Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Talk by Gordon Lucy on Sir Edward Carson


Carson is simultaneously both one of the most revered and most maligned figures in modern Irish history. To Nationalists he is remembered as the principal architect of Partition, although that was not his intention. Unionists, on the other hand see him as one of the founding fathers of Northern Ireland.Similarly, that was not his intention either.

Carson was born at 4 Harcourt Street, Dublin, on 9 February 1854. His family’s background on his father's side was professional and middle class. His father was an architect and two of his uncles were Church of Ireland clergymen. His mother, one of the Lamberts of Athenry, Co. Galway, came from a landed family descended from John Lambert, one of Cromwell’s major-generals. Carson was educated at Portarlington and Trinity College, Dublin. He was to represent his alma mater in Parliament between 1892 and 1918. His legal career began on the Leinster Circuit in 1878. After 1893 he built up a formidable legal practice in England. His background – by birth, family background, upbringing, education and early professional career – was firmly located in southern Irish society.He never lost his Irish brogue. Before 1910 or 1911 he had little or no experience or contact with Ulster society.

Carson was an outstanding lawyer in an era of great lawyers. In 1900 he was earning £20,000 per annum, a huge income by early 20th -century standards. Hewas involved in a great many famous court cases. Two examples will suffice. In 1895 Carson represented the Marquess of Queensbury in the celebrated libelaction brought against him by Oscar Wilde. Carson’s cross-examination of Wilde was devastating. In 1909 Carson famously defended George Archer Shee, a 13-yearold cadet at Osborne Naval College unjustly accused of the theft of afive-shilling postal order. The story became the basis of Sir TerenceRattigan’s award-winning play, The Winslow Boy (1946), Carson being the modelfor Sir Robert Morton.

On a number of occasions Carson was a law officer of the Crown: Solicitor General for Ireland in 1892, Solicitor General for England between 1900 and1905 and in 1915 he was made Attorney General in the Coalition Government.

Politically, he was a very significant figure in British politics. He was a key player in the overthrow of the Asquith Government in December 1916. Between 1916 and 1917 he was First Lord of the Admiralty and between 1917 and 1918 he was a member of the War Cabinet.

On two occasions very high office was, arguably, within Carson’s grasp. In1911, when A.J. Balfour finally succumbed to the ‘Balfour must go’ campaignorchestrated by sections of the Tory press, Carson might have become Leader ofthe Conservative Party instead of Bonar Law. In December 1916 he might even have become Prime Minister rather than Lloyd George.

Carson was the leader of Ulster Unionism from February 1910 to February 1921. Carson was MP for Trinity College, Dublin, for 26 years and MP for the Belfast constituency of Duncairn only from December 1918 to May 1921. The greater part of his life was spent far removed from the concerns of Ulster. Ulster was the focus of his political life for only eleven years. After 1921 Carson exhibitedcomparatively little public interest in Ulster politics, partly perhaps becausehe thought to do so was not compatible with his judicial role as Lord of Appealin Ordinary. However, he made occasional visits to the province. The massivestatue of Carson in front of Parliament Buildings at Stormont was unveiled inhis presence on 8 July 1933.

He died on 22 October 1935 at Cleve Court, near Ramsgate. His body was conveyed to Belfast for a state funeral – the only state funeral ever held in Northern Ireland’s history – in St Anne’s Cathedral where he was buried.

Carson was a Unionist because he believed Ireland’s interests were best servedby the Union. His aim was the comprehensive defeat of Home Rule. Carson erroneously believed that Home Rule was not economically viable without Ulster’s – and more specifically Belfast’s – heavy industry and that John Redmond, the Nationalist leader, and Irish Nationalist opinion would never accept Home Rule with Ulster exclusion. Therefore, Carson believed that if he could demonstrate that Ulster Unionists were resolute in their determination to oppose Home Rule, Home Rule would be ‘dead as a stone’.

