Wednesday 17 August 2016

Fifty Years of Belfast Life (1866-1916) part 9



I concluded last week with a reference to the "News-Letter" and "Whig," and the part they played in the election. The "News-Letter" supported, as I indicated, the old Conservative leaders and party, and the "Whig" took the new democratic leaders under its protection. The "News-Letter" was then under the editorship of Mr. Richard Lilburn, who was, like his paper, a great supporter and upholder of Orangeism, who might have been expected to keep that body well in hand, democratic as well as aristocratic. But both he and his paper were in a great difficulty owing to the breach in the party and the adherence of the paper to the more aristocratic section. At the same time the "Weekly News," issued from the same office, was doing vigorous work in the Orange and Protestant interest -- the paper was so described in the newspaper directories of the time. A principal feature of that journal was the weekly letter signed "Ulster Scot," which was written by the Rev. Henry Henderson, and it might have been supposed that his writing would have been strong enough to satisfy the Orange and Protestant working man. But all did not avail to placate the democrats or bring them into the fold. The "News-Letter," while it supported the old leaders, did all it could to ignore Mr. Johnston, and afterwards to belittle him or treat him as Redmondites of the present day treat all who do not support them, as factionists. When Mr. M'Clure and Mr. Johnston were both in the field, and before there was any community of action between them, it described them as a coalition.

The "Whig" had some time previously come under the control of Mr. Thomas MacKnight, whose "Life of Burke" had brought him into prominence as a political historian, and whose study of Burke influenced him to the latest day of his life. Mr. MacKnight was a Scotsman, educated in England, and was dominated by English ideas in many ways. He was only in his Ulster apprenticeship at the time, but he had grasped the situation well, and a large share of the journalistic credit for the victory for Mr. M'Clure wa© due to him and his journal.

He kept hammering away at the old leaders, or the old gang, with great vigour and point, and while he kept Mr. M'Clure under his arm, he kept patting Mr. Johnston on the back to an extent which had effect and counter-effect. While this gave Mr. Johnston valuable support and publicity to his meetings, it gave opportunity for the "News-Letter" to cast suspicion on Mr. Johnston's Conservatism, and to suggest that he was a Whig, which, at that time, was the strongest term of reproach that a Conservative could apply to an opponent.

"The Banner of Ulster" was in existence at the time, with Mr. W. H. Dodd, now Judge Dodd, exercising his 'prentice hand as an Editor. He had just been fresh from college, and had more knowledge of literary than of journalistic form, if I may be excused for making a difference. He rendered valuable assistance to Mr. M'Clure, and helped his cause well. But many a time and oft Mr. Dodd used to upset my equilibrium -- I was his sub -- by the unconventional form of his editorials. He did not follow the stereotyped style of leader, but struck out a style for himself, a bright style, as literary as the best, but more unconventional.

The only other journals at the time were the "Morning News" tri-weekly, which was unpolitical, and the "Ulster Observer," then under the editorial charge of one of the most brilliant journalists Ulster ever had, Mr. A. J. M'Kenna, who wrote brilliantly, but strongly, in favour of Mr. M'Clure and of Mr. Johnston, too, so far as he could use him as a whip by which to lash the old party.

All these political journals kept the pot of electoral excitement boiling in the two or three months during which the campaign was carried on. But that was not enough. We had more cartoons during that one election than we have had in all the elections since, and better ones than any I have seen. One of the earliest and best was one that represented the candidates passing the winning post in the order in which they appeared, Mr. Mulholland, if I remember aright, not reaching the post at all, which he did not. It hit the situation most accurately, and its artistic work was good.

But dealing with the literature of the election, must not forget that in the midst of the election a fly-sheet, under the name of the "Belfast Election Circular," about the size of the halfpenny papers subsequently produced, was issued in the interests of the two Conservative candidates, and especially in the interests of Mr. Mulholland, who was regarded as the weaker member of the team, as he ultimately proved to be. This was edited by a London barrister, and its writing was of a very brilliant character. It was printed for the party by Messrs. W. & G. Baird, and may have been the germ or the suggestion of the "Evening Telegraph," which that firm subsequently issued, and has brought to such success.

