Updated: Oct 7, 2019
In September 1911 James Craig conceived a plan to stage a ‘monster meeting’ in East Belfast, resembling that of Daniel O’Connell’s movement in the mid-nineteenth century. It was designed in order that the new Unionist leader Edward Carson be introduced to the Unionist people for the first time. In the weeks preceding the demonstration Carson expressed some private concerns to Lady Londonderry, “I am much overwhelmed at all that lies before us, but I will make a big effort (my last in politics) to stir up some life over this Home Rule fight… I feel very doubtful about the way our leaders intend to fight Home Rule… The whole country is in a shocking state – everyone is demoralized and weak”. He continued at a later date, “I am so nervous about it all and how it will come off”. Edward Carson was accompanied to Belfast by his wife Annette, it was her first and last visit to Belfast, she later became ill and died during early 1913.
Saturday 23 September 1911 got off to a largely rainy start, but soon the rain clouds made way for a glorious sunshine which had descended on East Belfast by early afternoon, sentiments which were echoed by Carson himself, “The morning was very wet and I was in despair, but it cleared up and the sun came out at the right moment.” An imposing procession got the rally underway, weaving its way through the streets of Ireland’s metropolis from the city centre to Strandtown in East Belfast.
The parade moved off at 13:30 from Belfast City Hall and among the participants were all the districts of the Grand Lodge of Belfast, various branches of the recently revived unionist clubs from across Ulster, and also the Ulster Women’s Unionist Council.
Unionist Clubs from East Belfast were well represented, they included; Ballynafeigh/Newtonbreda (President: Stewart Blacker Quin), Strandtown (President: W.Q. Ewart JP) and Willowfield (President: Dr. William Gibson JP). Participants paraded four abreast along Chichester Street, Victoria Street, Ann Street, and across the Queens Bridge. The Orange Order’s District No. 6 provided some thirty orange lodges on the day, they remained in Ballymacarrett to await the main procession before marching along the Newtownards Road, Hollywood Road, and finally in to the grounds of Craigavon. Those at the front of the procession reached their destination around 3pm, but it became necessary to postpone the proceedings of the meeting in order to allow the parade participants to fill the grounds. A measure of the sheer scale of this rally is that it took two hours to pass any given point and three hours to fill the grounds from start to finish with many participants not reaching Craigavon until after the speeches had concluded. Such a vast crowd meant that the perimeter fence of Craigavon House was removed in order to comfortably house the participants. Estimates range from 50,000-100,000 as to the total number of participants however the exact figure remains unclear. It was here at James Craig’s sprawling residence that the parade reached its destination in anticipation of a huge open-air meeting.
A platform was erected near the crest of the hill in order that the audience on the lower levels would have an adequate view of the meeting. On the roof of the platform fluttered the identical flag used at the Ulster Unionist Convention of 1892, an obvious throwback to periods of previous and successful resistance. Similarly, the Duke of Abercorn who coined the battle-cry “We will not have Home Rule” was due to chair the proceedings just as he did in 1892 but, due to a family bereavement he was unable to attend and accept the chair. He was replaced by the Earl of Erne, the Imperial Grand Master of the Orange Order. The parade marched past the platform of delegates in what was an impressive spectacle, in fact it was so large and took so long that it had to be curtailed after around two hours. Greetings were exchanged between some of the leaders, the Unionist Clubs, and Orange Lodges, including the Strandtown & District Unionist Club in whose district the event took place. An amusing story was circulated regarding the hardship faced by some of the southern Unionists as they attempted to make their way north. Due to a railway strike affecting the southern network it was said that some of the southern contingent were forced to cycle up to fifty miles before boarding trains on the northern system!
The Earl of Erne officially opened the meeting before giving way to a series of addresses and resolutions. The Grand Orange Lodge of Belfast offered a resolution that deserves some further attention: “That, being convinced that Home Rule in any form would work disaster to the Empire and ruin to Ireland, we are determined to resist it to the uttermost. We call upon our leaders, in view of the conspiracy between His Majesty’s Government and the Irish disloyalists to force Home Rule upon Ireland without an appeal to the electors, to take immediate steps to perfect our organisation and to adopt all necessary measures for resisting any Home Rule government that may be forced upon his Majesty’s loyal subjects in Ireland, and we hereby pledge ourselves that under no condition will we acknowledge or acquiesce in any such government. We solemnly assure our leaders that we will stand by them loyally in any action they may take and through any danger they may have to face.”
The similarity between this and the Ulster Solemn League & Covenant a year later in 1912 is striking, particularly in terms of the language used. Unlike the Covenant however, which placed economic issues at the forefront of its concern, Grand Lodge preferred instead to first highlight its fears for the Empire. There is early evidence of the Unionist ‘conspiracy’ theory which was leveled at the government, but more importantly a reference to resist by ‘all necessary measures’, an early sign of the militant tone by the anti-Home Rule campaign.
Following a round of addresses and resolutions Carson rose to his feet in response: “I know full well what the resolution you have just passed means. I know what all these addresses mean. I know the responsibility you are putting on me today. In your presence I cheerfully accept it, grave as it is, and I now enter into a compact with you, and every one of you, and with the help of God you and I joined together – I giving you the best I can, and you giving me all your strength behind me – we will yet defeat the most nefarious conspiracy that has ever been hatched against a free people… We must be prepared – and time is precious in these things – the morning Home Rule passes, ourselves to become responsible for the government of the Protestant Province of Ulster”.
Two days later 400 delegates of the Ulster Unionist Council assembled in Belfast’s Rosemary Hall and promised ‘unwavering support’ in any danger their leaders might be called upon to face. They went on to appoint a commission tasked with taking ‘immediate steps, in consultation with Sir Edward Carson to frame and submit a constitution for a Provisional Government of Ulster’.
The Craigavon House demonstration, and in particular Carson’s comments on the day, signaled the agenda for the next three years. Meanwhile Winston Churchill’s response on 3 October 1911 was of equal significance. He told a meeting at Dundee that the government would introduce a Home Rule Bill in the next session, and “we must not attach too much importance to those frothings of Sir Edward Carson”. This response set the scene for accusations of bluff and counter-bluff over the next three years, and it perhaps lulled the Liberals and the Irish Nationalists into a false sense of security with regards to the threat of Unionist militancy. The Craigavon House demonstration of 1911 was a watershed moment for unionism in Ulster, the Belfast News Letterwere well aware of its importance when they reported, ‘Whatever the future may have in store the Craigavon meeting will rank as one of the most important ever held in Ireland, worthy to hold a prominent place in the annals of Ulster politics’.