Unionism in Ireland

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Hazards of separation from Britain. Unionist postcard 1912

Unionism in Ireland is a political tradition on the island that professes loyalty to the Crown and Constitution of the United Kingdom. The overwhelming sentiment of a once ascendant minority Protestant population, in the decades following Catholic Emancipation (1829) it mobilised to oppose the restoration of an Irish parliament. As "Ulster unionism," in the century since Partition (1921), its commitment has been to the retention within the United Kingdom of the six Ulster counties of Northern Ireland. Within the framework of a peace settlement for Northern Ireland, since 1998 unionists have reconciled to sharing office with Irish nationalists in a devolved administration, while continuing to rely on the connection with Great Britain to secure their cultural and economic interests.

Irish Unionism 1800-1904Edit

The Act of Union 1800Edit

Detail from The Battle of Ballynahinch 1798 by Thomas Robinson. Government Yeomanry prepare to hang a United Irish insurgent, Hugh McCulloch, a grocer.

In the last decades of the Kingdom of Ireland (1542-1800) Protestants in public life advanced themselves as "Irish patriots." Their patriotism focused upon an Ascendancy parliament in Dublin. Confined on a narrow franchise to communicants of the (Episcopalian) Church of Ireland, the parliament denied equal protection and public office both to Protestant "Dissenters" and to the Kingdom's dispossessed Roman Catholic majority. The high point of this parliamentary patriotism was the formation during the American War of Independence, of the Irish Volunteers and, as that militia drilled and paraded, the securing in 1782 of the parliament's legislative independence from British Privy Council in London.

In Presbyterian Ulster, where confident in their own numbers Protestants looked upon the Catholic interest with relative equanimity, combinations of tradesmen, merchants, and tenant farmers protested against a parliament that continued in the service of the Kingdom's greatest proprietors and of an executive in Dublin Castle still appointed, through the office of the Lord Lieutenant, by English ministers. Despairing of reform and emboldened by the French Revolution, these United Irishmen determined that "if the men of property will not support us, they must fall," and that if they were to fall that "Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter” should unite "to break the connection with England." Such Jacobin resolve was broken upon the wheel of their 1798 uprising, an insurrection joined in the south by Catholic peasantry.

The British government, that had had to deploy its own forces to suppress the rebellion and to turn back and defeat French intervention, resolved upon a Union. For the chief of Castle executive Lord Castlereagh, the principal merit of a bringing Ireland directly under the British constitution was a resolution of what was ultimately the key issue for the governance of the country, the Catholic question.:[1]

Linked with England, the Protestants, feeling less exposed, would be more confident and liberal; and the Catholics would have less inducement to look beyond that indulgence which is consistent with the security of our establishment.[2]

However, opposition from within this "establishment," and not least from the King, George III, obliged Castlereagh to defy what he saw as "the very logic of the Union."[3] The Union bill that, with a generous distribution of titles and emoluments, he put through the Irish Parliament omitted the provision for Catholic emancipation. A separate Irish executive in Dublin was retained, but representation, still wholly Protestant, was transferred to Westminster constituted as the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

In decades that followed the Act of Union (1800) Protestants of every sectarian persuasion and class reconciled to the loss of an Irish parliament. The legislative union with Great Britain was seen to not only to occasion their relative prosperity but, as the Roman Catholic majority in Ireland began to stir and gather in a new national movement, also to guarantee their "liberty."

Catholic Emancipation and the emergence of Nationalist IrelandEdit

Catholic Emancipation as a world turned upside down: held aloft, Daniel O'Connell promises whigs--symbol of Ascendancy rank and property--for "ye all."

It took the Union thirty years to deliver on the promise of Catholic Emancipation (1829)—to admit Catholics to Parliament--and permit an erosion of the Protestant monopoly on position and influence. An opportunity, had the Union been earlier "complete," to integrate Catholics through their re-emerging propertied and professional classes as a "dilute minority" may have passed. As it was, on the morrow of Emancipation it was clear they had chosen "another route." [4] In 1830, their champion, leader of the Catholic Association, Daniel O’Connell, invited Protestants to join in a campaign to "repeal" the Union and restore the Kingdom of Ireland under the Constitution of 1782.

Contending under that constitution with a parliament narrow and corrupt but whose historic jurisdiction they implicitly accepted, Dissenters had been content to invoke general democratic principle—those universal “Rights of Man and of the Citizen” drafted by Thomas Paine and proclaimed in 1789 by the French Constituent Assembly. Emancipated within the jurisdiction of the Westminster parliament, Catholics had to preface principle with the vindication of an historical right—of the Irish as “a people” deserving of a separate representation. Ireland was re-imagined as a political nation through popular history, balladry, and literature which chronicled the centuries-long resistance of "the Gael" and, when all else was lost, of the "dark days" of endurance under the Penal Laws.[5] Scarcely avoided was the suggestion that in this "story of the nation" Irish Protestants were, as John Banim (the "Walter Scott of Ireland") proposed, "half-countrymen."[6]

One response to this imputation of "foreignness" to Protestants was inscribed defiantly upon the Williamite banners of the marching Orange Order: "Derry, Aughrim, and the Boyne," "Sons of Conquerors." But short of embracing what Catholics viewed as Ascendancy "triumphalism," the difficulty for Protestants in orientating themselves to the national movement was acute. It was made more so by the reality that in the greater part of country the only element around which the movement could reliably build was the Catholic clergy.[7]

Protestant unity and the New ReformationEdit

1899 penny print of Henry Cooke's 1841 speech in "reply to Daniel O'Connell"

In an incident celebrated by unionists, in 1841, disdaining to engage a "bully . . . the Cock of the North," O’Connell refused the challenge of the then Moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly, Henry Cooke, to debate Repeal in Belfast.

Look at the town of Belfast. When I was myself a youth I remember it almost as a village. But what a glorious sight does it now present—the masted grove within our harbour—our mighty warehouses teeming with the wealth of every climate - our giant manufactories lifting themselves on every side...And all this we owe to the Union...Mr. O'Connell look at Belfast, and be a Repealer--if you can.[8]

A critic of the “lax” (Unitarian) theology he believed had indulged the republicanism of the 1790s, Cooke had emerged as an early evangelist for a New or Second Reformation. This was a revivalist movement that owed much to Ulster-Presbyterian ministries in the United States (from where Cooke received his doctorate). The belief it carried in personal empowerment through faith was to lend itself in Ireland to a politically-charged prosperity gospel. In The Mystery Solved: or, Ireland's Miseries; the Grand Cause and Cure, a work that caused a "sensation" on its publication in 1852 (a copy was sent to every member of Parliament, and one was "graciously accepted" by Queen Victoria), Dr. Edward Marcus Dill, a "General missionary agent" of the Presbyterian Assembly, argued that the poverty of Catholic Ireland was rooted, not in a history of political disability, but in a counterfeit faith.[9]

Venture the supposition that Romanism is false and Protestantism is true, and like some dissected map the most shapeless part of Ireland's puzzle falls into its place in a moment. Observe how its unfolds every mystery in our physical and moral state: and explains why the 'Black North' is a garden, and the 'Sunny South' a wilderness; why southern jails are crowded and northern ones half empty . . . Mark how its solves our political enigmas; shows why Ulster flourishes and Munster declines beneath the same law[10]

Accused of seeking proselytising advantage in hunger and distress, Dill's "home mission" of preaching the gospel to the Irish peasantry was the subject of bitter Catholic commentary.[11] The Catholic Church itself responded with its own "devotional revolution" and an "Hiberno-Roman" mission that, under the direction of Cardinal Archbishop Paul Cullen, was ultimately extended through Britain to the entire English-speaking world.[12]

Victim of this polarisation of Protestant-Catholic relations were the proposals of the Castle to provide Ireland--"in advance of anything available at that time in England"--a system of grant-aided non-denominational education.[13] In 1830, when the proposal was for primary schools, Cooke, at once scented danger to the Protestant interest. He persuaded the Presbyterian Synod to independently organise schools in which there could be no "mutilating of scripture."[14] The Catholic hierarchy reciprocated in 1845, denouncing a similar scheme for tertiary education, the Queen's Colleges, as "dangerous to the faith and morals of the people."[15]

To the Presbyterian home mission Cooke lent his enthusiasm for preaching in the Irish language, but he saw in the new evangelism occasion to advance a more immediate purpose, "Protestant unity." It had been a newly installed Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, William Magee, who in 1822 had first declared the absolute necessity for a "Second Reformation," and Methodists had engaged in the subsequent "Bible War."[16] The central revivalist commitment to personal witness through Jesus Christ did appear to transcend the ecclesiastical differences between Protestants[17] at a time—so Cooke insisted—of supreme political peril.[18]

In 1834, at a mass demonstration hosted upon his estate by the 3rd Marquess of Downshire, a disillusioned “Emancipationist”, Cooke proposed a “Christian marriage” between the two main Protestant denominations. It would be a union of “forbearance where they may differ” but of “cooperation in all matters [of] common safety.”[19]

Most Presbyterians, at the time, were not as “forebearing” as Cooke would have wished. They continued to baulk at the Ascendancy's high Tory politics and patronage of the Orange Order. With other Nonconformists, at election Presbyterians tended to favour Whigs (notwithstanding their dalliance with O'Connell) or, as they later emerged tenant-rights Liberals.[20] But Cooke's “marriage banns” were “a portent of the future.” Their call for a pan-Protestant alliance resonated from the moment it was clear that nationalists, where they had failed to persuade in Ulster, were beginning to succeed in England.

