Ireland had faced two previous Home Rule crises in 1886 and in 1893, both of which were successfully fended off by unionism within the framework of the democratic process in the Houses of Parliament. By 1912 however and the third Home Rule crisis, the game had changed for unionism. No longer were they able to combat Home Rule in the comfortable environs of the political arena which had guaranteed them success in the past. The House of Lords veto had been removed meaning that the Home Rule Bill had a clear pathway to the statute book and to subsequent implementation.
It was in this context that the First Lord of the Admiralty and member of the British Cabinet Winston Churchill was invited to Belfast in February 1912.
His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, made a similar journey to Belfast in 1886, the year of the first Home Rule crisis, and the circumstances could not have been more different to his son’s visit 26 years later. Randolph Churchill was a fierce Conservative critic of the British Prime Minister William Gladstone and, by extension, was a fierce critic of Gladstone’s pursual of Home Rule for Ireland. Deciding that “the orange card would be the one to play” in order to bring down Gladstone’s government, Randolph made his way to Ulster on 22nd February 1886 in attempt to ride on the coat tails of Ulster unionism whom he disliked and whom had no trust for him in return. Nonetheless, he was given an enthusiastic welcome by unionists at Larne before travelling in to Belfast where an estimated crowd of 70,000 people greeted him like a king. That night, Lord Randolph addressed an audience of Ulster unionists at the Ulster Hall on Bedford Street (this location will become important later in the story). He urged them to wait and watch, organise and prepare, so that the catastrophe of Home Rule might not creep up on them like ‘a thief in the night’ (that phrase will also become important later in the story). Randolph Churchill was responsible for coining the phrase ‘Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right’ although seemingly not part of his speech at the Ulster Hall which is a common misconception.
Winston was 11 years old when his father was in Belfast drumming up Ulster unionist support. He was a unionist by birth and when he moved into politics himself his first political speech in 1897 (as a Liberal) he described the policy of Home Rule as a millstone around the neck of a declining Liberal Party. In his first election address as a Conservative member in 1899 Churchill declared that ‘all true unionists must… be prepared to greet the reappearance of that odious measure [Home Rule] with the most strenuous opposition’. By 1906 when he was once again a Liberal, Churchill still maintained an anti-Home Rule stance, that is despite previously referring to the Liberals as a “squalid, disorganised rabble” and a set of “prigs, prudes and faddists”. It was in 1908, however, that Churchill performed a U-turn on his Irish policy, an apparently cynical move in order to cultivate the Irish vote in an effort to win a by-election in Manchester.
By 1911, Winston Churchill was part of the British Cabinet committee tasked with drafting the Home Rule Bill. It was at this point, as early as 1911, that the British were privately acknowledging that Ulster (or some part of it) would need to be excluded from the bill’s terms of reference in order for it to pass. Thus, on 6th February 1912, two days before his visit to Belfast, Winston Churchill along with David Lloyd George made a formal proposal to the Cabinet that Ulster should be excluded from the Home Rule Bill. In the end the Cabinet rejected their proposal and in doing so created a vacuum in which unionist resistance could grow over the next two years.
And so, with the ink of the Cabinet papers still wet in which a proposal was made to partition Ireland, Churchill came to Belfast at the request of the Ulster Liberal Association. Liberalism had a long tradition in Ulster since the 18th century, particularly among Presbyterians, however when William Gladstone the Liberal leader opted to pursue Home Rule for Ireland Ulster Liberalism was shattered, and many became Conservatives overnight. Nevertheless, a minority did keep the Liberal tradition alive, men like the Rev James Armour of Ballymoney – the Protestant home ruler, and Lord William Pirrie, the Managing Director of Harland & Wolff shipyard.
News emerged of the visit of Winston Churchill on 5th January 1912. Edward Carson responded in his typical pithy fashion by saying that he had heard Mr Churchill had arranged to go to Belfast ‘to explain to the people there how wrong his father was’.
At a Unionist meeting in Warrenpoint James Craig pondered how and why Home Rule could be back on the agenda in the context of economic prosperity since the second Home Rule Bill in 1893. In reply to his own ponderance though, Craig made it clear that the third Home Rule Bill had its origins in Winston Churchill’s by-election campaign in North West Manchester four years previously.
