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Belfast Telegraph
24 September 2012

Ulster Covenant: How Edward Carson rose from politician to a visionary statesman

Ruth Dudley Edwards examines the legacy of Edward Carson: Irishman, unionist and opponent of Home Rule

Covenant day
Covenant day in Belfast 28/09/1912

As a child, all I knew about my fellow-Dubliner, Edward Carson, was the verse my historian father had taught me.

“Sir Edward Carson had a cat,
It sat upon the fender
And every time it caught a rat,
It shouted, ‘No Surrender!’”
Not that I understood it.

I knew little more by the time – as an undergraduate - I first saw his Stormont statue. As his biographer Geoffrey Lewis put it: ‘There he stands, bare-headed in a rumpled suit, his arm raised in a gesture of sombre defiance against the grey Belfast sky. He appeared to his friends as a saviour, and to his enemies as the grim icon of Protestant Ulster intransigence.’ By southern Catholic standards I wasn’t heavily burdened with nationalist baggage, but I can’t say I found the image attractive. And then there was the matter of the role Carson had played in 1895 in the downfall of his Trinity College Dublin contemporary, Oscar Wilde. Vaguely, I saw him as a ruthless destroyer of a great writer.

In truth, as I would come to know, Wilde had brought his destruction on himself by suing the Marquess of Queenberry for criminal libel for calling him a ‘sodomite’. As defence counsel, Carson proved Wilde to be a liar, but afterwards, in private, he vainly tried to persuade the authorities not to prosecute him.

It was years before I came to know Ulster Protestants well and to try to look at Irish history from a unionist as well as a nationalist perspective. I realised I still had a long way to go when I remarked to a Presbyterian friend apropos of some serious set-back to our efforts to make Orangemen act sensibly when Sinn Fein were provoking them to violence: “That’s when Aughrim (Williamites vs Jacobites) was lost.” He paused for a moment and said in a baffled tone: “But we won Aughrim!”

As a lawyer renowned for the thoroughness with which he mastered a brief, Carson was very successful at the Dublin bar and was crown prosecutor in such notorious cases as that of the Irish Parliamentary Party MP and land agitator, William O’Brien, tried and imprisoned under a much-opposed Coercion Act. Politically, Carson was a supporter of the group that in 1886 broke from the Liberal Party over Home Rule and formed an alliance with the Conservatives. By 1892, when he became the Liberal Unionist MP for Dublin University, he was much loathed by nationalists.

At 39, he uprooted his family, and in London, through his fine parliamentary speeches, became a Westminster celebrity. He was no party man, being a virulent critic of anything he perceived to be government interference in the judicial process. As a barrister, his reputation was made at the London bar by his victory in the Wilde libel case. By 1900, when he was appointed by Prime Minister Arthur Balfour to the widely-coveted post of Solicitor General for England and knighted, he was earning around £20,000 - well over a million in today’s money. In view of Carson’s later militancy, it was ironic that he was the prosecutor in the case of Arthur Lynch, an Australian who became MP for Galway in 1901 and was found guilty of treason in 1903 because he had fought against the British Empire in the Second Boer War. (His death sentence was immediately commuted and he was released in 1904.)

Although one of the few ministers to survive the electoral carnage of 1906, in opposition Carson’s priority was his legal practice. Most famous of his many triumphs was the case of George Archer-Shee, who at the age of 13 was expelled from Osborne Naval College on the Isle of Wight for stealing a five-shilling postal order. In 1910 Carson won a famous victory for Arthur-Shee against the Crown, causing the Admiralty to have to pay compensation which in today’s money would be around £500,000. (The case was dramatised in Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy, in which the character based on Carson is a hero.)

By May 1912, when the Liberal Unionists merged with the Conservatives to become the Conservative and Unionist Party under the leadership of Andrew Bonar Law, Carson’s political focus was on Ireland. This Dubliner and long-time London resident had accepted the Chairmanship of the Irish Unionist Party and was leading the campaign against the third Home Rule Bill, driven by his passionate conviction that the most faithful citizens in Ireland were being betrayed by a government which was capitulating to the disloyal for squalid electoral reasons.

It was only when I came to write the biography of Patrick Pearse that I began to realise what an important influence Carson had been on Irish nationalism. Constitutional nationalists viewed resentfully the manner in which he marshalled the forces of unionism in opposition to Home Rule; the more militant studied his methods carefully. They saw a pillar of the British establishment telling huge crowds in Craigavon in September 1911 that “with every one of you, and with the help of God you and I joined together – I giving the best I can, and you giving me all your strength behind me – we will yet defeat the most nefarious conspiracy that has ever been hatched against a free people.” They must all be prepared “the morning Home Rule passes, ourselves to become responsible for the government of the Protestant Province of Ulster.”

It was not lost on nationalists that at Balmoral in April 1912, despite the clear will of parliament, Carson was declaring that “never under any circumstances will we submit to Home Rule.” And then, five months later, came the drama of the Ulster Covenant, promising to use “all means which may be found necessary” - a straightforward military threat to parliament and the rule of law. The establishment of the Ulster Volunteers in January 1913 led Antrim-born, Belfast-educated Home Ruler, Professor Eoin MacNeill of University College Dublin, to propose the setting up of a balancing force that would be known as the Irish Volunteers.

The Carson who became the face and voice of opposition to Home Rule had great intellectual gifts, but – a deeply emotional man with manic-depressive tendencies - his heart often ruled his head. Although he was trying to restrain the more hot-headed of the UVF, it was Carson who was responsible for the Larne gun-running in April 1914 in defiance of a government ban on importing arms into Ireland. This would be yet another inspiration for his Irish enemies. Pearse, who naively believed that Ulster Protestants could be won over to the nationalist cause, excitedly wrote that “the rifles of the Orangemen give dignity even to their folly.” Inevitably, he and his revolutionary colleagues organised a gun-running venture of their own that summer, which made it possible for them to stage the 1916 rebellion.

It is many decades since I began to think critically about the version of history I’d been taught and concluded that there was no justification for violent Irish nationalism. I believe that what happened in 1916 was anti-democratic and immoral, as have been paramilitary activities by various IRAs. But there’s no denying that as Ian Paisley kick-started the Troubles, without Edward Carson there might not have been an Easter Rising.

Carson, however, was intellectually and morally on a much higher plane than Paisley, who was merely a demagogue who adored being centre stage. Carson was a devout unionist, but there was nothing bigoted – either religiously or culturally - about his vision for Ireland: at Trinity College he was one of the first members of the Irish Hurling Union. He would attract criticism from hardliners when, for instance, he supported the establishment of a Catholic university. The Archer-Shee family, on the word of whose son he took the greatest risk of his legal career, were Roman Catholic. Although he would espouse a religion-based partition as the only solution, it broke his heart.

Carson felt too distant from Northern Ireland to become its Prime Minister but it was a tragedy that Sir James Craig and other parochial unionist leaders paid so little attention to his warning words in 1921. “We used to say that we could not trust an Irish parliament in Dublin to do justice to the Protestant minority. Let us take care that that reproach can no longer be made against your parliament, and from the outset let them see that the Catholic minority have nothing to fear from a Protestant majority.” Instead, terrified by republican violence, seeing close at hand the reality in the south of Rome Rule, fearing the enemy within and bowing to the worst elements in the loyal institutions, they built what David Trimble would memorably describe in 1998 as “a cold house for Catholics”. Unlike Carson’s mythical cat and the Reverend Ian Paisley, a government needs more vision than that provided by the slogan “No surrender”.

Ruth Dudley Edwards


© Ruth Dudley Edwards