Friends of the Union: the British theatre of Irish Home Rule

With the centenary of the Ulster Covenant celebrated in Belfast, it is timely to look at the ‘British theatre’ of Irish Home Rule.

When I was interviewed by BBC Northern Ireland recently (1:34mins in) I was asked “what do people in Britain think about Northern Ireland?” To the interviewer’s evident surprise I answered that I don’t think British people think about it at all – yet this wasn’t the case 100 years ago.

Most historians have ignored the extraordinary interest that the anti-home rule campaign generated in England, Scotland and Wales before 1914. This was arguably the last time Ireland seriously mattered in British politics (in the sense of electoral impact), to the extent that the Times could report in June 1914 that ‘Ulster is once more not only the subject, but the scenes of all political interest’

Ireland mattered for three main reasons:

  • The centrality of the Union, the Empire and the protestant Christianity in the matrix of Edwardian British national identity, and the widespread condescension and hostility towards Catholicism in general and Irish Catholics in particular
  • The sheer scale of Irish migration to Britain (both RC and protestant) and the presence of politically active Irish Nationalists and Unionists – particularly in Scotland and Northern England – which made the Irish question such a live political issue on the Edwardian street
  • The leadership of the Unionist party in this period, firstly through Andrew Bonar Law, an unscrupulous Scots-Canadian of Ulster Presbyterian stock, who having been an MP in Glasgow and Liverpool well understood the emotions that the Irish question generated, and how playing the ‘Orange card’ could be the one card trick that would rescue the Unionist party from the doldrums. Alongside him was Sir Edward Carson, leader of the Ulster Unionists – the archetypal ‘charismatic leader’, who was marketed carefully as the embodiment of the Union, and whose speaking tours of Britain drew enormous crowds of supporters from Plymouth to Inverness.

In Popular Opposition to Irish Home Rule in Edwardian Britain I argued that the ‘Strange Death of Liberal England’ thesis has overplayed the growth of militant Labour and the challenge of the suffragettes.  Indeed it’s not the decline, but the resilience of a particular type of Conservative politics in the face of competing political distractions that is most striking about this period.

It is arguable that in studying British political identities we have focused too much on class.  Jon Lawrence has written interestingly that ‘political belief doesn’t spring automatically from objective economic and social interests’; and the economist JA Hobson, writing at the time, had been stung by the resilience of working class jingoism and the ‘irrationality of the mass mind’.

To be sure, the UK was on the verge of major societal change in 1914 – but it hadn’t happened yet.

The campaign against Home Rule showed that Britain was still to emerge from the ‘long nineteenth century’, in terms of what motivated people to vote and demonstrate.   For no other contemporary political campaign could match that led by Carson for the breadth and intensity of its appeal.  Although Gladstone is remembered for addressing over 83,000 in the course of his famous Midlothian Campaign in the 1880s, Edward Carson probably addressed ten times that number in the years before 1914. But why is he forgotten?


One reason is that for any student of popular politics, the source material is very thin.  Roy Foster has written that opposition to Irish Home Rule was ‘the issue upon which the landed and plutocratic interests decided to confront Lloyd George’s welfare politics’. This is undoubtedly true but most studies of the period are ‘high political’ and miss the popular dimension of Ulster’s support.

The views of the common man are certainly hard to unearth, so it is useful to employ the work of Mark Harrison and others on crowds – who saw them ‘as vehicles for the expression of cohesion’. After all, Feargus O’Connor had written that the Chartists’ main weapons had been ‘the petition, the meeting and the procession’.  The Ulster Unionist pamphlet ‘The Lesson of Craigavon’, published in 1911 understood this, and urged that their demonstrations needed to be replicated on the streets of Britain to make a real impact on Westminster; and this is precisely what happened between 1912 and 1914 as Carson toured the cities and towns of Britain.

‘Liverpool, Sister of Belfast’

After signing the covenant in Belfast, Carson sailed straight to Liverpool where he was welcomed by even bigger crowds: an enormous demonstration of over 150,000 people with a torchlight procession through the city centre complete with dozens of Orange flute bands.