The Irish party challenge at WestminsterEdit

William Gladstone writing legislation under pressure from the Land League. Caricature 1881.

In December 1885, the Liberal Party leader William Ewart Gladstone announced his conversion to a compromise that had been prepared by O’Connell prior to his death in 1847. Ireland would have a measure of “home rule” within the United Kingdom.

Up to, and through, the great starvation, the Irish Famine, of the 1840s, successive governments, Whig and Tory, had maintained a studied indifference to the systemic consequences in Ireland of peasant dispossession and unchecked landlordism. The issues of a low-level agrarian war came to Westminster in 1852. In a direct challenge to the landed-interest Irish Conservative Party, what the Young Irelander Gavan Duffy optimistically described as the “League of North and South” returned 50 tenant-rights MPs. For unionism the more momentous challenge lay in the wake of the 1867 Reform Act. In Great Britain it produced an electorate that no longer identified instinctively with the landed interest. In Ireland, where it more than doubled in size, in 1874 the electorate returned 59 Members for the Home Rule League who were to sit as the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP). Of these, only two were returned from Ulster (from the border county of Cavan): "Ulster protestants, as a body, were as strongly opposed to home rule as they had been to repeal."[21]

The Home Rule League was led nonetheless by the son of a Church of Ireland rector and an Ulsterman. Isaac Butt had been seduced from his commitments to the Conservative Party and Orange Order by the failure of the Union to give famine-stricken Cork the relief that he believed would have been given Cornwall. In the British House of Commons Butt was seconded by another maverick from the north, a Catholic convert, Joseph Biggar. Biggar led an aggressive form of obstructionism that deliberately courted the judgement that as a body the IPP was “practically foreign” and “valued its place in the House only as a means of making itself so-disagreeable as to obtain its release.”[22]

Gladstone in his first ministry (1868-1874) attempted conciliation. In 1869 the Church of Ireland was disestablished and in 1870 a Land Act acknowledged for the first time a political responsibility for agrarian conditions. But spurred by the collapse of agricultural prices in the Long Depression, the Land War intensified. From 1879 it was organised by the direct-action Irish National Land League, led by another of Butt's lieutenants (and who, like Butt, bestowed upon the Nationalist movement "a deceptively ecumenical air") the southern (albeit half-American) Protestant Charles Stewart Parnell.[23] As late as 1881 Gladstone resorted (over a 41-hour filibuster by IPP) to a Coercion Act allowing for arbitrary arrest and detention in protection of “person and property.”

The final and decisive shift in favour of constitutional concessions came in the wake of the Third Reform Act of 1884. The near-universal admission to the suffrage of male heads of household tripled the electorate in Ireland. The 1885 election returned an IPP of 85 Members (including 17 from Catholic-majority areas of Ulster), marshalled now under the leadership of Parnell. Gladstone, whose Liberals lost all 15 of their Irish seats, was able to form his second ministry only with their Commons support.

Reaction to Gladstone’s Home Rule BillsEdit

"God Save the Queen" "Erin Go Bragh" Ulster Unionist Convention, Belfast, 1892

The Government of Ireland Bill that Gladstone tabled in June 1886 incorporated what he imagined were assurances for Unionism. The 200 or so popularly elected members of the “Irish Legislative Body” would sit in session with 28 Irish Peers and a further 75 Members elected on a highly restrictive property franchise. The anticipated result might have been rough nationalist-unionist parity.

What was clear to unionists was that Ireland was being put out of the United Kingdom. The “Imperial Parliament” in London would retain sovereignty (“devolving” powers to Dublin) but no Irish representation. What was proposed was a proximate restoration of the constitution of the Kingdom of Ireland as it had existed before 1782—a colonial legislature in Dublin with an executive accountable to London through the Lord Lieutenant. But it was with arrangements for representation in Ireland on terms, and in an era, that unionists feared could only march in one direction--toward majority rule and total separation.

The alarm among Protestants appeared to surmount all previous distinctions of party or class and, in addition to express fears of "Rome Rule," spoke to their growing material concerns. These were not only those of the existential struggles in the countryside over land and rent. The upper and middle classes found in Britain and the Empire "a wide range of profitable careers--in the army, in the public services, in commerce--from which they might be shut out if the link between Ireland and Great Britain were weakened or severed."[24] That same link was critical for all those engaged in the great export industries of the North--textiles, engineering, shipbuilding--for whom the Irish hinterland was less present than Clydeside or the North of England.

For Protestant workers there was the concern that Home Rule would force accommodation of the growing numbers of Catholics arriving at mill and factory gates from the outlying country and western districts. While the plentiful supply of cheap labour helped attract the English and Scottish capital that employed them, Protestant workers organised to protect “their” jobs (a function performed in the skilled trades by the apprenticeship system) and tied housing. The once largely rural Orange Order was given a renewed lease and mandate.[25] The pattern, in itself, was not unique to Belfast or its satellites. Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool and other British centres experiencing heavy Irish immigration developed similar nativist, and even Orange, ward and workplace politics[26]--to which Irish Unionists made conscious appeal.[27]

Gladstone's own party was split on Home Rule and the House divided against the measure. People were already battling on the streets when the news reached Belfast. The rumour among unionists was that the rioting, which took upwards of fifty lives, had been triggered when a group of Catholic navvies, anticipating the Bill's passage, pushed a Protestant out of their dock, warning him that "neither he nor any of his sort should get leave to work there, or earn a loaf there or any other place."[28]

In 1891 Ulster's Liberal Unionists, part of larger Liberal break with Gladstone, entered the Irish Unionist Alliance and at Westminster took the Conservative whip.

In 1892, despite bitter division, in which the Catholic hierarchy took a heavy hand, over the personally-compromised leadership of Parnell, the Nationalists were able to help Gladstone to a third ministry. The result was a second Home Rule bill. It was greeted by an Ulster opposition more highly developed and better organised.

A great Ulster Unionist Convention was held in Belfast organised by the Liberal Unionist Thomas Sinclair, in earlier years "an articulate critic of the Orange Ascendancy."[29] Speakers and observers dwelt on the diversity of creed, class and party represented among the 12,300 delegates attending. As reported by the Northern Whig there were "the old tenant-righters of the 'sixties' . . . the sturdy reformers of Antrim. . . the Unitarians of Down, always progressive in their politics . . . the old-fashioned Tories of the Counties . . . modern Conservatives . . . Orangemen . . . All these various elements--Whig, Liberal, Radical, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Unitarian and Methodist . . united as one man."[30]

While references to Catholics were conciliatory the Convention resolved:

to retain unchanged our present position as an integral portion of the United Kingdom, and protest in the most unequivocal manner against the passage of any measure that would rob us of out inheritance in the Imperial Parliament, under the protection of which our capital has been invested and our home and rights safeguarded; that we record out determination to have nothing to do with a Parliament certain to be controlled by men responsible for the crime and outrage of the Land League . . . many of whom have shown themselves the ready instrument of clerical domination.[31]

After mammoth parliamentary sessions the bill, which did allow for Irish MPs, was passed by a narrow majority in the Commons but went down to defeat in the overwhelmingly Conservative House of Lords. The Conservatives formed a new ministry.

Constructive UnionismEdit

Flag of the Congested Districts Board for Ireland, 1893–1907

The new Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, who had expressed the view that "free representative institutions" are best confined to "people who are of Teutonic race," believed his government should "leave Home Rule sleeping the sleep of the unjust."[32] Irish Conservatives applauded when in 1887 Dublin Castle was given standing power to suspend habeas corpus. However, as Chief Secretary for Ireland, his nephew Gerald Balfour, determined upon a “constructive” course, pursuing reforms intended, as some saw it, to “kill home rule with kindness.”

For the express purpose of relieving poverty and reducing emigration, in the “congested districts” of the west Balfour initiated a programme not only of public works, but of subsidy for local craft industries. A new Department of Agriculture and Technical instruction broke with the traditions of Irish Boards by announcing that its aim was to "be in touch with public opinion of the classes whom its work concerns, and to rely largely for its success upon their active assistance and co-operation."[33] It supported and encouraged dairy cooperatives, the "creameries" that were to be an important institution in the emergence of a new class of independent smallholders.[34]

Greater reform followed when, with the support of the splinter Liberal Unionist Party, Salisbury returned to office in 1895. The Land Act of 1896 introduced for the first time the principle of compulsory sale to tenants, through its application was limited to bankrupt estates. “You would suppose,” said Sir Edward Carson, Dublin barrister and the leading spokesman for Irish Conservatives, “that the Government were revolutionists verging on Socialism.”.[35] Having been first obliged to surrender their hold on local government (transferred at a stroke in 1898 to democratically-elected councils), the old landlord class had the terms of their retirement fixed by the Wyndham Land Act of 1903. They had ceased to be an effective social or political influence.

"The Ulster Option" 1905-1920Edit

"The democracy of Ulster"Edit

Unionist march in Belfast, 9 April 1912

In 1905 the Ulster Unionist Council was established to represent all shades of unionism in the north. Until then, unionism had largely placed itself behind those of Anglo-Irish landed interest that appeared to have the greatest pull at Westminster. The UUC still accorded a degree of precedence to aristocracy. Castlereagh's descendant and former Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the Marquess of Londonderry presided over its Executive (and Lady Londonderry over the Ulster Women's Unionist Council). The Council also retained the services of Carson, from 1892 MP for Trinity College, Dublin. But marshalled by Captain James Craig, a millionaire director of Belfast's Dunville Whiskey, it was northern employers who were undertaking the real political and organisational work.

