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Carson, Sir Edward

Carson, Sir Edward

One of the founders of Northern Ireland and a central leader of Irish unionism, Edward Carson (1854–1935) was born and raised in Dublin. Educated at Trinity College, Dublin, Carson became a very successful barrister, participating in the first Oscar Wilde trial and other landmark cases of the 1890s. Carson's spectacular legal career was confirmed by his selection as the Conservative solicitor-general, a post he held from 1900 to 1906.

But it was politics, not law, that made Carson's reputation. Named leader of the Irish Unionist Party in 1910, Carson effectively led unionist opposition to Irish Home Rule, consistently outmaneuvering John Redmond and his nationalist lieutenants throughout the ensuing decade. Carson was by no means alone; his political leadership received the critical aid of James Craig, who focused on mobilizing and organizing supporters. While privately concerned about the dangers of extremist violence, Carson publicly aligned himself with Ulster hard-liners between 1912 and 1914, signing the Ulster Covenant, helping to fund the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force, and supporting the Larne gunrunning. The August 1914 outbreak of World War I allowed Carson to avoid facing up to the contradictions between his own social conservatism and his leadership of an increasingly militant unionist rank and file.

Carson occupied important government positions throughout the war years, becoming in July 1917 a full member of the cabinet, where he was well-positioned to articulate unionist opposition to Home Rule. While less enthusiastic than his Ulster colleagues about partition, the Dublin-born Carson accepted the idea as the best option available. The real crisis came in 1916 when, in the wake of the Easter Rising, the British government seemingly moved to implement Irish Home Rule with a temporary exclusion for Ulster. Famously rejecting this compromise as a "temporary stay of execution," Carson received private assurances that Ulster would not be coerced into a Home Rule Ireland. The issue quickly became moot when John Redmond backed away from negotiations. Although plans for all-Ireland Home Rule were raised again in 1918 (Carson resigned from the cabinet in protest), Carson and Craig were able to steer Ulster clear throughout the war years.

After Edward Carson oversaw the creation of Northern Ireland with the 1920 implementation of the Government of Ireland Act, he quickly handed over the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party to James Craig (later Lord Craigavon). Accepting a life peerage in 1921, Carson remained active in the House of Lords until 1929; he died six years later in 1935.

SEE ALSO Craig, James, First Viscount Craigavon; Redmond, John; Unionism from 1885 to 1922; Primary Documents: Address on the Ulster Question in the House of Commons (11 February 1914)


Fitzpatrick, David. The Two Irelands, 1912–39. 1998.

Jackson, Alvin. The Ulster Party: Irish Unionists in the House of Commons, 1884–1911. 1989.

Jackson, Alvin. Sir Edward Carson. 1993.

Laffan, Michael. The Partition of Ireland, 1911–23. 1987.

Stewart, A. T. Q. The Ulster Crisis, 1912–14: Resistance to Irish Home Rule. 1967.

Sean Farrell

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