Carson: the man who divided Ireland

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2005), Reviews, Volume 13

Carson the man who divided Ireland 1Carson: the man who divided Ireland
Geoffrey Lewis
(Hambledon and London, price £19.99)
ISBN 1852854545
Writing in 1953, H. Montgomery Hyde, the biographer of Edward Carson and sometime Ulster Unionist MP, commented that ‘today a new generation has grown up in Ulster in an atmosphere of relative political security. To its members Carson is a great name, albeit [only?] a name, while the detail of his political achievements is shrouded in the haze of history’. Events in Northern Ireland after 1969 rather alter the optimistic tone of the first portion of this statement, and, with the exception of a couple of pocket-sized biographies and learned articles, the latter observation has not been satisfactorily addressed since Hyde’s sympathetic interpretation, written against the backdrop of the ‘golden age’ of Ulster Unionism. Geoffrey Lewis, a retired solicitor and biographer of legal notables Lords Atkin and Halisham, has therefore sought to remedy this rather curious dearth.
For the biographer, Edward Carson is a challenge. In a conventional Irish context, he is a man who defies pigeonholing. Furthermore, Carson’s complexity of character is accentuated by the many paradoxes of his life and career. An Anglican of middle-class Dublin stock, he became the leader of the North’s Protestants, in the main Presbyterian, during the Home Rule crisis. Carson achieved astronomical success at the London bar and, while rejecting the office of lord chancellor in 1916, accepted appointment as a law lord in 1921. Yet he was willing to defy statute by approving the importation of arms, as well as contemplating the establishment of a provisional government in Belfast rather than submit to its legitimate Dublin counterpart. Publicly he was the uncrowned king of Ulster, articulating the voice of his adopted subjects, sometimes in the most extravagant and militant tones, although in private he was a hypochondriac and reluctant to countenance permanent partition. And for all his celebrity as a lawyer and notoriety as a rebel, when put to the test in office he proved a disappointment, becoming ‘house-trained’ by his civil servants and religiously deferring to experts.
Whilst Lewis captures these themes, this biography is more of an overview than the definitive ‘life’. Lewis gallops through Carson’s formative years in Dublin, as an aspiring barrister and Arthur Balfour’s legal ‘enforcer’ before election to parliament for Trinity College, Dublin, and transferring his legal practice to London. Given the author’s legal background, it is therefore surprising that Oscar Wilde’s disastrous gamble in attempting to prosecute Lord Queensbury for libel, with Carson representing the defendant, is dealt with in ten pages, the celebrated Archer-Shee case in six, while Carson’s stint as a law lord is merely mentioned en passant.
In contrast, the campaign against Home Rule is covered in more detail, producing a number of interesting conclusions. Carson’s raison d’être was the legislative union binding Ireland to Great Britain. True to Unionist form, he exhibited a strong sensitivity to attempts to undermine or erode this holy deity. At the height of his patronage by Balfour he proved a thorn in the side of Lord Salisbury’s administration by opposing the Irish land bill of 1896, subsequently resigning the Unionist parliamentary whip. However, for all this misbehaviour he was rewarded with office by Salisbury, and with the decimation of Tory ranks in the 1906 general election was one of the few parliamentary survivors of any substance.
Carson became leader of the Irish Unionists in 1910. Simultaneously, Ireland moved to the top of the agenda with the removal of the House of Lords legislative veto and the Liberals’ dependence on Irish votes to remain in office. The main focus of opposition to Home Rule was north-east Ulster, which is interesting given Carson’s unfamiliarity with its people and topography. However, the Balmoral demonstration, which linked Carson and Andrew Bonar Law (and the Unionist Party) to the fate of ‘Ulster’, the Covenant campaign and his blessing of the Larne gun-running guaranteed Sir Edward a place in the Valhalla of Unionist warriors.
For Carson, Ulster was essentially a device to prevent Home Rule for Ireland. Proposing partition was more a tactic than a solution, which highlights his differences with the Ulster Unionists. Whereas they pursued their own agenda of self-preservation, his aim was to use their determination to ultimately crush Home Rule. When no alternative seemed apparent in 1913/14, the exclusion of Ulster was formally raised. At the Buckingham Palace conference in July 1914 Carson went so far as to propose that Ulster, in its entirety, be separated from Ireland, and that if this were done generously then within a reasonable time it would probably rejoin. The Irish Nationalists rejected this, although they conceded that if they were free agents it would have proved acceptable. As Lewis notes, the idea ‘was far-sighted. Carson foresaw, as eventually happened, that a smaller Protestant-dominated block in the northeast, if split off, would have less and less in common with the rest of Ireland and would eventually become an alien redoubt’.
Unlike many of his Ulster Unionist counterparts, Carson was no sectarian demagogue. From 1898 until 1909 he supported the establishment of a Catholic university in Dublin. The Ulster Volunteers were ordered to ‘remember your responsibility, restrain the hotheads. Remember we have no quarrel with our Nationalist neighbours.’ Some of his later speeches showed less tolerance, particularly in the early 1920s, though allowances should be made for context. After all, the new state of Northern Ireland was fighting for its existence, bordered by a hostile neighbour and complemented, as ever in Unionist paranoia, by an untrustworthy guardian in Whitehall.
Lewis does not dwell on Northern Ireland receiving Home Rule, as provided for in the Government of Ireland Act 1920, which is surprising. It is ironic that the part of Ireland that least wanted self-government ended up having it imposed. Carson led Unionist opposition in Westminster, and in May 1920 candidly argued that ‘we have never asked to govern any Catholic. We are perfectly satisfied that all of them, Protestant and Catholic, should be governed from this parliament, and we have always said that it was the fact that this parliament was aloof entirely from these racial distinctions and religious distinctions which was the strongest foundation for the government of Ulster.’ Unfortunately this appeal fell on deaf ears.
For both undergraduate or general reader, this biography is accessible and entertaining, with occasional vignettes appearing surreptitiously: for instance, the tale of two pickpockets from Birmingham, who provided an unwelcome presence at the opening of the Covenant campaign in Enniskillen and pleaded, in vain, that they were simply ‘English Liberals studying the Irish question’. Also cited are Colvin’s comments on General Richardson, a former imperial soldier and the commander-in-chief of Carson’s ‘new model army’, who ‘found material to his mind in the Ulster Volunteers, with whom he was as completely at home as with the tribesmen of the Tirah or Zhob Valley’.
Conversely, there is a lack of detail in other places, especially the latter period of Carson’s life, which is infuriating. From 1922 to his state funeral in 1935 the narrative is covered in a matter of paragraphs. There is also the odd questionable statement. I am confused as to why Lewis should consider that Carson, in 1922, the quintessential anti-politician and, by this stage, law lord, and arch-critic of the government’s Irish policy, should feel that the Conservative Party ‘threw him over’ by making Bonar Law its leader and prime minister.
This biography is a useful addition to the existing literature but, notwithstanding Lewis’s analysis, the authoritative account of this most intricate of Irishmen has still to be written. Let us hope that we do not have to wait another 50 years for it to emerge.
Mark Coalter

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