Historical Enquiry: Why did Unionists support Edward Carson?


This enquiry question focuses on Edward Carson as a key historical figure leader in the period 1910 -1914 and his legacy to assess the hypothesis that ‘Edward Carson was the uncrowned King of Ulster’.


The aim of this enquiry is to engage pupils with the complexity of causation in history. Teachers will decide on the level of detail and conceptual complexity appropriate to their pupils. The links below may be useful

  • How to carry out the enquiry process (PREZI presentation hyperlink)
  • Progression in Enquiry skills (hyperlink)

Overview of enquiry

In stage 1: students research the historical background to the enquiry

In stage 2: Students use a range of sources to examine information and sources to consider the nature and quality of Carson’s leadership.

In stage 3: Students use a range of sources to find out about the methods Carson used to get support in both Ireland and Britain.

In stage 4: Students examine the wider historical context and explore reasons why Unionists felt they needed to support Carson and the Ulster Volunteer Force.


Pupils examine images portraying Edward Carson and discuss the impression these images portray, for example;

  • Who do they think these images would appeal to at the time?
  • Who do they think these images would appeal to today?

They are then asked to focus on Carson’s statue at Stormont and consider:

  • Why might a person have a statue erected of them?
  • For what possible reasons was it placed outside Stormont?
  • Why do they think people want to remember Carson?
  • What do they think about Edward Carson at this stage? E.g. Do they think it likely that he was a good leader?

Teacher notes pupil perceptions on the board and remind students that their perceptions of people in the past have all been created for them by the images they have just used which have been created in the past for a purpose.

Stage 1 Beginning the enquiry

Pupils should research background information on:

  • The Act of Union of 1801 which made Ireland a part of the British Empire the challenges to British rule from Nationalists groups who wanted Irish independence and to leave the British Empire.
  • The anti-Home Rule challenge to British rule from the Ulster Unionists led by Edward Carson and why these plans got so much support in Ulster?

Stage 2: Exploring the hypothesis that ‘Edward Carson was the uncrowned King of Ulster’

For Unionists of his time and also today Edward Carson is the person who saved part of Ulster from Home Rule and is therefore considered by many as ‘the uncrowned King of Ulster’. Yet throughout his life his deeply held wish was that all of Ireland should remain within the British Empire. Why then did he end keeping only one part of Ireland – 6 counties of Ulster – as part of Britain?


1 What did people who lived at the time think about Edward Carson as a leader?

Teacher divides the class into groups and distributes copies of Resource 2: on Edward Carson’s career. Teacher reads the sources and answers any questions the students may have. Students are asked to examine the sources and find example of Carson being admired for being

  • having a distinguished career in law and politics
  • having a good public image(well known in the press)
  • Able to lead other people
  • Had widespread support for his ideas throughout his career.

Students work in pairs to match examples from the biographical information below with the following statements:

  • Carson was a skilful politician
  • Carson inspired people to support him as their leader.
  • Caron was prepared to support the use of force to stop Home Rule

Pair of students to share their findings with another pair and look for similarities and differences in their choices

The Career of Edward Carson

Edward Carson was a powerful politician, a renowned barrister and leader of the Ulster Unionists in 1912. Throughout his political career he was opposed to the introduction of Home Rule for Ireland. He was prepared to support military resistance to Home Rule, as in the slogan “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be Right”. in 1914 He supported the Ulster Volunteer Force and threatened to bring Ireland to the brink of civil war in his desire to save the Union.

