Edward Carson:Ulster unionist or Irish patriot?

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Home Rule Crisis, Issue 3 (May/June 2012), Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 20

Sir Edward Carson (with James Craig to his left) signing the Solemn League and Covenant in Belfast City Hall on ‘Ulster Day’, 28 September 1912, the culmination of a range of stunningly impressive events masterminded by Craig. (George Morrison)

Sir Edward Carson (with James Craig to his left) signing the Solemn League and Covenant in Belfast City Hall on ‘Ulster Day’, 28 September 1912, the culmination of a range of stunningly impressive events masterminded by Craig. (George Morrison)

When Edward Carson accepted the role of Irish Unionist Parliamentary Party leader in 1910 he could not have predicted what the next decade had in store for him and his beloved Ireland. Bitter divisions and the emergence of rival paramilitary forces, open rebellion, the Great War and events that led to the creation of two new jurisdictions all lay before him. His own role in these events is captured by the statue that stands outside Stormont, his countenance struck in a pose of defiant oratory that would sum up his efforts during this tumultuous period of Irish history. Under the influence of James Craig, his seemingly intransigent lieutenant and later defender-in-chief of the unionist-dominated Northern Ireland, Carson also apparently abandoned his southern unionist roots and created a bastion for Ulster unionists. Or so the story goes.

A singular unionism

For Carson was, of course, Dublin-born. The man who led Ulster through the crisis that cut off the region’s periphery for the sake of preserving the long-term future of its majority population spoke with a southern Irish brogue. His parliamentary seat until 1918 was Trinity College, Dublin, and his ancestry was Anglo-Irish. The union between Ireland, not just Ulster, and Great Britain was his guiding light in politics—indeed, he once argued, he would not have been in the profession were it not for its existence. This was neither Ulster nor southern unionism; this was a singular unionism for a united Ireland. His motive behind this unshakeable faith was the unyielding belief that the country, his country, was better off in union with Britain than without.  Nor was he an early twentieth-century Ascendancy figure in the traditional sense, despite what his roots might suggest. His unionism was underpinned by the belief prevalent among many subjects of the United Kingdom at the time that their place in the imperial network was as pioneers, educators, leaders—in positions of power. There was for Carson, however, no reason why an Irishman, Catholic or Protestant, should not also be British (he was, after all) and therefore display the same dual identity as a proud British Scotsman. Unlike many of his peers, Carson defended the Catholic cause on several occasions, for instance over the right to education. Moreover, his opposition to nationalism was based on the union and little more; his opposition to Home Rule was not motivated by racial or religious factors.Carson was a renowned figure in the courtroom, the study and pursuit of law being his other great passion. Furthermore, his was, until resignation from the imperial war cabinet during the Great War, a rising star, having scaled the heights of influence in domestic British politics. For contemporaries he was a figure who commanded respect for his achievements; his greatest legacy, in the shape of Northern Ireland, means that he will remain a source of debate for historians. The contemporary Carson and his legacy therefore do not always appear to be well aligned. The disparity that exists between the two is easily apparent by looking at a single area: Carson’s supposed transformation to an Ulster unionist between 1910 and 1920.

Carson’s role in these events is captured by the statue that stands outside Stormont, his countenance struck in a pose of defiant oratory that would sum up his efforts during this tumultuous period of Irish history. (mharpur.blogspot.com)

Carson’s role in these events is captured by the statue that stands outside Stormont, his countenance struck in a pose of defiant oratory that would sum up his efforts during this tumultuous period of Irish history. (mharpur.blogspot.com)