The manufacturers and merchants of Belfast and neighbouring industrial districts were, for the most part, of farming and Presbyterian stock and had little natural sympathy for the old landed interest.[36] Crucially, while southern landowners had been politically at war with their tenants, northern employers could count on voting with the majority of their own workforce. For Nationalists this was a matter employers playing "the Orange card." Employers did look to sectarian division to weaken labour protest, although Orangemen could not always be relied upon. In the great Belfast Dock strike of 1907, the syndicalist leader James Larkin was able to engage the support of the Independent Orange Order.[37] (In 1903 its founder, Tom Sloan, had been the only Unionist MP to vote for the Miners' Eight Hour bill).

Loyalist workers were conscious, and resentful, of the imputation that they were the retainers of “big-house unionists.” A manifesto signed in the spring of 1914 by two thousand labour men, on behalf of the only “fully organised and articulate” trade unionists in Ireland, repudiated the suggestion of the radical and socialist press that Ulster was being manipulated by “an aristocratic plot.” If Sir Edward Carson led in the battle for the Union it was “because we, the workers, the people, the democracy of Ulster, have chosen him.” Chairman of the Boilermakers’ Society, J. Hanna, insisted that it was as the “freemen and as members of the greatest democracy in Great Britain and Ireland, the organised trade unions of the country,” that “they would not have Home Rule.”[38]

The difficulty for nationalists and for those, like James Connolly, who believed that class solidarity should draw workers down the path of national independence, was that without having to break political ranks with their employers, workers were beginning to see that “greatest democracy” was paying dividends. Thanks to the legislative union, in whose defence Unionists among them effectively voted Conservative, workers in Ireland were able to benefit from the majorities found “across the water” for labour and social reform-—under the a Liberal-majority government from 1906, for the Trade Disputes Act 1906, for the National Insurance Act 1911 and for the “People's Budget 1911.  

The nationalist cause in the industrial North was not helped by those who suggested that collective bargaining, social security and progressive taxation were principles for which majorities would not be as readily found in a Dublin Parliament. Objecting to an “inefficient and extravagant government . . . which had no parallel in Europe,” Sinn Fein President Arthur Griffith proposed that “imperialism and socialism—forms of the cosmopolitan heresy and in essence one—have offered man the material world. Nationalism has offered him a free soul[39] For Ulster workers, as for Ulster employers, there was interest and calculation in a common Unionism.

In an open letter to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, in 1918 Edward Carson wrote:[40]

The Ulstermen of to-day, forming as they do the chief industrial community in Ireland, are as devoted adherents to the cause of democratic freedom as were their forefathers in the eighteenth century. But the experience of a century of social and economic progress under the legislative Union with Great Britain has convinced them that under no other system of government could more complete liberty be enjoyed by the Irish people."

Unionism and women's suffrageEdit

Isabella Todd, Unionist, Suffragist. 1836-1896

At what was to be the high point of mobilisation in Ulster against Home Rule, the "Covenant Campaign" of September 1912, the Unionist leadership decided that men alone could not attest to the determination of the Unionist people to defend "their equal citizenship in the United Kingdom." Women were asked, not to sign the Covenant, whose commitment to "all means which may be found necessary" implied a readiness to bear arms, but to "associate" themselves "with the men of Ulster" through their own Declaration. A total of 234,046 women signed the Ulster Women's Declaration; 237,368 men signed the Solemn League and Covenant.[41]

Unionist women had been involved in political campaigning from the time of the first Home Rule Bill in 1886. Some were active suffragettes. Isabella Tod, an anti-Home Rule Liberal and campaigner for girls education, was an early pioneer. In 1873 she founded the Northern Irish branch of the National Society for Women's Suffrage. Later, while still based in Belfast, this became the Irish Women's Suffrage Society publishing the weekly The Irish Citizen.[42]

Not all IWSS Unionists were impressed by the Women's Declaration. Elizabeth McCracken, a regular contributor to The Irish Citizen and the Belfast News Letter noted the failure Unionist women to formulate "any demand on their own behalf or that of their own sex."[43] The Declaration, nonetheless, was a political affirmation of intent by women, organised and publicly staged by women--the Ulster Women's Unionist Council. Founded in January 1911, by 1913, with well over 100,000 members, the UWUC was the largest women's political group in Ireland.

Determined to "sink all differences in favour of the Union," the UWUC avoided public comment on the suffrage question. But for many women signing the Council's Declaration was a first taste of political involvement. In September 1913 it appeared that the Unionist Council had determined it should not be their last. The Council informed the UWUC that "the draft articles" for a Provisional Government to be set up in the event of Home Rule being legislated "include the franchise for women."[44] The Irish Parliamentary Party made no such commitment for a Dublin parliament. In contrast to Ulster Unionists who divided, in 1912 the Nationalists had voted as a block against a "Conciliation" Bill that would have conceded the principle of women suffrage, albeit on a highly restrictive property basis.[45]

In the spring in 1914, seeming to over rule Craig whom The Irish Citizen noted had "always supported suffragist measures in parliament," Carson made it clear he could not commit his party on so contentious an issue as votes for women.[46] Dorothy Evans of the militant Women's Social and Political Union declared that as Carson had proved himself "no friend of women" the WSPU was ending "the truce we have held in Ulster." In the months that followed, together with Elizabeth Bell, the first woman in Ireland to qualify as a doctor and gynaecologist, McCracken was implicated in a series of arson attacks on Unionist-owned buildings and on male recreational and sports facilities.[47] In July 1914, in a plan hatched with Evans, Lillian Metge bombed Lisburn Cathedral.[48]

In August 1914, following the lead of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst in Britain, unionist suffragists suspended their agitation for the duration of the European war.

The 1912 Home Rule CrisisEdit

An Orange Order banner showing Carson the signing of the Ulster Covenant 1912

In 1911 a Liberal administration was once again dependent on Irish nationalist MPs. In 1912 the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, introduced the Third Home Rule Bill. A more generous dispensation than the earlier bills, it would, for the first time, have given an Irish parliament an accountable executive. It was carried in the Commons by a majority of ten. As expected, it was defeated in the Lords, but as result of the crisis engendered by the opposition of the peers to the 1909 People's Budget the Lords now only had the power of delay. Home Rule would become law in 1914.

From the outset there had been discussion of giving “an option to Ulster.” In response to the First Home rule Bill in 1886, “Radical Unionists”—Liberals who proposed federalising the relationship between all countries of the United Kingdom—argued that “the Protestant part of Ulster should receive special treatment . . . on grounds identical with those that support the general contention for Home Rule” [49] In Ulster there was no interest in the federalists’ idea of a Belfast legislature, but the riposte to nationalists remained. In summarising The Case Against Home Rule (1912), L. S. Amery argued that against “every argument that can justify three million Nationalists asserting their national idea over a million Unionists“ is “the stubborn fact that if Irish Nationalism constitutes a nation, then Ulster is a nation too.” [50]

Faced with the eventual enactment of Home Rule, Carson appeared to press the point. On 28 September 1912, ‘Ulster Day’ he was the first to sign, in Belfast City Hall, Ulster's Solemn League and Covenant[51] binding its signatories “to stand by one another in defending for ourselves and our children our position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom, and in using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland.” (The historic reference, widely understood, was to the sixteenth-century Scottish Covenants that had bound Presbyterians to defend in arms their reformed faith)

In January 1913, Carson declared for the exclusion of Ulster and called for the enlistment of up to 100,000 Covenanters as drilled and armed Ulster Volunteers. On September 23rd, the second Ulster Day, he accepted Chairmanship of a Provisional Government, elaborately organised by Craig. If Home Rule were imposed “we will be governed as a conquered community and nothing else.” [52]

For Carson and for other southern Unionists the object of the gamble on Ulster—with the surety of support from British Conservatives and possibly, following the incident at Curragh, in the Army—was to out manoeuvre both the Government and the Nationalists, so as to retain Ireland as a whole under the direct authority of the Crown in Westminster. Ulster excluding itself from the jurisdiction of a Dublin Parliament was the threat, but if “an option” for Ulster was all that was achieved, it would have been--as Carson later accounted it--a defeat.[53]

For Unionists in the North, the integrity of Ireland within the United Kingdom was not an existential issue. With the signing of the Covenant and the creation of the Provisional government, northern Protestants had effectively "proclaimed themselves a people apart from the rest of Ireland, and decreed the exclusion of Unionists, as well as Nationalists, who had the misfortune to reside on the wrong bank of the Boyne.” The differences in class between the two sections of Unionism were complicated by the unresolved differences of creed. One of the arguments that was now employed behind the scenes for the exclusion of a smaller enclave of six, rather than the full nine, Ulster counties is that it would possess not merely a Protestant but a Presbyterian majority.[54]

Economic differences also made for separation. Agricultural Ulster, and Belfast as a distribution centre, might have important links with the south and west of the country. But the major industries, textiles, shipbuilding and engineering brought those they engaged into routine contact, not with Limerick, Cork or even Dublin, but with Glasgow, Liverpool and London. An Irish partition would not involve the potential loss of a valued hinterland, entrepôt or market.

Ultimately, as recalled by the man celebrated for landing German guns for Ulster Volunteers, Major Frederick H. Crawford, the decision on the Ulster Unionist Council was that “we could not dictate to the rest of Ireland.” Beyond the Protestant pale in Ulster there was simply no hope of rescuing Unionist brethren from the strength of the demand for Home Rule and from the British sympathy it engaged.