  • In 1889, aged 35, Carson became the youngest QC (Queen’s Council) in Ireland. He progressed up the legal and social ladder because of his persuasive speaking abilities and by winning some high profile legal cases.
  • In 1902 Carson was appointed Solicitor General for Ireland and in the same year was elected to represent Trinity in the House of Commons. He moved his legal practice to England and there he established himself as one of the leading lawyers of this time.
  • In 1912 Carson accepted the invitation to become leader of the Irish Unionists dedicating himself to work for their cause “whatever may happen”
  • Carson addressed mass Unionist rallies against Home Rule throughout Ulster
  • In September 1911 he told 50,000 Unionists and Orangemen at a rally at James Craig’s house in Craigavon that the moment a Home Rule Bill would get passed they must be prepared to become responsible for the government of the province of Ulster,
  • On 28th September 1912 237,368 men signed the Ulster Covenant pledging to use “all means necessary” to defeat Home Rule. Carson was the first to sign.
  • In 1914 Carson supported the decision to import arms for the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) from Germany. In April 1914 25,000 guns were landed at Larne
  • During the First World War Carson held two important appointments:
    • from 1915 as Attorney General and
    • from 1917 as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1917.
  • In 1918, after the 1st World War had ended, Carson became MP for Belfast Duncairn
  • IN July 12th 1920 Carson rallied the Unionist cause by telling Orangemen on that the UVF would be called out if there was any threat to the Union.
  • In 1929 Carson retired from politics and he unveiled a statue of himself at Stormont on a large plinth with the inscription ”By the loyalists of Ulster as an expression of their love and admiration for their subject.”
  • Carson died in 1935. He was given a state funeral and was buried in St Anne’s Cathedral Belfast – the only person to be buried there.

Stage 3 Tactics

Students consider how each of the methods that Carson used to gain support would have helped his overall plan to keep all of Ireland within the British Empire. (It may be useful for students to use a cluster diagram to help organise their notes)

Students should first watch some film extracts about Carson on You tube or BritishPathe.com and then select details in the information and sources below which supports each of the following statements:

Between in 1912-1914 Edward Carson was taken seriously by:

  • the British Conservative Party.
  • the leader of the opposition John Redmond.
  • the media in 1912-1914


Friends In High Places?

On 9 April, the eve of the Third Home Rule Bill’s introduction, Carson addressed a mass demonstration at Balmoral in Belfast attended by 200,000 Unionists, including

  • contingents from the Orange Order and Unionists Clubs which marched from the city centre;
  • a large number of English and Scottish Conservative MPs; and
  • the new Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law.

In July, Law said at a rally in Britain “I can imagine no lengths of resistance to which Ulster can go in which I would not be prepared to support her.”(From left to right Walter Long Conservative MP, Lord Londonderry, Bonar Law and Carson.).

Carson’s and his campaigners in the Ulster Unionists realised how useful the media could be in struggle to resist Home Rule. His photograph appeared in newspapers and magazines such as Vanity Fair and he used the photo opportunities which the new moving images and films presented . Halfpenny postcards were also mass produced to spread political propaganda in Ireland and Britain.

John Redmond, leader of the Irish Nationalist Party represented at Westminster those who did not support Carson and the Ulster Unionists. Redmond believed in home rule or self government for Ireland but did not want Ireland to be totally independent from Britain.

Redmond underestimated the seriousness of the Unionist opposition to Home Rule. He believed that Carson was not serious about his threats to use violence and thought that eventually the militant behaviour would stop. He advised the British government to stand firm and make no concessions to the Unionists.

Students might summarise their learning using the matrix below and/or pull together all the key information (for example a mind map or a spider diagram) to reach their own conclusion about ‘why Unionists supported Edward Carson’.

HOME RULE Protect Union withBritain Protect Home Rule forIreland Protect theBritish Empire Protect Religious liberty Protect Ulster Unionist political ideas
Finish each of the statements in the boxes above with as many details as you can.  



Support forCarson?  

Stage 4 The wider context

Students examine the broader economic and religious context to identify reasons why so many Unionists in Ulster supported Carson in his attempts to stop Home Rule for Ireland and why Nationalists used the same tactics to gain Home Rule.

Belfast in the 1900s

  • In the century after the Act of Union in 1800 Ulster had flourished economically, compared to the rest of Ireland
  • Unionists believed that this was mainly due to Ireland being part of Britain
  • By the early 1900s Belfast had replaced Dublin as the biggest city in Ireland
  • Belfast had the largest shipbuilding industry at the time which, at its height, employed 30,000 workers and was Belfast’s biggest employer
  • Belfast also had significant engineering works and rope making industries.
  • However, Belfast had no raw materials and had to import supplies of steel, iron and or oil.
  • Unionists began to fear that under a Home Rule government the cost of importing the raw materials to Belfast would rise and that this would threaten the markets which Belfast needed to export its goods.
  • These economic arguments gained a lot of support from all sections of the Unionist community but especially in Ulster.
  • The Ulster Covenant claimed that Home Rule for Ireland ”would be disastrous to the well being of Ulster as well as the whole of Ireland.”

