Saunderson, Edward James (1837–1906), politician, was born 1 October 1837 at Castle Saunderson, Co. Cavan, the fourth son (there were also two daughters) of Alexander Saunderson (d. 1857), landlord, and his wife, Sarah Juliana (née Maxwell; d. 1870), eldest daughter of the Rev. Henry Maxwell, 6th Baron Farnham. The Saundersons were a family of Scots descent who had settled in Tyrone in the reign of James I and acquired estates in counties Cavan and Monaghan during the Cromwellian and Williamite confiscations. The family intermittently represented Cavan in the Irish and Westminster parliaments from 1692; Saunderson's grandfather, Francis, opposed the act of union, and the family boasted that he had declined the offer of a peerage to vote for it. Saunderson's eldest brother died young; the next two brothers were on bad terms with their dominant mother, who appears to have been responsible for the choice of her favourite son, Edward, as principal heir. He inherited 12,000 acres (mostly in Cavan, with just over 100 acres in Fermanagh); the rent roll was about £6,000 p.a. (The third son was left some Welsh property and the fifth son received a small estate in Cavan.)
Saunderson grew up at Nice, where his father settled in 1846 for health and financial reasons (the latter relating to non-payment of rent during the famine). He was educated privately by tutors, two of whom were Jesuits – one was dismissed for attempting to proselytise his pupils. Saunderson developed an intense evangelical anglican faith, fervently expressed in letters to his mother and wife; he liked to preach in the estate chapel, and three of his sermons were published posthumously. After Alexander Saunderson's death the Castle Saunderson estate was run by trustees until Edward reached the age of twenty-five; he spent the intervening years in southern England, developing his lifelong passion for yachting. He also had a talent for sketching, and illustrated his correspondence with caricatures.
On his return to Cavan, Saunderson took out a captain's commission in the Cavan militia, of which his father had been colonel; he was promoted major in 1875, lieutenant colonel in 1886, and full colonel in December 1891, and retired as commander of the corps in 1893. Hence he was generally referred to by contemporaries as ‘Colonel Saunderson’. He lacked administrative skills and did not exercise close supervision over the running of the estate, but was deeply attached to the demesne and the community of neighbouring landlords – he went yachting with the Ernes of Crom castle and his cousins the Maxwells of Farnham, who became his closest political allies. He formed part of a network of large landlord families stretching across south Ulster, linked by intermarriage and evangelical activism, which provided the leadership of Irish conservatism for much of the nineteenth century. The estate was notably solvent and Saunderson a fairly generous landlord: he employed many catholics and in 1879 the Freeman's Journal praised him for allowing tenants a 25 per cent rent rebate; but relations grew more tense in the later stages of his life.
Saunderson was elected liberal MP for Co. Cavan in 1865 and re-elected in 1868 (unopposed on both occasions). He was a largely silent member who made little impact. In general he can at this stage of his career be described as a conservative but not utterly intransigent Palmerstonian whig, who supported the 1870 land act as well as coercive legislation and displayed some sympathy for Adullamite opposition to parliamentary reform. His local popularity was considerably diminished when he voted against the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland (1869), trenchantly expressed his disbelief in transubstantiation during debates in the Church of Ireland synod (1873), and accused Bishop Thomas Nulty (qv) of conniving at murder because of the existence of Ribbonism in his Meath diocese (1871). In the 1874 general election Saunderson was defeated by two home rulers, Joseph Biggar (qv) and Charles Joseph Fay (1842–95), and thereafter home rulers monopolised the Cavan representation.
Saunderson retreated into private life for a time, but returned to politics in the early 1880s as the result of the land war. In 1882 he publicly announced his adherence to the Orange Order (which he had previously ridiculed as an organisation of people who enjoyed frightening their neighbours with big drums). He became a leading member of a group of Ulster landlords, whose figurehead was Lord Rossmore, who used the Orange Order to mount a loyalist counter-mobilisation against the National League; he was present at the Rosslea incident of December 1883, which resulted in Rossmore's dismissal from the magistracy for leading Orange demonstrators dangerously close to a nationalist meeting. In 1884 (with help from E. C. Houston, Richard Bagwell (qv), and others) Saunderson published a pamphlet, The two Irelands: loyalty versus treason, aimed at presenting a loyalist view of recent events and portraying the National League as inherently criminal and seditious, through quotations from members’ speeches. Although recognised as a prominent Orangeman, he preferred to take a secondary role at major demonstrations. His power was limited: he was not able to impose candidates on constituencies, and failed to gain the mid-Antrim conservative nomination against a well-entrenched sitting MP. He also encountered some residual suspicion because of his former liberalism (he occasionally described himself as a liberal unionist after 1886, and did not resign from the whig Brooks's Club until 1890 though he had joined the conservative Carlton in 1886).
The Ulster conservative mobilisation of the mid-1880s was directed not only against the nationalist threat but also against the perceived indifference of the British political establishment to Irish concerns. Saunderson frequently threatened that loyalists would undertake armed resistance if they were abandoned to their enemies; it is disputed how seriously these threats – which were repeated during the debates over the two home rule bills – should be treated. In 1885 Saunderson succeeded in obtaining the conservative nomination for North Armagh by harnessing Orange populist local support against the officially favoured contender, John Monroe.