I moved a resolution that in future our policy be confined to Ulster . . . This very naturally caused dismay among the Unionists of the South and West but when we asked them for an alternative they could suggest no alternative.[55][56]


The 1918 general election result in Ireland. Sinn Fein sweeps the south and west

With the Nationalists seeking to match the Ulster Volunteers by drilling and arming of National Volunteers, in July 1914 King George V called the parties to a conference of Buckingham Palace. The IPP leader John Redmond insisted that if any part of Ireland was to be excluded from Dublin's jurisdiction it should only be those limited areas in the north-east with clear Unionist majorities. Carson, still seeking the leverage that might induce Nationalists to settle on terms more conducive to the continued sovereignty of the Crown in Westminster, insisted on a “clean cut” for the whole nine counties of Ulster. If this was done generously, he suggested that Ulster might, in time, “come in.” For a few days the conference, in words of Winston Churchill, “toiled round the muddy byways of Fermanagh and Tyrone” and no amending bill was agreed.[57]

On August 4th 1914, the United Kingdom declared war on Germany. A few weeks later the Home Rule bill received Royal Assent but with implementation suspended for the duration of European hostilities. With the issue of exclusion unresolved, leaders on both sides entered into a rival solicitation of Government favour by committing themselves, and their volunteers, to the war effort. Having, on the eve of war, been under growing pressure to set up his Provisional Government, Carson declared that “England difficulty is not Ulster’s opportunity . . . We do not seeks to purchase terms by selling our patriotism.”[58]

That, however, was how Redmond's position came to be perceived on the nationalist side. Seizing upon “England difficulty,” contingents of republican Irish Volunteers and Connolly's Citizen Army, ensured that while Irishmen, at Redmond's urging, were sacrificing themselves for the sake of “Catholic Belgium,” Britain could be seen on the streets of Dublin in Easter 1916 suppressing an Irish “strike for freedom.” In the aftermath of the Rising and in the course of a national campaign against military conscription, the IPP ‘s capital was exhausted.[59][60]

Sensing an opportunity, at the hastily arranged Irish Convention in Dublin in 1917, the Southern unionists' leader Lord Middleton offered the beleaguered IPP the immediate establishment of an all-Ireland parliament that, among other guarantees for unionists, would split fiscal powers with Westminster and surrender any ambition for an independent tariff policy. But the decision of the Lloyd George and his Cabinet to simultaneously introduce conscription to Ireland--in effect, to make the first order of an Irish government cooperation in the impressment of men for the Western Front--ruined the credibility of the proposal with nationalists[61] and spelt the end of Home Rule as a popular cause.[62] Ulster Unionists remained committed to "exclusion."

In February 1918, Carson, pressed by Lloyd George for concessions, returned to the Radical Unionist scheme of the 1880s. He proposed a United Kingdom federation of England, Scotland, Ulster and the South of Ireland. But the plan evoked no nationalist response.[63]

In the "Khaki election" of December 1918, the first Westminster poll since 1910 and the first with all adult males and women from age thirty eligible to vote (the electorate tripled), the IPP was almost wholly replaced in nationalist constituencies by Sinn Féin. Acting on their mandate, Sinn Féin MPs met in Dublin in January 1919 as the Dáil Éireann, the national assembly, of the Republic declared in 1916 and demanded that the "English garrison" evacuate. In the six north-east counties the Unionists took 22 out of 29 seats, with Carson, wary of "Bolshevik" sedition, having taken the additional precaution of running candidates in Belfast as Labour Unionists.

Violence against Catholics in Belfast, driven out of workplaces and attacked in their districts, and a boycott of Belfast goods, accompanied by looting and destruction, in the South, helped consolidate "real partition, spiritual and voluntary"[64] in advance of the constitutional partition. This otherwise uncompromising Republicans recognised was, at least for now, inevitable. In August 1920 Éamon de Valera, President of Dáil, declared in favour of "giving each county power to vote itself out of the Republic if it so wished."[65]

As they battled with the Republic in the South and West, the British Government, in the hope of brokering a compromise that might yet hold Ireland within the jurisdiction of the “Imperial Parliament,” proceeded with the Government of Ireland Act 1920. This provided for two subordinate parliaments. In Belfast a “Northern Ireland” parliament would convene for the six rather than nine Ulster counties (in three, Craig conceded, Sinn Féiners would make government "absolutely impossible for us"). The island's remaining twenty-six counties, "Southern Ireland," would be represented in Dublin. In a joint Council, the two parliaments would be free to enter into all-Ireland arrangements.

In 1921, elections for these parliaments were duly held. But in "Southern Ireland" this was for parliament which, by British agreement, would now constitute itself as the Dáil Éireann of the Irish Free State. Under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the twenty-six counties were to have the "same constitutional status in the Community of Nations known as the British Empire as the Dominion of Canada."[66] It was not clear to all parties at the time—civil war ensued—but this was de facto independence.

Unionists in Northern Ireland thus found themselves in the unanticipated and unsought position of having to work a constitutional arrangement that was the “by-product of the desperate attempt by British statesmen” to reconcile “the determination of the Protestant population of the North to remain firmly and without qualification within the United Kingdom” with the aspirations of the Nationalist majority in Ireland for Irish unity and independence.[67]

Writing to Lloyd George, Craig did insist that its was only as "a supreme sacrifice in the interest of peace" that the North had accepted a home-rule arrangement "not asked for by her representatives."[68] No regret, however, was evident when addressing Belfast shipyard workers. Once Unionists had their own parliament, Craig assured the workers, "no power on earth would ever be able to touch them."[69]

Ulster Unionism in the Stormont years: 1921-1972Edit

Northern Ireland as a "partial victory"Edit

Unionists have emphasised that their victory in the Home Rule struggle was "partial." It was not only that twenty-six of thirty-two Irish counties were lost to the Union, but that within the six retained unionists were "unable to make the British government in London fully acknowledge their full and unequivocal membership of the United Kingdom."[70] Even while paying "lip-service" to the proposition, successive British governments failed to act on the principle that Northern Ireland is "an integral part of the United Kingdom."[71]

Although formally constituted by the decision of the six-county Parliament elected in 1920 to opt out of Irish Free State, the Government of Northern Ireland was nonetheless dressed in the trappings of the Canada-style dominion status accorded to the new state in the South. Belfast, like Ottawa, had a two-chamber Parliament, a Cabinet and Prime Minister (Sir James Craig), and the Crown represented by a Governor (the Duke of Abercorn) and advised by a Privy Council. All this was suggestive, not a devolved administration within the United Kingdom, but of a state constituted under the Crown outside the direct jurisdiction of the Westminster parliament.

The impression that Ireland as a whole was being removed from the orbit of Westminster politics was reinforced by refusal of the parties of Government and Opposition to organise, or canvass for votes, in the six counties.[72] The Conservatives were content that Ulster Unionist Party MPs took their party whip in the House of Commons where, by general agreement, matters within the competence of the Belfast Parliament could not be raised. The Labour Party formed its first (minority) government in 1924 led by a man who in 1905 had been the election agent in North Belfast for the trade-unionist William Walker, Ramsey MacDonald.[73] In 1907 MacDonald's party had held their first party conference in Belfast. Yet, at the height of the Home Rule Crisis in 1913, the British Labour Party had decided not stand against Irish Labour, and in their determination to defer to Irish parties they were to prove unyielding.[74]

There was little incentive for unionists in Northern Ireland to assume the risks of splitting ranks in order to reproduce the dynamic of Westminster politics. Despite its broad legislative powers, the Belfast Parliament did not, in any case, have the kinds of tax and spending powers that might have engendered that kind of party competition. For all its crown-in-parliament pretension and, from 1932, the grandeur of its Buildings at Stormont, the Northern Ireland Parliament was "effectively dependant for supply on the Parliament at Westminster."[75] The principal sources of government revenue, income and corporation taxes, customs and excise, were entirely beyond Belfast's control.[76]

The one unambiguous remit of the Belfast parliament was precisely that in which the Gladstone Home Rule bills had sought to limit a Dublin parliament: internal "law and order." Unionists argue that these were "responsibilities thrust upon them":

[U]nionists leaders had no desire to "dominate" Catholics in the pursuit of loyalist self-determination. As Lord Carson argued in the House of Commons . . ., unionists never asked to govern any Ulster Catholic but were perfectly happy that both Protestants and Catholics should be governed from Westminster. The strongest foundation for the good government of Ulster, he argued, was the fact that Westminster was aloof from the religious and racial distinction of its inhabitants.[77]

Catholics were a third of the population in the six counties: a minority in four, Antrim, Londonderry, Down and Armagh, and a majority in two, Fermanagh and Tyrone. Carson was apprehensive, fearing that with a separate parliament sectarianism could be the only basis for politics. In 1921 he reminded Craig and other Unionist leaders: "We used to say that we could not trust an Irish parliament in Dublin to do justice to the Protestant minority. Let us take care that that reproach can no longer be made against your parliament, and from the outset let them see that the Catholic minority have nothing to fear from a Protestant majority."[78]

On the edge of the UnionEdit

An Orange Order banner dedicated to the Ulster Special Constabulary. 2007

In retirement in London Carson confided to the historian Sir Charles Petrie his disillusionment with Belfast politics: "I fought to keep Ulster part of the United Kingdom, but Stormont is turning her into a second-class Dominion."[79] Yet in the first critical years of the new Northern Ireland administration, Carson had stood with other Unionist leaders in urging measures that were both resented by nationalists and poorly understood or appreciated in Great Britain.

