From brink of civil war

As the Third Home Rule Bill made it way through parliament in London, Ulster Protestants were spooked and formed the UVF to fight in the event of British MP’s electing to support the bill

1914: Edward Carson inspects a parade of armed Ulster Volunteers. By the time Carson announced in Belfast that an Ulster Division would be formed from the UVF, many young men, impatient with waiting, had already enlisted.  Photograph: Central Press/Getty

1914: Edward Carson inspects a parade of armed Ulster Volunteers. By the time Carson announced in Belfast that an Ulster Division would be formed from the UVF, many young men, impatient with waiting, had already enlisted. Photograph: Central Press/Getty

Wed, May 14, 2014, 01:00

One hundred years ago, in spring 1914, the idea of an imminent world war was far from the minds of Ulster people. The focus was much closer to home. Most of the northern province was effectively an armed camp on the verge of civil war by an insurrection against the British government; the aim, paradoxically enough, was to remain part of the United Kingdom.

Ulster’s widespread unionist and Protestant population, most densely found in Belfast and the neighbouring counties of Antrim and Down, was solemnly pledged and steadfastly organised to resist the government’s policy of home rule for Ireland. The fearful prospect united Protestant unionists across the social spectrum, from captains of industry and commerce to landowners and farmers, and from working class to upper class. Their strong sense of “Britishness” felt threatened by the rise of political and cultural nationalism, the power of the Catholic church in Ireland and the economic impact of home rule on manufacturing and trade.

Under the leadership of Sir James Craig – “the hatchet-faced heir to a distillery”, as historian Richard Killeen describes him, and “the very epitome of the new Ulster plutocrat”– and Sir Edward Carson, the ferocious Dublin lawyer, notorious for his role in the Oscar Wilde case, unionist opposition found dramatic expression in the mass signing of the Solemn League and Covenant in September 1912 (some men even used their own blood), and in the organisation of huge rallies and demonstrations. These were theatrical affairs, with speeches of impassioned resistance invoking deeply-embedded fears of plots and betrayal.

As Carson said, “Ulster sees in Irish nationalism a dark conspiracy, buttressed upon crime and incitement to outrage, maintained by ignorance and pandering to superstition.”

A highly effective propaganda campaign was also initiated. Large numbers of colourful picture postcards were produced, showing unionist resistance to home rule and an embattled determination to remain British: in one example, a stout-legged bulldog, occupying the entire province of Ulster, squares up to a distinctly mangy-looking cur, representing “home rule territory”, with the slogan “Shall we from the Union sever, by the God that made us NEVER”.

Characteristically defiant and pugnacious, the cards were designed as pictorial propaganda to mobilise unionist sentiment in Ulster and gain support in Britain for the unionist cause. More to the point, a people’s militia, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was formed in January 1913, to resist home rule by force of arms if necessary. Ironically, the militaristic organisation and activities of the UVF in 1913 also inspired the formation of the nationalist Irish Volunteers and the socialist Irish Citizen Army, both inaugurated in Dublin in November 1913.

By early 1914, the dreams and political ambitions of generations of Irish nationalists were soon to be realised as the Third Home Rule Bill neared the end of its stormy passage through the House of Commons. This heavily contested parliamentary legislation had been introduced by the prime minister Herbert Asquith two years earlier, on April 11th, 1912, coincidentally the day after Titanic sailed from Belfast.

It had been delivered because the nationalist Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), led by John Redmond, held the balance of power in the Commons, and home rule was the price of Irish support for Asquith’s Liberal government against the Conservative and Unionist opposition. With the proposed future Irish Parliament invested with modest devolved powers – not unlike today’s Northern Ireland Assembly – Ireland would remain within the British Empire under the expected constitutional leadership of John Redmond as the Irish Prime Minister. In a major concession to Ulster unionists an exclusion opt-out for a period of six years was offered, but rejected by Carson who regarded it merely as “a stay of execution”.

Meanwhile other important figures were watching. The German Kaiser was known to be interested in the Ulster crisis, and the unionists had already sent out exploratory feelers in that direction, with Craig even floating the notion that Germany would be favoured over “the rule of John Redmond, Patrick Ford and the Molly Maguires”.

Historian ATQ Stewart notes that tongues were set wagging in August 1913 when Carson met the Kaiser at a lunch party in Homburg. Apparently the German emperor confided that he would have liked to go to Ireland, but his grandmother, Queen Victoria, had not let him. He added, with a smile: “perhaps she thought I wanted to take the little place”. “I think, sir, you are well out of it,” Carson replied, to laughter.

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