Ulster, the most Protestant region of Ireland since the 17th century, is where the union with Britain has its most passionate supporters. And from 1910 the Unionist members of parliament have a brilliant and ruthless leader in the person of Edward Carson.
In September 1911, when it is known that a Home Rule bill is in the pipeline (but six months before it is placed before parliament), Carson gives warning of what is to come when he addresses a crowd of 50,000 Orangemen and Unionists outside Belfast. He tells them that the morning after Home Rule is granted to Ireland, they must be ready to administer and defend their own ‘Protestant Province of Ulster’.
That winter Ulster is full of Protestants drilling (a licence to drill can be acquired from any Justice of the Peace, as long as the intention is to defend the United Kingdom’s constitution). In the following spring Carson, with at his side the new leader of the Conservative party, Andrew Bonar Law, reviews another gathering of Ulster volunteers outside Belfast. It shows every sign of being a military parade.
100,000 men march in columns past a saluting base above which flies a gigantic union jack. This event is held on 9 April 1912, two days before Asquith’s Home Rule bill is presented to the house of commons.
The final gesture of unionist solidarity during 1912 is the Solemn League and Covenant, a document in the militant Scottish tradition which is signed from September 28 in the Belfast town hall. Hundreds of yards of desks enable more than 500 people to sign simultaneously. Eventually almost half a million men and women do so, committing themselves to disobey any future Home Rule government.
Finally, in January 1913, with the Home Rule bill now making its way through the house of commons, the unionists take an openly military stance. They decide to raise an Ulster Volunteer Force of 100,000 men aged between seventeen and sixty-five. Dummy wooden rifles now appear in the drill parades held in Orange halls.
These developments prompt a similar response on the nationalist side. In November 1913 a body calling itself the Irish National Volunteers is formed in Dublin and begins its own programme of recruitment and drilling. Six months later it too claims 100,000 members.
By now the wooden rifles are giving way to real ones. In April 1914 Carson’s organization succeeds in landing at Larne more than 24,000 rifles and three million rounds of ammunition purchased in Germany. In July a much smaller shipment of arms, also from Germany, comes ashore in Howth for the Irish volunteers (resulting on this occasion in a clash with the military, on the Dublin quays, and several civilian casualties).
The prospect of civil disorder is made worse by evidence that the British government will be powerless to cope with it. There is much discussion whether the British army should be ordered to quell Protestant resistance in Ulster, and if so whether the order would be obeyed. In 1914 a commanding officer foolishly asks the cavalry regiment stationed on the Curragh in Dublin whether they would accept such an order or prefer to be dismissed from the army. The officers reply they would choose dismissal.
The so-called Curragh mutiny suggests that little can prevent the Orangemen from wrecking Home Rule. But greater issues postpone the crisis. Two days after the contraband weapons are landed in Dublin for the Irish volunteers, Austria declares war on Serbia.
Patriotism and plots: AD 1914
The immediate effect of Britain’s entry into World War I, on 4 August 1914, is two-edged. On the surface it defuses the recent tensions over independence. But there is a minority in Ireland which refuses to postpone the struggle. The new crisis has the effect of driving their activities underground.
In Westminster the leader of the Home Rule faction, John Redmond, immediately suggests that the Irish and Ulster volunteers should collaborate in defending Ireland’s coasts, enabling British troops to be withdrawn for the war effort. In subsequent weeks he goes further, urging Ireland’s gallant young men to play a full role in Britain’s effort ‘in defence of the highest principles of religion and morality and right’.
In making these patriotic commitments, Redmond knows that the onset of war has delivered him the prize of Home Rule for most of Ireland. He has an agreement with Asquith that a Home Rule Act will be passed (excluding, for the moment at least, Ulster). An accompanying act will at the same time delay implementation for a year or until the end of the war, whichever is shorter.
Both acts receive the royal assent, on September 18, though only after Carson and the entire Conservative opposition have walked out of the chamber of the house of commons in protest.
Stumbling towards a settlement: AD 1920-1922
In 1920 Lloyd George secures the passage of a Government of Ireland Act which puts a new spin on the proposal passed into law in 1914. The partition of Ireland is to be accepted as a necessary compromise, but both southern Ireland (twenty-six counties) and northern Ireland (the six counties of northeast Ulster) are now to have their own parliaments with limited devolved powers. Each parliament is to send twenty members to a joint Council of Ireland, which may at any time merge the two without requiring further legislation from Westminster.
