FE Smith: Ulster Covenant advocate who was born on the Twelfth of July

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Historian GORDON LUCY looks at the life of an enthusiastic supporter of Ulster during the Home Rule cris

In the years before the Great War Frederick Edwin Smith was viewed as a future leader of his party and a future prime minister.

Before he was 40 in July 1912 FE Smith had amassed a fortune at the Bar, had entered the House of Commons in 1906 as Conservative MP for Liverpool Walton, had taken silk in 1908 and had become a Privy Councillor in 1911.

Determined to make a name for himself in the Commons, as he had done in the Oxford Union and on the Northern Circuit, on March 12 1906 FE had defied the convention that maiden speeches are short, polite, modest and unprovocative.

When he rose to speak, he was unknown. When he sat down his reputation was made.

‘Who is this Effie Smith?’ one elderly lady is reputed to have inquired of another.

‘I don’t think she can be a modest girl to be talked about so much!’

FE had the capacity to render Liberals apoplectic.

With respect to the constitutional crisis over the Lords’ veto George Dangerfield (in The Strange Death of Liberal England) observed that FE’s ‘very appearance inspired the Liberals with such justifiable fury that they completely lost their heads’.

However, significantly he managed to maintain a cross-party friendship with Winston Churchill.

During the third Home Rule crisis FE was an enthusiastic supporter of Ulster.

He spoke at five of the pre-Covenant demonstrations in September 1912, second only to Carson who spoke at six.

Martin Ross of Irish RM fame was present at Coleraine and was impressed by FE’s demeanour: ‘I have seen a face so inscrutably youthful, so immutably serious in a deal at the Dublin Horse Show…’

FE also spoke at Londonderry, Ballymena, Portadown and the eve of Covenant rally in Belfast.

His prominence in the Covenant campaign prompted Liberals to deride him as Carson’s ‘galloper’ (a ‘galloper’ is an aide-de-camp or orderly officer).

Contrary to Robert Rhodes James’ assertion, FE was not ‘a very recent and opportunistic convert to the cause of Ulster’.

His support for Ulster was a product of nature and nuture.

FE’s father, who died when FE was 16, had been an admirer of Lord Randolph Churchill, a Tory democrat and a staunch opponent of Home Rule.

His unionism was bred in his bones. It received reinforcement from the strongly unionist environment of Birkenhead, across the Mersey from Liverpool. Along with the Liverpool Working Men’s Conservative Association, the Orange Order was one of the most dynamic components of Liverpool’s populist Conservatism.

He simply shared the views of his Orange and Protestant constituents. He was even born on July 12.

The strength and vigour of Liverpool unionism may be easily demonstrated. After signing the Ulster Covenant at the City Hall in Belfast, Carson, accompanied by FE, sailed to Liverpool.

Arriving at 7.30am on September 29 they were greeted by an astonishing 150,000 people and conducted in triumph to the Conservative Club.

The following evening Carson and FE addressed a comparable audience in Shiel Park in FE’s Walton constituency.

As a result of the formation of Asquith’s coalition government, FE became solicitor general in June 1915. In November 1915 he succeeded Carson as attorney general.

His most important case as attorney general was Sir Roger Casement’s trial for treason. Casement had had sought German support for an insurrection in Ireland and had attempted to recruit Irish prisoners of war to an Irish brigade to fight alongside the Germans.

Casement was convicted and executed. Although nationalists have criticised FE’s role in the trial, given the facts there can be no quarrel with either the charge or the verdict.

After the general election of 1918, FE, as Baron Birkenhead, became the youngest lord chancellor in modern times, possibly since the infamous Judge Jeffreys in 1685.

As lord chancellor, Birkenhead negotiated and signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 6 1921 which brought the Anglo-Irish conflict of 1919-21 to a close and gave dominion status to the 26 counties while allowing Ulster to remain part of the United Kingdom.

By gaining the apparent friendship of Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, the Sinn Fein leaders, FE enraged some of his formerly close associates, notably Carson.

Carson in his maiden speech in the House of Lords denounced the treaty as an abject surrender to terrorism and an utter humiliation for the British Empire.

Turning to the treaty’s signatories, Carson reserved his bitterest scorn for his former ‘galloper’: ‘Of all the men in my experience that I think are the most loathsome it is those who will sell their friends for the purpose of conciliating their enemies, and, perhaps, still worse, the men who climb up a ladder into power of which even I may have been part of a humble rung, and then, when they have got into power, kick the ladder away without any concern for the pain, or injury, or mischief, or damage that they do to those who have helped them to gain power’.

Carson’s acute sense of betrayal and bitterness at the treaty were the product of his southern Irish unionist roots. While privately wounded by Carson’s remarks, Birkenhead shrugged them off in the Lords by observing, ‘As for the speech of Lord Carson, his constructive effort at statecraft would be immature on the lips of a hysterical schoolgirl’.

FE denied betraying Ulster by signing the treaty. He had campaigned before the Great War to secure Ulster’s exclusion from Home Rule and that he had achieved.

Of Birkenhead, Margot Asquith once said that he was ‘very clever’ but sometimes he allowed ‘his brains go to his head’. Therein may lie one reason why FE never became prime minister.

The real reason is that his own party ended up not trusting him because of his support for the Anglo-Irish Treaty, his advocacy of an anti-socialist ‘Centre Party’ and his admiration for Lloyd George which rank and file Conservatives could not share.

Finally, Tory women, a factor never to be underestimated, did not care for the conduct of his private life.