After his return to parliament at the 1885 general election Saunderson emerged as leader of a group of Irish unionist MPs who emphasised their autonomy in the face of what they saw as temporising tactics by the conservative leadership. He now emerged as a significant though limited parliamentary personality, making vehement presentations of the Irish loyalist case to public meetings in Britain as well as in parliament (though he took little interest in the hard labour of scrutinising legislation in committee). Saunderson liked to contrast himself with the inarticulate Ulster tory MPs he had encountered during his earlier time in parliament, and privately claimed that God had raised him up to defend the righteous cause. Initially aligned with Lord Randolph Churchill, he moved closer to Salisbury as the struggle over Gladstonian home rule developed. (In 1912 Michael McCarthy (qv) claimed that Saunderson and Churchill had been involved in a confrontation when Churchill privately threatened to embrace home rule, but this is unsupported by Saunderson's contemporary correspondence and should not be given credence.) Saunderson presented himself as a party leader and therefore (nominally at least) the equal of Salisbury or Arthur Balfour (qv), and proved sufficiently useful for his allies to humour him: for example, they made him a British privy councillor in 1899 after he had turned down a place on the Irish privy council as insufficiently grand. His British role is symbolised by his appointment as Orange grand master of Scotland (1886–95), though to some extent this reflected not so much Saunderson's qualities as the unwillingness of Scottish grandees to identify with a plebeian organisation – Saunderson himself was dissatisfied with some aspects of Scottish Orangeism.
Although some accounts present his relations with Irish nationalist MPs as mildly affectionate, a real bitterness underlay his description of them as ‘eighty-six arguments against home rule’, and his comment that under an Irish parliament loyalists would indeed rise to ‘the highest positions’, but with a rope round their necks. Saunderson was quite prepared to act as a stage Irishman in order to reinforce his audiences’ perception that the Irish as a whole were unfit for self-government, and to make provocative remarks to nationalist MPs during commons debates in the hope that their reaction would discredit their claims to responsible citizenship.
After the home rule threat receded with unionist victory at the 1895 general election, Saunderson's leadership became increasingly nominal as he reverted from spokesman of a pan-unionist coalition to landlord representative, and his political activities centred on Westminster rather than Ulster. He regarded the conciliatory policies pursued by ‘constructive unionism’ as unfair to loyalists in general and landlords in particular. His desire to show that landlord interests could not be neglected with impunity made him one of the few Ulster unionists to ally with nationalist MPs in campaigning against the alleged over-taxation of Ireland after the release in 1896 of the Childers report on financial relations with Britain. From 1898 Saunderson was the only Ulster unionist MP who openly opposed compulsory land purchase. He was able to retain his seat, despite challenges from liberal tenant-farmer activists, because of urban support in Lurgan and Portadown: he cultivated the handloom weavers, whose livelihood was under threat, and backed industrial protectionism long before Chamberlain's declaration in favour of tariff reform. However, the absence of an immediate nationalist threat had a disruptive effect on the cross-class unionist coalition, and his attitude contributed to the tenant-farmer revolt led by T. W. Russell (qv), which severely disrupted Ulster unionism at the beginning of the twentieth century.
For populists such as T. H. Sloan (qv), Saunderson came to symbolise an effete and temporising official unionism. Sloan's secession from the Orange Order was precipitated by a confrontation with Saunderson in his role as county grand master of the Belfast Orange Order (1901–3) at the Belfast celebration on 12 July 1901, when Sloan wrongly accused Saunderson of failing to support the inspection of Irish convent laundries. In truth, Saunderson's anti-sacerdotalism made him sympathetic to such causes; he was on friendly terms with the anti-catholic polemicist Michael McCarthy and lent some support to McCarthy's unsuccessful attempt to win the unionist nomination for the marginal seat of St Stephen's Green in 1904.
Saunderson was a strong man but increasingly suffered some degree of physical frailty. In later years his health declined; he experienced repeated heart attacks and in 1905 underwent a major lung operation without anaesthetic. His convalescence led him to avoid attending the inaugural meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council, and his function as first chairman of that body was largely nominal. He died at Castle Saunderson 21 October 1906 from pneumonia contracted while yachting on Lough Erne. On 29 May 1910 a statue was unveiled at Portadown, symbolising his famous statement that ‘home rule may pass through parliament, but it will never pass the bridge at Portadown’; it became a local Orange icon and a tradition grew up of decorating it with a sash every 12 July.
Despite this local reputation Saunderson was overshadowed in unionist memory by Edward Carson (qv) and James Craig (qv), just as the landed south Ulster unionism he represented, while maintaining some political representatives, was eclipsed by a more professional movement centred on the business classes of east Ulster. His standing was not enhanced by the official biography by Reginald Lucas, which emphasised the humorous and flamboyant elements in his personality; in a later account of his life, Alvin Jackson, while emphasising his limitations, portrayed a more capable figure (at least in the early stages of the home rule conflict), haunted by a persistent sense of embattlement and probable defeat.
On 22 June 1865 Saunderson married Helena de Moleyns (d. 1926), daughter of Thomas, 3rd Baron Ventry; they had four sons and one daughter. Their eldest son, Somerset, briefly achieved political prominence in 1916, when he led an abortive attempt to rouse Cavan and Monaghan unionist opposition to Carson's acceptance of a proposed compromise based on six-county partition; he vacated the Castle Saunderson demesne because of IRA threats in 1920 and died in England in 1927. A younger son, Edward, became an Irish local government board inspector and exercised significant official influence for a short time in 1918–20 as private secretary to the lord lieutenant and as a supporter of hardline policy. A third son, Armar, contested the marginal East Tyrone seat against Thomas Kettle (qv) in January 1910. Kettle mocked his opponent's reliance on pedigree: ‘he has said so often that he is the son of Colonel Saunderson that I, for one, am inclined to believe him’. Saunderson's papers are in PRONI (Saunderson T/2996 and MIC/281).