How "Ulster" became the Difficulty

Even instructed Irishmen are to this day without any clue to the riddle why Ireland, described (a little extravagantly) by Sir E. Grey at the outbreak of the World-War as "the one bright spot on the horizon," should, before many months were over, break out in rebellion and abandon Parliamentary methods altogether. The change was far from being as sudden or as fickle as it seemed. The discredit long undermining the Parliamentary movement did, to an amazing degree, escape public observation, but it was because the Press of the two countries, for opposite reasons which will be found disclosed in these pages, combined to keep the British public in entire ignorance, and the mass of the Irish people in an ignorance scarcely less tragic, of the deep stirrings of opinion that were all the time at work under the surface.

For example, it was the consent of the Hibernian leaders to the first suggestions of Partition which was the root-cause of Sir Edward Carson's ascendancy in the counsels of British Cabinets: that was, also, the secret of the disgust with the Parliamentary politicians, long fermenting in the bosoms of the young generation, which found its first wild explosion in the insurrection of Easter Week. But of this either the public never heard, or only preserve a memory slipshod beyond all the usual freaks of that treacherous medium. Many are under the impression that the exclusion of "Ulster" was only submitted to by Mr. Redmond and his friends under the pressure of the World-War, and of a Coalition Government; it was, in truth, accepted in principle many months before a war with Germany was in the thoughts of any of the parties concerned, and while a Home Rule Government, expressly elected to "give full self-government to Ireland"—all Ireland—was still in possession of its majority of more than 90 in the House of Commons, and of an irresistible means of silencing the House of Lords. Many more allowed themselves to be persuaded that the exclusion was only offered because it was known that "Ulster" would reject it, and that it was, in any case, to be only a temporary arrangement for six years. Two other gross impositions on public credulity; for the exclusion was from the first moment grasped at by Sir E. Carson and Mr. Bonar Law, if only as the least of two evils, and so little was it to be "temporary" in its operation that the Hibernian leaders fully closed with it after the Home Rule Prime Minister had in their presence avowed that it was an exclusion never to be repealed without a fresh Act of the Imperial Parliament. Nay, there is a sleepy public which has managed to forget altogether that Partition was ever sanctioned by seven-eighths of the Nationalist representatives of Ireland, and would be horrified to be awakened to the fact that they agreed to surrender to Sir Edward Carson precisely the same Six Counties which Mr. Lloyd George afterwards separated from Ireland in his Partition Act of 1921, and that the Nationalists of the Six Counties themselves were forced by the Hibernian leaders in public Convention to ratify the bargain, and to be thus made consenting parties to their own denationalization, and to all the horrors that followed it. To these fundamental truths and to many others, the general public was, and is, blind, or what is worse, purblind.

Under these circumstances, it becomes a duty of supreme historic interest to trace the true genesis of the Ulster Difficulty and its progress to Partition under the joint mismanagement of a fumbling Liberal administration and of its sinister Hibernian bearleaders. The narrative will throw a revealing light upon the whole story of Ireland ever since—the statutable recognition of the two-nation theory in substitution for the ideal of Ireland a Nation—the falling to pieces of the Parliamentary movement of its own decay and rottenness—and the years of bitter agony that came after, when the Republican idealists of a new generation gave unstintedly of their young blood in the endeavour to redeem the pitiful errors of their elders.

