Kenneth Griffith perpetuates the myth that Edward Carson was a ranting reactionary and anti-Catholic bigot, citing, for example, his tough law and order record as a prosecutor in the Irish courts. But as a young lawyer, Carson also represented Irish Catholic tenant farmers against their landlords. Being a jobbing barrister, he appeared for landowners, too, but so successful was he in defending tenants that a delegation of Irish nationalists once petitioned him to stand for parliament. Carson declined.

After being called to the Bar in England, Carson took on the Establishment by representing a Catholic military cadet wrongly accused of theft and expelled from the Royal Naval College. The case became a cause clbre, and formed the basis of Terence Rattigan's play The Winslow Boy.

Griffith raises the old canard of the Oscar Wilde trial. As I suspect Griffith well knows, Carson played no part in Wilde's imprisonment. Carson did, however, defend the Marquis of Queensberry, who was being privately prosecuted by Wilde for criminal libel - it was the playwright who initiated the proceedings. By the time Wilde abandoned the prosecution, so much evidence about his private life had been brought into the public domain, including through his own testimony, that the police arrested Wilde. What Griffith does not acknowledge is that Carson tried behind the scenes to prevent the subsequent prosecution of Wilde, believing he had suffered enough through his public humiliation.

It is perfectly correct that Edward Carson was a true blue defender of the Union, who believed passionately that Ireland outside the Empire would become an inward-looking theocratic state. His support for the Ulster rebellion against home rule can be questioned (even Carson himself, far from being the strong man depicted by loyalist folklore, was riven with self-doubt). But a prototype Ian Paisley? Throughout his life, Carson supported the idea of a Catholic university in Ireland. And on relinquishing the Ulster Unionist leadership, he gave his colleague this advice about the new Northern Ireland state: "From the outset let us see that the Catholic minority have nothing to fear from Protestant majority. While maintaining our own religion, let us give the same rights to the religion of our neighbours."

If only they'd listened.

john draper

London N2