The birth of Northern Ireland was just a by-product of Carson’s failure

Historian GORDON LUCY on why Sir Edward Carson relinquished the leadership of Ulster Unionism a century ago

By The Newsroom
Monday, 1st February 2021, 7:00 am
Sir Edward Carson’s statue at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, although interpreted as an expression of triumphalism, is more a symbol of failure
Sir Edward Carson’s statue at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, although interpreted as an expression of triumphalism, is more a symbol of failure

Sir Edward Carson was invited to become Northern Ireland’s first prime minister but it was an honour he declined.

It would have involved operating the Government of Ireland Act which he viewed with distaste.

Office held little attraction for him. As a hypochondriac, he almost certainly would have had anxieties about his health. He may have believed, at the age of 66, that it was appropriate to step down and make way for a younger man.

Although he was pleased with what he had achieved for his Ulster Unionist friends, as a southern Irish Unionist he was emotionally deflated with his failure with respect to his own people. This may have weighed more heavily with him than hitherto appreciated.

On February 4 1921 he formally relinquished the leadership of Ulster Unionism.

The creation of Northern Ireland was not Carson’s goal. As a southern Irish Unionist, his aim was the comprehensive defeat of Home Rule. Carson believed that Home Rule was not economically viable without Ulster’s – and more specifically Belfast’s – heavy industry and that John Redmond, the Nationalist leader, and Irish nationalist opinion would never accept Home Rule with Ulster exclusion. He believed that by harnessing Ulster Unionist opposition, he could bury Home Rule.

The signing of the Ulster Covenant of September 28 1912, drilling and military preparations, the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force, the establishment of a provisional government in Belfast and large-scale gunrunning were all intended to underscore the seriousness and depth of Ulster unionist opposition to Home Rule.

In November 1911 Carson drafted a memorandum suggesting that ‘it might be necessary to raise the question [of Ulster exclusion] some time by amendment’. It was in this spirit that Carson supported the Agar-Robartes amendment for four-county exclusion in June 1912 and Carson introduced his own amendment for nine-county exclusion in January 1913. As late as September 1913 Carson still believed that it was possible to defeat Home Rule by insisting on the exclusion of either the whole of Ulster or even part of Ulster. However, by November 1913 Carson sadly concluded that it was no longer possible to defeat Home Rule for the whole of Ireland. Saving Ulster, or as much of Ulster as possible, from the operation of a Home Rule bill became his task.

The Buckingham Palace conference of July 21-24 1914 revealed that Carson’s bottom line was six-county exclusion (the counties which now constitute Northern Ireland) and that remained the position during Lloyd George’s abortive negotiations to resolve the Irish Question in the immediate aftermath of the Easter rebellion in 1916.

After the end of the Great War, Carson’s attitude to the new Home Rule bill (which proposed the establishment of Home Rule parliaments in Belfast and Dublin) was ‘lukewarm’. Two months before its introduction, on December 19 1919 Carson’s speech in the Commons demonstrated his philosophical opposition to Home Rule:

‘Ulster has never asked for a separate Parliament. Ulster’s claim has always been of this simple character: “we have thrived under the Union; we are in sympathy with you, we are part of yourselves. We are prepared to make any sacrifice that you make, and are prepared to bear any burden that is equally put upon us with the other parts of the United Kingdom. In those circumstances keep us with you.”

‘They have never made any other demand than that, and I appeal to the Government to keep Ulster in their united Parliament. I cannot understand why we should ask them to take a Parliament which they have never demanded, and which they do not want’.

In March 1920 when the Ulster Unionist Council considered the terms of the bill, Carson defended the decision to opt for a six-county rather than a nine-county parliament, thereby abandoning unionists in Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan. On that occasion we fleetingly glimpse his pain and anguish as a southern Irish Unionist: ‘I could talk as I feel about men abandoned, not merely in this province; and God knows how I feel about men abandoned, not merely in this province but in the southern and western parts of Ireland.’

Some regard Carson’s maiden speech in the House of Lords on the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 as a tour de force. Carson’s old friend and ally, F E Smith (now Lord Birkenhead) and the target of much of its venom, claimed that it would have been ‘immature upon lips of a hysterical schoolgirl’. It certainly was a bitter denunciation of both the betrayal of former friends and allies and of government policy in Ireland. Carson’s observation – ‘I was only a puppet, and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into power’ – is frequently quoted.

Carson’s last major speech in the House of Lords also merits consideration.

One of the safeguards in the treaty was the right of Southern Ireland to appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, by which British negotiators set great store in 1921. In 1933 the right of appeal to the Privy Council was abolished, and with it the final safeguard in the treaty disappeared. Carson explained:

‘I only came into public life because I cared for my fellow Loyalists in Ireland. I went all through my public life doing my best for them, and I saw them in the end betrayed; but at all events betrayed under the pretext that certain safeguards were provided. Now I have lived to see every one of these safeguards absolutely set at naught and made useless. That is not a pleasant political career.

‘I belong, I believe, to what is called the Unionist Party. Why it is called the Unionist Party I fail to understand unless it is to remind people in this country that it was the party that betrayed Unionists.’

Although Carson’s impressive statue in front of Parliament Buildings is frequently interpreted as an expression of triumphalism, it is the symbol of failure. He never sought to establish a parliament in Belfast. Stormont was a by-product of his failure.