“It is an anxious time for Northern Ireland’s unionists. Catholics will soon outnumber Protestants … and Brexit is wobbling the UK’s constitutional edifice. Conceivably, within a decade, a majority could vote in a border poll to join a united Ireland, as permitted under the Good Friday agreement,” the Guardian reported about this year’s Twelfth celebrations.
In a fiery July 12, 1919, speech near Belfast, Ulster Unionist Party leader Sir Edward Carson warned that changing Ireland’s government to a republic or home rule status would result in him calling out the Ulster Volunteers, an implicit threat of arms against the British authorities.
“Don’t let us talk. Let us be prepared for all and every emergency,” Carson bellowed before a large crowd of Orangemen.1
Carson also had a message for America: butt out.
I today seriously say to America: You attend to your own affairs and we will attend to ours. You look after your own questions at home and we will look after ours. We will not brook interference in our own affairs by any country, however powerful.
He took aim at the American Commission on Irish Independence (ACII), the three-member, non-government, delegation that visited Ireland in May on a side trip from its advocacy at the Paris peace conference. Carson said:
What right had the American mission to come to this country? To come here in a breach of hospitality on one nation toward another–to attempt to stir up strife in matters in which they were not connected? … The encouragement that those men gave to the Sinn Féin Party has created for His Majesty’s Government far more difficulty than they ever had before. I believe that the visit of these men and the encouragement they gave to lawlessness, which was being preached throughout the land, has added greatly to the campaign of assassination of innocent policemen …
Carson also mocked Sinn Féin leader Eamon de Valera, “who is now working against you in America with the help of the Catholic Hierarchy … and who imagines in his vanity that one day or the other he is going to march through Belfast and Ulster and you will all willingly take off your hats and bow the knee to the head of the organization, which in the darkest hour of the war for the world’s freedom shot his Majesty’s soldiers in the streets of Dublin.” De Valera was then one month into his tour of America to raise money and U.S. political support for an Irish republic.
An Associated Press report of Carson’s speech was widely published in U.S. and Canadian newspapers, which focused on the charge of American meddling and the ACII, not de Valera. The Chicago Tribune Foreign News Service cabled from London, “Sir Edward Carson’s simultaneous declaration against the British government, the Sinn Féin, and the United States over the question of changing the present form of government in Ireland has met with general condemnation from the London press.”2
The Brooklyn Times Union was not fooled by the Carson’s hypocrisy, and noted on its editorial page:
Sir Edward Carson’s record for loyalty to his own country is not so immaculate that the citizens of the United States need feel greatly pained by his reckless and absurd animadversions … The politician who threatened to fight the British Government with arms rather than submit to the laws of the British Parliament manifestly does not speak for the majority of the people of Ireland and presumably speaks only for a small and bigoted moiety of any British constituency.3
The Kentucky Irish American published a rebuttal to Carson by ACII member Michael J. Ryan, who noted that “Carson now asks that America should attend to its own affairs. This, however, is a change from the plea when the cry for help came across the ocean when England’s army faced certain defeat.” The piece also said the Ulster leader “represents intolerance and organized ignorance in Ireland.”4
The Irish Press, Philadelphia, dismissed Carson’s “Belfast outbreak” with an uncharacteristically restrained shrug.
We have in America–even if the breed be unknown in Britain–some politicians who ‘play politics’ and who recognize the elemental fact that there are men in this country who give or withhold their votes from an American candidate in an American contest because of his policy toward Ireland. So they act accordingly. But there was no need for Sir Edward Carson to warn the mass of the American people off the grass. They were not on it.5
The centenary of Carson’s 1919 Twelfth speech comes as the Oct. 31 deadline for Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain to withdrawal from the European Union–Brexit–draws closer and talk of a united Ireland grows stronger.
“No flag will fly in Ulster but the Union Jack,” Carson was reported saying at the 229th anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne.6 Whether that remains true in five or 10 years remains to be seen.