Carson in parliament

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 3 (May/June 2012), Volume 20

‘I am not here for a mere game of bluff’—Carson addressing a parade of Ulster Volunteers in July 1913.

‘I am not here for a mere game of bluff’—Carson addressing a parade of Ulster Volunteers in July 1913.

Carson was a commanding parliamentary figure. His performances in the House of Commons are no longer appreciated as they once were, largely owing to a focus on contemporaries such as Lloyd George and Churchill, an emphasis on Carson’s more famous courtroom exploits (like those involving Oscar Wilde) and his wider role in Irish politics. Contemporaries were, however, struck by his abilities. The earl of Birkenhead claimed that Carson was ‘almost at once a commanding parliamentary figure’ and that he ‘never lost his mastery in the House of Commons’. Lloyd George noted that, in argument, Carson ‘had the supreme gift of getting to the point that mattered in the formation of opinion and of presenting and pressing it with the words, voice and emphasis that moved those who heard him’, while the wife of the previous British prime minister, Asquith, informed Carson that one of his speeches in the House had moved her, writing that it was ‘really brilliant and touching’. Nevertheless, not everyone was complimentary when analysing Carson’s performances. The parliamentary correspondent for Punch, for instance, said that the famed lawyer, when debating with an opponent, ‘always treats him as if he had found him in the dock, and as if his brief had hinted at unutterable crimes’, before adding that in Carson this ‘manner is so natural and ingrained’. As A.T.Q. Stewart has remarked, Carson ‘never quite lost the mark of the advocate’. Late in 1921 Carson delivered what was arguably his greatest speech on the Irish issue, although it was to be a largely ineffectual piece of oratory. Furthermore, it was delivered to the House of Lords, where Carson would finish his parliamentary career but never really settle, apparently commenting that it was a place ‘into which the rays of the sun never penetrate’.

A UVF machine-gun unit c. 1914. (George Morrison, Seán Sexton)

A UVF machine-gun unit c. 1914. (George Morrison, Seán Sexton)

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