The Churchill visit began to get some attention in the correspondence columns of the local press. One contributor to the Belfast Telegraph wrote: ‘As we are to be favoured shortly with a visit of Mr Winston Churchill who is coming to address a meeting, I believe, in favour of Home Rule. I suggest that a flag should be got at once and the Unionist Clubs set up a demonstration on the same night and invite some staunch Unionist to take part. Bands, I believe, would give their services gratis. Assemble at Clifton Street or wherever suitable, march in procession down to their new headquarters and hoist up the flag and hold an open-air meeting which could be addressed from a window. It would be a great meeting of protest against Home Rule. Yours sincerely, True Blue”.
Unionism was beginning to look and sound rattled at the prospect of a member of the British Cabinet, First Lord of the Admiralty no less, coming to address a Home Rule demonstration in the heart of their loyal city. They were detecting the faint whiff of betrayal. In response, the Ulster Unionist Council met in Arthur Street, Belfast on Tuesday 16th January where they passed a resolution which ultimately went off like a hand grenade:
‘The Standing Committee of the Ulster Unionist Council observes with astonishment the deliberate challenge thrown down by Mr Winston Churchill, Mr John Redmond, Mr Joseph Devlin, and Lord Pirrie in announcing their intention to hold a Home Rule meeting in the centre of the loyal city of Belfast, and resolves to take steps to prevent it being held’.
The Ulster Unionist Council’s main contention was that the demonstration was being planned for the Ulster Hall. Those listening to the podcast will think of the Ulster Hall and imagine Led Zeppelin playing Stairway to Heaven for the very first time, maybe even the Rolling Stones, Ruby Murray, or Rory Gallagher and other iconic music performances that have been staged there over the years. But the Ulster Hall was an iconic venue for unionism for the best part of 100 years from the 1880s to the 1980s when various unionist decision-making bodies held important rallies there.
For unionists, the faint whiff of betrayal was now infused with the stench of provocation by the Liberals proposing to hold this event in the Ulster Hall.
The Liberals were incensed at the unionist resolution, claiming that free speech was being prevented, and in response they doubled down on their intention to hold the event in the Ulster Hall. Rumours began to circulate that unionists planned to book the hall for the night before the Home Rule event with the intention of holding the building by force into the 8th February and preventing the event from happening at all.
Then, on 25th January, Winston Churchill published a letter in the press aimed at Lord Londonderry (much to his annoyance it has to be said) to advise him that the Ulster Hall idea had been reluctantly abandoned: ‘If, as I now gather from the newspapers’ wrote Churchill, ‘the main objection of yourself and your friends are directed against our holding our meeting in the Ulster Hall, then although such claims are neither just nor reasonable, I will ask our Ulster Liberal Association to accede to your wish… there will thus be no necessity for your friends to endure the hardships of a vigil or sustain the anxieties of a siege… neither will it be necessary for you to break the law in an attempt to deprive forcibly of the use of property to which we are lawfully entitled’.
Lord Londonderry fired back strongly in a lengthy letter to Churchill:
‘I have read in the press your letter directed to me, but of which I have not yet received any copy. In the interest of peace and order of the great city of Belfast, I note with satisfaction that you have abandoned the idea of holding a meeting in the Ulster Hall in that city’.
The Ulster Liberal Association was forced to search for a new location to host their event, however, mysteriously there were no other halls available in the city on that date. The historian A.T.Q. Stewart wrote that the proprietor of the Grand Opera House was offered a knighthood as well as a substantial fee if he would provide the use of his theatre, but he declined. Within a few days though the Association had found an alternative location for the meeting, one that has featured on a previous episode of this podcast. Celtic Park, or ‘Paradise’ as it was fondly known by those who frequented it, was the home of Belfast Celtic Football Club, the directors of which granted permission for the meeting to be held at the grounds in a marquee which was capable of holding 4,000 people.
With a change of venue also came a change of plan for Churchill’s itinerary. Initially it was intended that he would stay in Belfast on the Thursday night, and on the Friday he would visit Belfast harbour and Queen’s Island as First Lord of the Admiralty. However, it was felt that Churchill’s presence in the city, any longer than was absolutely necessary, would only prolong the growing tense atmosphere. So, it was decided that it would be a flying visit for Churchill on this occasion – arriving and departing on the same day.
As the date of the event grew nearer, rumour and innuendo began to swirl. At one point the Admiralty were forced to deny rumours, apparently emanating from Dublin, that Churchill had abandoned the idea of visiting Belfast altogether, such was the fuss that it had created.
On Tuesday 6th February, two days before the event, unit after unit of khaki clad infantrymen marched through the streets of Belfast en route to their barracks from the railway station. The sight of 5,000 soldiers including infantry, cavalry, and engineers, will have undoubtedly heightened the sense of anxiety in the city about what was to follow. As well as the troops, every single police officer in Belfast, approximately 1,000 of them, was also required for duty for the visit. The city had not seen a security operation like this since the dockers strike which descended into violence five years previously in 1907.
