The redoubtable William Johnston of Ballykilbeg was a legend in his own lifetime. A Co Down landlord, Johnston gave the name of his Ballykilbeg estate near Downpatrick and to the people of Sandy Row, the Shankill and Ballymacarrett he was an Orange and Protestant folk-hero second only to that other William of "glorious, pious and immortal memory".
Johnston, born on February 22, 1829, inherited Orangeism for his family was reputed to have played a forward role in the Glorious Revolution. His great-grandfather, William Johnston, of Killough, is credited with being the founder in 1733 of the first Orange Society in Ireland, the Loyal Society of Blue and Orange.
It was with such ancestry that William Johnston of Ballykilbeg joined the Orange Order on May 8, 1848, the same year in which he entered Trinity College, Dublin. From Trinity he was to graduate with a BA in 1852 and an MA in 1856. He was subsequently called to the Bar.
By the mid-1850s, Johnston was Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, had founded the Down Protestant Association and was the moving Spirit of the Downshire Protestant newspaper.
The year 1857 marked his first and unsuccessful bid to enter Parliament as the Member for Downpatrick. Despite this set-back, in the 1860s he emerged as the leading campaigner against the unpopular Party Processions Act of 1850. It was his opposition to this legislation which was to make William Johnston of Ballykilbeg a folk-hero.
The Party Processions Act had been passed by Lord John Russell's Liberal administration in response to the affray which had occurred at Dolly's Brae on July 12 of the previous year. The intention of the legislation was to ban Orange parades. While scarcely welcoming the legislation, the leadership of the Orange Order, being aristocratic and cautious, was anxious to remain within the law and was not racourably disposed to challenge it. However, rank and file Orangemen grew increasingly dissatisfied at what they believed to be their leadership's timid respectability.
Johnston shared the frustration of the rank and file and offered them alternative leadership. In July, 1866, he held a great jamboree on his estate to celebrate the Twelfth. Other Orange demonstrations were held that year at Lisburn, Kilwarlin, Waringstown, Lurgan, Portadown and Dungannon. Johnston decided to challenge the legislation directly.
On July 12, 1867 he led a massive but peaceful and orderly parade from Newtownards to Bangor in clear defiance of the Act. On his arrival in Bangor he made a speech boldly stating he and his followers would tolerate no longer the suggestion that it was illegal for Orangemen to march on the Twelfth when it seemed perfectly legal for Irish nationalists to march through the streets of Dublin. Contrary to the advice of their Chief Secretary for Ireland, the Conservative Government insisted on prosecuting Johnson for defying the Liberal-inspired legislation and at the Spring Assizes in February, 1868, Johnston was sentenced to two months imprisonment in Downpatrick Gaol. Johnston's martyrdom conferred upon him heroic status.
While he was in prison Johnston's supporters adopted him as the candidate of the United Protestant Working Men's Association of Ulster for the Belfast constituency in the forthcoming General Election. On July 12, 1868 with the election in prospect, Johnston engaged in some pre-electioneering: "We will have an Orange Party please God, after a while in the House of Commons ... for all the good some of the Ulster members do the Orange cause, they might as well have been selected from the Deaf and Dumb Institute".
Impressive With an easy command of such rhetoric and a populist programme drafted by the Rev Hugh ("Roaring") Hanna, Johnston humiliated the Conservative Party by heading the poll in the double-member constituency with an impressive 5,975 votes when the election took place in November. The two official Conservative candidates managed to poll only 3,540 and 1,580 respectively and were pushed into third and fourth place by Johnston's running mate, Thomas McClure.
The newly-enfranchised electorate had decisively endorsed Johnston and his opposition to the Party Processions Act. In 1863, the new Independent Conservative member for Belfast introduced a bill for the repeal of the act but was unsuccessful. However, in 1872 Gladstone's administration quietly repealed the offending legislation. Thus within three years Johnston saw realised the object for which he had sought election and entered parliament.
Although Johnston had been imprisoned by a Conservative administration and had in turn humiliated the Belfast Conservatives, he gravitated naturally towards the party. At Westminster he sat with the Conservatives. He frequently expressed his admiration for Benjamin Disraeli whom he had already described as a "genius" in an issue of the Downshire Protestant in June, 1862.
In the General election of 1874 he was adopted by the Belfast Conservatives as an official candidate and re-elected. In 1878 for his loyalty to the Party he was rewarded with an inspectorship of fisheries at £700 per annum. Since this was an office of profit under the Crown, he was obliged to leave the Commons. However, in 1885; following what was regarded as a partisan speech at the General Synod of the Church of Ireland in Dublin, he was dismissed by Gladstone's administration.
Fortuitously his dismissal made possible a return to politics and in November, 1885 Johnston was elected member of Parliament for South Belfast which he was to represent until his death. His re-appearance at Westminister coincided with Gladstone's conversion to Home Rule and it was Johnston's opposition to Home Rule which was to give coherence to the latter part of his political career. Both in 1886 and in 1893, he helped mobilise opinion and organise opposition to Gladstone's Home Rule bills.
He was involved in the organisation of both the great Ulster Hall rally of February 22, 1886 at which Lord Randolph Churchill was the principal speaker, and the Ulster Convention of June 17, 1892. William Johnston died at Ballykilbeg on July 17, 1902. He had travelled from London to open an Orange bazaar in Lurgan on July 10, and two days later attended the Twelfth celebrations at Ballynahinch. Most fittingly, it was his last public appearance because for William Johnston that day was the most important date in his calendar.
While William Johnston's principal claim to fame must be his successful opposition to the Party Processions Act and his assertion of the right of Orangemen to march, it is also worth noting that he was the author of several Orange ballads, including The Orange and Blue and The Orange Standard.