Irish Tmes
23 Mar 2012

Edward Carson inspecting a parade of armed Ulster Volunteers, the unionist paramilitary force, in 1914

THE ULSTER unionist campaign against the 1912 Home Rule Bill led by Lord Edward Carson served the interests of violent republicanism when its prospects appeared grim and hopeless, historian Prof Michael Laffan said in a lecture at the Ulster Museum in Belfast on Wednesday.

By threatening violence in their opposition to Home Rule, Unionists unintentionally radicalised the politics of the whole island, he said in a lecture as part of the series, “A Decade of Anniversaries 2012-2023”.

The UCD historian said reforms, especially the Wyndham Land Act of 1903, ensured most Irish nationalists were becoming increasingly willing to operate within the Union framework.

“Ireland was clearly not in a ‘pre-revolutionary situation’. But when Carson and the Ulster unionists threatened and planned rebellion, and when their marching and drilling and importation of arms were met not with punishment and retaliation, but with concessions from the government, Irish revolutionaries believed their time had come,” added Prof Laffan.

“At last, after decades of patient waiting, hoping for favourable circumstances, these circumstances had arrived – and from their point of view, just in time. They were conscious of the irony that the prospect of ‘salvation’, of being able to stage another rebellion against British power in Ireland, had come to them courtesy of their deadliest enemies, Ulster unionists.”

Prof Laffan said in effect the two extremes in Irish public life had developed an informal alliance against ‘the centre’ – as represented by John Redmond’s Home Rule party – and “one had given the kiss of life to the other”.

“Such a development appalled Ulster unionists; but it is a commonplace that people cannot determine the indirect consequences of their actions,” he said.

Prof Laffan said radical nationalists, many of whom did not belong to the revolutionary Irish Republican Brotherhood, followed Carson’s example. “They too formed a paramilitary force, modelled on the Ulster Volunteers, they too marched and drilled, and ultimately they too imported arms . . .

“Suddenly talk of and plans for rebellion no longer seemed to be associated with ‘old forgotten far off things and battles long ago’ (battles which Irish rebels always lost). These measures seemed relevant to the conditions of the time, and they seemed to achieve results. After a long absence, militarism had returned to Ireland.

“The Easter Rising, a resort to arms of precisely the sort that Redmond had always wished to avoid, accelerated the destruction of moderate nationalism. It could be seen as a paradoxical implementation of the plans made by Carson and other unionist leaders before the war [first World War] – by republican revolutionaries who followed Carson’s example,” added Laffan.