The search for ‘statutory Ulster

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Home Rule Crisis, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2009), Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 17

Sir Edward Carson signing the Solemn League and Covenant in Belfast City Hall, 28 September 1912; this declared that ‘Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as to the whole of Ireland’. While hinting at a partitionist mindset, Carson was pursuing a logic that if ‘Ulster’ succeeded, Home Rule would be dead. But what or where was ‘Ulster’? (George Morrison)

Sir Edward Carson signing the Solemn League and Covenant in Belfast City Hall, 28 September 1912; this declared that ‘Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as to the whole of Ireland’. While hinting at a partitionist mindset, Carson was pursuing a logic that if ‘Ulster’ succeeded, Home Rule would be dead. But what or where was ‘Ulster’? (George Morrison)

It is unlikely that the Buckingham Palace conference of July 1914 would feature prominently on a list of momentous events punctuating the discourse of Ireland’s partition. Indeed, its brevity and predictable collapse were another manifestation of an ever-tightening deadlock concerning the third Irish Home Rule bill, and it elicits merely cursory references in the general literature. The conference, however, holds a latent and wide significance, not only in throwing the political geography of Ulster into sharp relief but also in scrutinising the very principle of partition and of boundary delimitation.

The countenancing of partition
The parliamentary path for the third Home Rule bill was cleared after the House of Lords veto was removed under the 1911 Parliament Act. The bill was a modest devolutionary measure for an Irish parliament that would still be subordinate to Westminster. Yet initially, as far as the concept of partition was concerned, there was the bipartisan belief that Ireland, in accordance with the doctrinaire versions of unionism and nationalism, could not be partitioned at all. Indeed, since union with Great Britain in 1801, there was no apparent precedent in principle, location or function within Ireland for partition. Furthermore, pervasive opinion held that partition’s economic implications would render Home Rule unworkable.
After the December general election in 1910, the Nationalist Party, led by John Redmond, held the balance of power in the House of Commons. Its Home Rule agenda was acknowledged as the price of its support for sustaining the Liberal administration. The ensuing political map of Ulster, with seventeen Unionists and fifteen Nationalists, in addition to a solitary Liberal, was indicative of the geographical and political polarisation (Fig. 1). Alternatively, the political landscape was much more intricate when one viewed the returns of the 1911 census on religion in adopting a finer territorial scale (Fig. 2). Both the election result and the census were to underpin the statistical and geographical arguments advanced in the partition debate up to the summer of 1914.
The Home Rule bill was introduced in the House of Commons in April 1912. Its prospects appeared set fair with the support of the Liberal, Labour and Nationalist parties, a disabled House of Lords veto, and with Unionists seemingly demoralised and starved of office since 1906. Opposition to Home Rule, however, had already gathered momentum. The concept of Ulster was to serve as the bulwark upon which Home Rule would be expected to collapse. Charismatically led by Edward Carson, strident opposition was fostered among unionists in Ulster, but Carson’s own concept of Ulster was somewhat qualified when he stated:

‘. . . we must be prepared, in the event of a Home Rule bill passing, with such measures as will carry on for ourselves the government of those districts of which we have control. We must be prepared . . . the morning Home Rule passes, ourselves to become responsible for the government of the Protestant Province of Ulster.’

While hinting at a partitionist mindset, Carson was pursuing a logic that if ‘Ulster’ succeeded, Home Rule would be dead.

The December 1910 general election result in Ulster. (Sarah Gearty)

The December 1910 general election result in Ulster. (Sarah Gearty)

The parliamentary search for ‘statutory Ulster’
Partition was explicitly suggested in June 1912 when Thomas Agar-Robartes, a backbench Liberal MP, moved an amendment to permanently exclude the four Protestant-majority counties of Antrim, Armagh, Down and Londonderry from the bill’s scope (Fig. 3). Its stark simplicity generated serious tactical problems for both Home Rule’s supporters and opponents. The Liberal prime minister, Herbert Asquith, derided the amendment, asserting: ‘You can no more split Ireland into parts than you can split England or Scotland into parts . . . you have in Ireland a greater fundamental unity of race, temperament, and tradition…’. Unionists would vote for the amendment but only because they believed it was a wrecking amendment. Nevertheless, Carson observed that the proposed statutory Ulster was territorially inadequate:

‘I would certainly never agree to leave out Tyrone or Fermanagh . . . But that, I believe, is a geographical matter which we may pass by at present . . . There is no compromise possible.’

