February 8th, 1912. Denied the use of the Ulster Hall in Belfast, Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty in HH Asquith’s Liberal government, was forced to address a meeting in favour of Home Rule in a sodden marquee in Celtic Park. To avoid a hostile gathering of indignant loyalists in the city centre, he had no choice afterwards but to take a circuitous route back to get his sea ferry at Larne.
Churchill was experiencing how dangerously fractured society in Ulster had become. More clearly than ever, the inhabitants here seemed divided into two antagonistic ethnic groups with profoundly divergent aspirations. It took little to bring ancient hatreds welling alarmingly to the surface.
The government had announced that a Home Rule Bill would be introduced that session. Soon, however, it became clear that it would not happen until after the Easter recess. That gave opponents of Home Rule, led by Sir Edward Carson, time to organise an imposing display of Unionist strength. On Easter Tuesday, April 9th, at Balmoral in south Belfast, the new Conservative leader, Andrew Bonar Law, after reviewing 100,000 men marching past his platform, pledged his party’s unflinching support. He assured them of the help of the British people “and when the crisis is over men will say to you . . . you have saved yourselves by your exertions, and you will save the empire by your example”.
Two days later, on April 11th, Asquith introduced the Home Rule Bill in the Commons. In Ulster, feelings of nationalist elation were short-lived, however. In June 1912, an amendment was put forward to exclude from its terms of reference the four north-eastern counties. Though the amendment was defeated, the idea that all or part of Ulster would be excluded from the operation of Home Rule was clearly gaining favour in Westminster.
This was a matter of deep concern for Joseph Devlin, who had won West Belfast by a margin of 16 votes in 1906. The politics of his ghetto fiefdom in Belfast was narrow and tribal, its power base the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a Catholic mirror image of the Orange Order. But it was thanks to Devlin that northern Nationalists now displayed an impressive unity. Nevertheless, “Wee Joe” was already anxious that the Unionist campaign would eventually separate his northern followers from their southern brethren.
In July, Bonar Law threw caution to the wind by declaring: “I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster can go in which I should not be prepared to support them.” Speculation about what form that resistance would take was already stirring up vicious intercommunal hostility.
On Thursday, June 27th, children from the Sacred Heart convent in Lisburn were attacked as they departed for an outing to Ardglass. Then, on Saturday, June 29th, the Sunday school excursion from Whitehouse Presbyterian Church arrived in Castledawson. That evening, as they paraded back to the railway station with their flute band, holding aloft banners bearing texts from Scripture and a Union flag, they were assaulted by Hibernians returning from a meeting in Maghera.
Crying “Remember Castledawson!” loyalists drove thousands of Catholics out of the Belfast shipyards, engineering works and linen mills. Troop reinforcements had to be rushed to the city. On September 14th, during a soccer match at Celtic Park, between Linfield and Celtic, the ground was engulfed by rival hordes of supporters engaging each other with fists, bottles, knives and revolvers.
Meanwhile, Unionist leaders were planning “Ulster Day” with meticulous care. This was designed to demonstrate to the world, and to the people of Britain in particular, the determination of the majority in the north to oppose Home Rule. The climax was to be the signing of a covenant, a pact with God, pledging resistance to the setting up of a Dublin parliament. A rolling programme of public meetings began on September 17th when Carson addressed 40,000 at Enniskillen. More than a dozen meetings followed in provincial towns, Carson being joined by such Conservative dignitaries as Lord Salisbury, Lord Willoughby de Broke, FE Smith and Lord Charles Beresford.
Ulster Day, Saturday, September 28th, dawned bright and clear. At 9.15am, a guard of 2,500 men formed up at Belfast City Hall; at 10am, the first relief of 500 men, wearing bowler hats and white armlets and carrying white staves, began the daylong task of marshalling the crowds and protecting the flowerbeds. The Portland stone of the City Hall gleamed in the sun: formally opened six years before, this was one of the most sumptuous municipal centres in the United Kingdom, a fitting pivot of the resistance to Home Rule.
Just before 11am, Bedford Street was packed with spectators as Carson stepped into the Ulster Hall. This was a religious service: the congregation sang O God, Our Help in Ages Past, and after prayers and lessons had been read, the Rev Dr William McKean rose to deliver his sermon, taking as his text Timothy 6. 20: “Keep that which is committed to thy trust.” “We are plain, blunt men who love peace and industry,” the former Presbyterian moderator declared: “The Irish question is at bottom a war against Protestantism; it is an attempt to establish a Roman Catholic ascendancy in Ireland to begin the disintegration of the empire by securing a second parliament in Dublin.” All over Ulster similar services were being held in Protestant churches.
From the Ulster Hall Sir Edward walked bareheaded to the City Hall where he was met by a guard of honour and city dignitaries. Then Carson entered the vestibule and walked towards a circular table directly under the dome that rose 173 feet above him. He took up the silver pen presented to him the evening before and signed the Solemn League and Covenant.
When Carson re-emerged the reverential hum in the vast crowd outside changed to tempestuous cheering as he made his way, bowing and waving, to the Ulster Reform Club in Royal Avenue for luncheon. Behind him the stewards struggled to regulate the flow of men eager to sign the Covenant in the City Hall. A double row of desks stretching right round the building made it possible for 550 to sign simultaneously. Some signed in their own blood. All over Ulster men were making a pledge to use “all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland”.
At 2.30pm, a procession of bands converged on the City Hall. As each one arrived the bandsmen halted at a prearranged position, all continuing to play different tunes, creating, in the opinion of the Northern Whig, “a fine post-impressionist effect about it that should have pleased admirers of the new style of music”.
JL Garvin, reporting for the Pall Mall Gazette, wrote:
“Seen from the topmost mast outside gallery of the dome, the square below, and the streets striking away from it were black with people. Through the mass, with drums and fifes, sashes and banners, the clubs marched all day.”
It was 8pm when the last contingent entered the City Hall and signatures were still being affixed after 11pm.
Huge crowds sang Rule Britannia and God Save the King as the Unionist leaders walked round the corner from the Ulster Reform Club to the Ulster Club in Castle Place. At 8.30pm a brass band advanced towards the Ulster Club playing See the Conquering Hero Comes, its staff major and spear carriers almost having to carve a way through the surging mass. Deafening cheers greeted Carson when he came out and with 20 other dignitaries climbed into a waiting motor brake designed for 12 passengers. The vehicle was pulled down High Street by hundreds of willing hands. “With a roaring hurricane of cheers punctuated on every side by the steady rattle of revolver shots,” Garvin wrote, “onward swept this whole city in motion with a tumult that was mad.”
On Donegall Quay, Sir Edward was saluted by a fusillade of shots and prolonged cheering. Bonfires in Great Patrick Street sprang to life and a huge fire on the Cave Hill threw a brilliant glare over the sky. From the upper deck of the SS Patriotic, Carson shouted out:
“I have very little voice left. I ask you while I am away in England and Scotland and fighting your battle in the Imperial Parliament to keep the old flag flying. And ‘No Surrender!’”
All over Ulster men were still signing the Covenant and women separately signed their own declaration. Altogether 471,414 people signed. The ecstatic Unionists did not doubt the justice of their cause as they sang Come Back to Erin, and, as the Patriotic steamed into the Victoria Channel, salvoes of rockets shot up to the sky and 50 bonfires blazed from the hills and headlands.
Calm largely prevailed in Ulster for the rest of the year. However, in December the UUC dropped opposition to Home Rule for all of Ireland and limited it to Ulster. For Devlin the nightmare of partition was looming.