British political theatre in Ireland: Winston Churchill and Belfast, 1912

Published in Features, Issue 1 (January/February 2020), Volume 28

A microcosm of the third Home Rule crisis.

By M.C. Rast

In several important ways, the third Home Rule crisis had little to do with Ireland; it was as much a British political dilemma as an Irish one, and played out throughout the United Kingdom. To many British politicians, Home Rule was a continuation of the crisis over the 1911 Parliament Act, which transformed UK political dynamics by reducing the House of Lords legislative veto to a delaying power only. For British Liberals, Home Rule was as much about vindicating Commons authority over the Unionist-dominated House of Lords as Irish self-government. For British Unionists, the crisis provided opportunities to undermine the Parliament Act, defend the traditional constitution and force H.H. Asquith’s Liberal government out of office. All sides were aware that British—not Irish—electoral and legislative votes would decide Home Rule and therefore much of the debate focused on influencing British public opinion. Asquith committed to Irish self-government in December 1909, and by early 1912—months before the third Home Rule bill was even introduced—the debate had continued for more than two years.

His father’s shadow

On 5 January 1912 the British and Irish press announced that First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill would speak at a pro-Home Rule meeting hosted by the Ulster Liberal Association in Belfast’s Ulster Hall. Contemporaries immediately connected this with an 1886 anti-Home Rule demonstration in the same venue that had featured Winston’s father, Randolph.

Winston Churchill did not select the Ulster Hall. Writing to Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) leader John Redmond, he disclaimed a traditional political meeting: ‘What we want in Belfast are not demonstrations but discussions’. Paul Bew takes this as a sign that Churchill sought genuine reconciliation with Ulster unionists. Throughout the Home Rule crisis Churchill vacillated between confrontational and conciliatory modes towards Irish parties, and this occasion was no different. He sympathised with Ulster unionists, particularly in their Protestantism and imperialism. A former Unionist, Churchill equivocated on Home Rule. By 1912 he supported Irish self-government if it would facilitate a federalised United Kingdom, an idea that appealed to Britons of all parties. Churchill advocated coercing an Irish parliament if its decisions deviated from Westminster’s. At the same time he revelled in partisan politics, which he and many contemporaries called ‘the game’. Home Rule was Liberal policy and passing it under the Parliament Act would justify that measure, therefore Churchill supported it.

There was a clear political motive for opening a dialogue with their opponents, and appealing to any segment of the Irish populace was of secondary importance. Churchill told Redmond that they must ‘make it clear to the British electorate, who are the real audience, that we are reasonably forbearing and considerate’. Showing sensitivity to Ulster unionist concerns would ‘have good results on English public opinion’.

This use of a political demonstration in Ireland to influence British opinion was another similarity that Winston’s Belfast visit shared with his father’s. Announcing Randolph Churchill’s meeting in January 1886, the Belfast News-Letter described it as a fact-finding mission; he would inform British Unionists of ‘the impressions he had gained of Ulster loyalty’. The elder Churchill, however, decided what he would find in Belfast before he left Britain. At Paddington on 10 February 1886, almost two weeks before the Ulster Hall meeting, he called Home Rule ‘a policy of civil war and imminent civil war’, adding that ‘England cannot leave the Protestants of Ireland in the lurch’. Randolph Churchill’s May 1886 declaration in The Times, ‘Ulster will fight; Ulster will be right’, supposedly formed part of his report on what he found in Belfast, but he had promoted this idea before his visit.

Ulster unionist objections

Nonetheless, this dictum became sacred among Ulster unionists, who in early 1912 were seeking ways to impress the British public with the earnestness of their opposition to Home Rule. They had already, in September 1911, held a demonstration at Craigavon, James Craig’s home, featuring references to ‘exclusion’, or leaving Ulster out of Home Rule legislation, and a willingness to fight the British Army. Two days later, the Ulster Unionist Council (UUC) announced that they would form a provisional government when Home Rule passed to take control of as much of the province as possible. The News-Letter said that these measures vindicated Randolph Churchill’s ‘Ulster will fight’ pronouncement, and the Northern Whig assured readers that such measures were gaining support in London. Edward Carson said that they were trying to ‘throw some life into the [Unionist] party’.

