Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Fifty Years of Belfast Life (1866-1917) part 42



While I was looking over a file of “The Ulster Echo” for 1892, to refresh my memory regarding the Ulster Convention, the next Belfast incident I desire to recall, a young clerical friend from the country, who had called in, remarked, partly in jest, I think, “We are going to have Home Rule at last.” “Well,” I remarked, “I have heard that at intervals for the last thirty years, and we have not got it yet.” “But it was never on the Statute Book before,” paid my friend. “No doubt,” said I, “but the curious thing is none of those who got it put on the Statute Book would, want it as it is there.”

It is difficult to realise that it is a quarter of a century since the great Ulster Convention of 1892, the greatest Convention ever held in this country, and I would be inclined to say the greatest ever held in any country. The days of the Unionist Government were running out, and there were indications, or at least fears, that the General Election then imminent might result in a triumph for Mr. Gladstone, who, like an old war horse, was still eager for the fray, and determined if he could to take revenge upon the dissenting Liberals and Ulster for having dared to thwart his ambition. In the of spring of the year the Unionist members of Parliament from Ulster met in London and projected a great Convention in the early summer to voice the opinion of the Unionists of Ulster the question of Home Rule. The members sent two of the most prominent men and most pronounced and active Unionist campaigners to sound local feeling on the subject and to explain the purpose and object of the Convention, Colonel Saunderson and Mr. T. W. Russell. No two better or more representative men for the purpose could have been selected. Both were enthusiastic upholders and defenders of the Unionist policy; both were vigorous and slashing orators who did not speak with bated breath about the composition, character, and conduct of the Nationalists of the time. Colonel Saunderson represented the Conservative section of the party, and Mr. T. W. Russell the Liberal section; and both were one in their loyalty to the Union and one in the hate and venom they engendered the breasts of the Nationalists by the boldness and fearlessness of their criticisms. Indeed, I am inclined to think that Mr. Russell was the more hated of the two, and that chiefly because he was the more violent and forceful in his onslaughts. The Colonel, perhaps, used the rapier and Mr. Russell broadsword, but the spirit of both was same.

The first response to the suggestion took the form of a circular convening a meeting in Belfast, signed by four leaders of the time, only one of whom survives. These were Sir Wm. Ewart, Thomas Sinclair, Robert MacGeagh, and R. R. Kane, D.D. In response to that circular a preliminary meeting was held on the 4th April, which resulted in a proposal to hold a Convention in the summer to voice the opinion of Ulster Protestants and Unionists against the policy of a Dublin Parliament. Colonel Saunderson and Mr. Russell both spoke at this meeting, and gave voice to the opinion of the Parliamentary leaders and the Unionists of Ulster. In the light of subsequent developments it may be interesting to quote a few sentences at random from Mr. Russell’s speech which would bear repetition and have application at the present time. He said inter alia — “We protest against the setting up of an Irish Parliament and against being cut off from our inheritance in the Imperial Parliament. If Mr. Gladstone thinks he is going to get rid of the Irish question at Westminster they would tell him that he was launching an unworthy ship, not in fair weather, but in the most howling storm. So far from getting rid of the Irish question, he would have it in an intensified form, and they would have to coerce men who would not be law-breakers, but who were passionately loyal to their country. If the Imperial Parliament cast them off and placed them under the domination of men who for the last thirteen years excited their moral loathing they would not obey them.”

It was first intended to hold the Convention on the first week in June, but as the General Assembly usually met in that week it was put off to the middle of the month, actually the 17th. Accordingly, the interval was spent in the organisation and in preparation for the conference. Every county and every district held its meetings and appointed delegates. The fiery cross spread from one end of the province to the other, and the response was something unparalleled. The daily papers were filled with reports of meetings and the names of delegates, and each county and district vied with the other in the intensity of its enthusiasm and in the selection of the best representatives. But the interest was not limited to Belfast or to Ulster. The British Press was full of it, and the public orators on both sides made it the subject of their text. The “Daily News” and the Radical and Nationalist organs sneered at the movement and sneered at Ulster, just as they do still, but their jeers and taunts only intensified the determination and enthusiasm of the Ulstermen, as they do till this day. Every day brought forth some new support, some new organisation, and as the time approached delegates were announced from England and Scotland and from the South and West of Ireland, and messages of encouragement and support poured in from all parts of the British Empire that respected loyalty and the tradition and spirit of a united kingdom and an inspiring Imperialism.

