Before Donald J Trump, before the politics of the alt-right in the United States, there was Sir Edward Carson and the politics of British unionism – or ethno-sectarian separatism – on the island of Ireland. Like the New York real estate mogul, the Dublin-born lawyer rose to power by adopting and encouraging a malevolent ideology based upon a resentful hatred of the “other“. At the start of the 20th century he posed as the chosen defender of the historical rights and privileges of a ruling class and ethnicity under supposed threat from the upstart ambitions of its social, cultural or racial inferiors. Like Trump, the tactics of Carson were antithetical to normal democratic values. The judicial persecutor of Oscar Wilde understood and appreciated the subversive efficacy of alternative facts and post-truth, of repeatedly saying that something is so to make it so.
In the 1910s and ’20s Edward Carson, a default member of the British parliament for the University of Dublin since 1892, publicly led a political campaign – and surreptitiously encouraged an armed revolt – against successive attempts by the majority of the Irish people to gain autonomy from the United Kingdom by peaceful and democratic means. He opposed and undermined the pro-independence outcomes of four plebiscite-elections held in the country during this period through violence and the threat of violence. He sought to overturn the results of the general election of December 1918, the urban area local elections of January 1920, the rural elections of June 1920, and the general election of May 1921, all of which yielded substantial nationalist majorities, led by Sinn Féin, the Irish Parliamentary Party and the Labour Party. He refused to accept that pro-UK unionist parties and candidates were heavily defeated in the polls right across the country, relying on consolidated constituencies in parts of Ulster and Leinster for their representation. Instead of accepting the results of the ballot box, however objectionable to him personally, Carson became the figurehead of a separatist rebellion on the island, turning the north-east of the country, the Six Counties, into a mirror image of what Vladimir Putin would create in Crimea and eastern Ukraine during this century.
Given his dreadful, undemocratic career one would imagine that no modern politician of any background would hold him up as a figure of admiration. Would a mainstream American politician seek to emulate the record of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America? Yet, here is Mike Nesbitt, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), speaking in the union-supporting Newsletter.
“Unionism must return to its founding values and approach power-sharing with nationalists as beneficial not a necessary evil, Mike Nesbitt has said.
He claimed his main unionist rivals, the DUP, had reneged on principles espoused by one of the Province’s founding fathers Sir Edward Carson.
“If you go back to Carson, in 1920 as this country was being developed, Carson stood up in the Commons and said ‘you’ll only succeed if there are no factions, no sections’.
“You’ll only succeed if you have got good government, fair government and honest government for all the people.
“And if we don’t do that, that is the existential threat to Northern Ireland – if unionism fails to live up to the values that were established nearly 100 years ago by Edward Carson.”
The values of Edward Carson were repugnant in the 1910s and they are even more repugnant in the 2010s. There should be no place for him or his beliefs in the modern lexicon of democratic politics in western Europe. We no more need unionist alt-democracy than we need that presented by the American alt-right and its offshoots.
Edward Carson was the first man to sign 'Ulster's Solemn League and Covenant' on 28 September 1912. The Covenant was a pledge by Carson and hundreds of thousands of others to reject devolved 'Home Rule' for Ireland and retain the Union with Great Britain.
Carson's family embodied Protestant social mobility in 19th century Dublin. His grandfather had been a general merchant and his father was a civil engineer. Carson continued the tradition of advancement by reading classics at Trinity College, Dublin.
An average student, he gained only a pass degree in 1876. He went on to study law at the King's Inns in Dublin and was called to the Irish Bar the following year. Carson clearly found his vocation in the law. By 1889, aged just 35, he became the youngest king's counsel (KC) in Ireland.
The law of the land
Carson's legal career began in the rural Irish province of Leinster in 1878. At this time, centuries of conquest and colonisation in Ireland had established a class of largely absentee English and Scottish landlords ruling over impoverished Irish tenants.
He initially defended tenant farmers by using legislation which aimed to grant them fair treatment. His success impressed the Irish attorney-general who nominated Carson to be his crown counsel in 1886.
Carson now switched sides. He acted for landlords in cases where tenant farmers refused to pay rents they felt were too high. Although sympathetic to the disadvantaged throughout his life, Carson believed such lawlessness must be faced down. Many nationalists subsequently demonised him for abandoning the tenants' cause.
