Edward Carson’s image is that of an intransigent unionist leader who helped raise the political temperature in Ireland and bring it to the brink of civil conflict. However, he himself felt a profound sense of unease about the measures then being taken by his supporters in Ulster.
Carson was born in Dublin, into a liberal professional middle class family and studied law at Trinity College. He was amongst the most successful lawyers of his generation. The reputation he acquired led to his election as Unionist MP for Trinity College (1892-1918), and to his becoming Solicitor-General for Ireland (1892), and for England (1900-05). Carson acted as Crown Prosecutor during the Irish land agitation, 1888-91, defended Queensberry in the first trial of Oscar Wilde (1895) and was involved in the ‘Winslow Boy’ case. In parliament his speech attacking the Second Home Rule Bill in 1893 was widely acclaimed; he had emerged by 1906 as one of the most prominent politicians in the United Kingdom.
In February 1910, Carson agreed to become leader of the Irish Unionist Parliamentary Party and in June 1911 accepted Craig’s invitation to lead the Ulster Unionists. He brought credibility and prestige to the movement. His objective throughout was to preserve the union between Britain and Ireland, believing it to be in the best interests of his fellow-countrymen; he was an Irish patriot, but not a nationalist. During the home rule crisis, 1912-14, he aimed to foment and use Ulster’s resistance as a means of blocking any granting of self-government to Ireland. Owing to his undoubted charisma, inspired oratory and unyielding image, he was hero-worshiped by unionists in the province of his adoption. Carson was deeply uneasy about the decision to establish an Ulster Volunteer Force and to run guns through Larne. However he accepted them as a means of applying additional pressure to the British government and so reaching the negotiated agreement he privately sought. By 1914, he had come to support Irish partition as a solution, fatalistically accepting that home rule was inevitable. By then his strategy had brought Ireland close to civil war.
Though Carson remained as unionist leader up to 1921, in wartime he spoke in favour of all-Ireland political institutions and structures, which lost him support in Ulster. Moreover, his energies were diverted into other areas. He played a significant role in the removal of Asquith as Prime Minister in 1916. During the conflict he also served in the British government, successively as Attorney General, First Lord of the Admiralty and in the War Cabinet. In 1919 he eagerly returned to his legal practice and he accepted a peerage in 1921. The Anglo-Irish Treaty (1921) was strongly criticised by him, but from a southern Irish unionist perspective. He died in 1935 and is buried in St. Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast. 'Northern Ireland provided him with a tomb, but not a home.'