The work and organisation of many weeks was crowned on the great day; Ulster Day, par excellence, the 17th June. No one who lived through it and was in the centre of its activities, as I was, could forget it. Belfast never saw such a day; and Mr. T. W. Russell, who was one of the most active and delighted spirits of the movement, declared that he had never seen anything approaching yt in his life save the demonstration to Mr. Balfour in Edinburgh on a memorable occasion in that capital. The demonstration to took place on what then was a large unoccupied area, the Plains, immediately behind the Assembly and Queen’s Colleges, and which is vacant no longer. It has shared in the general prosperity of the city, and fine houses and streets now represent what at the time was waste and vacancy. A huge temporary building, with a frontage of about 250 feet and a depth of about 150 feet, was erected, with seating accommodation for many thousands. But huge as the building was, it did not accommodate more than a section of those attending; and three or four other platforms were provided, and meetings held round each. And all crowded with enthusiastic Loyalists wearing the Convention badge. But I question if a tithe of those present heard the speeches. They were demonstrating, and did not require even the most stimulating oratory to fan the flame of their enthusiasm. It was there before, and it remained after. As a triumph of organistion it was most wonderful. There were hundreds of willing stewards, and as far as possible provision was made for all. One feature of the major meeting was that special seats were provided for the delegates from each district, and as they trooped in to their places the cheers made the welkin ring as loud as cheers ever did.

The timber for the building had been provided by six timber merchants, and Mr. R. I. Calwell, who is doing so much volunteer architectural work in connection with the U.V.F. Hospitals of the city, had charge of the erection. Trains conveying delegates from all parts of the province began to arrive early, and followed each other in rapid succession, so that for the entire day the town, and especially the Southern end of it, was one mass of moving men and women, all animated by the one spirit and feeling, and all wearing colours and badges suggestive of the occasion. I may just mention that over three hundred meetings had been held in all parts of the province, and that about twelve thousand delegates were appointed; but it was not twelve thousand men, but twelve times twelve thousand men and women who poured in or through the town on this great day.

Precisely at noon, the Duke of Abercorn who had been selected as president of the meeting, followed by the principal speakers and leaders of the day and the movement, and took their places at the well-decorated platform, the cheering was intense for several minutes; and the hitherto restrained feelings of the vast assemblage broke forth in a burst of enthusiasm that once heard could not be forgotten either in its magnificent impressiveness or suggestiveness. After a special prayer by the Lord Primate, the Right Rev. Dr. Alexander, poet and orator, ecclesiastic and statesman, stately and dignified in appearance and sweet in disposition, the noble words of the first stanzas of the 46th Psalm, were read out by the Rev. Dr. N. M. Brown, Limavady, and sung to a noble and inspiring tune; and as ten thousand voices joined in the singing the effect can be better imagined than described. Strong and spirited and impressive the singing was, and it suggested the faith and hope and confidence the people had in the God of their fathers.

“God is our refuge and our strength,
In straits a present aid,”

was the keynote of the Psalm, the keynote of the song, the keynote of the praise and the prayer. There were nearly a hundred newspaper reporters from all parts of the kingdom present, and some of them, who had much experience of such proceedings, told me at the time that they had never heard anything more striking and impressive than the singing of that Psalm and the scene and the spirit of the occasion.

The Duke of Abercorn, the second Duke, and father of the present Duke, delivered a fine address, the keynote of which was, “We will not have Home Rule.” The phrase caught on, and was often used in the way of ridicule by opponents, who declared we would have to have it. That is now a quarter of a century ago, and we have not got it yet; and by a curious coincidence, while in Dublin the other day, I noticed on the contents board of one of the rabid Nationalist or Sinn Fein papers — I hardly know which it was, the words, “We will not have Home Rule,” put forward not by a Unionist, but by a rebel paper, and not put forward by way of ridicule, but as a serious statement.