Carson was elected Liberal Unionist MP for Trinity College, Dublin in 1892 and took his seat at Westminster. His star rose in tandem with his spectacular career in the English courts. He was at one time considered a potential leader of the Conservative Party.
Carson had been a contemporary of the playwright and wit Oscar Wilde at Trinity. In 1895, Wilde brought an ill-advised libel case against the Marquess of Queensberry. Incensed at Wilde's relationship with his son, the marquess accused the playwright of being homosexual. Wilde sued.
Representing the marquess, Carson cross-examined Wilde in court. A reporter wrote:
"It was a duel of thrilling interest. Mr Carson's wig throws his white, thin, clever face into sharp relief. When he is angry it assumes the immovability of a death mask."
Wilde lost his libel case, and Carson's skilful cross examination laid bare lurid details of his private life. He was subsequently arrested and tried for gross indecency. Carson refused to take any part in the prosecution that saw Wilde imprisoned. He appealed to the solicitor general to show mercy to a man already disgraced and bankrupt.
In February 1910, he accepted an invitation from the prominent Ulster politician James Craig to lead the Ulster Unionist Party's fight against 'Home Rule' - the establishment of a devolved Irish parliament in Dublin.
The idea of Home Rule was abhorrent to a staunch Ulster Unionist like Carson, who feared that it would serve the interests of the rural, Catholic south and threaten those of the industrial, Protestant north.
In April 1911 British Prime Minister HH Asquith introduced the third Home Rule bill. There had been two general elections in 1910, both resulting in a hung parliament. Asquith was only able to form a government in coalition with the Irish Parliamentary Party, whose leader, John Redmond, demanded a Home Rule bill in return.
The voice of Ulster Unionism
In September 1911, at a massive outdoor demonstration, Carson addressed 50,000 unionists from across Ulster: "With the help of God, you and I joined together ... will yet defeat the most nefarious conspiracy that has ever been hatched against a free people ... We must be prepared ... the morning Home Rule passes, ourselves to become responsible for the government of the Protestant province of Ulster."
The following year, on 28 September 1912, nearly half a million people signed the Ulster Covenant – a pledge to defend their way of life from the growing threat of Home Rule.
The brink of civil war
By 1914, Home Rule seemed inevitable. Carson's deputy, James Craig, convinced his colleagues that the Ulster Volunteers – a militia formed for Unionist resistance – should be armed. Carson accepted the plan for a gun-running expedition, telling one UVF regiment: "I rely on you to keep your arms with a view to keeping the peace."
Meanwhile the Irish National Volunteers, an unofficial army formed by nationalists in the south of Ireland, were openly drilling and ready to fight for Home Rule. Ireland was on the brink of civil war.
World War One
The outbreak of war with Germany in August 1914 halted plans to enact the Home Rule bill. Unionists and nationalists fighting over the internal issue of Home Rule postponed their differences in the face of a shared external enemy.
Carson joined HH Asquith's coalition government as attorney general. His focus moved away from Northern Ireland during the conflict. He was also a member of the War Cabinet and First Lord of the Admiralty.
During the war, to the displeasure of many supporters, he spoke in favour of all-Ireland political institutions and structures.
The 1920 Government of Ireland Act was intended to establish separate Home Rule parliaments in the south of Ireland and the north of Ireland.
Carson had no desire to be prime minster of Northern Ireland. He pleaded ill health and stepped down as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party in favour of James Craig. In farewell, he urged his followers to ensure that "the Catholic minority have nothing to fear from the Protestant majority".
The man behind the granite face
Carson's public charisma and Herculean capacity for hard work brought him success, but also exhaustion and worry. Long periods of labour were followed by weeks of physical and nervous collapse. He would often retreat to a German spa town to recuperate.
Carson's doctors categorised him as a 'neurasthenic'. The label was typically applied to those in the upper and professional classes who displayed symptoms of fatigue, anxiety, headaches and depression.
Carson moved to England in 1921. The man who had once sanctioned gun smuggling into Ulster became a Lord of Appeal and peer of the Empire.
While still a hero to many in the new state of Northern Ireland, he remained detached from the region's politics. He died of leukaemia in 1935 at his home in Kent.
His body was brought to Belfast by warship for a state funeral. Thousands of workers at the Harland and Wolff shipyard, home of RMS Titanic, bowed their heads as the ship bore Carson’s coffin, draped in the Union Flag, along Belfast Lough.