The proposal meets neither Nationalist wishes for a united Ireland, nor the Unionist desire to remain an undifferentiated part of the United Kingdom. But both sides decide to take part in the elections held in May 1921.
In southern Ireland the old Nationalist party, under John Dillon, refrains from opposing Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein therefore wins 124 of the 128 seats (the other four being reserved for the strongly Unionist Trinity College in Dublin). These 124 Sinn Feiners now assemble as a reconstituted Dáil. However this is not the southern parliament provided for in Lloyd George’s act, and the IRA continues to commit terrorist acts in Sinn Fein’s republican cause.
In northern Ireland forty Unionists and twelve Nationalists are elected. Although the Unionists object in principle to this parliament, it is formally opened by George V (with a powerful speech urging reconciliation) in June 1921.
With this much achieved, Lloyd George offers a truce to the Sinn Fein leader, Eamon de Valera, and invites him to London with a view to working out a treaty.
The truce comes into effect on 11 July 1921. Violence in southern Ireland immediately ceases. De Valera sends representatives, led by Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, to the peace talks in London. They agree to terms which fall short of the nationalist demand for a united Ireland, but which nevertheless offer independence to the twenty-six counties. As the Irish Free State they are to have Dominion status, in the formula pioneered by Canada. Republican sensibilities are assuaged by owing allegiance to the British crown only as head of ‘the British Commonwealth of Nations’.
The Anglo-Irish Treaty is ratified by the British parliament in December 1921, but it immediately runs into problems in Ireland. De Valera repudiates it, arguing that his envoys have agreed to terms beyond their brief. In January, after a bitter debate in the Dáil, Griffith and Collins carry the motion for their treaty by a narrow margin of 64 votes to 57. De Valera immediately resigns as president of the Dáil. Griffith is elected in his place.
In northern Ireland the new parliament is now functioning, and there has been talk of accommodation of some kind with the south. But civil war south of the border and sectarian riots in the north soon put an end to that. For the rest of the century, from 1922, the republic of Ireland and northern Ireland go their separate ways.
The Craigavon years: AD 1921-1940
The leader of the Unionists in Ulster in 1921 is James Craig, who has been Carson’s loyal and able assistant in the political struggles of the previous ten years. After the war Carson devotes himself to his legal career, as a lord of appeal in the house of lords, so Craig is the natural choice for prime minister in Stormont, the new parliament of northern Ireland.
He has a large majority, with forty Unionist seats and only twelve on the nationalist side (six representing Dillon’s Nationalist party and six Sinn Fein). This already commanding position is made absolute when the nationalist side refuse to take their seats. They also boycott the northern Irish police force, now to be known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
The nationalists are pinning their hopes on the Boundary Commission, promised by Lloyd George and set up in 1924 by Ramsay MacDonald. They assume it will result in their main areas of strength, adjacent to the border but on the wrong side, becoming part of the new Irish Free State. However the Commission turns out to be ineffectual, merely serving to reinforce the status quo.
The result is that northern Ireland settles into a rigid pattern, symbolized by the long term of office of James Craig. He serves as Unionist prime minister in an unboken spell of nineteen years (from 1927 as Viscount Craigavon) until his death in 1940.
A sense of unchanging rigidity in northern Ireland derives from the impression (hard to avoid in the circumstances) that the Unionists are the natural ruling party. In the inevitable nature of power, this results in discrimination – much of it real, and even more perceived – against the large nationalist minority within the established borders.
There are many extra factors to add to the discontent which would be inherent anywhere in the world in this scenario. One is that the ruling Unionists originate, centuries back, from England and Scotland – nations which have combined in history to persecute Ireland and to seize Irish land.
Another, even more corrosive, is the fact that the communities are divided along sectarian lines – Protestant majority, Catholic minority. Religion, historically the most divisive form of idealism, can be relied on to accentuate any element of hostility. Finally, though this applies only to relatively few among the minority, there seems to be a more desirable nation just over the border – and one which, under de Valera’s new constitution of 1937, specifically includes the six northern counties within Eire.
However on this particular issue, for most Catholics, the greater economic strength of northern Ireland makes union with Eire unappealing. The industrial clout of Belfast is particularly evident in the years of World War II.