Edward Carson’s long shadow

An Irishman’s Diary: A Dublin-born hero of unionism

 Sir Edward Carson: he  was  willing to carry resistance to Home Rule to almost any length, legal or illegal. Photograph:    Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Sir Edward Carson: he was willing to carry resistance to Home Rule to almost any length, legal or illegal. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images


Unlike Margaret Thatcher, an Irishman who toyed with treason and brought Ireland to the brink of bloody civil conflict was given a state funeral by the British establishment. Edward Carson, who became the intransigent leader of Ulster unionism, was born in Harcourt Street, Dublin, in 1854 and died in Kent in 1935 after a tempestuous legal and political career. He was returned as a unionist MP for his old university, Trinity College, from 1892 to 1918 and held a number of posts in the British cabinet. In 1910 he became leader of the Irish Unionist parliamentary party and agitated passionately to maintain the union between Britain and Ireland. He was hero-worshipped by unionists in the North. Long before they mastered nursery rhymes like Mary Had a Little Lamb every Protestant toddler could recite:
Sir Edward Carson had a cat

It sat upon the fender

And every time it caught a rat

It shouted ‘No Surrender’.

Carson was the first signatory of the Ulster Covenant which solemnly bound its adherents to resist Home Rule for Ireland by “all means necessary”. Those means included the formation of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force and the illegal shipment of arms from Germany through the port of Larne. Carson was obviously willing to carry resistance to Home Rule to almost any length, legal or illegal. He told a crowd of 50,000 followers at one of his many rallies that they should be prepared to set up a provisional government for “the Protestant province of Ulster”. But the outbreak of the first World War quietened the rumblings in Ulster and many members of the UVF sailed off to the killing fields of the Somme as part of the Ulster Division. Carson served in the war cabinet under two prime ministers, Asquith and Lloyd George. He was elected MP for the Belfast constituency of Duncairn. After the war he returned to his legal practice, and in 1921 he accepted a peerage and joined the judiciary. Despite his pre-eminence in both politics and the law – he appeared in some of the most famous cases of the century, including Oscar Wilde’s ill-fated libel action – he was denied a public recognition in his adopted city of London. A few years ago English Heritage, which erects wall plaques to commemorate the birthplaces or homes of distinguished personalities, refused to mark Carson’s home.

Carson retired from public life in 1929 and made his last visit to Belfast in 1932 to witness, with a crowd of 40,000 people, the unveiling of the massive bronze statue of himself scowling down the driveway at Stormont, his back to the Parliament Buildings. When he died three years later he was honoured with a full state funeral. His body was brought back to Belfast on the destroyer HMS Broke, and thousands of workers from (at the time) the world’s largest shipyard stood reverently on the shoreline. The coffin was placed on a gun carriage and hauled through the city by naval ratings watched by silent crowds. Eight sergeants of the Royal Ulster Constabulary carried the coffin into St Anne’s Cathedral where it was received by Carson’s fellow Dubliner, Archbishop Charles D’Arcy, as the congregation sang the battle hymn of Ulster Unionism, O God Our Help in Ages Past. Carson’s second wife and their young son were the chief mourners.

Special legislation had to be rushed through Stormont to allow Carson’s remains to be buried in the cathedral. He is still the only person to be interred within its confines. After the coffin was lowered into the tomb, soil from each of the six counties and from the City of Derry was scattered over it from a silver bowl. Carson’s favourite hymn, I Vow to Thee My Country, was sung by the choir. This was also Thatcher’s favourite hymn and it was sung at her ceremonial funeral in St Paul’s Cathedral.

Thatcher and Carson also shared similar aspirations. When she entered No 10 Downing Street as prime minister in 1979 she quoted from a prayer: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony . . .”. (She wrongly attributed the lines to St Francis of Assisi; in fact, they were written in French around 1912 and published in a religious magazine). When he relinquished the leadership of the Unionist Party in 1921 Carson told his followers : “From the very outset let us see that the Catholic minority has nothing to fear from the Protestant majority. Let us take care to win all that is best among those who have been opposed to us in the past. While maintaining intact our own religion let us give the same rights to the religion of our neighbours.”

Sadly, the harmonious visions of Carson and Thatcher have yet to be realised.