In June of the year 1895, the last government in the whole western world to possess all the attributes of aristocracy took office in England. The United Kingdom was at the zenith of empire when the Conservatives won the general election of that year, and the cabinet that they formed was one of great splendour and magnificence. As the superior citizens of the greatest empire the world had ever known and speaking the most powerful language on earth they felt they owed a duty to the state to guard its interests and manage its affairs. They governed from duty, from heritage, from habit and, as they saw it, from commitment to the rights of humankind.
The Prime Minister was a Marquis, the lineal descendant of the father and son who had been chief ministers to Elizabeth I and her successor James. Secretary for war was another Marquis who traced his title of Baron back to the year 1181, whose great-grandfather had been Prime Minister under George III and whose grandfather had served in six cabinets under three reigns.
The 1895 cabinet included Dukes, Earls, Counts, Barons and Baronets. Of six commoners, one was a Director of the Bank of England, one was a country squire whose family had represented the same county in Parliament since the sixteenth century, one had a fortune of four million pounds and the other a Birmingham manufacturer was widely regarded as the most wealthy and successful man in England. And yet they also, in the words of the liberal opposition, “possessed an almost embarrassing wealth of talent and capacity, for in England as nowhere else the proper and highest profession of gentlemen was government.”
They were a British Government of which Ulster was an integral part. The Prime Minister Lord Salisbury’s private secretary Sir Schomberg McDonald was a nephew of the Earl of Antrim. The Marquis of Dufferin and Ava, then British Ambassador of Paris in 1895, had taught himself Persian and noted in his diary that year that besides reading eleven plays of Aristotle in Greek, he had learned by heart, twenty four thousand words from the Persian dictionary. And it was during that period that the modern Unionist conscious was forged in the defining opposition to English liberal and Irish Nationalist plans for Home Rule.
Yet, only thirty years later those doubting opponents were identified with astounding losses and disaster. First of all the Titanic in 1912, then the Somme in 1916 followed by other Great War reversals which seemed to keep Home Rule at bay, as it were, largely by historical default. It may be that there are certain setbacks of such magnitude and heroism, in this case that of many of the passengers and crew of the Titanic (also remember that 68% of 1st class male passengers went down with the ship) and the retrospective sense of heroic intensity of local labour that went into the ship and the enormous losses of the 36th Ulster Division at the Somme, that they served to sustain and temper a people instead of weakening them.
Or else, perhaps the setbacks came to have an energising, emblematic power. Perhaps, it may be that the Somme and the loss of the Titanic have come to symbolise unconsciously the thwarted nationhood of the Ulster People. Perhaps at the level of community consciousness the foundering of the ship, the loss of the sons of Ulster and the founding of Northern Ireland were intertwined. The ship and the Battle became Northern Ireland. This was statelet which invited the pride in which it was fashioned. The supremely impressive Stormont Parliament Buildings and the splendidly reassuring Burgher Palace, the Belfast City Hall, came to be seen figuratively as stationary Titanics in danger of sinking by the chilling impersonal iceberg dynamics of Irish nationalism following partition. Both catastrophes proved to be more than a shock, rather a collective trauma, the collective wound of which over time became a community disturbance.
Such it was that Nationalists in Ulster rejected the emotional appeal of the Titanic story as they did heroism of the Somme and the other great battles of the Great War. In the case of the Titanic it is doubtful if this was due to the one hundred and thirteen third class Irish passengers the ship picked up on its last stop at Queenstown, now Cobh, two thirds of whom perished. The Titanic was not primarily an immigrant ship; rather the reason for rejection was ideological. The quarrel was with the Ulster Unionists rather than with the English policy makers in Ireland— for Nationalists it was caused by the creation of Northern Ireland itself.
We have now also suffered not only the Second World War and the Troubles. But our British heritage remains strong and I feel proud that this is being further strengthened by the healing of the fissure which has developed in recent years with the Conservative Party. I look forward to chairing this new Grand Unionist Centenary Committee , which will relive the circumstances under which our Community was born……Thank you.