anywhere in the province, nor a single rifle of the 35,000 ever taken out of the hands of the victorious gun-runners. Well might Sir E. Carson, Privy Councillor and ex-Solicitor General, not only identify himself with the illegality, but publicly incite his men to offer a bloody resistance to any officer of the law who should try to disarm them. "And now, men," he cried to the West Belfast Regiment (June 6, 1914, two months before the outbreak of the World-war), "keep your arms no matter what happens. I rely upon every man to fight for his arms to the end. Let no man take them from you. I do not care who they be, or under what authority they come, I tell you, 'Stick to your arms.'"

When such a speech following such an act of open war was left unchallenged, the Government of the King surrendered at discretion. As they and their Hibernian confederates had hitherto sinned by withholding the smallest concession from Ulster in the wise belief that to laugh at "The King of the Bluffers" and his "wooden guns" was the complete art of statesmanship, so, from the day the wooden guns were exchanged for Mauser rifles, they sinned by a cowardice which History will find as contemptible as their lack of foresight had been unpardonable.

Read "The Irish Revolution" at your leisure

The Irish Revolution

Read The Irish Revolution at your leisure and help support this free Irish library.

William O'Brien was a County Cork M.P. who participated in the negotiations for Home Rule in Ireland. In this account, first published in 1923, he provides an insight into the politics and politicians of the time - John Redmond, John Dillon, Arthur Griffith, Sir Edward Carson, Bonar Law, Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, etc. - and gives his analysis of the origins of the Easter Rising of 1916 and the subsequent Irish Civil War. From his own perspective, O'Brien was very much anti-Partition, and was evidently frustrated at the failure to give adequate reassurance to the Northern Unionists.

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 ».