That mismanagement there was, gross as a mountain, is placed beyond controversy, by the confessions of Mr. Lloyd George and Sir E. Grey, already quoted. What plea has British statesmanship to offer, why wisdom did not come to them in 1912, when Mr. Asquith's Home Rule Bill was being framed, but only nine years afterwards when the Act was expunged from the Statute-Book without a protesting voice from any side, to be succeeded by an Act more disastrous still? Their most plausible defence is that they were constitutionally bound to follow the guidance of the majority of the representatives of the nation they were enfranchising. All save eight of these representatives jauntily assured them there was no longer an Ulster Difficulty, the alarms of the Protestant minority were imaginary, the threats of armed resistance were part of a gigantic game of bluff which could without difficulty be disposed of by the police, or, for that matter, by the Hibernian mob in the streets of Belfast, if the police and military would only stand aside. It is a defence which has been more than once pleaded by Mr. Lloyd George. However pedantically defensible from the constitutional point of view, this repudiation of responsibility is more worthy of Party Whips than of statesmen charged with an international task of the first moment. Let the blame be bandied about as it may between the three Hibernian leaders and their Liberal entertainers at the famous breakfast party in Downing Street, the fact stands that the Bill which emerged from their deliberations did not contain in its forty-eight clauses a single provision to satisfy, or even to recognize the existence of those deep-lying discontents of more than a million of the Irish population which were afterwards to make shipwreck of the Home Rule Government and of their Bill, and to start a new and more virulent blood-feud between the two countries, if not in a very considerable degree to precipitate the world-wide conflagration from whose effects civilization is still staggering.

How came it that a body of Irishmen not wanting in ability, or in a patriotism of their own, could have displayed a lack of vision so incurable, or an insensibility so callous to the interests and passionate emotions of one-fourth of their countrymen? The puzzle, otherwise incomprehensible, becomes simple enough when we call to mind the transformation the Irish Party had been undergoing for the previous nine years. Ever since the revolt against the Land Conference settlement of 1903, the Party had been taught to regard that union of parties and classes which had peacefully abolished Landlordism, and might have abolished English rule with still less difficulty by the same means, as an unmitigated national misfortune. Every attempt to re-establish that solidarity of Irishmen of all racial and religious origins which had already wrought such wonders, was regarded by the new leaders of the Party with distrust and aversion as a conspiracy of "rotten Protestants and rotten Catholics" to displace the

Party from their hold upon the country and betray them into the hands of Heaven knows what fantastic combination in a "Centre Party" of swindling Irish landlords, English Tory Ministers, and Nationalist traitors. The moment the propagators of these libels were brought to book before a Limerick jury, they either fled the witness-chair altogether, like Mr. Dillon, or made a piteous breakdown under cross-examination, like Mr. Sexton. Each and every one of the six portentous charges they dared to put in concrete form was declared to be a false and defamatory libel, and to have been published with malice. Unashamed by the exposure, they persisted, although with a more cautious eye to the law of libel, in re-hinting and re-insinuating every item in this tissue of ridiculous fables, hunting down the Irish Unionists of the new school with all the more malignity the further they advanced towards Irish National ideals, and the greater was their success in attracting their brother Protestants to follow in their train, while they branded as manifest traitors every Nationalist who did not join in the hunt. The Irish country gentlemen and city merchants—always a sensitive and timorous folk on the political stage—were quite successfully intimidated from taking the plunge of open conversion to the National side by the coarse imputations upon their honour, their family history, and their racial and religious traditions, which had been the only reward of the first of their class who had been the pioneers. After which, with a scrupulousness all their own, the libellers who had treated the sympathetic welcome extended by the All-for-Ireland League to the new school of Irish Unionists as some unspeakable crime against Ireland, now made the success of their own intimidation an audacious argument how completely all the efforts of the All-for-Ireland League to conciliate the Irish Unionist minority had been a failure.