The emergence of Ulster unionism

The Liberal government of Britain in 1911 was reliant upon Irish Nationalists in the House of Commons to maintain their majority, and used this majority to pass an act abolishing the power of absolute veto by the House of Lords. Ominously for Unionists, it was this veto that had saved them from the second Home Rule bill in 1893, and it was appearing increasingly certain that in return for Irish Nationalist support the Liberals would introduce a third Home Rule bill. Carson emerged as the leader of Ulster unionism as it negotiated this crisis, while southern unionists trod their own path in attempting to stave off Home Rule.This emergence of Ulster unionism as the dominant form of unionism, particularly in the eyes of the southern unionist (by birth at any rate) Carson, is sometimes attributed to James Craig’s influence. By utilising in particular the concentrated population of unionists in the north-east corner of Ireland in a way with which the southern unionists could not hope to compete, given their scattered population, Craig apparently focused Carson’s attention on Ulster unionists to the point that their well-being and survival became his major objective. Monster demonstrations such as that at Craigavon, Craig’s home, on 23 September 1911 were clearly designed to provide an impressive show of force to the British government. Yet given Carson’s background and dearth of knowledge on Ulster, this event—which drew some 50,000 people—was equally important as an introduction for Carson to the people of Ulster and, perhaps just as crucially, for the people of Ulster to Carson. The effect on Carson was quickly perceptible. From a starting point of having apparently little or no knowledge of Protestants in Ulster, Carson laid down the challenge to Craig, saying ‘I am not here for a mere game of bluff’. Through a range of stunningly impressive events masterminded by Craig—from the Craigavon meeting to the gathering at Balmoral on 9 April 1912 that effectively signalled a joining of the British Conservative Party with the Ulster Unionists in the fight against Home Rule, and most forcefully of all to Ulster Day, with its culmination in the signing of the Solemn League and Covenant by some 237,368 men, with a similar declaration being signed by 234,046 women—Carson was well convinced by the Ulster determination.

Carson (seated, fourth from right), with British Conservative Party leader Andrew Bonar Law to his right, at a garden party at Mount Stewart, seat of the marquis of Londonderry, shortly after the rally at Balmoral on 9 April 1912 that effectively signalled a joining of the British Conservatives with the Ulster Unionists in the fight against Home Rule. (George Morrison)

Carson (seated, fourth from right), with British Conservative Party leader Andrew Bonar Law to his right, at a garden party at Mount Stewart, seat of the marquis of Londonderry, shortly after the rally at Balmoral on 9 April 1912 that effectively signalled a joining of the British Conservatives with the Ulster Unionists in the fight against Home Rule. (George Morrison)

Estrangement from southern unionists

Evidence of his new conviction in Ulster is ample. For instance, in 1913 Carson reportedly said of southern unionists, ‘They are so different from the North of Ireland and do so little for themselves’. What is more, 1913 is seen as the year in which Carson, just two years after his introduction to the people of Ulster, first abandoned his long-held views on the union. The pivotal proof of this new direction was his letter in September of that year to the British Conservative leader, Andrew Bonar Law, in which he stated: ‘As regards the position here I am of the opinion that on the whole things are shaping towards a desire to leave Ulster out’. This is claimed to be not just an admission that the union could not be saved but also a direct reference to his determination that, should it be maintained, it would only be for the north of the island. It is therefore commonly portrayed as representing a momentous shift of view, undermining Carson’s self-confessed one unshakeable reason for being in politics. Further evidence of his estrangement from southern unionists importantly shows how far this change of stance might have gone. The most striking example of this split was found in the build-up to the Irish Convention of 1917–18, designed for all parties involved in the Irish Question to attempt to find a compromise. By this stage divisions were rife amongst the participating groups, not least southern unionists and their northern counterparts, as Carson, writing to the British prime minister, Lloyd George, on 22 May 1917, made clear when he stated: ‘There are plainly Ulster unionists, Southern unionists, and at least four classes of nationalists’ that would require representation. Unionism was now a splintered collective, with (presumably) two separate views on a successful compromise. Furthermore, Carson was even reported to have said of the southern unionists: ‘They say we were traitors, as a matter of fact, it was they, under Lord Midleton, who were prepared to say, “If we go down, Ulster must come down too”. Not likely . . .’. Surely this confirms that Carson had abandoned his fellow unionists in the south of Ireland to their fate in favour of those in the north? The evidence would certainly seem to suggest an alteration in Carson’s attitude, but this illustration might not be as conclusive as it first appears.While it seems that Carson vented some negative feelings about southern unionists, this was certainly not the impression he gave to them. In Notes from Ireland, a southern unionist newspaper and mouthpiece, Carson is quoted as writing: ‘I know well the difficulties under which our brother unionists in the South and West of Ireland labour, and, indeed, the perils they have occurred . . . to express their opposition to . . . Home Rule’. The newspaper also claims that Carson testified ‘to his own, and his colleagues’ appreciation and gratitude, with respect to the spirited public action  . . . of the unionists south of Ulster’. Carson would have been unwise to criticise his allies in the south of Ireland, particularly at such a challenging time, yet his letter indicates that he still respected the difficulties that southern unionists faced and had not forgotten their precarious position, as some historians have claimed.

