Battle lines drawn as Tories join fray

Ulster Unionists and British Conservatives were now inseparably bonded together in their opposition to Home Rule

Early in 1912, the Ulster Unionist Council prepared a great demonstration against the Third Home Rule Bill to be addressed by the new leader of the Conservative Party, Andrew Bonar Law. It was to be held at the agricultural show grounds at Balmoral, a south Belfast suburb, on Easter Tuesday, April 9th

Seventy trains brought in demonstrators from all over Ulster. Seventy English, Scottish and Welsh Conservative MPs crossed the Irish Sea to take part. More than 100,000 men marched in military formation past the platforms before separating into two streams passing on either side of the saluting base.

The proceedings opened with prayers and the singing of the 90th Psalm. Then, a resolution against Home Rule was passed with rousing acclamation; immediately afterwards, from a 90-foot flagstaff rising from a tower in the centre of the grounds, the largest Union Jack ever woven was broken and unfurled.

Law knew Ulster well. His father, a Presbyterian minister, was born in Coleraine, and his brother was the local doctor there. For the last five years of his father’s life, he had visited Ulster every weekend. Now, as he stepped forward to speak, he knew that a reference to the Siege of Derry would strike a chord in the hearts of his listeners as he assured them that their cause was not Ulster’s alone but that of the Empire.


“Once more you hold the pass, the pass for the Empire. You are a besieged city. The timid have left you: your Lundys have betrayed you; but you have closed the gates. The Government have erected by their Parliament Act a boom against you to shut you off from the help of the British people. You will burst that boom,” he said.

This formidable display of loyalist strength was an outward and visible sign, an open declaration, that the Conservative Party had made a fateful decision – it had unequivocally committed itself to giving unswerving support to all that Ulster unionists intended to do to oppose Home Rule.

For the great majority of Ulster Protestants, Home Rule was a ghastly spectre. A Dublin parliament would be dominated by farmers neither competent to administer industrial Ulster nor concerned about its welfare. They were sure that nationalists would tax the north too heavily and damage its industries by protective tariffs, designed to promote southern self-sufficiency. The powers the government intended to devolve to Dublin were modest enough, but loyalists were certain that Home Rule would simply be a staging-post towards an independent republic, cutting them off from their British brethren.

Above all, Home Rule would be Rome Rule. International Catholicism was seen as an oppressive backward religion, a dark conspiracy, perpetually endangering Protestant liberties – a view reinforced by the Ne Temere papal decree in 1907, which laid down that Catholics marrying Protestants must bring up their children as Catholics. Northern Protestants visualised a Dublin parliament putting education entirely in the hands of the church and reserving public employment exclusively for Catholics.

For most rank-and-file loyalists, concern for the fate of the Empire was lower down their list of priorities than it was for Tory grandees at Westminster. Nevertheless, in this great crusade, Ulster unionists and British Conservatives were now inseparably bonded together. This had not always been so.

Relations between northern unionists and Conservative ministers had been severely strained in the past. English Conservatives were shocked by the frank sectarianism of some Ulster MPs. One Irish Chief Secretary, George Wyndham, observed in 1904: “My contact with the Ulster members is like catching an ‘itch’ from park pests.”

For most loyalists, the formation of the Ulster Unionist Council in 1905 did not come a moment too soon. Until then, a proper party organisation did not exist. Now the network of Unionist Clubs, founded by Lord Templetown, spread rapidly across the Ulster countryside. The Orange Order augmented its number of brethren impressively, Captain James Craig, MP for East Down, indefatigably addressing lodge after lodge.

Normally safe unionist seats continued to be lost on occasion. In part, this was due to poor leadership. Colonel Edward Saunderson, leader until his death in 1906, was described with much justification by a colleague as “absolutely devoid of business capacity”. His successor, Walter Long, was hardly an improvement. “An amiable Wiltshire Orangemen”, according to the Liberal David Lloyd George, he failed to appear at the annual meetings of the Ulster Unionist Council in 1908 and 1909.

Long, perhaps taking heed of a friend’s warning against “sinking yourself in the Irish stew”, got elected for a London seat in 1910. Sir Edward Carson took his place; he quickly proved the leader Ulster unionists had yearned for. In September 1911 at Craig’s home he assured 50,000 men assembled there that “with the help of God you and I joined together . . . will yet defeat the most nefarious conspiracy that has ever been hatched against a free people”. Home Rule was imminent. The opposition was ready.

Then, in November 1911, Bonar Law became leader of the Conservative Party. The banns of marriage between Tories and unionists were soon published abroad and the vows, pledging fidelity, were then duly exchanged at the Balmoral show grounds in April 1912. Banishing all doubts, Bonar Law declared in July: “I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster can go in which I should not be prepared to support them.” But did he really know the extent to which he had committed his party?

In making preparations for the signing of Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant, unionist leaders went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the occasion would well-ordered and dignified. That day, September 28th, was a propaganda triumph: across the Irish Sea, these northern Irish loyalists could be viewed as staunch, well-behaved patriots, striving to ensure that the pillars of the British Constitution would remain standing.

Of course, Bonar Law was aware that tens of thousands of loyalists in Ulster were marching and drilling. He cannot have known, however, that steps had already been taken to equip them with guns and live ammunition. As early as November 1910, the UUC formed a secret committee to approach arms dealers. Its agent, Major Fred Crawford, wrote on November 22nd to five munitions works in England, Austria and Germany, inviting a quotation for 20,000 rifles and one million rounds of ammunition: “The rifles need not be the very latest pattern – second-hand ones in good order preferred.”

After further approaches, the committee decided that Benny Spiro of Hamburg should be the UUC’s arms supplier. The council voted its first major cash allocation in March 1911 and by that summer the first consignment of 2,000 weapons had been imported. Carson was privy to these secrets. At the end of July 1911, he had confided in Craig: “I am not for a game of bluff, and unless men are prepared to make great sacrifices which they clearly understand, the talk of resistance is no use.”

Between 1910 and 1912, Ulster unionists were tacitly rejecting the British parliamentary process and, as they laid plans for a provisional government in Ulster and began the secret purchase of German arms, they were preparing for open militancy and making a commitment to lead their devoted followers into a bloody civil war.