Notably, one could detect that six counties might prove tolerable, even though Fermanagh and Tyrone possessed Catholic, and assumed Home Rule, majorities. The ramifications of the failed amendment were profound in converting the inconceivable into the debatable. Although drawn into publicly acknowledging the possibility of salvaging separate treatment for themselves, Ulster Unionists harnessed popular support in September 1912, as their Ulster Covenant stressed that ‘men of Ulster’ were committed ‘to defeat the conspiracy to set up a Home Rule parliament in Ireland.’

In January 1913, Unionists sponsored an amendment to exclude all of Ulster’s nine counties in a renewed bid to wreck the entire bill. While it was rejected as expected, Carson placed a premium on the constitutional status quo and veered into a geographical rationale for partition:

‘. . . when I take the whole of Ulster, bound up together in their business with the industries permeating out from the counties of Antrim and Belfast into these various towns around, . . . so far from having a preponderating majority in favour of a change in the Constitution you have a majority against it . . . It is far better statesmanship to exclude the whole of Ulster than to select counties which are nearly, so to speak, all the one way . . .’

 Non-Catholics as a percentage of the Ulster population according to the 1911 census. (Sarah Gearty)

Non-Catholics as a percentage of the Ulster population according to the 1911 census. (Sarah Gearty)

Asquith’s rebuttal selectively described Ulster’s electoral geography:

‘. . . the whole of the North-West, the whole of the South, the larger part of the middle—by the middle, I mean the county of Tyrone—are almost unanimously in favour of Home Rule. That is a geographical fact; . . . there are only two counties in Ulster which return a uniform Unionist representation—London-derry and Antrim . . . if you are to have a segregation of one part of Ireland from the rest, there is no argument whatsoever in favour of excluding the province of Ulster as a whole . . .’

The bill continued to be endorsed by comfortable majorities in the Commons but it was overwhelmingly rejected in the Lords. Under the Parliament Act, however, the bill progressed onto its second parliamentary lap.

The private search for ‘statutory Ulster’
Under the Parliament Act, no amendments could be made to the Home Rule bill on its protracted second and third circuits without the consent of the opposition. Concern over the Home Rule situation was engaging King George V, who feared the prospect of being embroiled in partisan politics, having been privately urged by Unionists to dissolve parliament and trigger a general election. The political ante had been raised considerably, with Ulster Unionists establishing a Provisional Government Executive in the contingency of Home Rule becoming law and with the growth of the Ulster Volunteer Force. Indeed, the formation of the Irish Volunteers in November as a nationalist militia signalled further polarisation. In autumn 1913 the monarch suggested that an all-party conference be convened, but Asquith was reluctant to be seen publicly cowering to the perceived threat of Ulster resistance, although he endeavoured to open private discussions with Conservative/ Unionist leader Andrew Bonar Law. The bill’s steady progress helped the Unionist leadership to realise that Ulster could not deny Home Rule for the rest of Ireland. As Carson candidly reflected to Bonar Law:

‘On the whole things are shaping towards a desire to settle on the terms of leaving “Ulster” out. A difficulty arises as to defining Ulster and my own view is that the whole of Ulster should be excluded but the minimum would be the 6 plantation counties . . . I feel certain it would be the best settlement if Home Rule is inevitable . . .’

(Carson was mistaken here. The actual plantation counties of Cavan and Donegal did not feature in his idea of six counties.)

artition was explicitly suggested in June 1912 when Liberal MP Thomas Agar-Robartes moved an amendment to exclude permanently the four Protestant-majority counties of Antrim, Armagh, Down and Londonderry from the Home Rule bill’s scope. (Sarah Gearty)

artition was explicitly suggested in June 1912 when Liberal MP Thomas Agar-Robartes moved an amendment to exclude permanently the four Protestant-majority counties of Antrim, Armagh, Down and Londonderry from the Home Rule bill’s scope. (Sarah Gearty)

The discussions between Asquith and Bonar Law failed to establish any common ground over how Ulster could be territorially defined. The only significant suggestion to break the deadlock was the concept of ‘county option’—allowing each Ulster county a plebiscite on Home Rule. Although broached with Redmond before, by March 1914 he was now persuaded of its tactical value in effectively excluding four Ulster counties temporarily for a six-year period. To a mixed response in the Commons, Asquith defended the scheme’s county basis as being fair and practical, but Carson dismissed temporary exclusion entirely:

‘. . . Ulster wants this question settled now and for ever. We do not want sentence of death with a stay of execution for six years . . . how [is] the finance of the bill . . . to be regulated when you do not know how much of Ulster is to be in and how much is to be out? . . . Ulster will be a geographical and a physical fact . . .’

