This Ulster Volunteer Force had as yet no arms in their hands, but, as the first act of the Liberal Government on coming into power in 1906 had been to drop the “coercion” Act which prohibited the importation of firearms into Ireland, there was no reason why, in the course of time, the U.V.F. should not be fully armed with as complete an avoidance of illegality as that with which in the meantime they were acquiring some knowledge of military duties. But for the present they had to be content with wooden “dummy” rifles with which to learn their drill, an expedient which, as will be seen later on, excited the derisive mirth of the English Radical Press.
The application to the Belfast Justices for leave to drill the Orange Lodges was dated the 5th of January, 1912. For some months both before and after that date the formation of new battalions proceeded rapidly, so that by the summer of 1912 the force was of considerable strength and decent efficiency; but already in the autumn of 1911 it soon became apparent that the existence of such a force would give a backing to the Craigavon policy which nothing else could provide. At Craigavon the leader of the movement had foreshadowed the possibility of having to take charge of the government of those districts which the Loyalists could control. The U.V.F. made such control a practical proposition, and the consciousness of this throughout Ulster gave a solid reality to the movement which it must otherwise have lacked.
The special Commission of Five set to work immediately after the Craigavon meeting to carry out the task entrusted to them by the Council. But, as more than two years must elapse before the Home Rule Bill could become law under the Parliament Act, there was no immediate urgency in making arrangements for setting up the Provisional Government resolved upon by the Council on the 25th of September, 1911, and the outside public heard nothing about what was being done in the matter for many months to come.
Meantime the Ulster Loyalists watched with something akin to dismay the dissensions in the Unionist party in England over the question of Tariff Reform, which made impossible a united front against the revived attack on the Union, and woefully weakened the effective force of the Opposition both in Parliament and the country. Public opinion was diverted from the one thing that really mattered—had Englishmen been able to realise it—from an Imperial standpoint, no less than from the standpoint of Irish Loyalists. On the 8th of November, 1911, mainly in consequence of these dissensions, Mr. Balfour resigned the leadership of the Unionist Party. This event was regarded in Ulster as a calamity. Mr. Balfour was the ablest and most zealous living defender of the Union, and the great services he had rendered to the country during his memorable Chief Secretaryship were not forgotten. Ulstermen, in whose eyes the tariff question was of very subordinate importance, feared that no one could be found to take command of the Unionist forces comparable with the Achilles who, as they supposed, was now retiring to his tent.