There was great correspondence every day in the Press, each newspaper, of course, only publishing letters in defence of its own side or attacking that of his opponents. One of the men who figured largely as an object of praise on one side and attack on the other was the Rev. John Rogers, then of Comber, afterwards Professor Rogers. The "Northern Whig" had singled him out for special attack, and he was not the man to let judgment go by default. The antagonism of the "Whig" and its friends arose from the fact that though an old and advanced Liberal he had on this occasion cast in his lot with the Conservatives on the Church question. One reason alleged at the time for this was that as Moderator of the General Assembly he had, with other members of the Court, met Mr. Disraeli on the eve of the General Election, and that that astute statesman had promised that if he won at the General Election he would raise the Regium Donum from £69 to £100. Whether or not such promise was made I cannot say, but I do know that levelling up was the avowed Conservative policy of the election, while levelling down was that of the Liberals.

At the time Miss Finlay, sister of the then proprietor of the "Whig," who was a very clever literary lady, was more than suspected of supplying some smart articles or letters to the "Whig." Mr. Rogers, in a letter in reply to the "Whig," referred to the "editors male and female after their kind." On another occasion he said or wrote that some time previously he had asked some of the children in his Sunday-school where all the bad boys who told lies went to, and that the ready answer he got was -- To the "Northern Whig."

As the period of the election approached, the excitement increased. Meetings were held almost every night, and very noisy many of them were. The largest and most successful meetings, both in number and in peace, were those of Mr. Johnston, whose friends not only maintained the enthusiasm of his own meetings, but disturbed the harmony of the meetings of Lanyon and Mulholland. Some of Mr. M'Clure's meetings were interrupted, but I do not think Mr. Johnston's friends had much to do with that, as the common antagonism of both these candidates to the official Conservative candidates produced a certain amount of harmony between them. I can recall one meeting of Mr. M'Clure's in the old Music Hall, where a band of interrupters produced a perfect pandemonium at the beginning, and the meeting threatened to end in a fiasco. I remember rushing up to Howard Street for the Rev. John Macnaughtan, who seemed to me (I was acting as secretary for the meeting) as the only man who could quell the disturbance. He was at home in his slippers reading. After some demur, Mr. Macnaughtan consented to go to the meeting. He had great difficulty in getting entrance on account of the crowd. He come on the platform like a little lion, and in five or ten minutes rendered the meeting, which up to then had been most riotous, as orderly as a prayer-meeting. He stepped to the front and said the meeting had been convened for Mr. M'Clure's supporters alone, and asked all who were in favour of the meeting proceeding to stand up. The vast majority stood up. He then asked all who did not want the meeting to continue to stand up. About forty or fifty in the gallery, some armed with staves, proclaimed their hostility. Mr. Macnaughtan said that that was no place for them, and the sooner they were out the better. They were all in a group in the gallery, and those around them at once gathered round, seized them, and had them all on the street in about five minutes. And very worn out and tattered they looked at the end. But they disturbed the meeting no more. It was one of the most remarkable instances of the superiority of mind to matter that I ever witnessed. The men, it is true, were not handled very gently, but they were handled effectually.

The speakers at Mr. Johnston's meetings were largely the members of the Working Men's Association. Messrs. Lanyon and Mulholland had the support of the leading Conservatives, and Mr. M'Clure of the Liberals, and especially the Liberal Presbyterians. It was on the latter's platform I first heard the late Right Hon. Thomas Sinclair, the late Mr. Robert MacGeagh, and Mr. Adam Duffin speak, and I did not dream that I would be so closely associated with them in after life. Of those who took part in those meetings there are only, so far as I remember, three now alive -- Mr. Adam Duffin, Mr. James Pyper, and the Rev. Dr. Magill, who as the Rev. George Magill came all the way from Cork to show his sympathy with Mr. M'Clure and the cause with which he was identified. Oh, I forgot, Sir A. M. Porter, ex-Master of the Rolls, was also one of the speakers, and he is still, I am happy to say, alive also.

