Wednesday 15 March 2017

Fifty Years of Belfast Life (1866-1917) part 37



I referred to the General Election of 1885 in my last, but I do not think I mentioned that the result was the return of 334 Liberals, Conservatives 250, Nationalists 86. This meant that Mr. Gladstone had not obtained a majority over both, which was what he had asked for. But it left the Government of Lord Salisbury, which had been in power, in a hopeless minority. Lord Salisbury met the House of Commons, but was defeated on an amendment to the Address brought in by Mr. Jesse Collings, Mr. Bright’s colleague in Birmingham — the celebrated three acres and a cow amendment. I happened to be in the Home of Commons on that occasion, and it was a most exciting one. At that time my faith in Mr. Gladstone was strong, and I well remember the indignation with which I listened to Mr. Goschen, himself an old Liberal, who had then evidently completely broken with Mr. Gladstone, and criticised him very critically. The Government were defeated by 329 to 250. I retain no other memory of the occasion, save one of the intense excitement prevailing, and of my own satisfaction that the Grand Old Man had triumphed.

Lord Salisbury resigned, and the Queen called on Mr. Gladstone to form a Ministry, which he did, with such unfortunate results. Sir Wm. Harcourt was Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Rosebery Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Campbell-Bannerman Secretary for War, and Mr. John Morley Secretary for Ireland. Mr. Chamberlain was President of the Local Government Board, and Sir Farrar Herschell Lord Chancellor. Sir Robert Finlay, the present Lord Chancellor, had been Mr. Gladstone’s Attorney-General before the Lord Chancellorship was regarded as his right, But as he had suspicion of Mr. Gladstone’s Irish policy he sacrificed the brilliant prospect, and refused to join the Government, as did also Sir Henry James, who had been Solicitor General. Sir Robert Finlay has become Lord Chancellor after many years, but he accepted it with the proviso that he would not ask a pension. Of such were the fine old Liberals of the fine old school. Lord Hartington did not join the Government.

It was in the month of April that Mr. Gladstone introduced his ill-starred Home Rule Bill. So that the local excitements to which I have been referring were based not on the fact, but on the fear of Mr. Gladstone descending into the Avernus of Home Rule. I have referred to the meetings of public men and merchants that were held to protest against them. From some of these organisations, in conjunction with Unionist organisations all over the country, deputations were sent to London to interview lord Salisbury and leading Ministers, as his resignation had not taken place at the time. The deputation from the Chamber of Commerce included the then President of the Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Robert Megaw, Sir Thomas M‘Clure, O. B. Graham, the Mayor (Sir E. J. Harland), Thomas Sinclair, Theodore Richardson, J. P. Corry, R. L. Patterson, John S. Brown, D. B. Gille, L. M. Ewart. The deputation received a sympathetic reception in spirit, but non-committal in form, from the Conservative members. Sir Thomas M‘Clure made a personal appeal to Mr. Gladstone, to receive the deputation; but the wily, as well as grand, old man refused on the ground that it might appear to be putting him in competition with Lord Salisbury, in whom the Government of the country was vested at the time. There were other deputations to London, and the local excitement on the question was intense. This was stimulated by the visit of Lord Randolph Churchill in the month of February, which created quite a furore in the city. Despite his supposed trucklings with Mr. Parnell, the local Conservatives pinned their faith in him; but the Liberals were sceptical. They knew at the time that Lord Randolph was more than suspected of sympathy or association with Lord Carnarvon, the Lord Lieutenant of the Conservative Government, who had been, to say the least of it, paying court to Mr. Parnell. It had become known that the latter had met Lord Carnarvon secretly in an empty house. Lord Carnarvon afterwards asserted that he had made his action in this respect known to Lord Salisbury; but he, even if admitting knowledge, disclaimed sympathy.

At this time — the time of his visit — there was no doubt as to where Lord Randolph was, or at least professed to be. In looking over Mr. Winston Churchill’s Life of his father, he admits that at this time his father was regarded with suspicion, and that the facts as known more or less justified it. But at the Christmas of 1885, after the election, he apparently made up his mind to uphold the Union. In a letter to the late Lord Justice Fitzgibbon he wrote that if Home Rule was to be brought forward, the Orange card would be the one to play. And he played it in Belfast with a vengeance. The receptions he met with in Larne and in Belfast were almost unparalleled for their magnitude and enthusiasm. I witnessed both, and the impression that remains on my mind was that Lord Randolph had broken all records as a popular hero. It is stated in Mr. Winston Churchill’s book that seventy thousand people, or, perhaps, to be more in line with the spirit of the statement, seventy thousand Orangemen were present, for one cosmopolitan gentleman who saw it said he did not think there were as many Orangemen in the world. Certainly they were in great force that day, and in the evening when the meeting was held in the Ulster Hall. All the seats were reserved, and the vast mass wedged together, gave lord Randolph a reception that he should never forget, and certainly seems to have made a strong impression on him. I retain no impression of the meeting save the fiery character of the oration and the fervour of the audience. Lord Randolph told us that Mr. Gladstone contemplated the repeal of the Union; that the Conservatives Were determined to oppose it, and that he had come over to see to what extent they would be supported. He counselled resistance to the proposals, hoping that the struggle would be kept within constitutional lines; but if not they should be prepared. And he made special reference to the Orangemen and their principles and policy. He finished up a great and exciting speech with these lines:—
“The contest deepens; on, ye brave
Who rush to glory or the grave:.
Wave, Ulster! all thy banners wave,
And charge with all your chivalry.”

If the speech roused enthusiasm in the city, it created excitement all over the country, and indignation in the breasts of the Parnellites, with whom for some time he had been a kind of pet or supposed puppet. They accused him of exciting to civil war, and Mr. Sexton made an effort to get a vote of censure passed on him; but Lord Salisbury would not give him the opportunity. Lord Salisbury, it appears, wrote him a letter complimenting him on the fact that he had made a speech which, without offending Roman Catholics, had roused the Protestants. It was during the exciting controversy that followed that speech that Lord Randolph wrote a letter, which was published, to a Liberal Unionist, in which he used the phrase, “Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right.” That phrase became a watchword in Ulster and all over the country for years. And I must say it was with these words and the speech of which they may be regarded as the complement in my mind that I felt specially indignant that his son should have thought for a moment of coming to the hall in which the speech was made to tell Ulster that it should not fight and that it would be right to hand in their guns and hand over their liberties to the Nationalists. And my indignation and that of others was increased when that same son afterwards ordered the British fleet to Lamlash to destroy the city and the sons of the city that still held to the gospel which his father had preached.

To be continued...

From The Witness, 16th March 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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