One of the first act of Northern Ireland legislature was to overturn a British attempt to maximise the representation of a minority-populated "centre ground." In 1919 proportional representation (PR) had been prescribed for all Irish elections. In the January 1920 urban council elections in Ulster preference voting assisted nationalists to the control of 21 of 45 townships, including Omagh, Newry and "what was the greatest blow to Unionist pride", Derry.[80] In Belfast, where under the old first-past-the-post system Unionists had taken 52 of 60 council seats, under PR the nationalists were able to take ten, although perhaps "most disturbing to Carson and his followers" was the success of twelve labour candidates (ten for the independent Belfast Labour Party).[81] In the county, and rural district, council elections that followed in June 1920 nationalists took control of two of the six counties (Fermanagh and, for the first time Tyrone) and 36 of the 55 districts.

The twelve anti-partitionist MPs returned in May 1921 to the fifty-two member Northern parliament refused to take their seats. They joined nationalist councillors, and large numbers of Catholic school officials and teachers, in pledging themselves to Dublin. At the annual 12th of July Orange celebrations Carson denounced those who elected swore allegiance to the Republic and vowed that Ulster would "tolerate no Sinn Féin organisation or methods" within its border. At the same time, he declared that "real object" of the independent Labour movement was "to bring about disunity among our people."[82]

The 1922 Local Government Act that restored the winner-take-all voting system also authorised the N.I. Minister of Home Affairs to rearrange local government constituencies. Unionists dispute that this led to a systematic policy of gerrymander. In what is generally cited as the most egregious example, Derry, from 1923 a "nationalist city" with a Unionist council, they point to the low turnout among a dispirited and abstentionist nationalist electorate, and among Catholics voting to the comparatively strong support for labour candidates.[83] But a generation later, in 1968 when nationalists were taking to the streets of the city, the veteran Unionist MP and former Northern Ireland Attorney General Edmunnd Warnock advised the then Prime Minister Terence O'Neill that "If ever a community had a right to demonstrate against a denial of civil rights, Derry is the finest example." Warnock confessed to his own role in the "manipulation of ward boundaries for the sole purpose of retaining unionist control". Consulting with Craig he had been told that "the fate of our constitution was on a knife edge at that time, and in the circumstances it was defensible."[84][85]

The "knife-edge" fate of the constitution was a pretext for much else that, rightly or wrongly, came to characterise the unionist dispensation in Northern Ireland not only for nationalists but also, when forced again to attend to the Irish Question, for British opinion. The Royal Ulster Constabulary, the rump of the old RIC, was reinforced by a re-mobilised  Special Constabulary. It was an almost entirely Protestant force, an excuse the nationalists alleged for arming Orangemen. A 1922 Special Powers Act gave the Northern Ireland Home Affairs Minister discretionary powers to direct the RUC and Specials as his agents in searches, arrests, detentions, and proscriptions. Despite of loyalist provocations these were directed almost exclusively at nationalists[86] (left-wing "agitators" were a target of later exclusion orders).[87]  Unionists were to protest that such powers were no more controversial or divisive "than the existence of the Government itself"--and less draconian than those the Dublin government had seen fit to exercise in defence of the Free State[88]

The first extensive use of "special powers" followed the IRA assassination in May 1922 of the Unionist (NI) MP for West Belfast William J. Twaddell. A string of decrees followed: internment of 500 suspects, a province-wide curfew and flogging as "special punishment."[89] In 1922 in Northern Ireland a total of 232 people were killed, including four other Unionist MPs. Nearly a thousand were wounded.[90] The Civil War in the South drew away men, material and support for the IRA in the North. In 1925 Craig and the Southern premier William Cosgrave resolved the unsettling issue of border adjustment by agreeing to respect the county boundaries.

Unionists argue that the extent discrimination against Catholics was "absurdly exaggerated",[91] and that many Catholics preferred "second-class citizenship to working for the government".[92][93] But that there was Protestant preferment in public employment they acknowledge citing mitigating circumstances. The discrimination, they argue, was not one sided: few Protestants were employed by nationalist-controlled councils or indeed in Catholic-owned businesses. But ultimately they insist that "some element of preference [was] likely to be given to Protestants [because] so many Catholics withheld support from the state and were no unnaturally regarded as security risks."[94] Nationalists recall statements by Sir Edward Archdale, Northern Ireland's first Minister of Agriculture, "apologising that as many as 4 of 109 officials in his ministry were Catholics,"[95] and of the future prime minister Basil Brooke (Lord Brookeborough) labelling 97 per cent of Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland as "disloyal and disruptive."[96] No allowance was made for the reluctance of the minority to serve a "foreign" government. Loyalty oaths were required.

Stormont governmentEdit

The statue of Lord Edward Carson in front of Parliament Buildings, Stormont

"The safety of the State" may have been, as Sir James Craig maintained, "the supreme law" in Northern Ireland.[97] But by the time the parliament had moved out of the Presbyterian Church's Assembly's College and into its new buildings at Stormont in 1932, "the state" was to outward appearances secure.

In 1932 unemployment had climbed to 28 percent. When the Belfast Board of Guardians refused assistance to many of the rapidly increasing number of applicants for Outdoor Relief, Catholics and Protestants joined in mass demonstrations that, accompanied by considerable disorder, secured a doubling of the relief. For many on left the victory kept alive "the hope that class — rather than national or sectarian — loyalties" might become a "decisive force in Irish politics"--hopes of a kind that, in the previous century, had centred on the struggle for tenant rights.[98] However, when in this expectation the Revolutionary workers Group (Communist Party of Ireland) took to the streets in 1935 they found themselves rolled over in bitter sectarian rioting.[99] While the Outdoor Relief protests had expressed a measure of working-class disaffection with an "out-of-touch" Unionist leadership that spilled beyond control of the UUP's in-house Ulster Unionist Labour Association, it did not fundamentally alter "the expectations the Protestant masses had of 'their' state."[100]

Despite the efforts in the forties of such singular figures as writer and anti-conscription campaigner Denis Ireland, and the IRA "Protestant squad" leader John Graham, to "recapture for Ulster Protestants their true tradition as Irishmen,"[101] Protestants did not find occasion to revisit the "constitutional question." The Second World War "in many ways . . . strengthened and fulfilled unionist identification with Britain and by the same token hardened their attitude to their Catholic fellow citizens who had not, and could not have in their view, shared the experience of drawing together." At the same time the relative prosperity induced by wartime food and armaments production helped further "differentiate the North from the South" turning "citizenship in each of the part of Ireland into different experiences."[102]

For Unionists, democracy in Northern Ireland effectively meant rule by one party. Their members were returned to Stormont, for the most part, without contest. The Nationalist Party did not take their seats during the first Stormont parliament (1921–25), and did not accept the role of Opposition for a further forty years.[103] Proclaimed by Craig a "Protestant parliament",[104] and with a "substantial and assured" Unionist-Party majority[105] the Stormont legislature did not, in any case, play a significant role. Real power "lay with the regional government itself and its administration": a structure "run by a very small number of individuals." Between 1921 and 1939 only twelve people served in cabinet, some continuously.[106]

The Unionist regime did hazard an early reform. Consistent with the obligation under the Government of Ireland Act to neither establish nor endow a religion, a 1923 Education Act provided that in schools religious instruction would only be permitted after school hours and with parental consent. Lord Londonderry, as Minister of Education, owned that his ambition was mixed Protestant-Catholic education. In a reprise of the reception of Dublin-Castle National Schools proposal a century before, a coalition of Protestant clerics, school principals and Orangemen insisted on the imperative of bible teaching. Craig relented, amending the act in 1925. Meanwhile, the Catholic hierarchy refused to transfer any schools, and would not allow male Catholic student teachers to enrol in a common training college with Protestants or women.[107] In the North (as in the South) a pillar of sectarian division, the school-age segregation of Protestants and Catholics, was sustained.