The following were the resolutions passed at the time:— “That this Convention, consisting of 11,879 delegates, representing the Unionists of every creed, class, and party throughout Ulster, appointed at public meetings held in every electoral division of the province, hereby solemnly resolves and declares — That we express the devoted loyalty of Ulster Unionists to the Crown and Constitution of the United Kingdom; that we avow our fixed resolve to retain unchanged our present position as an integral portion of the United Kingdom, and protest in the most unequivocal mann ] against the passage of any measure that would rob us of our inheritance in the Imperial Parliament, under the protection of which our capital has been invested and our homes and rights safeguarded; that we record our determination to have nothing to do with a Parliament certain to be controlled by men responsible for the crime and outrage of the Land League, the dishonesty of the Plan of Campaign, and the cruelties of boycotting, many of whom have shown themselves the ready instruments of clerical domination; that we declare to the people of Great Britain our conviction that the attempt to set up such a Parliament in Ireland will inevitably result in disorder, violence, and bloodshed such as have not been experienced in this century, and announce our resolve to take no part in the election or proceedings of such a Parliament, the authority of which, should it ever be constituted, we shall be forced to repudiate; that we protest against this great question, which involves our lives, property, and civil rights, being treated as a mere side issue in the impending electoral struggle; that we appeal to those of our fellow-countrymen who have hitherto been in favour of a separate Parliament to abandon a demand which hopelessly divides Irishmen, and to unite with us under the Imperial Legislation in developing the resources and furthering the beat interests of our common country.”

These resolutions were on similiar lines to those that might he passed to-day, for the cry of “No Home Rule for Ulster” is as strong as it ever was, though in their loyal desire to assist the Government out of a difficulty Ulster Unionists have expressed a regretful willingness to limit their exclusion to the six Plantation counties.

It would be interesting to recall the names of the principal speakers, the majority of whom have passed away, but some are still with us and still honoured, as they were then. At the principal meeting the speakers were Sir W. Q. Ewart, Mr. Thomas Sinclair {afterwards Right Hon.), Rev. Oliver M‘Cutcheon, President Methodist College; Mr. Thomas Andrews (afterwards Right Hon.), Rev. James Cregan (Congregational), Rev. Dr. R. J. Lynd, the Rev. Dr. Kane, Mr. J. F. Shillington (of Musgrave & Co., Ltd.), Mr. E. T. Herdman, Sion Mills; Mr. John D. Dunville, Mr. W. J. Doloughan, a Down tenant farmer; Dr. Ussher (Baptist), Captain Sharman-Crawford, and Sir Daniel Dixon (Lord Mayor of Belfast). At No. 1 platform the Lord Mayor presided, and among the speakers were Mr. J. N. Richardson, Mr. T. W. Russell, M.P.; Lord Frederick Hamilton, Captain (afterwards Colonel) M'Calmont, and the Rev. W. J. M'Caughan; No. 2 platform — Mr. Wm. Johnston, M.P.; the Dean of Connor (Seaver), Mr. T. Lea, M.P.; Rev. J. J. M'Clure (now of Capetown), Mr. J. A. Rentoul, M.P.; Mr. J. Walker Craig (now Recorder of Belfast), and Mr. John Ross (now Mr. Justice Ross); No. 3 platform — Mr. Jas. Musgrave, D.L.; Mr. Arnold-Forster (Unionist candidate for West Belfast), Lord Rossmore, Mr. G. W. Wolff, M.P.; Colonel Waring, Mr. W. B. Macartney (now Governor of Tasmania).

The demonstration was not only unique in its local and representative character, but in the extent of the sympathy extended to it by Unionists from all parts of the kingdom. Many of these organisations sent representatives, and over one hundred sent telegrams of good wishes. All classes were represented not only at the meetings, but on the platform, where great peers, great landlords, great commercial and industrial magnates, ministers of all denominations, and representatives of the farming and working classes met, all animated by the same spirit and stimulated by the same determination. The effect in Belfast and the province generally was immense; but the effect throughout the kingdom was, if possible, greater. The Press of the kingdom was represented by nearly one hundred journalists, and some of them by the ablest member's of their staff. The papers had all descriptions and articles, so that for a week at any rate Ulster may be said to have held the field; and I am proud to say that the majority of the journals that stood up for Ulster stand up for it still, and that their comments on the situation to-day are on similar lines to those of twenty-five years ago, with this difference, that the events of the interval have emphasised all their arguments.

The Convention marked an epoch in Ulster, and the spirit and determination it expressed holds good to-day. The mere fact that the Ulster Unionists have assented as a compromise to accept the exclusion of six counties does not militate against the old declaration of hostility to Home Rule for any part of Ireland. They are still opposed to that, and believe that it would produce evils even greater than some they feared at that time. The hostility to Home Rule that then found its first great expression still remains. So that whatever changes may have come over the spirit of others, Ulster Unionists still remain as strong opponents of the principle as ever, and on the merits, or rather demerits, of Home Rule the reasons for hostility are even stronger.

From The Witness, 27th April 1917.

The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle, editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.

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