It was the saddest hour the Ulster Unionist Council ever spent. Men not prone to emotion shed tears. It was the most poignant ordeal the Ulster leader ever passed through. But it was just one of those occasions when far-seeing statesmanship demands the ruthless silencing of promptings that spring from emotion. Many of those who on that terrible 12th of June were most torn by doubt as to the necessity for the decision arrived at, realised before long that their leader had never been guided by surer insight than in the counsel he gave them that day.
The Resolution adopted by the Council was a lengthy one. After reciting the unaltered attachment of Ulster to the Union, it placed on record the appeal that had been made by the Government on patriotic grounds for a settlement of the Irish difficulty, which the Council did not think it right at such a time of national emergency to resist; but it was careful to reserve, in case the negotiations should break down from any other cause, complete freedom to revert to “opposition to the whole policy of Home Rule for Ireland.”
Meantime the Nationalist leaders had been submitting Mr. Lloyd George’s proposals to their own people, and on the 10th of June Mr. Redmond made a speech in Dublin from which it appeared that he was submitting a very different proposal to that explained by Carson in Belfast. For Mr. Redmond told his Dublin audience that, while the Home Rule Act was to come into operation at once, the exclusion of the six counties was to be only for the period of the war and twelve months afterwards. That would, of course, have been even less favourable to Ulster than the terms offered by Mr. Asquith and rejected by Carson in March 1914. Exclusion for the period of the war meant nothing; it would have been useless to Ulster; it was no concession whatever; and Carson would have refused, as he did in 1914, even to submit it to the Unionist Council in Belfast. Mr. Lloyd George, who must have known this, had told him quite clearly that there was to be a “definite clean cut,” with no suggestion of a time limit. There was, however, an idea that after the war an Imperial Conference would be held, at which the whole constitutional relations of the component nations of the British Empire would be reviewed, and that the permanent status of Ireland would then come under reconsideration with the rest. In this sense the arrangement now proposed was spoken of as “provisional”; but both Mr. Lloyd George and the Prime Minister made it perfectly plain that the proposed exclusion of the six Ulster counties from Home Rule could never be reversed except by a fresh Act of Parliament.
But when the question was raised by Mr. Redmond in the House of Commons on the 24th of July, in a speech of marked moderation, he explained that he had understood the exclusion, like all the rest of the scheme, to be strictly “provisional,” with the consequence that it would come to an end automatically at the end of the specified period unless prolonged by new legislation; and he refused to respond to an earnest appeal by Mr. Asquith not to let slip this opportunity of obtaining, with the consent of the Unionist Party, immediate Home Rule for the greater part of Ireland, more especially as Mr. Redmond himself had disclaimed any desire to bring Ulster within the Home Rule jurisdiction without her own consent.