In looking to the post-war future, the Unionist Government under Basil Brooke (Lord Brookeborough) did make two reform commitments. First, it promised a programme of "slum clearance" and public housing construction (in the wake of the Belfast Blitz the authorities acknowledged that much of the housing stock had been "uninhabitable" before the war). Second, the Government accepted an offer from London--understood as a reward for the province's wartime service--to match the parity in taxation between Northern Ireland and Great Britain with parity in the services delivered. What Northern Ireland might loose in autonomy, it was going to gain in a closer, more equal, Union. Since the Belfast government could not in any case control the tax implications, it seemed that they could only welcome British financial support for the public spending that would follow.[108]

By the 1960s Unionism was administering something at odds with the conservatism of those to whom leadership had been conceded in the resistance to Irish Home Rule. Under the impetus of the post-War Labour government in Britain, and thanks to the generosity of British exchequer, Northern Ireland had emerged with an advanced welfare state. The Education Act (NI), 1947, "revolutionised access" to secondary and further education. Catholic grant-aided schools were fully funded, and a school transfer test (the Eleven Plus) enabled qualifying students to receive a grammar-school education irrespective of background or circumstances. Health-care provision was expanded and re-organised on the model of the National Health Service in Great Britain to ensure universal access. The Victorian-era Poor Law, sustained after 1921, was replaced with a comprehensive system of social-security. Under the Housing Act (NI) 1945 the public subvention for new home construction was even greater, proportionately, than in England and Wales. The distinction between rural and urban housing was abolished, and local councils become housing authorities.[109]

1960s: reform and protestEdit

In the 1960s, under premiership of Terence O'Neill, Ulster Unionism was led through seeming economic-policy successes into a political crisis that upended the 1921 devolved constitution. A scion of a landed family (brought Up partly in Abyssinia and partly at Eton) and, like all contenders for his position, a member of the Orange Order, O'Neill was the unlikely champion of a technocratic approach to government that was impatient with what he decried as "ancient hatreds."[110]

Recognising the decline of the province's Victorian-era industries, under O'Neill the Stormont administration intensified its efforts to attract outside capital. Investment in new infrastructure, training schemes coordinated with trade unions, and direct grants succeeded in attracting American, British and continental firms (some of these introducing into the one time linenopolis artificial fibres). In its own terms, the strategy was a success: the level of manufacturing employment was better than sustained. Yet Protestant workers and local Unionist leadership were unsettled. Unlike the established family firms and skilled-trades apprenticeships that had been "a backbone of unionism and protestant privilege," the new companies readily employed Catholics and women.[111]

Unionist unease was particularly acute in Derry and the west.[112] Already in 1956 O'Neill's predecessor, Lord Brookborough, had received a delegation "on industries" from Derry Unionists "anxious that we not get an invasion from the other side."[113] When Derry lost out to Coleraine for siting of the New University of Ulster, and to Lurgan and Portadown for a new urban-industrial development, some "from the other side" suspected a wider conspiracy. Speaking to Labour MPs in London, John Hume suggested that "the plan" was "to develop the strongly Unionist-Belfast-Coleraine-Portadown triangle and to cause a migration from West to East Ulster, redistributing and scattering the minority to that the Unionist Party will not only maintain but strengthen its position."[114]

Hume, a teacher from Derry, presented himself as a spokesman for an emerging "third force": a "generation of younger Catholics in the North" frustrated with a "flags and slogans" nationalism whose seeming indifference to "the general welfare of Northern Ireland" had made "the task of Unionist ascendancy simpler." Determined to engage the "great social problems of housing, unemployment and emigration", these new "political wanderers" were willing to acknowledge that "the Protestant tradition in the North is as strong and as legitimate" as their own (if "a man wishes Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom [that] does not necessarily make him a bigot or a discriminator") and that Irish unity, "if it is to come," could be achieved only "by the will of the Northern majority."[115] Although they appeared to meet Unionists half way, Hume and those who joined him in what he proposed would be "the emergence of normal politics" presented the Unionist government with a new challenge. Drawing on the struggle for black equality in the United States, they spoke a language of universal rights that had an international resonance far beyond that of the particularist claims of Irish nationalism.

Since 1964, the Campaign for Social Justice had been collating and publicising evidence of discrimination in employment and housing. From April 1967 the cause was taken up by the Belfast-based Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. Seeking to "challenge . . . by more vigorous action than Parliamentary questions and newspaper controversy," NICRA decided to carry out a programme of marches.[116]

"Resembling a traditional nationalist parade" (complete with renditions of The Soldiers Song), the first march sponsored by NICRA in August 1968 into Dungannon went off comparatively peacefully. The second march was organised in October by the Derry Housing Action Committee. The march was to cross the River Foyle, from one side of Derry to the other "symbolising that the marchers were not sectarian,"[117] When a sectarian confrontation threatened--the Apprentice Boys of Derry announced their intention to march the same route--the NICRA executive was in favour of calling it off. But DHAC pressed ahead with activist Eamon McCann conceding that the "conscious, if unspoken strategy, was to provoke the police into overreaction and thus spark off mass reaction against the authorities."[118]. A later official inquiry suggests that, in the event (and as witnessed by three Westminster Labour MPs), all that had been required for police to begin "using their batons indiscriminately" was defiance of the initial order to disperse.[119] The day ended with street battles in Derry's Catholic Bogside area. For the first time in decades Northern Ireland was making British and international headlines--and television news.

Opposition to O'NeillEdit

O'Neill -Lemass meeting 1965. Irish commemorative postage stamp, 2015

O'Neill had not disguised an ambition to bring the politics as well as the economy of Northern Ireland "into the twentieth century." In January 1965, at O'Neill personal invitation, the taoiseach Sean Lemass (whose government was pursuing a similar "modernising" agenda in the South) made an unheralded visit to Stormont. After O'Neill reciprocated with a visit to Dublin, the Nationalists were persuaded, for the first time, to assume the role at Stormont of Her Majesty's Opposition. With this and other conciliatory gestures (unprecedented visits to a Catholic hospitals and schools, flying the Union flag at half mast for the death of Pope John XXIII) O'Neill incurred the wrath of those he understood as "self-styled 'loyalists' who see moderation as treason, and decency as weakness,"[120] among these the Reverend Ian Paisley.

As Moderator of his own Free Presbyterian Church, and at a time when he believed mainline presbyteries were being led down a "Roman road" by the Irish Council of Churches, Paisley saw himself treading in the path of the "greatest son" of Irish Presbyterianism, Dr. Henry Cooke.[121] Like Cooke, Paisley was alert to ecumenicism "both political and ecclesiastical." After the Lemass meeting, Paisely announced that "the Ecumenists . . . are selling us out. Every Ulster Protestant must unflinchingly resist these leaders and let it be known in no uncertain manner that they will not sit idly by as these modern Lundies pursue their policy of treachery." Paisley had his own ideas of a "third force" in Ulster politics. He had been one of the founders of Ulster Protestant Action (UPA). Organised in 1956 to defend Protestant areas against anticipated Irish Republican Army (IRA) activity.[122][123] the UPA promoted and defended Protestant claims to housing and employment.[124][125]

Not only for the Paisleyites but for many within his own party O'Neills "policy of treachery" was confirmed when in December 1968 he sacked his hard-line Minister of Home Affairs, William Craig and proceeded with a reform package that addressed many of NICRA's demands. There was to be a needs-based points system for public housing; an ombudsman to investigate citizen grievances; universal franchise in council elections ("One man, one vote"); and The Londonderry Corporation was suspended and replaced by Development Commission. The Special Powers Act was to be reviewed.

At a Downing Street summit on 4 November, Harold Wilson had warned O'Neill that his government could not "tolerate a situation in which the liberalising trend was being retarded rather than accelerate," and that if that were the case they might "feel compelled to propose a radical course involving the complete liquidation of all financial agreement with Northern Ireland." The British Prime Minister muttered darkly about how, with British subsidy, the major Belfast employers, Shorts, the aircraft manufacturer, and Harland and Wolff, the shipyard, "had become a kind of soup kitchen."[126]

With members of his cabinet urging him to call Wilson's "bluff," and facing a Backbencher motion of no-confidence, in January 1969 O'Neill called a general election. Having reminded his television audience that under the Government of Ireland Act 1920 "the supreme authority of the Parliament of the United Kingdom [remained] unaffected and undiminished over all persons, matters and things" in Northern Ireland, O'Neill employed the talking points supplied by Wilson.

I make no apology for the financial and economic support we have received from Britain. As a part of the United Kingdom we have always considered this to be our right. But we cannot be a part of the United Kingdom merely when it suits us. And those who talk so glibly about acts of impoverished defiance do not know or care what is at stake. Your job if you are a worker at Shorts or Harland and Wolff; your subsidies if you are a farmer; your pension if you are retired; all these aspects of our life, and many others depend on support from Britain. Is a freedom to pursue the un-Christian path of communal strife and sectarian bitterness really more importent to you than all the benefits of the British Welfare state?[127]

O'Neill, who in Belfast personally canvassed Catholic households,[128] did not get from the traditional Unionist vote the answer he had sought. The UUP effectively split. "Pro-O'Neill" candidates picked up Liberal and Labour votes but won only a plurality of seats. In his own constituency of Bannside, from which he had previously been returned unopposed, the Prime Minister was humiliated by achieving only a narrow victory over Paisely standing as a Protestant Unionist. On 28 April 1969, O'Neill resigned.

O'Neill's position had been weakened when, focused on demands not conceded (redrawing of electoral boundaries, immediate repeal of the Special Power Act and disbandment of the Special Constabulary), republicans and left-wing students disregarded appeals from within NICRA and Hume's Derry Citizens Action Committee to suspend protest.[129] On 4 January 1969 People's Democracy marchers en route from Belfast to Derry were ambushed and beaten by loyalists, including off-duty Specials, at Burntollet Bridge[130][131] That night, there was renewed street fighting in the Bogside. From behind barricades, residents declared "Free Derry", briefly Northern Ireland's first security-force "no-go area".[132]

Tensions had been further heightened in the days before O'Neill's resignation when a number of explosions at electricity and water installations were attributed to the IRA. The later Scarman Tribunal established that the "outrages" were "the work of Protestant extremists . . . anxious to undermine confidence" in O'Neill's leadership.[133] (The bombers, styling themselves "the Ulster Volunteer Force," had announced their presence in 1966 with a series of sectarian killings).[134][135] The IRA did go into action on the night of 20/21 April, bombing ten post offices in Belfast in an attempt to draw the RUC away from Derry where there was again serious violence.[136]

O'Neill's parting judgement, bitterly contested by his critics who were convinced of the rising republican threat, typically focused on economic opportunity forgone: "We had all the benefits of belonging to a large economy, which were denied to the Republic of Ireland, but we threw it all away in trying to maintain an impossible position of Protestant ascendancy at any price".[137].