While it was easier for Carson to concentrate attacks on the time limit of exclusion than on its precise geography, he was nurturing his own idea of a ‘clean cut’ without recourse to time limits and plebiscites. The announcement of the ‘county option’ plan had presaged a rise in the political temperature, with concerns over the military presence in Ireland and the possible coercion of Ulster. The upshot of the ‘Curragh mutiny’ was that the British Army could not be relied upon to act in Ulster if ordered. Ulster unionists were further encouraged by their audacious and successful importation of arms at Larne in April 1914.

The Buckingham Palace conference search for ‘statutory Ulster’

An amending bill, enshrining ‘county option’, was introduced in the Lords in June 1914, but it was soon amended to exclude Ulster entirely, thereby creating another impasse. While attempts were made to broker bilateral negotiations, complete deadlock transpired on the question of County Tyrone’s inclusion or exclusion. It was then thought opportune that a conference be convened for 21 July at Buckingham Palace for free and full discussions, with Unionist reluctance to attend overcome only by deference to the monarch’s invitation. There were concerns regarding George V being seen to intervene in party politics, compounded by widespread scepticism over the conference’s benefits. The Speaker of the Commons, James Lowther, was to chair proceedings, with Asquith and David Lloyd George, Redmond and John Dillon, Bonar Law and Lord Lansdowne, and Carson and James Craig representing respective party interests. Carson received a flurry of unsolicited advice beforehand, with one stark telegram urging him to ‘Act the patriot. Do not play the part of the harlot against whom Solomon decided’.

No official record exists of the conference’s proceedings, but Bonar Law and Redmond each recorded their own memoranda. Inauspiciously, an immediate disagreement arose over whether area or time limit should be discussed first, but Redmond successfully argued that his views on time limit would be contingent on area. (In the event, time limit was never broached.) Carson opened discussion by arguing in favour of an entire nine-county Ulster exclusion, adding that Redmond could see the logic of this facilitating the earliest possible unity of Ireland. Redmond, however, claimed that he could not advocate this to his followers.

Religious statistics submitted in John Redmond’s memorandum to the Buckingham Palace conference. (Redmond Papers, MS 15266, National Library of Ireland)

Religious statistics submitted in John Redmond’s memorandum to the Buckingham Palace conference. (Redmond Papers, MS 15266, National Library of Ireland)

Redmond circulated a detailed memorandum to the conference (Fig. 4). While reasserting a preference for county option, his party would consider other schemes that would as practicably as possible exclude all predominantly unionist districts in Ulster and include all districts that were predominantly nationalist. His analysis of four-county (including Belfast) exclusion demonstrated that 293,483 Catholics and 179,113 Protestants would end up on the ‘wrong side’. In illustrating the Catholic majorities in Tyrone and Fermanagh, the memorandum further argued that they possessed the same proportional majorities as Protestants in Derry and Armagh, where the combined Catholic minority was actually more numerous than the combined Protestant minority in the counties of Fermanagh and Tyrone. The upshot of these particular deliberations led Carson to concede that the total exclusion of Ulster could not be agreed upon. Discussions were adjourned until the next day, whereupon Asquith led debate away from counties towards a Poor Law union basis for division (Fig. 5). The Poor Law framework appeared to offer a sounder geographical base for partition. In contrast to counties, these unions had a smaller, compact shape, largely centred on the main market town. Yet no arrangement could be devised to common satisfaction, as the potential swapping of districts in different parts of Ulster was deemed impossible.

Carson expressed his extreme opposition to allowing any part of Tyrone to be included in Home Rule, and this was mirrored by Redmond’s opposition to any part of its exclusion. Carson then advocated the exclusion of a block consisting of Antrim, Down, Armagh, Derry, Tyrone and Fermanagh, including Belfast and Derry City, in constituting a single plebiscite unit (Fig. 6). Again, Redmond refused to agree. With a clear deadlock, it was mooted whether it was useful to continue with the conference, but the Speaker urged that another meeting be convened. Asquith privately expressed his own exasperation:

‘We sat again this morning for an hour & a half, discussing maps & figures, and always getting back to that most damnable creation of the perverted ingenuity of man—the County of Tyrone. The extraordinary feature of the discussion was the complete agreement (in principle) of Redmond & Carson. Each said “I must have the whole of Tyrone, or die; but I quite understand why you say the same”. The Speaker who incarnates bluff unimaginative English sense, of course cut in: “When each of two people say they must have the whole, why not cut it in half?” they w[oul]d neither of them look at such a suggestion. L[loyd] G[eorge] & I worked hard to get rid of the county areas altogether & proceed on Poor Law Unions, wh[ich] afford a good basis of give & take. But again both Irish lots would have none of it . . . I have rarely felt more hopeless in any practical affair: an impasse, with unspeakable consequences, upon a matter which to English eyes seems inconceivably small, & to Irish eyes immeasurably big.’

