1922 Encyclopædia Britannica/Carson, Edward Henry Carson, Baron

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1922 Encyclopædia Britannica
Carson, Edward Henry Carson, Baron
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CARSON, EDWARD HENRY CARSON, Baron (1854- ), British statesman and lawyer, son of Edward Henry Carson, C.E., Dublin, was born Feb. 9 1854 and educated at Portarlington school and afterwards at Trinity College, Dublin. He was called to the Irish bar, and made his reputation as Crown Prosecutor in Dublin in the difficult years when Mr. Balfour was Chief Secretary for Ireland. His pluck, readiness, wit, and skill in cross-examination soon brought him to the front both in legal and in political circles. He became a Q.C. at the Irish bar in 1889; but his ambitions could not be satisfied with legal eminence in Dublin. He was called to the English bar, and took silk there in 1894. Meanwhile he had been returned to Parliament in 1892 in the Unionist interest as member for his own university of Dublin and was for a few months Solicitor-General for Ireland. He entered Parliament just when Gladstone was about to make a second effort to pass a Home Rule bill, and he helped the Unionist leaders to defeat the measure. But during the next 20 years he was mainly occupied with his professional work. Having risen to a leading place at the bar in Ireland, he achieved an even more striking success at the English bar; and in 1900 he was appointed Solicitor-General, a post which he held until the change of government in 1905-6. In the early years of the new century he gradually came to be regarded as the spokesman in the House of Commons of the Irish Unionists, and in that capacity welcomed Mr. Birrel's University bill of 1908.

It was not until 1911, when another Home Rule bill was imminent, that Sir Edward Carson emerged as a political figure of first-class importance. He bitterly resisted the Parliament bill, which was to curtail the power of the Lords and enable a measure of Home Rule to be passed over their heads and without a direct appeal to the people. He was one of the “Die-hards” who urged the peers to take the responsibility of throwing out the bill in spite of the ministerial threat to swamp their House with sufficient new creations to make its passage secure. He told the House of Commons that the passing of Home Rule by force would be resisted by force and that the resisters would be constitutionally right. Feeling against the bill was most bitter in Ulster, which, Protestant and loyal, would be placed by it at the mercy of the Roman Catholic and largely disloyal majority of the other three provinces. He went to Ulster in the autumn, and at an enormous Unionist demonstration at Graigavon, near Belfast, endorsed the threats of rebellion against Home Rule which previous speakers made. Belfast, he said, was the key of the situation; Ulster would never submit to a Parliament in Dublin. They must be prepared, if necessary, to take over the administration of those districts which they were entitled to control. Practical measures were immediately undertaken in this direction, though Liberals and Nationalists scoffed. His position was that he and his Ulster friends were loyal to the constitution as it existed; they were only rebels, he said, in the sense that they desired to remain under the King and the imperial Parliament. In anticipation of the introduction of the Home Rule bill in the spring of 1912, he presided over a gigantic gathering in Belfast in Easter week, which Mr. Bonar Law, the newly appointed Unionist leader, came to address; and he made those present repeat after him, “We will never, in any circumstances, submit to Home Rule.” He himself, in a speech instinct with passion, moved the rejection of the bill on its introduction, and took a leading part in opposition during its subsequent stages. But his activity was mainly outside. He made frequent speeches in the next couple of years in different parts of England and Scotland, particularly at a great demonstration at Blenheim in July 1912, at which Mr. Bonar Law pledged the support of the Unionist party to Ulster. But his principal work was in the organization of resistance in Ulster itself, including the formation of a local volunteer force, which speedily assumed large proportions. In Sept. 1912 he was the chief figure at a series of demonstrations in all parts of the province, culminating in an enormous assemblage at Belfast on Sept. 28. There he took the lead in signing a solemn covenant by which the men of Ulster bound themselves to stand by one another in defending their position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom, and in using all necessary means to defeat the conspiracy to set up Home Rule, and further pledged themselves to refuse to recognize a Home Rule parliament. He followed this up by moving unsuccessfully in Parliament on New Year's day 1913, to exclude Ulster from the operation of the bill. In the autumn of 1913 the Ulster Unionist Council organized itself, under his supervision, into a provisional Government, of which he was the leading member, and a guarantee fund of £1,000,000 was initiated to which he himself contributed £10,000. He reviewed the volunteers, who were rapidly becoming a formidable military force approaching in number 100,000 men. But when ministers, who had refused to prosecute him or interfere with his activities, began to realize the determination of the six north-eastern Protestant counties, he did not repulse their overtures for a settlement by consent, but said that it must not establish a basis for separation. His advice during the following winter to his Ulster friends was “peace but preparation.” He entirely declined to accept Mr. Asquith's offer, in the spring of 1914, of a county option of exclusion for six years. That was “sentence of death with a stay of execution.” If that was the Prime Minister's last word, his place was in Belfast; and he and several of his fellow Unionist members from north-east Ireland made a dramatic exit from the House on March 19 to go to Ulster. When he returned for the debates on the Curragh incident he told the House that there was only one policy possible, “Leave Ulster out until you have won her consent to come in.” He became a member of the abortive Buckingham Palace Conference convened by the King in the hope of compromise; and when that broke down in the end of July it looked as if he and his Ulster friends would have to make good in action their policy of force.

