The effectiveness of the Ulster unionist movement’s opposition (1912-14) to the granting of self-government to Ireland by Britain’s Liberal government was heightened by the support it received from elsewhere in the United Kingdom. In 1912, the Conservative Party backed it even in its formation of a paramilitary force (the UVF) to defy Westminster legislation. Meanwhile, other vital and elevated elements in British public life also used their influence on unionism’s behalf. George V sought to persuade Prime Minister Herbert Asquith to make concessions to the Ulstermen and warned that otherwise he might dismiss him or refuse to give the Royal Assent to the Home Rule Bill. Not surprisingly, given its predominantly privileged background, the officer class in the British army also sympathised with the unionists. Their views were graphically exposed during the ‘Curragh Mutiny’ in 1914. This army barracks located just east of Kildare town, had become Britain’s premier military base in Ireland.
By March 1914, British government ministers appear to have been considering taking strong action to crush unionist resistance. Sir Arthur Paget, Commander-in-Chief of troops in Ireland, was summoned to London and instructed to move 800 men into the province to reinforce depots and arms stores there. Preparations for a possible rebellion in Ulster were also discussed. It was rumoured that unionist leaders would be arrested. On his return to the Curragh on 20th March, Paget summoned his brigadiers and informed them that active operations against Ulster were imminent. He indicated that officers with homes in Ulster would be permitted to be absent from duty without compromising their careers. Unwisely, he added that any others who were not prepared to carry out their duty were to say so and these would immediately be dismissed from the service. The brigadiers were to put these alternatives to their men and report back; 57 of the 70 officers consulted elected for dismissal. They were led by Brigadier General Herbert Gough who, like many of them, had Irish family connections.
The 57 officers were not actually guilty of ‘mutiny’; they had not disobeyed direct orders of any kind. Nonetheless, news of their resignations caused government alarm. If orders had existed for the repression of the Ulster unionists and the arrest of their leaders, they were at once withdrawn. Asquith claimed publicly that no such action had been contemplated and that the whole episode had resulted from an ‘honest misunderstanding’. The War Office stated that ministers had no future intention of using the army to enforce submission to the Home Rule Bill. This assurance may have been given without cabinet authority, as those responsible for issuing it were subsequently obliged to resign.
Overall, the episode greatly increased the confidence of Ulster unionists; they firmly believed that the government had intended to crush them but its plan had failed for lack of military support. Certainly thereafter ministers were convinced that they could not trust the army to quell opposition to home rule in the province. For Irish nationalists, the events merely confirmed their increasing doubts about Asquith’s real commitment to granting Irish self-government and about his willingness ever to grapple with unionist militancy. In turn, this naturally increased nationalist support for its paramilitary force, the Irish Volunteers.
While the Home Rule Bill was approved by the House of Commons on 25 May, the growing fear of civil war in Ireland led on to the government considering some form of partition of Ireland in July 1914 by an amending Bill; further discussions at the Buckingham Palace Conference could not solve the arguments about partition. The main Bill received the Royal Assent on 18 September, but was also suspended for the duration of the First World War.
Photo: The Curragh Military Cemetery, Co Kildare