Friday, October 5, 2012

Ulster Day 1912 - King's Rebels And The Road To The Somme

Last weekend in Belfast the Ulster Day or Ulster Covenant Day parade commemorations blessedly passed off in peace. The 100th anniversary of an occasion when the most British people in Great Britain and the British Empire threatened to take on the might of the British Army and the British State to stay British.

The possibility of political stability ever evolving off the back of a successful Home Rule bill implementation has been discussed in a recent post and of course the fateful and flawed course of self-determination that the Northern State played out for half a century prior to 1972 needs no further qualification by way of its violent denouement. The historical importance of 1912 within British social history however remains unequivocal.

The end of the House of Lords veto with the passing of the Parliament Act of 1911 had lead to the introduction of a constitutionally unassailable third Home Rule Bill in 1912. In Ulster the economic gulf with the rest of Ireland had increased substantially since the start of the century with the Lagan Valley now forming an integral part of a great commercial triangle along with Clydeside and Merseyside. Unionist leaders stressed how the constitution had been sold out to an electoral numbers game, that the various Land Acts had solved so many long-term Irish grievances and that the bill’s limitations on the Home Rule parliament’s financial independence could not be squared with any final satisfaction of nationalist demands.

The propaganda of the Union Defence League and British League for the Defence of Ulster on the mainland accompanied a British Covenant organised by Lord Milner that garnered two million signatures while Colonel T.E. Hickman MP was busy recruiting English army officers to cross the Irish Sea and fight for Ulster. Support would also be received from the Scots-Irish diaspora in North America, Australasia and South Africa.

Dubliner Sir Edward Carson, convinced of the sincerity of the Ulster position by a parade of 50,000 loyalists at Craig’s East Belfast home of Craigavon on 23rd September 1911, would threaten to set up a provisional government for the Protestant province of Ulster. Fervent encouragement was then given in turn by the Canadian-born Conservative Party leader Bonar Law in speeches at Balmoral in Belfast in April 1912 and at Blenheim Palace the following month.

On “Ulster Day” of 28th September 1912, and as a climax to a series of province-wide meetings, a Solemn League and Covenant was to be signed by over 471,414 unionists - several in their own blood.  In January 1913 an Ulster Volunteer Force eventually 90-100,000 strong was formed by the Ulster Unionist Council Military Committee to formalise earlier licensed drilling in paramilitary Unionist Clubs which had mushroomed in the wake of the bill’s passing. With the Ulster rebels having moved irrevocably towards a coup d’etat by March of that year, rumours began to steadily mount of imminent UVF raids for arms against British armouries in the north. Churchill ordered the Royal Navy to Northern Irish and Scottish waters, drafted plans for a raid on Craigavon and considered the arrests of Carson and Law.

ATQ Stewart's classic 1967 The Ulster Crisis history recalls a Daily Express report from Belfast from April of that year that captures the critical mass moment afoot:

Tonight there is a watching Covenanter in every church tower in Ulster, ready to sound the tocsin that will bring the citizen army into being. When two rocket bombs are fired over the Old Town Hall it will be too late to talk of compromise, for at the signal Ulster will go to arms.

The speculative moves to crush or provoke the UVF were counteracted by officers of the Third Cavalry Brigade at the Curragh camp in Kildare who refused to countenance action against the Ulster rebels. Subsequently Frederick Crawford organised Operation Lion - the running of 24,600 rifles and two million rounds of ammunition from Hamburg into the ports of Larne, Belfast, Bangor and Donaghadee. The UVF could now dispose of its wooden training weapons as Carson and Craig brought the gun back into Irish politics by way of the German Mauser, the Austrian Maennlicher and the Italian Vetterli-Vitali. This to the profound and undisguised admiration of Irish nationalist leader Padraig Pearse.

However with the onset of war Home Rule was placed on the statute book and suspended - the UVF were constituted as the 36th Ulster Division along with the 2000-strong Young Citizen Volunteers of Ireland . The UVF rebellion would be transformed into a day of terrible destiny on 1st July 1916 north and south of the River Ancre near Thiepval Wood at the Battle of the Somme.

5,500 men of the Division were to be killed or injured on the first day of the attack - the old Battle of the Boyne anniversary. The Ulster Division were the only Allied soldiers on the Thiepval sector on the first day of battle to capture the first line of German defences and with some even reaching the second. The following year at the Battle of Messines, 30,000 Irishmen fought together as part of the 16th Irish and 36th Ulster Divisions. Irish nationalist leader John Redmond’s brother Willie, who was also a Westminster MP, would be killed here and his body recovered from the battlefield by the men of the old UVF.

Ulster Covenant Day was indeed a fundamental pointer on the tragic road to partition and civil war in the North and South of Ireland- alongside profound emotional division and distancing amongst its peoples -  though the dynamics of national  and political identity are of course much more complex than any linear narrative can relate.

Indeed one particular Belfast speech to the UVF underscores the often inclusive cultural and political fusion of Carson the Ulsterman, the Irishman and the Briton  - leader of the King’s Rebels and a risen people alike:

Remember you have no quarrel with individuals. We welcome, aye and we love every individual Irishman, even though opposed to us. Our quarrel is with the Government. If they wish to test the legality of anything we are doing, or have done, do not let them take humble men. I am responsible for everything. They know where to find me, for I never ask any man to do what I am not myself ready to do.

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