This was more like Palm Sunday than an ordinary political gathering, and this repeated through 12-14 wherever he goes: crowds of 40,000 in Wallsend and Leeds in 1913, and large demonstrations from Inverness to Plymouth, and from South Wales to Norwich.  As the Mitchell and Kenyon archive showed this was golden age of ‘processional’ activity in Britain, and the Unionist campaign was perhaps the last to exemplify an older political culture, of torchlight processions and horseless carriages, that we only tend to see in gatherings like the Durham Miners’ Gala, or, of course, Orange Marches.

The Ulster campaign culminated with a crowd of 250,000 who gathered to demonstrate in support of the Curragh mutineers in Hyde Park in April 1914. When Carson arrived, the Daily Mail described how ‘a tidal wave of humanity foamed into colour’, with their reporter hyperventilating that ‘I had a hallucination that I was in Ulster again … so many non partisan folk out in force, and how they cheered for Carson! As I left the park the street sellers were crying death of ‘ome rule, death of ‘ome rule memorial card one penny’

Those who see a proto-fascist element in Edwardian Unionism would find much corroboration in the musings of Leo Amery, which pinpointed a kind of fuhrerprinzip in Carson’s appeal. The secret of his power has lain precisely in the fact that he has represented, not abstract argument, but concrete will, the will of a great community embodied and intensified in the single will of the leader’.

What is more, the vivid description of pro-Ulster rallies that appeared in The Covenanter magazine in 1914 would suggest that at the very least the trappings and atmosphere at such events was very similar

“the coldest imagination must have been fired by such gatherings as those at Leeds, Newcastle and Glasgow, by the long processions, the waving of countless flags, the thunder of the old covenanting hymn, the vast array of faces fixed on the orators, and the stern enthusiasm of the packed assemblies.”

No popery

Indeed, the religious overtones in the anti-Home Rule campaign are very striking, and the Home rule crisis of 1911 to 1914 was also the last time religion seriously mattered in British politics – because it was a very religious period.  By 1900 Britain had more clerics than any other nation in Europe bar Italy and Spain, and as Linda Colley argued in Britons: Forging the Nation Catholics had become the archetypal ‘other’ that helped to unite the new kingdom.

The endurance of the British ‘no-popery’ tradition in this period is very striking, and it is useful to see the events of 1912 to 1914 as the culmination of a sequence of flash points: Catholic emancipation in 1829, the Maynooth Grant in 1845, so called ‘Papal aggression’ in 1850, the Garibaldi riots in 1862 and 1866, the Fenian scares in the 1860s, the declaration of Papal infallibility in 1870, the debates around Irish church disestablishment in 1869, the Home Rule Bills of 1886 and 1892, the ongoing Ritualism disputes of 1900s, and the changes to the British coronation oath in 1910 which removed those passages judged offensive to Catholics.

All of these episodes were given added piquancy in Britain by the arrival of the catholic Irish in mid century in massive numbers; an arrival that coincided with the growth of evangelicalism in the UK, and the emergence of a vigorous and ultramontane Catholic hierarchy.  We owe a debt to Don MacRaild for helping us to understand this multi-faceted phenomena and its impact on British society.  It is important to remember that Irish migration included protestants too (which accounts for the massive growth of the Orange Order in England and Scotland from the nineteenth century), and authors such as Frank Neal have written of the ‘backlash vote’ in heavily Irish areas, which could boil over into sectarian violence, such as the huge sectarian riots that rocked Liverpool in 1909.

What is more, the English, Scots, Irish, and Welsh, were no longer neatly confined within their own national territory, and this internal migration within the UK strengthened familial and fraternal bonds, and by extension, the emotional appeal of the Union.  Indeed, the nexus between the Lagan, Mersey, Clyde and Tyne formed a kind of northern industrial zone that featured prominently on the itineraries of Carson and others.

The cockpit of British elections

We in Britain are used to the dominance of London and the south east, but it is important to understand the more even geographical distribution of power that existed 100 years ago.   Lancashire was known as the ‘cockpit of British elections’ – in contrast to what was seen as the ‘semi-feudal’ and sleepy South.  Recent work has shown the major cultural impression left by Imperialism on British cities like Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow – so it is unsurprising that Ulster resonated so much, representing as it did the imperial mission in microcosm (which was still vital for the prosperity of the whole United Kingdom).