The signing of the Ulster Covenant of 28 September 1912, drilling and military preparations, the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force, the establishment ofa provisional government in Belfast and large-scale gunrunning were all intended to demonstrate the seriousness and depth of Ulster unionist oppositionto Home Rule.

In November 1911 Carson drafted a memorandum suggesting that ‘it might benecessary to raise the question [of Ulster exclusion] some time by amendment’. It was in this spirit that Carson supported the Agar-Robartes amendment forfour-county exclusion in June 1912 and Carson introduced his own amendment for nine-county exclusion in January 1913. As late as September 1913 Carson still believed that it was possible to defeat Home Rule by insisting on the exclusion of either the whole of Ulster or even part of Ulster. However, in November 1913 Carson met a delegation of Southern Unionists and posed them a series of highly significant questions.

‘Is it your decision that I am to go on fighting for Ulster?’


‘Will my fight in Ulster interfere in any way with your fight in the


‘If I win in Ulster, am I to refuse the fruits of victory because you have


This episode signalled the fact that Carson no longer believed it was possibleto defeat Home Rule for the whole of Ireland. His task between November 1913 and the summer of 1914 was to save Ulster, or as much of Ulster as possible,from the operation of a Home Rule bill.

Carson never exhibited much enthusiasm for the Government of Ireland bill whichwas introduced in the Commons on 25 February 1920. The bill proposed theestablishment of two parliaments in Ireland, one in Belfast and one in Dublin. Northern Ireland, the area to be placed under the jurisdiction of the Belfast parliament was to be a six-county rather than a nine-county Ulster. Thelegislation was drafted in this way at the insistence of James Craig and the Ulster Unionist leadership. Behind the scenes, as early as November 1919 they had indicated to Walter Long, the chairman of the Cabinet committee farming theterms of the bill, that they would accept no other settlement.

Carson’s attitude to the bill was ‘lukewarm’. Even before its introduction, on 19 December 1919 Carson told the House of Commons:

Ulster has never asked for a separate Parliament. Ulster's claim has always been of this simple character: “we have thrived under the Union; we are insympathy with you, we are part of yourselves. We are prepared to make anysacrifice that you make, and are prepared to bear any burden that is equallyput upon us with the other parts of the United Kingdom. In those circumstanceskeep us with you.” They have never made any other demand than that, and I appeal to the Government to keep Ulster in their united Parliament. I cannot understand why we should ask them to take a Parliament which they have never demanded, and which they do not want.

Carson contended:

In the whole conduct of the war you can find no difference between theNorth-East
of Ulster and any part of Great Britain. They fought as you did,they sympathised
as you did, they grieved with you, they rejoiced with you…Believe me, they have
proved a great asset for you in the late war, in theirshipyards and in their
factories and in their volunteers at the Front. Why nowyou should ask them to
accept a Parliament if they do not want it, I cannot understand.

Carson was invited to become Northern Ireland’s first Prime Minister but it wasan honour he declined. It would have involved operating the Government of Ireland Act which he viewed with distaste. The prospect of office had little attraction for him. As a hypochondriac, he almost certainly would have hadsevere doubts about his health. He may even have believed, at the age of 66,that it was appropriate to step down and give a younger man a chance. On 4 February 1921 he formally relinquished the leadership of Ulster Unionism. He did so proffering sound advice:

From the very outset let us see that the Catholic minority have nothing to fear from the Protestant majority. Let us take care to win all that is best among those who have been opposed to us in the past. While maintaining intact our own religion let us give the same rights to the religion of our neighbours.

Of Carson’s political career, the ultimate paradox is perhaps the impressivestatue in front of Parliament Buildings at Stormont: a statue to a man opposed to Home Rule in front of a Home Rule parliament. Frequently interpreted as an expression of triumphalism, in truth it is rather the symbol of failure. Carson never sought to establish a parliament in Belfast. Stormont was a by-product ofhis failure.

Talk by Gordon Lucy to the Queen's Ulster Society on Tuesday 6th November 2007