Some Unionists talked up the prospect of violence. Belfast’s Lord Mayor Robert McMordie observed that ‘this city is likened to a warehouse full of nitro-glycerine’. ‘If anyone thinks’ said McMordie, ‘that there are too many troops here he has not heard that unionists have purchased many thousands of revolvers, manufactured 20,000 steel-tipped batons and tons of iron bolts, very deadly weapons’ he said. Meanwhile the grand master of the Orange Institution Colonel Robert Wallace said that there were hopes for peace on Churchill Day, as he had christened it, but also that there were real fears of war. One correspondent from New York wrote that he had picked up on a feeling that if trouble were to occur it would come via female mill workers who had caused two serious riots in Belfast in recent months. According to the Lord Mayor, these women knew no fear and were beyond control and, as an indication of how serious these concerns were taken, the Lady Mayoress formally appealed to the women workers of Belfast to keep the peace. Notices were posted in mills and workplaces across Belfast by employers warning that anyone found to be absent the next day would be dismissed without question.
The notices and the public appeals appeared to have had a positive effect. On 7th February, the day before Churchill Day, the mood music was much more subdued in comparison to previous days. Edward Carson and Lord Londonderry had agreed to stay in Belfast on 8th February in an effort to maintain the peace. While further appeals by the Ulster Unionist Council, the Orange Order and the Unionist Clubs, as well as the cancellation of the unionist booking for the Ulster Hall that night indicated that a peaceful Churchill Day was a real possibility. The final ingredient for calm - and any police commander will tell you the same thing to this day in Belfast - is bad weather. A good lashing of rain is often the most effective weapon against a potentially riotous situation, and if the authorities were praying for rain on 8th February 1912 the weather forecast suggested that their prayers had been answered.
Finally, after weeks of intense build up, Churchill Day had arrived. In the centre of Belfast, groups of protesters roamed the streets singing party songs and cheering while others huddled in doorways to escape the unceasing rain. By lunchtime, the groups of demonstrators had increased in number and it was apparent that workers from the shipyards had used holidays in order to be present. Some carried flags, while others carried an effigy of Churchill featuring the label of ‘Lundy’ attached. The Belfast Telegraph reported that ‘every second man was armed with a thick stick or piece of timber’.
Meanwhile, Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine had left London for Belfast the previous evening and were well on their way. From Euston Station they travelled to Stranraer, and from Stranraer to Larne. The journey was relatively smooth, apart from the intervention of a group of suffragists who accosted Churchill on the ferry the Princess Maud. They demanded a promise from Churchill, a Cabinet minister of course, of votes for women, a promise that he refused to give them. Then as the Princess Maud approached the Antrim coastline a hostile unionist welcoming committee was spotted at a distance. One of the Churchill’s travelling party inquired “What are they shouting?”, apparently unable to grasp the Ulster brogue. To which they were abruptly informed by a fellow passenger that the shouts were of “Lundy”.
Greeting Churchill on arrival were posters declaring ‘We Will Not Have Home Rule’. These were displayed at every possible vantage point in the hope that they would catch Churchill’s eye. As Winston and Clementine alighted the ferry they were subjected to a chorus of boos and cries of “Lundy” and “Traitor”, while one voice screamed “This is nothing to what you’ll get in Belfast”. Churchill, unperturbed by the hostility, boarded a waiting train and continued on his journey to Belfast. A similar scene to the one in Larne awaited him at York Street Station and Churchill was immediately whisked off by a chocolate coloured Silent Night Minerva motor car to the Grand Central Hotel on Royal Avenue having ran the gauntlet of unionist crowds in the city centre. He arrived at the Grand Central shortly before 9am where he was met by Lord Pirrie and the party entered the hotel quickly, leaving eager photographers in their wake.
After lunch, Churchill left the hotel via Berry Street in the early afternoon. “The roar that greeted the attempt to start the motor car was as angry as had been heard in Belfast for many a day.” Wrote one reporter. As they attempted to leave, a group of shipyard men surrounded the car and made an attempt to turn it over, but they desisted when a police car appeared and someone shouted ‘mind the wumann’ upon seeing Clementine by Winston’s side in the car. Among the shipyard workers that day was William Grant who was to become minister of Public Security in the Northern Ireland government during the Second World War.