Where some historians have conceded that the tension in Ulster may have led to ‘sympathy riots in Liverpool and Glasgow’ this would massively underestimate the political and economic importance of those cities, who probably reached their apogee just before the First World War.  But support for Ulster not just confined to the sectarian redoubts of Merseyside and Clydeside.  Pro-Union activity spread right across those still prosperous, influential Northern towns – which each had at least one large circulation newspaper to amplify their concerns to the nation.

Bonar Law and Carson (and lest we forget F. E. Smith – another Liverpool MP) well understood this culture, and the pull of sectarian politics – and exploited it for all it was worth.  That is why Bonar Law abandoned tariff reform to focus solely on home rule – not for sentimental reasons: this was cold political calculation.

Owen Dudley Edwards thought that Carson skillfully held back the forces of ‘anti-Catholicism’ from its habitual riot, and Ralph Adams has argued that although Bonar Law undoubtedly played the Orange card ‘he didn’t bang the orange drum of hatred’; but there was a very fine line between these positions.

The London-based Catholic Times wrote indignantly in 1914 that ‘the whole Unionist case against Home Rule rests upon prejudices against the Catholic Church’ (and Bonar Law even admitted as much privately to Asquith that ‘Protestantism, or at least dislike of Catholicism’ motivated his core vote). So when George Dangerfield wrote that ‘Carson never descended to sectarian arguments – but how thrilling were his references to nefarious conspiracies to Protestant ears’. This was dog whistle politics before the term was even thought of.

And it was effective.  By 1914 the Unionists were clearly winning the numbers game in term of mass demonstrations, they had the government on the back foot in parliament and the Liberal Party’s worst by-election performances coincided with the most frenetic period of anti-Home Rule activity – late 13 to early 14 – when the Unionists won five seats from them (and one from Labour) in seats from Lanarkshire to Bethnal Green.

My view is that the Unionists had mobilized enough of their ‘core’ vote over Home Rule to have been favourites to win the next election planned for 1914/15.   Furthermore, by 1914, the Primrose League had arranged promises of accommodation for 8,000 refugees from Ulster, parties of British ‘swing voters’ were being escorted around Ireland to demonstrate the supposed backwardness of Southern Ireland, and the ‘British League for the Support of Ulster and the Union’ had arranged its own British Covenant (with hundreds of thousands of signatories) and was openly drilling volunteers.  Indeed in June 1914 King George V was alarmed to hear rumours of 100,000 volunteers preparing to leave Liverpool to fight in Ulster.

This has been forgotten by history, but there was real anxiety in 1914 that both Ireland and Britain were on the verge of civil war in 1914. The Belfast Northern Whig wrote that:

“to bring civil war to our loyal and peaceful province may be a slight matter to Mr. Asquith, but are they prepared to face it in Glasgow, Liverpool and Lancashire?”

The Liverpool Courier was even more concerned,

“The first blood spilled in Ulster would raise a storm in the large towns of England and Scotland … the problem of the working classes of Liverpool, Glasgow, Barrow, Manchester and Newcastle would be difficult to handle.   We are afraid that the position in English towns would be even worse than in Belfast for the men there are organized, and they have been taight to obey military orders.  We don’t care even to imagine what would happen in Liverpool …”

Belfast and Bosnia

When we think of 1914 – we tend to focus on Bosnia rather than Belfast. Yet in hurrying past this episode towards the ‘Guns of August’, or in our desire to see the Edwardians as the parents of our modern world , we fail to apprehend the endurance of older political impulses in pre-war British society; indeed how else could we explain the 1.75 million volunteers who flooded willingly into Kitchener’s new armies in the next two years, without this understanding?

For in its scale, message and impact, support for the Union between 1911 and 1914 provides the link between the  emergence of jingoism in the 1870s, the ‘mafficking crowds’ of 1900 and the extraordinary rush to the colours in 1914, a patriotism that had found a new expression and renewed energy through support for Protestant Ulster.

Although the British public is commonly felt to be apathetic and indifferent to Irish matters – what role did their opposition to Home Rule play in the creation of modern Northern Ireland? When a Drumcree Orangeman in 1996 was scoffed at for presuming that ‘England will rise in our defence if we are not let down the Garvaghy Road”, he may have recalled an Ulster folk memory of hundreds of thousands of Edwardian Englishmen – and Scotsmen and Welshmen – who did assemble angrily in support of protestant Ulster, at a time when English newspapers could declare with confidence that ‘Ulster will not have Home Rule, England will not allow it to be forced upon her.’