 

Poor Law unions, smaller and more compact in shape, appeared to offer a sounder geographical base for partition. (Sarah Gearty)

Poor Law unions, smaller and more compact in shape, appeared to offer a sounder geographical base for partition. (Sarah Gearty)

On 23 July 1914, Asquith suggested adopting the parliamentary constituency structure. The excluded Ulster would consist of all Antrim, Belfast and Londonderry; North and Mid-Armagh; North, East and West Down; Derry City, South Tyrone and North Fermanagh. (Fig. 1). Either as a block or by constituency, regular plebiscites would determine entry into the Irish parliament. Carson reiterated his opposition to what would in effect award three-quarters of Tyrone to the Irish parliament. Redmond felt compelled to ‘emphatically protest against a proposal of block vote for any excluded area by which counties or districts might be coerced and permanently denied the choice of joining the rest of Ireland’. Asquith tentatively suggested that if agreement could be reached on everything bar Tyrone, then the county could be divided by an impartial authority. It was thought, however, that the terms of reference for how such an impartial authority might be constituted would prove just as problematic. The Speaker added that Tyrone could be immediately excluded but for a twelve- or eighteen-month period before being allowed to vote on joining an Irish parliament. This attempt to split the difference was deemed impractical. There was a last vain appeal by Redmond to Carson for any settlement not based on exclusion but Carson proved obdurate.

With all apparent bases for discussion having been exhausted, the breakdown of the conference was cursorily announced. The government resolved to press on with the county option but to abolish the time limit, and in effect formalise permanent four-county exclusion. Matters were disrupted, however, by the deteriorating European situation, with the recent assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia. As Winston Churchill had summarised:

‘. . . the cabinet toiled around the muddy byways of Fermanagh and Tyrone . . . The parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone faded back into the mists and squalls of Ireland, and a strange light began immediately . . . to fall and grow upon the map of Europe . . .’

An uneasy consensus was reached in order to concentrate on the war effort, and eventually the Home Rule bill was placed on the statute book in September, but with the proviso that its legal effect, as well as an Ulster provision, would follow the war’s conclusion. Although war in Europe quelled the burgeoning intensity of party politics, it also served to mortgage Ireland’s partition to a later date.

Carson advocated the exclusion of Antrim, Down, Armagh, Derry, Tyrone and Fermanagh—including Belfast and Derry City—in constituting a single plebiscite unit. (Sarah Gearty)

Carson advocated the exclusion of Antrim, Down, Armagh, Derry, Tyrone and Fermanagh—including Belfast and Derry City—in constituting a single plebiscite unit. (Sarah Gearty)

Overview
The merits of the initial four- and nine-county partition proposals were obfuscated by politicking that rendered parliament too partisan to facilitate compromise. Nevertheless, gradual political attrition ensured that Home Rule and partition were no longer considered diametrically opposed. Nationalists came to concede the principle of partition but only on the basis that it would be temporary, while unionists focused on ensuring that some malleable ‘Ulster’ entity was saved from Home Rule. This, however, begged the question: ‘what or where was Ulster?’ Once private channels for discussion were opened, negotiations were stymied by fears of overly generous concessions and of alienating respective allies. Nevertheless, as Nicholas Mansergh has remarked, ‘attention was progressively focused on what the Ulster Unionists might accept, rather than on what the Nationalists might reasonably be expected to concede’. Liberals and Nationalists clung to the apparently fair and democratic concept of ‘county option’, but Carson was intent on maximising a statutory Ulster area that circumvented a consistent and rational method of consulting the people by advocating the unilateral aggregation of counties. The adoption of the county was a simplistic method of delimiting partition but, having acquired currency as a marker of local territorial identity, it became the established medium through which partition would be conceived and then later executed on an aggregated basis.

The Buckingham Palace conference was an altruistic but futile attempt to broker a partition arrangement; there was little incentive to make concessions despite there being no shortage of ideas on how ‘statutory Ulster’ could be composed. George Dangerfield best summarised matters: ‘Only an earthquake or general conversion could have settled the problem: and the sorrows of the conference were due to the fact that it was attempting to decide by Act of Parliament what could only be effected by act of God’. HI

Kieran J. Rankin is a political geographer currently based in University College Dublin.

Further reading:
R. Blake, The unknown prime minister: the life and times of Andrew Bonar Law 1858–1923 (London, 1955).
G. Dangerfield, The strange death of Liberal England (London, 1966).
D. Gwynn, The life of John Redmond (London, 1932).
N. Mansergh, The unresolved question: the Anglo-Irish settlement and its undoing 1912–72 (London, 1991).

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