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Edward Carson

Edward Henry Carson, Baron Carson (February 9, 1854October 22, 1935) was a leader of the Irish Unionists, a Barrister and a Judge.


Early life

Carson was from a wealthy Dublin Protestant family. He was educated at Portarlington School and Trinity College, Dublin where he read law, and was an active member of the Historical Society. He was called to the Irish Bar in 1877. He soon gained a reputation for fearsome advocacy and supreme legal ability. He was made a Queen's Counsel in 1889. He began a political career in 1892 when he was appointed Solicitor-General for Ireland on June 20, although he was not then in the House of Commons. He was elected the University of Dublin in the 1892 general election for the Conservatives, although they lost the election. He was admitted to the English Bar in 1893 and from then on mainly practised in London. He was appointed Solicitor-General for England on May 7 1900, receiving an ex officio knighthood. He served in this position until the Conservative government resigned in December 1905, when he was rewarded with membership of the Privy Council.

Wilde trial

In 1895 he was engaged by the Marquess of Queensberry to lead his defence against Oscar Wilde's libel action. This meant his job was in effect to prosecute Wilde, who had been his contemporary and rival at Trinity College. When Wilde heard of his appointment, he remarked "No doubt he will pursue his case with all the added bitterness of an old friend". Carson's cross-examination of Wilde is a supreme example of a battle of wits.

Ulster unionism

In 1910 it became clear that the House of Lords' veto on the Third Irish Home Rule Bill was about to be lifted. When James Craig and other leading Unionists asked Carson, who was their most effective speaker, to assume their leadership, he accepted. He was a natural choice but was not ideal because the vast majority of the Unionists came from Ulster with which Carson had no special connection.

Carson campaigned against Home Rule using a variety of means, both constitutional and dubious. He spoke against the Bill in the House of Commons and organised rallies in Ireland. On September 28, 1912 he was the first signatory on the Solemn League and Covenant, which bound its signatories to resist Home Rule by all means necessary. In January 1913 he established the Ulster Volunteer Force, the first loyalist paramilitary group. The UVF received a large arms cache from Germany in April 1914. Imperial Germany was very eager to promote political tension in the UK at the time.

Despite Carson's best efforts, the Home Rule Bill was passed by the Commons on 25 May 1914 by a majority of 77 and due to the Parliament Act of 1911, it did not need the Lords consent, so the bill was awaiting royal assent. To enforce the legislation, given the activities of the Unionists, Herbert Asquith's Liberal government sent more troops to Ulster. This sparked the Curragh incident on July 20. Ulster was on the brink of civil war when the outbreak of the First World War led to the suspension of Home Rule.

He repeatedly warned Ulster Unionist leaders not to alienate northern Catholics, as he foresaw this would make Northern Ireland unstable. His calls went unheeded.

Cabinet member

On May 25, 1915, Asquith appointed Carson Attorney-General when the Coalition Government was formed after the Liberal government was bought down by the Shell Crisis. However he resigned on October 19, ostensibly over his opposition to Government policy on war in the Balkans, but in reality in the hopes of destabilizing Asquith's government. When Asquith resigned, he returned to office on December 10, 1916 as First Lord of the Admiralty, becoming a Minister without Portfolio on July 17, 1917.

Early in 1918 the government decided to extend conscription to Ireland, and that Ireland would have to be given home rule in order to make it acceptable. Carson disagreed in principle and again resigned on January 21, 1918. He gave up his seat at the University of Dublin in the 1918 general election and was instead elected for Belfast Duncairn. He continued to lead the Unionists but when the Government of Ireland Act 1920 was introduced, advised his party to work for the exemption of six Ulster counties from Home Rule as the best compromise (a compromise he had previously rejected). This proposal passed and as a result the Parliament of Northern Ireland was established.


He was naturally asked by the Unionists to lead them into the election and become the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. However, Carson declined due to his lack of connections with Ulster. Instead, he was appointed as a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary and created a life peer on June 1, 1921 as Baron Carson, of Duncairn, County Antrim.

Later years

He retired in 1929. After his death on October 22, 1935, the Northern Ireland Government gave him a state funeral and he was buried in St. Anne's Cathedral, Belfast, as yet the only person to have received that honour. In 1932 he had unveiled a large statue of himself in front of the Parliament Building of Northern Ireland at Stormont, Belfast.

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