The World War supervened, and switched off his activity into another direction. Though he resented, as a breach of the political truce between parties, Mr. Asquith's determination to pass the Home Rule bill into law while suspending its operation and promising some form of special treatment for Ulster, he went to Belfast in order to stimulate Ulstermen and especially Ulster volunteers to join the British army, and had a considerable success. He was eager for a thorough prosecution of the war, and accordingly joined Mr. Asquith's Coalition Ministry of June 1915 as Attorney-General, resigning however in Oct. because he thought that the policy of the Cabinet, after the defection of Greece, involved the desertion of Serbia, a small country in whose fate he took a profound interest. He was strongly in favour of the Compulsory Service bill in 1916, and regretted that Mr. Redmond should insist on excepting Ireland from its provisions. He looked favourably upok Mr. Lloyd George's efforts that summer to arrange an agreed settlement of the Irish question, and when that statesman formed a new government in Dec. for the more efficient conduct of the war, joined his Cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty. The great anxiety of the Board of Admiralty at this period was how to counter the German submarine attack which was steadily increasing in intensity. He placed his reliance mainly on an Anti-Submarine Department which had been established in Whitehall, consisting of the most experienced men serving at sea, and on the Board of Inventions, under Lord Fisher, with whom were associated some of the greatest men of science in the country. His shipbuilding programme was largely one for making good losses in the mercantile marine. The losses however continued to increase, and led to a reorganization of the Admiralty, with a view to strengthening the navy war staff as well as to put the supply on a sounder basis by revising the office of Admiralty Controller. Outside his departmental duties Sir E. Carson warmly promoted the Irish Convention which the Government assembled this year. In July he quitted the Admiralty to become a member of the War Cabinet without portfolio, a position which he resigned at the beginning of 1918. But, in or out of the office, his activity was directed wholeheartedly to the vigorous prosecution of hostilities.

After the war was over, Ulster and Ireland regained the first place in his thoughts. At the general election of 1918 he left Dublin University, in order to represent one of the divisions of Ulster's capital, Belfast. On the anniversary in July 1919 of the battle of the Boyne, he restated, speaking near Belfast, Ulster's position and claims, demanded the repeal of the Home Rule Act, threatened to call out the volunteers if any attempt were made to change Ulster's status, declared Dominion Home Rule to be merely a blind for an Irish Republic, and criticized Sir Horace Plunkett as one who was distrusted by both sides. When, however, Mr. Lloyd George proposed in the winter his bill for the reform of the government of Ireland, establishing parliaments and executives both in Dublin and in Belfast, and a Federal Council for all Ireland, he moderated his attitude. Though he would have preferred that Ulster should remain in the United Kingdom, yet, as this bill gave her a parliament of her own, he would not oppose it. When the bill left the Commons in Nov. 1920, he said that, though Ulster did not ask for a parliament, she would do her best to make the arrangement a success. He exerted himself to that end in Ireland, with the result that the Unionists succeeded even beyond their hopes in the elections in May 1921 for the first Ulster Parliament, and so started with an overwhelming majority. But he declined to sit in the new parliament himself; and he also resisted the suggestions that he, as the most outstanding fighter in the Unionist party, should be put forward to succeed Mr. Bonar Law as leader in the British House of Commons. He had done his best to save Protestant Ulster from domination by the Roman Catholic majority of the south and west. He was 67 and had felt the strain of the last 10 years; so he quitted active politics, and accepted a lordship of Appeal and a life peerage as Baron Carson of Duncairn.

He was twice married — in 1879 to Sarah A. F. Kirwan, who died in 1913, leaving two sons and a daughter; and in 1914 to Ruby Frewen, by whom he had one son. (G. E. B.)