Twelve days after the announcement of Winston Churchill’s Belfast meeting, the UUC declared it a ‘deliberate challenge’ to promote Home Rule ‘in the centre of the loyal City of Belfast’, and they would take steps to stop it. A UUC member told London’s Morning Post that ‘the Churchill meeting is not going to be held in Belfast. We shall take good care of that.’ The paper’s correspondent said that the meeting must be abandoned or ‘there will be bloodshed in Belfast on 8th February’. James Craig told a reporter that they were determined to prevent ‘a rebel crew dishonouring the historic Ulster Hall’. It was unclear whether the UUC objected to any Home Rule meeting in Belfast or merely the chosen venue.

The Freeman’s Journal denounced the UUC’s attitude as an intolerant suppression of free speech: ‘Even before the Home Rule Bill is introduced the Orange mob in Belfast is incited to give a taste of its quality to the electors of Great Britain’. Surprisingly, some Unionists agreed. The Times called trying to prevent the meeting a denial of free speech and the UUC’s course ‘hard to justify’. However, the paper also blamed Liberals for provoking the ‘content and peaceful’ northern province, adding that ‘Ulstermen’ were determined on ‘a system of passive resistance’ to defeat Home Rule. Punch published a cartoon titled ‘A Silly Game’, depicting Carson blocking the Ulster Hall’s entrance and trampling Churchill’s meeting announcement. In the caption, the Irish Unionist leader declared ‘Ulster will fight!’ and the magazine’s mascot, Mr Punch, retorted: ‘What? Against free speech? Then Ulster will be wrong!’

Ulster in Britain

If the idea of upholding civil liberties appealed to many, religion was an even more powerful force in British politics. Ulster issues often gave Unionists a monopoly on the idea of defending ‘Protestantism’, but this time Liberals played that card. The Ulster Liberal Association issued a statement that their organisation was predominantly Protestant, as the meeting would be. London’s Daily News accused the UUC of attempting to ‘crush the Protestant Liberal minority of Belfast’. Ulster Liberal W.H. Davey insisted that the Association could fill two halls ‘without calling for any assistance from the 95,000 Nationalists in the City’, and that the UUC feared ‘the people of Great Britain learning that in Ulster there are thousands of Protestants who approve of the Government’s Irish policy’.

Throughout the Churchill episode and the entire Home Rule crisis, British and Irish Unionists elided the complex picture that Davey painted and portrayed their supporters as speaking for ‘Ulster’. The Pall Mall Gazette insisted that ‘Ulster knows her own mind’ concerning Home Rule. London’s Globe espoused unionist views in editorials titled ‘The Spirit of Ulster’. Discussing the UUC’s denunciation of the Belfast meeting, the paper declared that ‘Ulster has spoken’ and ‘Ulster will not have Mr Churchill at any price’. Ironically, the Globe admitted the existence of Belfast’s Home Rulers discussing segregation in the city: ‘There are whole streets inhabited solely by Roman Catholics and Nationalists, in which a Protestant and Unionist dare not show his face’. The Liberal Daily News described Ulster as half nationalist and Belfast as one-third nationalist, but the Globe and its colleagues implied that this segment of the population could not speak for the ‘Ulster’ constructed in their pages.

Unionists concluded that Liberals were goading Ulster unionists into violence to embarrass them. The Pall Mall Gazette called Churchill an ‘agent provocateur of riot and bloodshed’ and claimed that free speech had ‘no tenure in Irish custom or character’. The Times described the upcoming meeting as ‘Mr Churchill’s little plot to prove that Ulster is not in earnest’. Unionist Party leader Andrew Bonar Law did not address the controversy directly but told Londoners that Irish divisions made Home Rule impossible: ‘the two sections in Ireland … are divided by a gulf of which we here have no conception’, and therefore ‘the British people should be an arbiter between them’.

The UUC could influence a large portion of the population, and their statements asserted an ability to instigate—or forestall—violence. Carson said in Manchester that Churchill was going to Belfast to cause disorder and implied that he would prevent it. Future Larne gunrunner Frederick Crawford suggested, to show the gravity of their resistance while preserving the peace, that the UUC should raise a ‘volunteer police force’, one of the earliest suggestions of a unionist paramilitary organisation.