Had a different temper prevailed, few will now doubt that the mass of the Irish Unionists might have been long ago incorporated in a United Ireland, and the opposition reduced to a narrow strip of territory around Belfast. Even N. E. Ulster, a patient and indulgent tolerance must have irresistibly brought back to its old allegiance to the principles of Grattan's Volunteers and of the United Irishmen. That the anticipation was not a too sanguine one, is testified by the eagerness with which great county meetings of magistrates and Deputy Lieutenants and of the industrialists and captains of commerce in the cities gave in their adhesion to Home Rule fifteen years later on the first symptoms that their cooperation would be genuinely welcomed. Their adhesion and the genuine welcome unluckily came too late. I have often heard honest country gentlemen and Protestant merchants and farmers lament that their leaders had not the moral courage to rally manfully to our ranks, before Sir E. Carson had formed his army of dour Ulster bigots and thrown the Southern Unionists to the wolves. They hesitated and were lost. Even a number of young Irish Unionists who had graduated in Lord Dunraven's school of patriotism, and who were not to be frightened by intimidation, allowed themselves to succumb to the subtler temptation of seats in Parliament to transfer their services to the side of immediate power and patronage. Young men of excellent gifts like Mr. Walter MacMurrough Kavanagh, Mr. Stephen Gwynn, Mr. Hugh Law, and Mr. Shane Leslie, might have become the honoured leaders of a re-awakened Protestant patriotism had they chosen the harder part of representing the traditions of their own rank and creed and brought their co-religionists with them to a higher plane of National ambition. They were content instead to merge themselves in the little group of tame Protestant Home Rulers maintained for obvious reasons at Westminster as the nominees of a Hibernian Party to whose inner rites their religion forbade their admission.

But a vastly more formidable, and, indeed, an impassable barrier to the conciliation of the Protestant minority was raised by the fundamental transformation of the United Irish movement itself from a national to a sectarian one. For generations Irish Protestants, far from accepting the position of aliens in Ireland's undying fight for liberty, had supplied the major part of its poetry and eloquence, had been its leaders and soldiers and martyrs. When the United Irish League was founded in 1898 to recreate the country's forces, shattered by the Parnell Split of 1890, the basis and first article of its Constitution was copied from that of Wolfe Tone's Society of United Irishmen, mostly Protestants and Dissenters, who pledged themselves "to promote a union of power, friendship, and affection between Irishmen of every religious persuasion." Men who had no part in the foundation of the United Irish League—who, in truth, bitterly resented its intrusion because it put an end to the impotent rivalries of the Parliamentary factions into which the Parnell movement had broken up—had no sooner insinuated themselves into power in the new organization than they proceeded to subvert its first principle of the broadest religious and political equality and paved the way towards its perversion into a squalid confederacy of Catholic place-hunters. The Irish world would have quite certainly risen up in horror against the design had they known, or even suspected, that the effect would be to ostracise from the national ranks, unless on terms of inequality intolerable to men of honour, the co-religionists of the Grattans, Wolfe Tones, Emmets, Davises, and Parnells, whose names had been for a century and a half the most sacred in their political hagiology.

The change was accomplished in secrecy and with considerable craft, and, needless to say, only after the founders of the League had withdrawn or been driven out. The public organization of the United Irish League, with its broad maxims of civil and religious equality and fraternity, was carefully maintained as the ostensible organ of the movement, but its offices were filled, its democratic Executives in every Division overrun, and its funds brought under the control of a new and secret organization without the authority of any mandate from the nation. The pith and vigour of the public League were gradually absorbed by the occult power, as, in some tale of mediaeval sorcery, the witch's own changeling waxed and grew while the legitimate infant pined and fell away. The National President of the "Board of Erin" Hibernians became the paid Secretary of the United Irish League, and from an humble employment in Belfast rose to be a Member of Parliament and the omnipotent "Chief Secretary for Ireland." The Assistant-Secretaryship fell to another of the Secret Order, the Standing Committee, or supreme governing body of the League, was stuffed with a majority of Hibernians, its staff of organizers were recruited from the Hibernian Lodges, but paid out of the United Irish League's funds, and were despatched all over the country, with the nominal mission of addressing decorous Branches of the League, whose irreproachable sentiments were duly reported in the newspapers, but in reality with the object of turning them into so many obsequious servants of the Board of Erin. Before very long the United Irish League had virtually ceased to exist save as an innocuous dead-wall for posting up resolutions and appealing for funds; the resolutions were dictated, and the funds gathered in by the officials and organizers of the Board of Erin.

