Sir Edward Carson

Edward Carson will long be remembered as a towering presence in Ulster, and possibly one of the main instigators in creating Northern Ireland through partition at Irish independence in 1922. His statue remains outside the Northern Irish parliament of Stormont near Belfast. He presents a dramatic pose with an impassioned look on his face and an accusing finger standing like a warning to all who threaten the Union.

He was born in Dublin in 1854. His father’s family were originally from Scotland and his mother’s an Anglo-Irish family from Galway. He studied in Dublin and became a Lawyer and a Queens Counsel at 35. He was a gifted and powerful orator, whose wit and legal knowledge made him one of the leading Lawyers of his day.

One of his more famous cases was when Oscar Wilde sued the Marquess of Queensbury for libel when he claimed he was a homosexual, which was illegal until 1967 in England. He defeated Oscar, who he knew from University in Dublin, with a thorough investigation, leading to criminal proceedings and jail.

He entered politics in 1892 as a Liberal Unionist. He held the post of Solicitor-General for Ireland and Solicitor-General for England until 1905.

In 1911 he came to prominence as the leader of a near revolt in Ulster. The third Irish Home Rule bill was going through Parliament and would probably lead to Irish Independence.

Ulster said No!

He spoke in Westminster, organised rallies, arranged the Ulster Covenant where 447,197 signed a petition against Home Rule, he arranged for Government Stormont, if necessary, and he started the Ulster Volunteer Force. They procured 90,000 rifles and drilled and trained to defend their land. Carson was an extremely controversial figure, as the movement he led with such determination became more extreme.

The Home Rule Bill was passed, but the First World War started, and Royal Assent was put off until its conclusion. The UVF formed the 36th (Ulster) Division and were sent to France. Many did not return and many were lost on the Somme.

After the War when the Irish Revolution was about to create the Irish Free State and partition, he was more conciliatory. Six of the nine Irish counties of Ulster would make up Northern Ireland. This province would be led at Stormont by his deputy Craig. He did not take up the challenge himself as he had no Northern constituency. But the fire in his heart for the people of the North forced the British Government to take note of their Protestant traditions. He appealed to the Protestant Government not to alienate Northern Catholics and to consider their position in the new arrangement.

He carried on his legal work as an appeal court judge. But he will always be remembered for his uncompromising stance to protect Ulster Unionism. His “No Surrender” attitude echoing the character of the people he represented, continued in the same vein by his successor, 60 years later, the Rev Ian Paisley. A man who stood by the same principles and said never, never, never to protect his people and their beliefs.

The Rev Ian Paisley finally ratified the Power Sharing Agreement of Northern Ireland in 2008. He shook hands with his Sinn Fein opponents and even welcomed the Irish Premier with open arms. This demonstrated the need to stick to the Unionist code, but on agreement extend warm love and friendship. True to the Northern Irish Protestant tradition.

This hopeful ending to years of trouble, may demonstrate that Carson had a correct vision of the future. Perhaps he laid a solid foundation for peace. His determination to get the future right, shows how important it was for Unionists to have such a skilled and wise leader at that time of crisis.

Possibly Carson was the first in the Pantheon of Heroes who self-sacrificed to get peace in Ireland.  But as always in history we can never know.

Maybe now we can see Stormont as the true cradle of democracy where Protestant and Catholic sit down in Unity of purpose. It is now 500 years since Martin Luther signalled the split causing the Protestant church. Maybe sticking to our principles and not compromising is the key to bringing people together. We are never going to agree on everything.

To bring different creeds and cultures together does not necessarily mean that we should compromise. It might mean that we should stick to our principles “By all means necessary” and then use God given wisdom and love to facilitate coexistence in our communities.

Conway-Laird (2017)


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