Thursday, 17 July 2014

Sir Edward Carson, the troublesome loyalist. And the Winslow Boy

Some readers of my “Countdown to War” series of blog posts have asked about that strange character, Sir Edward Carson.

As pressure mounted, in the years leading up to the First World War, for some kind of Home Rule in Ireland – i.e. a measure of autonomy within the United Kingdom – he took the leadership of the Protestant movement in Ulster that opposed any slackening of the ties with Britain. He was a lawyer and a Member of Parliament, but he raised and at least connived at the arming of a resistance group that came to be known as the Ulster Volunteer Force.

Sir Edward Carson opposing Home Rule
He launched the slogan "No Surrender"
Decades later, the UVF and its successors were major contributors to the troubles that plagued Northern Ireland between 1972 and 1997.

Even back then, it was a significant factor in the instability of the island and its steady drift towards civil war.

And yet Carson was never arrested. Indeed, the British government treated him as a spokesman for a certain strand of opinion, and someone with whom it was prepared to negotiate. It’s hard not to feel that if he was treated so leniently, despite fomenting armed insurrection against the State he was sworn to serve, it was because at heart the government couldn’t bring itself to condemn a movement that set out to keep at least a part of Ireland under its control.

Because he favoured the Union, he was a loyalist, and one can be indulgent towards any degree of disloyalty in a loyalist.

This adulation of a rebel and insurgent continues to this day. There is a greater than life-size statue of Carson on the drive up to Stormont Castle outside Belfast, the seat of the power-sharing government of Northern Ireland and its Assembly. One can’t help admiring the Republicans who turn up there each day and go past the statue, on their way to continue work for the peaceful development of the province.

What amazes me most about the man, however, is that there was another side to his character. The Terence Rattigan play The Winslow Boy tells the story of a young cadet expelled from Naval College for the theft of a five shilling postal order; a leading right-wing MP and lawyer takes up the case and his brilliant forensic skills become the biggest weapon in the defence of the child.

The lawyer, Sir Robert Morton, bases his legal action on a so-called “petition of right”. Technically, this is an appeal to the Sovereign to correct a wrong that has been done to a subject. The play several times makes powerful and poignant use of the words inscribed on such a petition, “let Right be done.” At one point, Morton declares, “it is easy to do justice, but it is very hard to do right”.

It came as a shock to me a few years ago – such a shock that I put up a blog post on the subject at the time – to discover that the historical figure on whom Morton is modelled, who fought the case of the real cadet on whom the Winslow boy is based, was none other than Sir Edward Carson.

I’ve always preferred my heroes when I can see that they have feet of clay. Carson’s interesting because he’s a villain in whom I can see a halo. And that’s marvellously intriguing.


Anonymous said...

His defending The Winslow Boy is interesting. History is full of villains who have other sides to them.

PS Enjoying "Good"

David Beeson said...

It's an interesting historical twist, isn't it?

And I'm glad you're finding the Company Good.