The new danger to the Irish Cause originated in Belfast in that stifling atmosphere of religious rancour which, ever since the destruction of Grattan's Parliament, dried up the generous current of Protestant patriotism, and poisoned the life of all denominations of its people. The obscure history of the Ancient Order of Hibernians may be traced back to the secret association of Defenders forced into existence by the first diabolical schemes for the extermination of the Catholic peasantry of Armagh which signalised the foundation of Orangeism by the plotters of the Union. The new organization of the Board of Erin had, of course, no relationship with those ancient blood-feuds between creed and creed, beyond adopting for themselves the pet-name of "The Mollies," invented for some unknown Ribbon band, who used to make the shebeen-shop of one Molly Maguire the headquarters of their midnight operations in the gallant wars of the Catholic Defenders. The essential vice of the Board of Erin Hibernians, in fact, was that they had no comprehensible object which could be publicly stated, until their real purpose came to be at last made only too manifest to be that of a gigantic pseudo-Catholic combination for the distribution of all offices, power, and emoluments among its exclusively Catholic partisans.

The genuine Ancient Order of Hibernians in America, from which the Board of Erin were seceders, was a perfectly legitimate Friendly Society, which expended its resources upon noble works of benevolence—the foundation of a famous Catholic University, of Catholic Orphanages and Asylums, and the like—but never put forward any pretension to control or sectarianise the Irish National movement. The Board of Erin, too, found it expedient to assume the guise of an authorised Friendly Society as a plausible excuse for their existence for very different objects, but that was only after Mr. Lloyd George's Insurance Act of 1911 had placed at the disposal of the Board of Erin Hibernians a separate Irish Insurance Department commanding an enormous mass of patronage covering Commissioners, Inspectors, Doctors, Law Agents, and clerks, extending over every parish in the country.

The pretence that the aggressive Catholicism of the Board of Erin was necessitated in order to defend any real interests of religion was without a shred of justification. They had no more a mandate from ecclesiastical authority for their Catholicism than from the democracy of Ireland for their political domination. As it happened, their first considerable incursion into Irish public life was Mr. Devlin's crusade against the Bishop of Down and Connor (Dr. Henry) on the very ground that the Bishop had started a Catholic Association for the defence of purely religious local interests in Belfast. It is one of life's little ironies that the local Catholic Association for whose foundation Dr. Henry was made to go down to his grave in sorrow was afterwards copied by his persecutors on a vaster scale and without a vestige of his justification, in their own scheme for sectarianising the national politics of the entire country. The new champions of Catholicity were so little to the taste of Rome that Propaganda issued an instruction to the Irish Bishops that the new organization of the Board of Erin was to be "vigilantly watched." It long lay under sentence of excommunication in its Scottish province, and the interdict was only raised on the undertaking to drop for the future the blasphemous form of initiation, which was to make the postulant repeat his vows of secrecy, with his hand laid upon a crucifix. The moral valuation of its membership in the North was sufficiently appraised in a Visitation Sermon of

Cardinal Logue in Tyrone in which he declared the Hibernian Order in the parish he was visiting to have become "a pest, a cruel tyranny, and an organized system of blackguardism," and threatened that if his present admonitions had no effect "he would in the exercise of his duty excommunicate the Hibernians throughout his Archdiocese." Thus, the Board of Erin entered upon its career of devastation under the cloak of Catholicism not only without a particle of sanction from the Catholic Church, but on the contrary under the disapproval and menace of its highest dignitary. The Cardinal's words, had they been followed up, must soon have reduced the new "pest" to powerlessness and contempt in the North. Unhappily, the suspicions of the Protestant Minority, so far from being dissipated, were gravely confirmed when they found that the secret society which on its first coming engaged the patronage of only one astute and ambitious Prelate in the island, and was stigmatised as "an organised system of blackguardism" by the Cardinal, came eventually to be propagated throughout Ireland with the blessings of a goodly company of Bishops, Chaplains, and Spiritual Directors, and that even many who in their hearts detested it as an organ of Catholic opinion could not always resist the temptation of blessing its victorious banners with the easy versatility of the Vicar of Bray.

