Adrian Lee is a Solicitor-Advocate in London, specialising in criminal defence, and was twice a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.
110 years ago, on the 13th of January 1913, the last formal private army in the history of the United Kingdom was established. Within eighteen months of inauguration, this army would comprise 100,000 trained men, and was led by retired British Army officers, who had previously held commissions up to the rank of General. Recruits were drawn from every occupation and class, from shopkeepers and shipyard workers to the landed gentry.
This was not a secretive, shadowy organisation, but one that practiced full regimental drill in public parks and paraded through the streets of towns and cities. According to a serving British Army Brigadier-General who observed this new army, it was raised in “a stern and disciplined atmosphere and a serious spirit of unity and organisation”.
Initially, rather like the Home Guard in World War Two, the soldiers had no uniforms, apart from armlets distinguishing the different county regiments. In the early days, they marched in suits, bearing wooden rifles and wearing grey felt hats, bandoliers, and haversacks. However, as time progressed, some units, such as the Special Services Sections, acquired uniforms.
By the Summer of 1914, the new army had also acquired a Medical Corps, a Nursing Corps, a Motor Car Corps, a Signalling and Dispatch Riders Corp and a cavalry. It was the first modern army to enroll women and to introduce armoured cars. In addition, it had 220 hospitals and 138 doctors.
Crucially, whilst this army was not recognised by the government, it had the enthusiastic support of the Conservative Opposition. The name of this organisation was the Ulster Volunteer Force (U.V.F.) and its purpose was to defend Ulster from being placed under the jurisdiction of a Dublin “Home Rule” Parliament.
The origins of the Ulster Volunteers lay in the political fallout resulting from the “People’s Budget”. When, on the 29th of April 1909, David Lloyd George rose as Chancellor of the Exchequer to deliver his wealth-redistributing budget, he could not have imagined that it would lead to an Irish civil war.
However, following a vigorous campaign led by both the press and the grassroots Budget Protest League, the Conservative-dominated House of Lords took the unprecedented step of vetoing the Liberal budget on the 30th of November, leaving the Government with little choice but to go to the country.
Despite the initial confidence of the Liberals, the election of January 1910 proved near fatal, as they lost their Parliamentary majority. A second General Election in December 1910 saw them perform even worse. To cling to power, the Liberals were forced into an alliance with the Irish Nationalists. The price of this pact was Irish Home Rule.
Having successfully opposed two earlier Home Rule Bills, the Ulster Unionists realised immediately that they needed to act quickly to secure a stronger profile and organisation. The rising star of the Ulster Unionist Party was James Craig, M.P. for East Down. Craig was the son of a millionaire whiskey distiller who had served as a Captain in the Boer War.
However, what distinguished him, in the words of historian Patrick Buckland, was “…a marked administrative capability, ample reserves of determination, energy, and patience and, surprisingly, an eye for the dramatic.” Craig recommended to his colleagues that they offer the Leadership of the Ulster Unionists to Sir Edward Carson, a Southern Unionist.
Carson was born in 1854 in Dublin. His father was an architect, and his mother was from a landed County Galway family. Educated at Trinity College, Dublin, he went on to represent his alma mater in Parliament between 1892 -1918. Carson became one of the most outstanding Barristers of the Victorian era, famously defending the Marquis of Queensbury in 1895 in the libel action brought by Oscar Wilde.
Later, Carson successfully defended George Archer-Shee, a 13-year-old naval cadet at Osbourne College, who was accused of theft of a five-shilling postal order. The trial later formed the basis for Terence Rattigan’s play The Winslow Boy.
In the political field, he served as Solicitor General for Ireland in Salisbury’s government and Solicitor General for England and Wales under Balfour. As an Anglican, he had little time for the cruder aspects of Protestant rhetoric. He once compared the speeches of Orangemen to “…the unrolling of a mummy. All old bones and rotten rags.”
However, for Carson, maintaining the Union was paramount, and, from the perspective of the Ulstermen, he possessed not only supreme advocacy skills but a principled directness that cut through to all audiences. Carson accepted the Unionist leadership in February 1910 and, despite an offer of the Conservative leadership the following year, he stuck firmly to his brief of saving the Union.
Carson and Craig started their campaign with a series of demonstrations on the grounds of country estates. This culminated with a rally at Balmoral on Easter Tuesday 1912, where the principal speaker was Bonar Law, Leader of the Conservative Party. B.D.W. Montgomery, a Belfast businessman, provided the idea for the campaign’s next stage: an Ulster Covenant based upon the Scottish Covenant of 1581.
On 19th September, from the steps of Craig’s house, Carson read out the text of the Ulster Covenant to the press. The public was asked to come forward on “Ulster Day”, 28th September, to sign the document which proclaimed that “… we do hereby pledge ourselves in solemn Covenant…to stand by one another in defending for ourselves and our children our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom and in using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Dublin.”
Ulster Day commenced at 11 am with over 100 religious services across the province. At noon, Carson and the Unionist leaders walked from the Ulster Hall to Belfast City Hall and, whilst flashbulbs popped and cinematic handles turned, became the first signatories of the Covenant on a circular table covered by the Union flag.
During that day, 447,197 men and women queued up patiently to add their signatures. Some signed in their own blood. The event made headlines throughout the world.
The formation of the U.V.F. in January 1913 served two purposes. Firstly, it signaled to the government that Ulster would back up words with actions. Secondly, it ensured, as historian Paul Bew has pointed out, that the Unionist establishment was firmly in control of the protest, and hooligan elements would not be allowed to form sectarian gangs.
However, the Government was determined to break the Unionist grip on the province, and, in March 1914, British soldiers were commanded to march on Ulster. This provoked the Curragh Mutiny, when 61 officers and 100 from other ranks refused to obey the order.
The Liberals backed down. A month later, on 24th April, in a night-time operation by the Unionist leadership, 24,000 German rifles were smuggled into Larne harbour on the SS Clyde Valley. The U.V.F. was now armed.
Civil war in Ireland was averted by the onset of the Great War in August 1914. The newly passed Home Rule Act was suspended for the duration and was later amended to facilitate partition. Craig became the first Prime Minister of a devolved Northern Ireland. Carson, having served as First Lord of the Admiralty during the War, became a Lord of Appeal in peacetime.
Meanwhile, the U.V.F. joined the ranks of the British Army and comprised the 36th (Ulster) Division, which served throughout the war and suffered huge casualties at the Somme.