A reporter in the car behind noted that throughout the ordeal Churchill ‘never flinched and no harm befell him’. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Clementine however who suffered a miscarriage within weeks of the Belfast incident.
As Churchill made his way to Celtic Park, so too did the ticket-holders. A special tram service had been arranged, it would stop at Celtic Park before terminating at Belfast City Cemetery. The poor weather though meant that the marquee was only around two-thirds filled when Churchill took to the platform.
In the end, Churchill spoke for one hour at Celtic Park though he was frequently interrupted by suffragists who forced several pauses to the proceedings while the impassioned women were forcibly removed. At one point a woman shouted at Churchill “Will you give self government to the women of Ireland?”, and as she was being ejected Churchill responded by saying, “I think we had better leave that question for the Irish parliament to decide”, to which there was loud cheers from the audience.
Churchill used the hour set out his moderate case for Home Rule in Ireland, during which he argued for safeguards to protect religious freedoms, that Irish independence would be impossible within the framework of the bill, and that Protestants would have fair representation in the new Irish parliament. As he did so, pickpockets were making the most of the occasion, cashing-in to the tune of £200 (a vast sum of money in 1912) while many others reported missing watches after the event. Given the scrutiny of this demonstration one senses that Churchill was being seen to be reasonable, to be pragmatic, and what’s more – John Redmond stated that he accepted every word of Churchill’s position. Then, in a grandstand finish, Churchill drew on the memory of his father Randolph of which so much had been made in the build up to the event. He said, “Let Ulster fight for the dignity and honour of Ireland. Let her fight for the reconciliation of races and for the forgiveness of ancient wrongs. Let her fight for the unity and consolidation of the British Empire. Let her fight for the spread of charity. Then indeed gentlemen ‘Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right’’.
After the demonstration at Celtic Park a large unionist crowd had braved the rain to gather at the Grand Central Hotel to await Churchill’s return. Little did they realise, however, that last minute arrangements had been made for Churchill’s discreet departure via a special train from Midland Railway Station to Larne – the organisers clearly did not want to risk a repeat of the incident outside the hotel earlier in the afternoon. In doing so, unionists were quick to point out that his departure was reminiscent of the ‘thief in the night’ that Randolph had urged them to beware of in 1886.
A short distance away at the Ulster Club, crowds also gathered when it became known that the leaders of unionism were inside including James Craig, Edward Carson, and Lord Londonderry. Carson eventually succumbed to demands for a speech, saying “Gentlemen, I have only just come out here to say good night, and I want to say how proud I am of the behaviour of Belfast today. Mr Churchill got a great reception”, to which someone shouted from the crowd “He has ran away!”.
And so, after much build up, Churchill Day on 8th February 1912 passed off peacefully. The troops that had been drafted into Belfast began leaving the next morning, their intervention was thankfully not required. Sadly, there was one casualty though, the 5th Dragoon Guards made their way back to the Curragh Camp minus one of their horses. While the horses were being exercised at Celtic Park one had attempted to jump a small fence at the Bog Meadows injuring itself to such an extent that it was required to be put-down.
No political meeting had caused such consternation in Belfast for years, but in reality it was a sign of things to come during the next two years of the Ulster crisis. The Churchill visit, despite clearly making unionism feel threatened, actually served to embolden them. Orange lodges reported an increase in new members, while the re-constituted Unionist Clubs had a renewed purpose to drill and equip themselves. Presumably with that in mind A.T.Q. Stewart wrote that the first round of this Home Rule fight had gone to Ulster.
After 1912 Churchill was never too far from Irish affairs. In 1921 he was appointed Secretary of State for the colonies which effectively made him the minister for Irish affairs at a time when the new treaty settlement was bedding down. In this role he was instrumental, for example, in bringing together James Craig and Michael Collins in January 1922. The first meeting of Craig and Collins during this process took place at Churchill’s Colonial Office and eventually led to the Craig-Collins pact. And who could forget his ‘dreary steeples’ speech in 1922 when he said “the whole map of Europe has been changed.. but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again”.
Fast-forward then to 1926 when Churchill was back in Belfast on a three day visit as Chancellor of the Exchequer and as a guest of Ulster Unionist leader James Craig. This time he was welcomed with open arms by the leaders of Unionism at Midland Railway Station. Ironically one of the main functions was in the Ulster Hall where Churchill spoke, praising his father’s speech of 1886 whilst still indicating a long-term desire for a united Ireland linked to Britain. Covering the event the next day the Belfast Telegraph ran with the headline ‘defender of Ulster’.