This, then, was the change in the whole framework and spirit of the National movement which forced itself upon the minds of Irish Protestants and filled them with disquiet and alarm. The movement had passed into the control of a Secret Order, to which nobody who was not a Catholic was admissible, and of which partaking of the Blessed Sacrament of the Catholic Church was another of the requirements. The voice in public might still be the voice of the United Irish League, but the hand was the hand of the mysterious Board of Erin, who had captured its offices and organizers and the control of its funds. The axiom of "Union and Friendship between Irishmen of every religious persuasion," emblazoned on the banner of the United Irish League as the first article of its creed, was torn down and trampled in the dust. Every Irish Protestant who manifested National tendencies was repulsed with coarse insults. Those Nationalists who pleaded for welcome, or even toleration, for them within the Nationalist fold were not saved by life-long devotion to the National Cause from being themselves ostracised as traitors and "rotten Catholics," and prevented by physical violence and bloodshed, whenever necessary, from obtaining a hearing from their countrymen. "The Party" itself was not free from the espionage of the Board of Erin bosses, who held the public opinion of the country by the throat, Those of them who ventured even to exchange a furtive greeting with an All-for-Ireland colleague in the sacred lobbies of the House of Commons found themselves pricked down for destruction at the next elections. And the men who exercised this odious tyranny were not only in a position to nominate disciples who could exchange their own grips and passwords as Members of Parliament, of the Corporations, County Councils, and District Councils. They were soon all-powerful enough to turn down their thumbs against every candidate for office from the highest places in the judiciary or in Dublin Castle to the humblest rural sinecure, who failed to attorn to their decrees. There is expert evidence for the calculation that the Board of Erin was eventually in possession of patronage to the amount of three millions sterling per annum for distribution among their brethren.

It did not lessen the discontents of the Minority that the Orange leaders were not in a position to expatiate in public upon the enormities of "The Mollies," since the spirit and the methods of the two Orders were substantially the same. The Orangemen, like "The Mollies," throve upon the narrowest bigotry, the frankest craving for place-getting and pelf, with an invincible determination to restrict the good things to those of their own kidney; and it was the Orangemen who first set the detestable example. But therein lay the deadly disservice done to the National Cause by those who established the Board of Erin ascendancy; for the Board of Erin Order, without a shadow of honest justification, created in the twentieth century a new ascendancy, differing but in colour from the pestilent Orange tyranny established in Ulster in the eighteenth. As in the foundation of Orangeism, it was the worst of the Protestant body who prevailed over the best; so in the sham-Catholic ascendancy now substituted for it, it was the most ignorant elements of the Catholic community who gave the most ignorant of the Protestants a new lease of power by throwing the mass of the sober-minded Protestant and Dissenting population into their arms for protection. It was of no avail to point out to fanatical, or even to reasoning Protestants how monstrous an injustice the cry of "Home Rule—Rome Rule" did to a Catholic nation whose whole history breathed the broadest and tenderest toleration. The Board of Erin put a convenient reply in the mouths of honest doubters, who feared for the future of their children in a Hibernian-ridden Ireland, as well as of those with whom the breeding of evil party-passions was a profession. The new ascendancy was in actual operation in the daily life of the country, and it spared neither those Protestant Unionists who had ceased to be Unionists, nor tolerant Catholics who would have welcomed them to the National fold with gladness. Sir E. Carson got his chance, and the Ulster Difficulty entered into the deepest life of the Protestant population.

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The Irish Revolution

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William O'Brien was a County Cork M.P. who participated in the negotiations for Home Rule in Ireland. In this account, first published in 1923, he provides an insight into the politics and politicians of the time - John Redmond, John Dillon, Arthur Griffith, Sir Edward Carson, Bonar Law, Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, etc. - and gives his analysis of the origins of the Easter Rising of 1916 and the subsequent Irish Civil War. From his own perspective, O'Brien was very much anti-Partition, and was evidently frustrated at the failure to give adequate reassurance to the Northern Unionists.

The ebook is available in .mobi (for Kindle), .epub (for iBooks, etc.), and .pdf formats, and a sample PDF can be downloaded. For more information on the book see details ».


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