Unionist perspectives on The TroublesEdit

All parties to the 1998 Belfast Agreement dedicate themselves in its preamble to "the achievement of reconciliations, tolerance and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all." For many, particularly outside observers, the assumption was that the path to reconciliations, tolerance and mutual trust would run through the protection and vindication of rights. This rights-based perspective drew on what, internationally, proved to be the most compelling account of a conflict that over thirty years took more than 3,600 lives, and injured and bereaved many thousands more. This places at the heart of the conflict the movement for the "civil rights of the Catholic/Nationalist community."[138] It is the belief that many in that community came to support or acquiesce in the Republican return to "physical force" in 1970-71 because, in the words of Eamonn McCann, the notion that it was possible to achieve full citizenship within the North "was beaten out of people's heads by the cops and their semi-official auxiliaries."[139][140]

As an account of The Troubles, this is consistent with the broad support that the two main nationalist parties expressed for the provision in the Agreement for a possible Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. As a party that "has its origins in the civil rights movement", Hume's Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) maintained that it had "been a consistent voice [often the solitary voice] calling for effective protection of the human rights of all."[141] As the Provisional IRA began to explore a negotiated settlement with the British government, they too laid claim to the civil rights legacy. Already in the mid-1980s Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams was pointing to the involvement of the Wolf Tone Clubs in NICRA, and arguing that human rights had always been an integral part of the republican struggle.[142]

Given that it appears to extenuate the republican resort to terrorism, Unionists have tended to reject the civil-rights account of the Troubles in almost every particular. in the late 1960s Paisley was not alone is dismissing talk of civil rights as much "cant" behind which stood preparations for a renewed armed campaign.[143] There was broad Unionist belief that the civil rights movement's demand for "simple justice" or, as was often presented in the metropolitan press, for "British standards", was "largely a charade," and that what was really "going on" was a "modern version of the old battle between nationalities."[144]

While they might concede "that several abuses of normal civil right did occur under the Stormont government", unionists argue that nationalists greatly exaggerated their impact upon the Catholic community.[145][146] Paul Kingsley's frequently cited "loyalist analysis of the Civil Rights controversy" maintains that, to the limited extent they occurred, the abuses protested by NICRA were as nothing compared to the profounder disadvantages for Catholic community represented by the nationalist policy of non-participation in public affairs ("much of the blame must fall on those who behaved as if they were not citizens at all")[147] and by the "structural" characteristics of low social status, of larger families and lower education attainment.[148][149]

The real interest behind the agitation for civil rights in Kingsley's account, is the social and political ambition of an emergent Catholic middle class (beneficiaries of the 1947 Education Act). Through the polemic of civil rights those who wished to pursue careers in law, public administration and elective office found release from the self-denying nationalist ordinances of non-recognition and abstention. They could represent themselves "as people who were heroically breaking down the barriers of discrimination: the promoters of Catholic group interests rather than traitors to the cause." "The political necessity to find a way to get the Catholic middle class into positions of influence," Kingsley argues, "meant that the discrimination argument had to be brought to the fore".[150]

If not from the outset, then by the summer of 1968 as republicans and left-wing militants took the initiative, "civil rights leaders" also came to realise the ability of their campaign "to convince the British government of the moral superiority of the Catholics position", and to "win changed which would be of symbolic importance." These in turn would "undermine Unionist self-confidence, and open the way for further demands".[151] On the street this was the calculation that urged a strategy of tension: provoking violent reactions from an ill-prepared police force and the "entirely predictable" and--Kingsley and other unionist commentators[152] allow--"ill disciplined" and "ferocious", intrusions into the picture of Protestant mobs, ever anxious to lend the authorities a hand in teaching "the rebels" a lesson. If inadvertently, the civil-rights agitation fostered the perceptions of deteriorating security and legitimacy that contributed not only to the introduction of British troops (August 1969) but also, over the course of 1970-71, to the ascendancy within IRA-Sinn Féin of an ultra-nationalist "Provisional" wing committed to a return to republicanism's "physical force" tradition.[153][154]

Unionists viewed Provisionals' interpretation of that physical-force tradition as ruthlessly sectarian. Attacks on "Crown forces" and their supporting infrastructure, gave the Provisional IRA a broad field to target Protestants: locally recruited soldiers of the Ulster Defence Regiment/Royal Irish Regiment (successors to the Specials), members of the judiciary and prison services and base ancillary workers in areas such as construction and food services. In border areas the policy was viewed as "ethnic cleansing", targeting Protestant farmers who, in the interest of community protection, were part-time members of the UDR-RIR, or who were seeking to buy land in what PIRA deemed to be "nationalist" territory.[155][156][157] There were also the so-called "Baedeker raids": bombing "the heart out of small [largely Protestant] provincial towns", viewed as an attempt not only to make the cost of compensation prohibitive for the British government, but also "to break the spirit of the Unionist population."[158]

The charge that the Provisional IRA (PIRA) discriminated with religious bias, and that they actively targeted Protestant civilians has been broadly challenged. But it is allowed that "the PIRA were either unable or unwilling to recognise the gap between the actual impact of their 'armed struggle' and the intentions that lay behind it."[159]

British "equivocation" and the imposition of direct ruleEdit

To the extent they acknowledge inequities in Unionist rule from Stormont--in latter years, Paisley did allow "it wasn't . . a fair government. It wasn't justice for all"[160]--unionists argue that the responsibility ultimately lay with the failure of the government in London to acknowledge "their full and unequivocal membership of the United Kingdom."  

After 1920 unionists were cast back upon their own resources. They depended on their capacities and strength of political will alone to ensure Northern Ireland remained a part of the Union. What ensued was a dialectic of stubborn self-righteousness within Northern Ireland between unionist and nationalist. It was sponsored on the one hand by a British government equivocal about the integrity of its own state, thereby encouraging unionist intolerance founded on insecurity; and an Irish government hypocritically and irresponsibly playing the irredentist card, thereby encouraging Catholic alienation from the state and helping to provoke those very features of the Stormont regime which it smugly condemned.[161]

British equivocation, in this view, proved disastrous when the tensions to which it had contributed to in Northern Ireland finally exploded. Had the British Government been willing from 1968/69 to act on the proposition that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom, their response would have been "fundamentally different." If they had thought there were social and political grievances which were remediable by law, it would have been seen as the business of Parliament in Westminster to act. But acts of rebellion would have been suppressed and punished as such with the full authority and force of the state. At no point would the policy have been one of containment and negotiation.

It is scarcely conceivable . . . that in a state of civil disturbance in Britain large parts of Birmingham or Manchester would have been allowed for months on to become rebel enclaves to which the police and the army were denied access. It would have been quite incredible also that, at a time when the lawful authorities still had overwhelming force at their disposal, the leaders of a rebellion in Warwickshire or Lancashire would have been given safe conducts to London to discuss conditions of peace.[162]

The example of Free Derry was replicated in other nationalist neighbourhoods both in Derry and in Belfast. Sealed off with barricades, the areas were openly policed by the IRA.[163] [164] In what was reported as the biggest British military operation since the Suez Crisis,[165] Operation Motorman, on 31 July 1972, the British Army did eventually act to re-establish control.[166][167] But this had been preceded in the weeks before by a ceasefire in the course of which Provisional IRA leaders, including Chief of Staff Seán Mac Stíofáin and his lieutenants Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams, were flown to London for what proved to be unsuccessful negotiations with Northern Ireland Secretary William Whitelaw, acting on behalf of the UK Prime Minister, Edward Heath.[168]  

The common unionist charge was that Westminster and Whitehall continued to classify Northern Ireland, as it had Ireland before partition, as "something more akin to a colonial than a domestic problem".[169] From the first street deployment of troops in 1969 the impression given was of "a peace-keeping operation in which Her Majesty's Forces are not defending their homeland, but holding at bay two sects and factions as in Imperial India, Mandated Palestine or in Cyprus." This played into the republican narrative that "the insurgence in the housing estates and borderland of Ulster" was something akin to the Third World "wars of liberation," and that in Britain's first and last colony "decolonisation will be forced upon her as it was in Aden and elsewhere."[170]

With London, Unionist credibility on security did not survive internment, introduced at the insistence of Stormont government under Brian Faulkner. In the early hours of August 10, 1971 342 persons suspected of IRA involvement were arrested without charge or warrant.[171] Many appeared to have no connection with the IRA, and for those that did the link typically was to the left-leaning "Officials." Beyond immediate defence of Catholics areas, the Officials had already committed to unarmed "political" strategy--and on that basis were to declare a ceasefire in May 1972.[172] The "Provos," many of whom were new to the IRA, largely escaped the dragnet. Unionists blamed the poor intelligence on London's decision to tolerate no-go areas.[173]

For the British Government internment proved a public relations disaster, both domestic and international. It was compounded by the interrogation of internees by methods deemed illegal by the UK Government's own commission of inquiry,[174] (and subsequently ruled "inhuman and degrading" by the European Court of Human Rights),[175] and by the Army's fatal use live fire against anti-internment protesters, "Bloody Sunday" in Derry (20 January 1972) being the most notorious incident.[176] In March Heath demanded that Faulkner surrender control of internal security. When, as might have been anticipated, Faulkner resigned rather than comply, Heath in an instant shattered, for unionists, "the theory that the Army was simply in Northern Ireland for the purpose of offering aid to the civil power, of defending legally established institutions against terrorist attack." In what unionists viewed as a "victory for violence", the Conservative government prorogued Stormont and imposed direct rule "not merely to restore order but to reshape the Province's system of government."[177]

Negotiating the "Irish Dimension": 1973-1998Edit

Sunningdale and the Ulster Workers strikeEdit

In October 1972 the British government brought out a Green Paper, The Future of Northern Ireland. It articulated what were to be the enduring principles of the British approach to a settlement.