Privately, Churchill did try to provoke UUC dignitary Lord Londonderry, a family friend, by accusing him and his colleagues of a ‘resort to riot’ and blaming them for any ensuing disorder. In a 25 January public letter, however, Churchill revealed that he and the Ulster Liberal Association had agreed to move the meeting. Londonderry’s reply indicated that the venue had been their grievance all along.

Churchill, Ulster Liberals and Liberal officials in London moved the meeting to the Celtic Park football grounds on Donegall Road, a predominantly Catholic and nationalist neighbourhood. Churchill thought that unionists would be embarrassed that he and his colleagues acquiesced ‘ostentatiously’ in their demands. He told his wife: ‘The Orange faction will be left to brood morosely over their illegal and uncontested possession of the Ulster Hall. Dirty dogs “chained like suffragettes to the railings”.’ There were no incidents during the 8 February meeting. Speaking to an audience of about 7,000, Churchill admitted that it was right for Ulster unionists to insist upon their liberties but warned them against becoming ‘the tool or the catspaw of the Tory Party in England’.

Above: Bird’s-eye view of Belfast, showing the venue of the pro-Home Rule meeting at Celtic Park football ground (bottom left-hand corner) and the original venue, the Ulster Hall (centre). (The Sphere, 10 February 1912)

A unionist victory

Far from depicting Liberals as magnanimous, unionists called switching the venue a surrender and declared victory. The Belfast News-Letter said that Ulster unionists owed Churchill a debt for providing an opportunity to show Britons their determination to resist Home Rule. British Unionist newspapers described the meeting as a fiasco, emphasising the brevity of Churchill’s visit and a military presence to keep order, seemingly validating the need for British ‘arbiters’. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph published a photo of Belfast unionists protesting the meeting that included a Union Jack and a sign declaring ‘Down with Churchill’. Liberal commentators focused on the fact that the meeting occurred, despite initial unionist declarations that it must not. The Daily News published the same photograph, alongside one of a Belfast nationalist demonstration featuring effigies behind bars marked ‘Ulster Provisional Government’. The posturing and speechifying apparently changed no one’s mind about Home Rule or any attendant issue; once the meeting was over, unionists portrayed it in the worst possible light and Liberals in the best.

The episode was indeed a unionist victory. They proved that they could alter objectionable events by threatening violence. Moreover, while the phrase ‘no-go areas’ became famous during the Troubles, the vetoing of a meeting in the city centre and its movement to west Belfast highlighted that distinct nationalist and unionist districts might be closed to persons of differing political values, even UK cabinet members. The proximity of these areas might have shown the potential inherent in separating parts of Ulster from the rest of the island for creating isolated and disgruntled minority populations, but as suggestions for exclusion or partition did not gain widespread credence until later, this was not a feature of the debate.

The Churchill episode provides a microcosm of some of the dynamics that characterised the third Home Rule crisis: Ulster unionists threatened violence, some British counterparts expressed misgivings but supported and encouraged them, Liberals showed a willingness to accede to their demands and Irish nationalists failed to influence the other groups. Most of the rhetoric was intended to influence British opinion, not any segment of Ireland’s population. Ulster unionist assertions that they could control large parts of the province encouraged British politicians to partition the island. In one of the period’s many ironies, during a cabinet meeting just days before Churchill left for Belfast to promote Home Rule, he supported a proposal to exclude parts of Ulster temporarily by county votes. This was very different from the form of partition eventually enacted, but throughout the Home Rule crisis Churchill’s sympathy with Ulster unionists and ambivalence towards Irish self-government vied with a determination to vindicate Liberal policies, tensions many of his colleagues shared.

M.C. Rast is the author of Shaping Ireland’s independence: nationalist, unionist, and British solutions to the Irish Question, 1909–1925 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).


P. Bew, Churchill and Ireland (Oxford, 2016).

R.S. Churchill, Winston S. Churchill, Vol. 2 (London, 1969).


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