Alistair Lexden is the Conservative Party’s official historian, but does not offer here an official Party view of this very contentious episode in Conservative Party history. This is a personal account which draws on a wide range of published sources, of which the most important are: Roy Jenkins, Asquith, R.J.Q .Adams, Bonar Law) and Alan F. Parkinson, Friends in High Places: Ulster’s Resistance to Irish Home Rule,1912-14
On 15 January 1914 the Conservative Party( known then universally as the Unionist Party) entered the final phase of a militant, two-year campaign against Herbert Asquith’s Home Rule Bill for Ireland – a campaign marked by a degree of bitterness and constitutional instability not seen since the seventeenth century.
Synthetic anger is common enough in party politics; deep, genuine, sustained animosity between the major parties occurs rarely. A century ago it was the dominant feature of political life. Asquith was howled down in the Commons; Churchill was struck on the forehead by a book hurled at him from the Unionist benches; sittings were suspended in disorder.
The cause of it all was the refusal of Asquith’s minority government, dependent on the support of 85 Irish Nationalist MPs (Sinn Fein had not yet come on the scene), to call an election or hold a referendum before implementing legislation to establish an all-Ireland devolved parliament in Dublin. The issue had hardly featured at the most recent general election in December 1910 when the parties had been locked in bitter dispute over the Liberals’ plan to end the Lords’ veto on legislation. After dealing with the Lords in 1911, the Liberals immediately moved on to Home Rule. The Irish Nationalists delivered a majority for it in the Commons where the Unionists were the largest party; in the Lords, the overwhelming Unionist majority against it was due to be overridden by the new Parliament Act no later than the summer of 1914.
Andrew Bonar Law, the toughest and most outspoken leader the Conservative Party has ever had, repeatedly pressed the case for an election in some of the strongest language ever used by a senior Tory politician. “ We do not recognise the Liberal cabinet”, he said, as “the constitutional government of a free people. We regard them as a revolutionary committee which has entered by fraud upon despotic power… We shall use any means to deprive them of the power which they have usurped and compel them to face the people whom they have deceived”. A flowing tide of Unionist by-election victories reinforced his determination.
He bombarded the King, George V, with memoranda calling on him to sack Asquith under royal prerogative powers unused since 1834 and dissolve Parliament at the request of the Unionist government which would replace him. The King broadly shared Bonar Law’s views( while disliking him personally), but wisely rejected the extreme course he recommended.
Even so, the Unionists still possessed the power to prevent a devolved parliament in Dublin exercising power throughout Ireland. At the start of 1914 some 100,000 men, organised and trained (quite legally under warrants granted by local magistrates) as members of the Ulster Volunteer Force, stood ready to carry out the orders of a provisional government, set up in shadow form by the formidable Unionist leader, Sir Edward Carson, which made clear that it would take power in Ulster as soon as Asquith’s legislation came into effect. By the spring the UVF would be equipped with 35,000 rifles and ammunition procured in the Kaiser’s Germany. This remarkable citizen’s army presented a fine spectacle on parade, winning fulsome praise from an English woman who watched a contingent in the grounds of Belfast Castle :
No one who wasn’t there can realise the feeling it gave one to see those thousands of men, with their heads bowed while the prayers were offered up, join in ‘ O God our help in ages past’, and to see them marching past, old men and boys, rich men and poor men, side by side, all cheerfully ready to sacrifice themselves for the cause they hold so dear.
Through the strict discipline that it imposed, the UVF prevented – even at a time of high tension – the outbreak of ugly sectarian incidents by which Unionism in Ulster has too often been marred.
The UVF received the full support of Bonar Law, a man deeply conscious of his family’s Ulster roots, who visited the Province frequently, often in the company of large groups of English MPs. For the first time Unionists throughout the entire United Kingdom were brought together effectively in partnership within a common political movement. Some 5,000 Unionist meetings in England were addressed by Ulster colleagues. Over 6 million Ulster Unionist pamphlets were handed out in constituencies in Great Britain. In the early months of 1914 over 1,250 people drawn from 116 constituencies visited their fellow Unionists in Ulster. Nothing like it had happened before – and no similar demonstration of Unionist unity would ever occur again.
Bonar Law now redefined the central objective of his long, remorseless campaign as its last stage opened on this day a century ago. A crucial turning-point had been reached. He was prepared to concede that Nationalist Ireland could have Home Rule if Unionist Ulster was exempted from it, so removing from the whole of Ireland the spectre of civil war. That was the clear message conveyed in a characteristically impassioned speech which the Unionist leader delivered in Bristol on 15 January 1914.
We think Home Rule is a great evil, but we think civil war is an evil infinitely greater, and if the Government could make to us any proposal which would do away with the prospect of civil strife, we …should be ready to consider it with a real desire to accept it, if acceptance were possible without…the sacrifice of honour. Ulster has been given an unshakeable commitment that it would not be forced under the authority of a Dublin government. We intend, with the help of the Almighty, to keep that pledge…We are bound in honour to Ulster to use every means – any means – which seem to us effective, to prevent the coercion of Ulster.
Bonar Law went on to reveal that cross-party talks had already taken place to explore the possibilities of compromise. “ There have been conversations between party leaders, but so far they have they have been without result”, he told his Bristol audience. He deliberately discouraged optimism in order to avoid shouldering the sole blame if success was not achieved. “ I am grieved to say – for nothing can be gained by cherishing vain illusions – that so far as I can judge there can be no result”.
Long hours of wrangling over the terms of an Ulster deal lay ahead. There was no lessening of Unionist pressure on the government. Lord Crawford, a former Chief Whip in the Commons, noted in his diary on 7 February 1914 that “ at the Carlton club one hears on all sides the determination of members not to pair during the ensuing session – to treat ministerialists as revolutionaries, and generally to fight a more strenuous battle than our party has ever waged before”. There were times when the prospect of civil war seemed to be advancing, not retreating. In mid-March the likelihood that extra troops would be drafted into Ulster to confront the UVF precipitated a threat of resignations among officers serving in Ireland, the notorious “ Curragh Mutiny”. Slowly, however, compromise inched forward.
Full agreement on how “ the coercion of Ulster” was to be avoided had not been reached when the First World War broke out in August 1914. In particular the precise boundaries of Unionist Ulster – the area to be excluded from the Home Rule Bill – remained in dispute. But the partition of Ireland, clearly signalled by Bonar Law’s January speech, had been firmly accepted in principle on all sides as the only way of resolving the crisis(as indeed it was). Nationalists in Ireland and the Left in Britain who, then and later, denounced partition as “ a crime against the Irish people” put the sanctity of their beliefs before their obligation to secure peace.
In the long-term interests of the entire British Isles, partition should have been carried out as Bonar Law intended, leaving Unionist Ulster (finally defined as the six counties that became Northern Ireland in 1920) under direct Westminster rule. The records of Bonar Law’s private conversations with Asquith, referred to in his January speech, show that “he dismissed as unacceptable all schemes for giving [Ulster] a local legislature and executive of its own. Legislation must remain with the Imperial Parliament. The Ulster men could not ( without sacrificing their root principle) recognise any other law-making process”. A deeply divided community cannot govern itself well. Ulster needed to be absorbed in a wider political framework where its divisions could be diminished and more tolerant attitudes promoted. Instead Lloyd George in 1920 insisted on installing a separate Parliament at Stormont which perpetuated searing local divisions – with disastrous consequences 50 years later.