Considered federalism

Moreover, the opinion that Carson abandoned the principle of union for all Ireland in 1913 is one that does not necessarily stand on solid foundations. Smith argues that Carson went through a ‘complex and fluid’ process of considering solutions, since it was becoming increasingly clear that Ulster’s opposition to Home Rule would not kill the entire bill but that partition was the only compromise that might satisfy others. Indeed, Gailey argues that Carson was still pushing for a federal settlement in 1917. This is, moreover, not a fanciful claim; even in 1918 Carson wrote of federalism as being ‘[t]he only other possible solution’ after Ulster’s exclusion. Evidence exists that goes beyond this date: as late as June 1919 Carson was arguing in the House of Commons for the benefits of a devolved United Kingdom including the whole of Ireland, although he further argued: ‘I entirely dissent from the proposition that the unit must be in accordance with nationality. I see no reason for it . . .’. This points to the level at which he had considered the federal proposition, having moved beyond the traditional assumption that federalism could only mean a settlement of separate government for England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, based solely on nationality.Furthermore, the evidence most commonly associated with his break from the southern unionist stance is his correspondence with Bonar Law. Yet closer examination of this letter could easily suggest a different interpretation. ‘As regards the position here I am of the opinion that on the whole things are shaping towards a desire to leave Ulster out’ are Carson’s words, but this would hardly confirm that he was of the opinion that Ulster should be left out; rather it can be read that that was the direction in which the general opinion to which he was exposed was moving. As Ulster unionist leader, increasingly involved in that cause, this seems a logical statement. That is not to say that this did not signify a general shift in his policy for the Ulster movement towards exclusion, but it could more properly be attributed to Carson the lawyer being aware that he could not argue the federal case if it had no reasonable body of support, which it did not from Ulster and southern unionists, or indeed politicians in the UK. Nor can the possibility be ruled out that Carson still thought in 1913, before the Great War and its fateful consequences for Ireland, that Irishmen would not accept any Home Rule deal that did not include Ulster.

Carson and Craig in the 1920s. Under the influence of the latter, did the former abandon his southern unionist roots in creating a bastion for Ulster unionists? (George Morrison)

Carson and Craig in the 1920s. Under the influence of the latter, did the former abandon his southern unionist roots in creating a bastion for Ulster unionists? (George Morrison)

With regard to his attitude towards southern unionists, his letter reported in Notes from Ireland displays that he empathised with their plight. Nevertheless, as Carson was leader of the Ulster unionists he would have been aware that he could not sacrifice Ulster’s position of strength in going to the aid of the southern unionists, especially since it was unclear exactly what could be done. Given this quandary, a split between the two forms of unionism, under such immediate and consistent pressure, was always conceivable, if not highly likely. Additionally, the distance between Carson and the southern unionists, highlighted by his attack on Midleton, was perhaps not that great either. It has been argued that Midleton was not representative of the whole body of southern unionists, and he had several internal struggles with some of his southern unionist detractors. With a small group being internally divided at such a crucial time, it might even be possible to understand Carson’s jibe that ‘they do so little for themselves’ as frustration with this situation. It seems that it was in fact Carson’s own sense of responsibility towards the Ulster unionists as their leader, rather than a policy change caused by any personal reflection or by his relationship with Craig, that made him press their case so thoroughly.So while Ulster unionism might have at first been Carson’s chosen weapon with which he would fight for the union, did it in fact become his overriding concern? The evidence suggests that maintaining the union for a united Ireland remained his first hope—but the impossibility of that target, a position only exacerbated by the post-war loss of British Conservative support and the outrage caused by the Easter Rising, meant that Carson did what he could for Ulster and simultaneously preserved what he could of the union. He believed that this was the best thing he could do for his Ulster unionist movement and for his country, and therefore perhaps Carson was the most unlikely figure of all—Ulster unionist and Irish patriot.  HI
Iain E. Johnston is a Ph. D student at the University of Cambridge.

Further reading:

A. Jackson, Sir Edward Carson (Dundalk, 1993).G. Lewis, Carson: the man who divided Ireland (London, 2005).A.T.Q. Stewart, Edward Carson (Dublin, 1981).

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