Home Rule is Rome Rule

  • The Ulster Covenant also claimed that Home Rule would threaten Unionist civil and religious liberty
  • Many Unionists believed that under a Home Rule parliament the Pope’s word would become law in Ireland.
  • Unionists felt justified in using whatever means necessary to stop what they regarded as a papist threat to their religion.
  • Ulster Protestants felt that Ulster had been loyal to the British Empire and that Ulster was owed a great debt for her loyalty.

The Orange Order

  • There were strong connections between the Protestant Orange Order and the Ulster Volunteer Force.
  • In 1911 some Orangemen began to arm themselves and train as an army.
  • In 1912 when the Third Home Rule Bill was introduced the Orange Order in Ulster supported Carson and Unionists in their resistance to the bill.


  • John Redmond leader of the Irish Nationalist party used democratic methods at Westminster to try to get Home Rule for Ireland.
  • By late 1913, some Nationalists were convinced that they too should form a paramilitary organisation to reinforce their demands for Home Rule and self-government.
  • They also wanted to exert additional pressure on the British government in the same way that Ulster Unionists had done by establishing the Ulster Volunteer Force.
  • The Irish Volunteers (IVF) were formed on 25th November 1913
  • By mid 1914 the IVF had 180,000 members.
  • If Ulster Unionists felt that it was wrong to have Home rule imposed on them then was it not equally wrong to allow them to deprive the rest of Ireland of Home Rule?


Carson’s historical significance

Students now examine what some modern historians thought about Edward Carson and which aspects of his career they have chosen to write about .Students will then decide if the historians ideas support or conflict with their own ideas.

Teacher sets up a line of continuum across the top of the classroom and labels one end SUCCESS and the other end FAILURE.

Teacher distributes copies of one source to each group and asks them to read the source carefully and then one student to come to the front of the class and place their source on the line of continuum. For example if the group feels the source tells them that Edward Carson was a poor leader they place their source at the FAILURE end and if they think their source tells them he was good leader then they place their source at the SUCCESS end of the line.

Teacher asks each group to justify the position of their source and gives the other groups opportunities to challenge the groups decision or to ask about anything they may want clarified.

Students to write up their conclusion about Edward Carson as a flow chart or spider diagram. The introduction and the start of the paragraphs are written for the students and they are asked to choose details from their notes to help them to complete each paragraph. When the process is finished teacher helps the class to pull their ideas together and to share their conclusions with each other. Teacher might model how a mind map is a useful tool to help structure information, develop key points, and make connections between them.

Students present their information. Feedback should focus on

  • How well they have answered the question
  • Evidence of the use of enquiry skills
  • Reflection, for example, on how and why their initial opinions may have changed as they progressed through each stage?
  • Communication of the information


Edward Carson had said that he wanted the whole of Ireland to stay under British rule but by threatening rebellion to block Home Rule he may have unintentionally introduced other groups to follow his example. Can the students begin to understand:

  • Why people in Ulster were getting more and more fearful about what they might lose under a Home Rule parliament?
  • Why Nationalists were becoming more extreme in their methods to get Home Rule for Ireland?
  • Why formerly democratic leaders can be drawn into actions which have consequences which they had never planned?

Students should find out what happened in Ireland between 1914-1918.

  • Did Home Rule get passed?
  • Why did Carson fail to keep the whole of Ireland in the British Empire?
  • What groups of people were now prepared to use violence to achieve their goals?


Now that they have some more information about Carson as a leader teacher gives students opportunities to revise/amend or change in any way the hypothesis they suggested in the first stage of the enquiry. Teacher asks the students what changes they have made and to justify the reasons for their choices. (It may also enliven the discussions if at this stage pupils are given opportunities to discuss what qualities they feel a leader at the time might have needed to have.)


  • What have learned about Edward Carson by using an enquiry approach?
  • Would you have preferred to learn about him by reading a textbook?
  • Why do you think Edward Carson is still important today?
  • Do you think we should continue to remember him in the same way or could he be remembered differently?
  • Do you think he deserves his statue in Stormont?
  • Why is it important to question what is portrayed about key figures in history ?