Friends in high places: Ulster’s resistance to Irish Home Rule, 1912–14

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Book Reviews, Issue 5 (September/October 2013), Reviews, Volume 21

Alan F. Parkinson
(Ulster Historical Foundation, £7.99)
ISBN 9781908448521

6In the early 2000s I worked in the office of the leader of the Liberal Democrats (then Charles Kennedy) as a speechwriter and the party’s director of policy. The two-storey office was located just off the committee corridor of the House of Commons. To access it, one passed shoulder-level busts of leading figures of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century UK politics. Immediately outside the Kennedy office was one bust, isolated from the rest in the corridor: John Redmond.

Since my family has roots in Lurgan, with many ancestors signing the Covenant in 1912, some of my colleagues used to joke that it had been put there for my benefit—a reminder of the historic link between British Liberalism and Irish Nationalism. Looking back, a decade on, and remembering that elsewhere in the building were busts of other Irish Nationalists—certainly Parnell and, if I remember correctly, John Dillon—I have a different thought. That is about how so many of the crucial events around Home Rule were played out not in Ireland but in the Palace of Westminster. Into this world enters Alan Parkinson’s engaging work.

Probably the three most substantial contributions to this subject before Parkinson are books by A.T.Q. Stewart, Edward Pearce and Timothy Bowman. Stewart’s The Ulster Crisis: resistance to Home Rule, 1912–1914 (1967) still has a significant hold on the field. Its focus is on Unionist organisation, along with the ‘events’ of resistance that took place in Ulster. There is some attention to the place of resistance to Home Rule in Westminster politics but it is not the main subject. It is central to Pearce’s Lines of most resistance: the Lords, the Tories and Ireland, 1886–1914 (1999). Indeed, Pearce’s study is really a book about right-wing politics, using Ireland as a prism through which to view people like Lord Randolph Churchill and Lord Willoughby de Broke. Bowman’s Carson’s Army: the Ulster Volunteer Force, 1910–1922 (2007) could not be expected to cover Westminster, given its subject, but has been crucial in demonstrating the strengths and weaknesses of the UVF, alongside its actions and appeal, and must be set alongside Stewart and Pearce.

Like previous authors, Parkinson tells a story of Ulster’s resistance to Home Rule that contains much on specific events in Ulster. He writes vividly on events such as the gunrunning at Larne and the signing of the Covenant. In so doing, he has made very good use of newspapers. Stewart did that too with the News Letter and Belfast Evening Telegraph, but Parkinson has gone much further afield, adding not only the Northern Whig but also a number of English and Scottish newspapers.

It is the use of these newspapers that points to the great strength of the book, suggested by its title, Friends in high places. Just as it is easy to forget the British parliamentary context of Irish Nationalism, it is, ironically, also easy to forget the same context of Unionism and resistance to Home Rule, with its emphasis on extra-parliamentary bodies. One of the most striking points for any new student of late Victorian and Edwardian politics is that there is a ‘Unionist’ label which not only accounts for a division within Liberalism but has also subsumed the term ‘Conservative’. Understanding how that came to happen is central to the study of the period. Yet too often there is a general assumption that Unionists were really just Conservatives, and the reason for their being ‘Unionists’ is downplayed.

In addressing that question, much of Parkinson’s focus is of course on the ‘high places’. Aside from attention to MPs and Lords, there is some interesting discussion of the role of Theresa, Marchioness of Londonderry. Not only was she a confidante of Carson but she was also a central political figure in London, where her salons played an important role in what we would now call ‘networking’ across Conservative/Unionist politics. Both as a public speaker and as an organiser, she emerges as a significant player in the London wing of resistance to Home Rule.

There is also interesting treatment of the ‘British Covenant’, published in March 1914, at the instigation of another highly placed friend, Alfred, Viscount Milner, to secure support across Great Britain for the cause of the Ulster Covenant. Such an initiative had roots in the work groups that sought to spread opposition to Home Rule throughout Britain, outside parliament, through publicity campaigns. These included the Union Defence League but probably the most active were the Unionist Associations of Ireland, established in 1907, which held public meetings and issued printed material. Pamphlets were especially popular as a form of propaganda, as were postcards, and thousands of public meetings were held. A key message throughout was that Unionists were a loyal minority who were being bullied by a larger neighbour.

Were such methods effective? Parkinson concludes that they were only partially so, since the bill was merely suspended, and the later solution was only reluctantly accepted in the Unionist community. Yet, he points out, the tactics used would be copied by Unionist leaders during later crises in the twentieth century. Whether that was done effectively or not is another question. It does suggest, however, that the Unionist cause is best advanced when Unionists give more than a passing thought to how they are perceived in England, Scotland and Wales. HI

Professor Richard S. Grayson is Head of History at Goldsmiths, University of London, and author of Belfast boys: how Unionists and Nationalists fought and died together in the First World War (2009).


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