There are two points of election law that have changed since. The one is the amount of money a candidate could expend on printing, advertising, agents, and other expenses, which is now limited, and as far as possible respected, though not always with success. In these times there was no check on expenditure. I could scarcely speculate on the number of thousands that election cost Mr. M'Clure and Messrs. Lanyon and Mulholland. These were the halcyon days of newspapers and printers, and as there was no limit as to the amount candidates could pay, there was very little limit to what newspapers and printers could charge. I remember one instance as to cost. In a number of the "Evangelical Witness" of the time, I observed an article on the subject of the Irish Church situation by a local divine, who dealt with the question from both sides. What he said on the Liberal side of the question was so good that I suggested to the conducting agent that it would be a desirable thing to circulate among the Presbyterians, and ten or fifteen thousand copies were printed on a broad sheet, and distributed among the electors. Between the printing and distribution I think that cost Mr. M'Clure something between £50 and £100 -- nearer the latter, if I remember. That was bad enough for the candidate monetarily, however it may have served politically. But as to the latter, judge of my surprise when I found the Conservative party issuing the other portion of the article as a counterblast, and I am sure that cost Messrs. Lanyon and Mulholland quite as much. But there were two paymasters instead of one in that case.

Mr. Johnston's candidature did not cost so much as the others, for neither he nor his followers had much money to spend of their own, but a petition that was lodged against the return of Mr. M'Clure revealed the fact that that gentleman's friends had subscribed many hundreds of pounds to keep Mr. Johnston in the field, as the phrase was. It helped to secure split votes as well. I may here say that at the petition trial those payments were not only proved, but admitted. Baron Fitzgerald, one of the best judges of his own or of any time, who tried the petition, did not unseat Mr. M'Clure, but hinted that if the petition had been against Mr. Johnston and not against Mr. M'Clure the decision might have been different. The other point in regard to which a material change has since been made was open nomination, which passed away by the Ballot Act of 1870. This was the last of such proceedings that took place in Belfast. Since nominations are made in writing, and not in speeches. The nomination took place in the old Howard Street Courthouse, which could only be called a courthouse by courtesy, so worn out and shabby it looked -- but it served very well, and made history as a police court, as well as a scene of election riot.

The courthouse was crowded on the occasion. Possession of it had been taken largely by the supporters of Mr. Johnston and many noisy and trouble-giving individuals, but Mr. John Rea bulked larger than them all as a disturber of harmony. Mr. Lanyon was sponsored by Mr. John Lytle and Mr. Philip Johnston; Mr. Thomas Sinclair and Dr. Murney sponsored Mr. M'Clure; Mr. C. W. Shaw and Mr. John Hind nominated Mr. Mulholland; and Mr. Wm. M'Cormick, father of the present Town Solicitor, and Mr. John Suffern nominated Mr. Johnston. The commotion, excitement, confusion and disorder, shouting and striking were so great that none of the speakers save Mr. Johnston could be said to have got a hearing. The speeches of the others were handed to the reporters. After the preliminaries, largely in dumb show, finished, up got Mr. Rea, nominally to propose some candidate, but really to ventilate his own views and increase the disorder, which he did to an extent I have never witnessed since, and made confusion worse confounded. Sticks and stones were freely used, and there were many bleeding heads on the occasion, Mr. Rea himself figuring on the list of those who bore scars, blood flowing from his head. The Mayor postponed the nomination till next day, when a similar display of dumb show and rowdyism, noise and tumult prevailed, and stone and stick throwing, yelling and shouting continued, in the midst of which the Mayor called for a show of hands, and declared the result in favour of Johnston and Lanyon, on which a poll was demanded for M'Clure and Mulholland.

The election took place a few days afterwards. It was all open voting, and the greatest excitement prevailed at the various polling places and all over the town. At a very early hour, however, the doom of the old Conservatives was sealed. As Belfast was a two-member constituency, each voter had two votes. In many cases the voters plumped for their favourite candidate. The majority of split votes went for Johnston and M'Clure. Those who were looking after the votes for these two candidates where they could, brought the voters up in couples, and each gave one vote for Johnston and one for M'Clure. The result of this, of course, was that at noon all hope for Mr. Mulholland was abandoned, and he retired. At the close of the poll, the result was declared as follows:-- Johnston, 7,267; M'Clure, 5,199; Lanyon, 4,249; Mulholland, 1,966. Messrs. Johnston and M'Clure were declared elected, and the remainder of the evening was given up to a demonstration on the part of the supporters of the successful candidates; and the supporters of the other candidates seem to have left the field, or the streets rather, in their possession. Mr Johnston and Mr. M'Clure were cheered and serenaded. There was a torchlight procession at night which caused great excitement and enthusiasm among the friends of the successful candidates, but there was no disorder. Thus ended the last Belfast election under the old system of voting, and the last open fight between the two wings of the Conservative party.

To be continued...

From The Witness, 18th August 1916.

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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