English Blood, Irish Heart
Edward Henry Carson
Prosecutor of Wilde, Founder of Ulster Unionism
Edward Henry Carson, Baron Carson, PC, PC (Ire), KC (9 February 1854 – 22 October 1935), from 1900 to 1921 known as Sir Edward Carson, was an Irish unionist politician, barrister and judge. He was leader of the Irish Unionist Alliance and Ulster Unionist Party between 1910 and 1921, held numerous positions in the Cabinet of the United Kingdom and served as a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary. He was one of the few people not a monarch to receive a British state funeral. Historian John Brown says that “His larger than life-size statue, erected in his own lifetime in front of the Northern Ireland parliament at Stormont, symbolizes the widely held perception that Northern Ireland is Carson’s creation.”
Versus Oscar Wilde
Mr. Edward H. Carson (as he then was) addresses Parliament. From Vanity Fair, 1893.
In 1895, he was engaged by the Marquess of Queensberry to lead his defence against Oscar Wilde’s action for criminal libel. The Marquess, angry at Wilde’s ongoing homosexual relationship with his son, Lord Alfred Douglas, had left his calling card at Wilde’s club with an inscription accusing Wilde of being a “posing somdomite” [sic]. Wilde retaliated with a libel action, as homosexuality was, at the time, illegal.
Kevin Myers states that Carson’s initial response was to refuse to take the case. Later, he discovered that Queensberry had been telling the truth about Wilde’s activity and was therefore not guilty of the libel of which Wilde accused him.
Carson and Wilde had known each other when they were students at Trinity College, Dublin and, when he heard that Carson was to lead the defence, Wilde is quoted as saying that “No doubt he will pursue his case with all the added bitterness of an old friend.” In fact, Carson went out of his way to make his case and destroy Wilde, portraying the playwright as a morally depraved hedonist who seduced naïve young men into a life of homosexuality with lavish gifts and promises of a glamorous artistic lifestyle. He impugned Wilde’s works as morally repugnant and designed to corrupt the upbringing of the youth. Queensberry spent a considerable amount of money on private detectives who investigated Wilde’s activity in the London underworld of homosexual clubs and procurers.
In September 1911 a huge crowd of over 50,000 people gathered to rally near Belfast to hear Carson speaking to urge his party take on the governance of Ulster. With the passage of the Parliament Act 1911, the Unionists faced the loss of the House of Lords’ ability to thwart the passage of the new Home Rule Bill. Carson disliked many of Ulster’s local characteristics and, in particular, the culture of Orangeism, although he had become an Orangeman at nineteen.16 He stated that their speeches reminded him of “the unrolling of a mummy. All old bones and rotten rags.”
Carson campaigned against Home Rule. He spoke against the Bill in the House of Commons and organised rallies in Ireland promoting a provisional government for “the Protestant province of Ulster” should be ready, should a third Home Rule Bill come into law .
On Sunday 28 September 1912 ‘Ulster Day’, he was the first signatory on the Ulster Covenant, which bound 447,197 signatories to resist Home Rule with the threat that they would use “all means necessary” after Carson had established the Ulster Volunteers, the first loyalist paramilitary group. From it the Ulster Volunteer Force was formed in January 1913 to undergo military training and purchase arms. In Parliament Carson rejected any olive branch for compromise demanding Ulster ‘be given a resolution rather than a stay of execution.’ The UVF received a large arms cache from Germany on the night of 24 April 1914. Imperial Germany was very eager to promote political tension in the United Kingdom at the time, and readily allowed the delivery of arms to both sides of the political divide in Ireland. Later that year, a further shipment of arms from Germany was delivered to the pro-Home Rule and IRB-influenced Irish Volunteers at Howth near Dublin.
The Home Rule Bill was passed by the Commons on 25 May 1914 by a majority of 77 and due to the Parliament Act 1911, it did not need the Lords’ consent, so the bill was awaiting royal assent. To enforce the legislation, given the activities of the Unionists, H. H. Asquith’s Liberal government had prepared to send troops to Ulster. This sparked the Curragh Incident on 20 March. Together with the arming of the Irish Volunteers, Ireland was on the brink of civil war when the outbreak of the First World War led to the suspension of the Home Rule Act’s operation until the end of the war. By this time Carson had announced in Belfast that an Ulster Division would be formed from the U.V.F., and the 36th (Ulster) Division was swiftly organised.
Brown examines why Carson’s role in 1914 made him a highly controversial figure:
“ But his commitment was unqualified, both to Ulster unionism and to its increasing extremism. Under Carson’s leadership, with Craig as his lieutenant, discipline and organization were imposed on their supporters; proposed compromises were rejected; and plans were drawn up for a provisional government in the north, if the bill was passed, with its implementation to be resisted by the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, which had been armed by illegal gun-running. It is this apparent willingness to carry resistance to virtually any length, even to risk civil war, that makes Carson so controversial.