When Mr. Churchill spoke at Bradford on the 14th of March of “putting these grave matters to the proof” he was already deeply involved in what came to be known as “the plot against Ulster,” to which his words were doubtless an allusion. That plot may perhaps have originated at Mr. Lloyd George’s breakfast-table on the 11th, when he entertained Mr. Redmond, Mr. Dillon, Mr. Devlin, Mr. O’Connor, and the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Mr. Birrell; for on the same day it was decided to send a squadron of battleships with attendant cruisers and destroyers from the coast of Spain to Lamlash, in the Isle of Arran, opposite Belfast Lough; and a sub-committee of the Cabinet, consisting of Lord Crewe, Mr. Churchill, Colonel Seely, Mr. Birrell, and Sir John Simon, was appointed to deal with affairs connected with Ulster. This sub-committee held its first meeting the following day, and the next was the date of Mr. Churchill’s threatening speech at Bradford, with its reference to the prospect of bloodshed and of putting grave matters to the proof. Bearing in mind this sequence of events, it is not easy to credit the contention of the Government, after the plot had been discovered, that the despatch of the fleet to the neighbourhood of the Ulster coast had no connection with the other naval and military operations which immediately followed.
For on the 14th, while Churchill was travelling in the train to Bradford, Seely, the Secretary of State for War, was drafting a letter to Sir Arthur Paget, the Commander-in-Chief in Ireland, informing him of reports (it was never discovered where the reports, which were without the smallest foundation, came from) that attempts might be made “in various parts of Ireland by evil-disposed persons” to raid Government stores of arms and ammunition, and instructing the General to “take special precautions” to safeguard the military depots. It was added that “information shows that Armagh, Omagh, Carrickfergus, and Enniskillen are insufficiently guarded." It is permissible to wonder, if there was danger from evil-disposed persons “in various parts of Ireland,” from whom came the information that the places particularly needing reinforcements were a ring of strategically important towns round the outskirts of the loyalist counties of Ulster.
Whatever the source of the alleged “information”—whether it originated at Mr. Lloyd George’s breakfast-table or elsewhere—Seely evidently thought it alarmingly urgent, for within forty-eight hours he telegraphed to Paget asking for a reply before 8 a.m. next morning as to what steps he had taken, and ordering the General to come at once to London, bringing with him detailed plans. On the 16th Sir A. Paget telegraphed that he “had taken all available steps”; but, on second thoughts, he wrote on the 17th saying that there were sufficient troops at Enniskillen to guard the depot, that he was making a small increase to the detachment at Carrickfergus, and that, instead of strengthening the garrisons of Omagh and Armagh, the stores there were being removed—an operation that would take eight days. He explained his reason for this departure from instructions to be that such a movement of troops as had been ordered by the War Office would, “in the present state of the country, create intense excitement in Ulster and possibly precipitate a crisis."