Edward Carson, father of the Irish revolution? 

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How can unionists condemn a rebellion when they threatened rebellion?

During a recent discussion on BBC Spotlight on the Easter Rising, Jim Allister of the TUV said the Ulster Covenant was an “entirely peaceful exercise”.

He was responding to David Ford who said it was a “seditious document”. Like the leader of the Alliance party, my forebears signed the Covenant in September 1912. Like David Ford, despite being a relative of signatories of this Ulster proclamation, I agree that it was a “seditious document”.

David Patterson, my mother’s maternal grandfather who signed the Ulster Covenant

By signing on the line, my forebears, along with 237,368 men and 234,046 women, pledged total resistance to Home Rule – everything including armed rebellion. This threat was underwritten and reaffirmed by the importation of arms, the infamous ‘Larne gunrunning’ of April 1914. As Rudyard Kipling wrote in his famous poem, ‘Ulster 1912’:

‘If England drives us forth

We shall not fall alone.’

John Blair, after whom I take my middle name, was the father of my paternal grand-mother and signed the Covenant

John Dillon, of the Irish Parliamentary Party, said in the Commons after the Rising:

“Remember what was that pledge. It was a pledge of rebellion. Why are you complaining so much of the Sinn Feiners?”

Ronan Fanning wrote in ‘Fatal Path’ that the Ulster Unionists’ successful resistance to the third Home Rule Bill was a revolutionary act.

Carson’s “revolution” included the creation of a 90,000-strong private militia (the UVF), the establishment of an Ulster provisional government in September 1913, and the refusal of British Army officers to act against the Ulster Volunteers, endorsed by the Conservative party. A revolution it undoubtedly was.

Dairmaid Ferriter wrote recently:

“[Edward Carson and the Ulster Volunteers] had more in common with republican revolutionaries than with Home Rulers.”

Pearse and Connolly simply emulated the revolutionary example set by Craig and Carson, taking it one small step further.

Louis G. Redmond-Howard, the nephew of John Redmond wrote:

“It was, as I have repeatedly pointed out, a pure stroke of luck that it was not Belfast’s City Hall instead of Dublin’s Post Office that was burnt to the ground.”

Obstinate unionism will no doubt deny any link or degree of culpability. Edward Carson of course said he was simply “preaching order“.

Yet for the objective third party observer, one can only conclude that without the Ulstermen there is no Easter Rising.

Michael Slattery of South Tipperary County Council wrote in a letter to the Irish Times, May 18 1916:

“In common with the overwhelming majority of the Irish people, we condemn the recent outbreak in Dublin, which we regard as the natural outcome of tactics adopted by Sir Edward Carson and his followers in 1914.”

The centenary of the Easter Rising has allowed for a rigorous and constructive cross-examination of the rebellion and the legacy of armed separatism. The views and arguments presented are varied: from the Redmondism of John Redmond, to the school curriculum take of Una Mullally, to the unapologetic Connollyism of Robert Ballagh.
This range of self-analysis has not been reflected or reciprocated on the unionist side. Just as republicanism is not contagious, so conducting a thorough, even critical, examination of your unionist past does not mean you lose your unionism.

Michael Portillo said to the News Letter after his BBC-RTE documentary on the Easter Rising, ‘Enemy Files‘:

“It’s a dark period in the history of the Conservative Party that a Conservative Party allied itself very publicly with what was … prospectively an armed rising against the Crown, against the will of parliament, as the Ulster volunteers armed themselves.”

To move forward we have to understand the past, and the blunders made on all sides.

I often ask: Was Edward Carson the father of the IRA? I think he was. While the Covenant sought order, it sowed sedition. The best of intentions can create the worst influences and make to the worse consequences. Unionism, and republicanism too, need to wake up to the monsters that fixed obstinacy and orthodoxy can create.

I mean this. Just as the Easter Rising made partition inevitable and more enduring, so the Ulster Covenant made rebellion most likely.

Absolutism and violence have brought no wholeness in the last century, only compromise and fraternity can bring that.

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About Author

Brian is a writer, artist and law graduate.


    • British & Proud on

      Robin…You’d know all about seditious organisations…you worked and still work closely with the terrorists of Sinn Fein / IRA in Londonderry. Some peace loving Quaker you are being associated with Murderers/Bombers whilst they were engaged in these activities. I’m sure you know the killers of some of the loved ones of those who have not justice.

  1. Nevin Taggart on

    So what has Brian turned a blind eye to? The Liberals had a landslide majority in 1906 – and there’s no Home Rule Bill; there were two hung elections in 1910 so the Irish Parliamentary Party was the king-maker – and the price was a Home Rule Bill. The runner-up in these elections was the Conservative and Liberal Unionist Party, not the Conservative Party. Although it had a greater share of the vote than the Liberals and IPP combined it had far fewer seats.

  2. Joseph Marron on

    There is the suggestion in this article of some profundity, some insight yet what is presented hinges on a confusion of words and their meanings.

    There was a threat by Carson and others of rebellion. It did not come to pass.

    There was an attempted revolution by Connolly and others. It failed.

    Words do matter. Ideas matter. On account of these truths this article sadly indicates confusion in both the thinking and the language of the writer. Also, some of the quotations from academics and others indicate that a little bookish learning does not guarantee clarity of thought.

    A disappointing article.

    So, “Nothing of interest here to see; please move along”.

    • ‘There was a threat by Carson and others of rebellion. It did not come to pass.’

      Pointing a gun at someone’s head and not pulling the trigger can achieve a lot, often the same as actually pulling the trigger…

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