It is a fact that an element of the minority in Northern Ireland has hitherto seen itself as simply part of the wider Irish community. The problem of accommodating that minority within the political of Northern Ireland has to some extent been an aspect of a wider problem within Ireland as a whole.

It is therefore clearly desirable that any new arrangements for Northern Ireland should, whilst meeting the wishes of Northern Ireland and Great Britain, be so far as possible acceptable to accepted by the Republic of Ireland.

Northern Ireland must and will remain part of the United Kingdom for as long as that is the wish of a majority of the people, but that status does not preclude the necessary taking into account of what has been described in this paper as the 'Irish Dimension.'

A Northern Ireland assembly or authority must be capable of involving all its members constructively in way which satisfy them and hose they represent that the whole community has a part to pay in the government of the Province. ...[T]here are strong arguments that the objective of real participation should be achieved by giving minority interests a share in the exercise of executive power ...[178]

In June 1973 PR elections were held for an Assembly. Following negotiations at Sunningdale in England, attended by the Dublin government, on 1 January 1974 the former Unionist prime minister Brian Faulkner agreed to form an Executive in coalition with the SDLP and the smaller "cross-community" Alliance Party. Faulkner's later successor as party leader, James Molyneaux, argued that the diffiulty for most unionists was not an arrangement in which "Protestants and Catholics must consent"--that "would be comparatively simple." It was that, despite a promise not share power with parties "whose primary aim is a united Ireland",[179] Faulkner had committed them to agreement with "Republican Catholics" [180]

Having drawn on both the Republican, and Northern Ireland, Labour parties, and with a commitment to "accommodate progressive Protestants," the SDLP had announced themselves as something more than nationalist or republican party.[181] But with PIRA continuing to draw on fury over internment and Bloody Sunday, Eamonn McCann notes that "in order to sell the deal to the Catholic community the SDLP had to present it not just as a means of expressing its aspiration towards a united Ireland but a means of achieving it".[182] The new Health and Social Service Minister, Paddy Devlin, conceded that "all other issues were governed" by a drive to "get all-Ireland institutions established" that would "produce the dynamic that would lead ultimately to an agreed united Ireland."[183]

The Sunningdale Agreement envisaged a Council of Ireland comprising, with equal delegations from Dublin and Belfast, a Council of Ministers with "executive and harmonising functions" and a Consultative Assembly with "advisory and review functions." As they would only have a plurality of representation on the Northern side, these created the possibility of Unionists being manoeuvred into a minority position. "In retrospect", Devlin regretted his party had not "adopted a two stage approach, by allowing power sharing at Stormont to establish itself",[184] but by the time he and his colleagues recognised the damage they had caused to Faulkner's position by prioritising the "Irish Dimension" it was too late.

In February 1974 in a surprise Westminster election, the bulk of Faulkner's party ran against him. In a United Ulster Unionist Coalition (UUUC) with William Craig's Ulster Vanguard and Paisley's new electoral vehicle the Democratic Unionist Party, they won eleven of Northern Ireland's twelve seats (the SDLP retaining republican West Belfast). Arguing that they had deprived Faulkner of any semblance of a mandate, the victors called for new Assembly elections. When this was refused, an Ulster Workers' Council (UWC) convened by loyalist shop-stewards and paramilitary Ulster Defence Association called a general strike for 15 May.

After two weeks of widespread stoppages, during which tensions had been sharply heightened by Prime Minster Harold Wilson detailing an "IRA scorched-earth plot" to "plunge Northern Ireland into civil war" and by the seemingly retaliatory Dublin and Monaghan bombings,[185][186] Faulkner sought authority to open communications to the UWC. When this was denied by his SDLP ministers he resigned. Announcing that there was no longer any constitutional basis for the Executive, Mervyn Rees, the Northern Ireland Secretary shuttered the Assembly.[187]

Within the UWC there were some who believed they had organised and demonstrated a new extra-parliamentary force in Ulster politics. An attempt in 1977 by the UDA and a number of other loyalists groups, with Paisley's blessing, to replicate the UWC success in pushing "a unionist wish-list"--essentially a return to Stormont-era majority rule[188]--did not secure the support of critical workers, and was broken up in face UUP condemnation and firm police action..<[189] In 1982 Harry Murray, an early UWC convener, moved in a different direction. In the spirit of the Outdoor Relief strike of fifty years before, he tried, and failed, to revive the Council as a cross-community campaign group that would lobby for the creation of employment and for unity across the working class.[190]

Unionist PartiesEdit

Recent Unionist Electoral Performance in Northern Ireland
Level Election Total seats Unionist seats Unionist poll Unionist % vote
House of Commons[191] 2017 18 11 398,921 49.2%
Northern Ireland Assembly[192] 2017 90 40 363,763 44.7%
Northern Ireland Assembly[193] 2016 108 56 335,533 48.5%
House of Commons[194] 2015 18 11 349,715 49.6%
Local Government[194] 2014 462 239 310,883 49.5%
European Parliament[194] 2014 3 2 329,688 52.7%
Northern Ireland Assembly[194] 2011 108 56 318,915 48.2%
House of Commons[195] 2010 18 9 340,620 50.5%
European Parliament[196] 2009 3 2 237,436 49.0%
Northern Ireland Assembly[197] 2007 108 55 329,826 47.8%
House of Commons[198] 2005 18 10 371,888 51.8%

Northern Ireland currently has a number of pro-union political parties, the largest of which is the traditionalist Democratic Unionist Party led by Arlene Foster, followed by the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party led by Robin Swann. Both parties are active across Northern Ireland. On a smaller level, the Progressive Unionist Party, which is the political wing of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) paramilitary group, attracts some support in the greater Belfast area. Traditional Unionist Voice is opposed to the current constitutional arrangements in Northern Ireland following the Belfast Agreement and St Andrews Agreement. The pluralist Conservative Party is currently allied to the Ulster Unionist Party. While the Alliance Party supports the status quo position of Northern Ireland, it does not define itself as Unionist.

Moderate unionists who support the principle of Equal Citizenship between Northern Ireland and Great Britain have campaigned for mainstream British political parties to organise and contest elections in Northern Ireland. Equal citizenship pressure groups have included the Campaign for Equal Citizenship (CEC), Labour Representation Campaign, Democracy Now and, currently, Labour - Federation of Labour Groups. Momentum for this concept picked up after the Conservative Party Conference voted in favour of working in Northern Ireland in 1989. No Conservative has been elected in Northern Ireland since the 1997 local government elections.[199]

Under legal pressure from local trade unionists, Labour accepted members from Northern Ireland in October 2002[200] and in September 2006 agreed to organise through a forum.[201] The Liberal Democrats have a branch in Northern Ireland but do not contest elections, but are affiliated with the Alliance Party.[202]

Pro-union parties and independents contest elections and represent their constituents at a number of different levels. There is a unionist presence at election time in all parliamentary constituencies. A Unionist win is a virtual certainty in ten constituencies: East Antrim, North Antrim, South Antrim, Belfast North, Belfast East, North Down, Lagan Valley, East Londonderry, Strangford, Upper Bann.

In 2007, twenty peers in the House of Lords owed their peerages to a direct connection with Northern Ireland,[203] usually through a political party. Of these there are eight Ulster Unionists (sitting as Cross-benchers), three Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), two Conservative, two Labour and one Liberal Democrat, with the rest independent. As well as the two Unionist MEPs in the European Parliament, DUP MP Nigel Dodds is also an alternate member of the UK Parliament delegations to the Council of Europe and Western European Union[204] and Unionists also participate in the EU Committee of the Regions.[205]

Unionist candidates stand for election in most district electoral areas (small areas which make up district councils) in Northern Ireland. Exceptions, in 2005, were Slieve Gullion in South Armagh, Upper and Lower Falls in Belfast, Shantallow, Northland and Cityside in Derry – all of which are strongly nationalist. Likewise, nationalist parties and candidates did not contest some areas in North Antrim, East Antrim, East Belfast, North Down and the Strangford constituency which are strongly unionist and therefore unlikely to return a nationalist candidate.

Local government in Northern Ireland is not entirely divided on nationalist-unionist lines and the level of political tension within a council depends on the district that it represents and its direct experience of the Troubles.

Unionism and British identityEdit

The Shankill Road in Belfast decorated with Union Flags

Irish unionism is often centred on an identification with Protestantism, especially in the sense of Britishness,[206] although not necessarily to the exclusion of a sense of Irishness or of an affinity to Northern Ireland specifically.[207] Unionism emerged as a unified force in opposition to William Ewart Gladstone's Home Rule Bill of 1886.[208][209] Irish nationalists believed in separation from Great Britain, whether through repeal of the 1800 Act of Union, "home rule", or complete independence. Unionists believed in maintaining and deepening the relationship between the various nations of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. They expressed pride in the symbols of Britishness.

A key symbol for unionists is the Union Flag.[210] Unionist areas of Northern Ireland often display this and other symbols to show the loyalty and sense of identity of the community.[211] Unionism is also known for its allegiance to the person of the British monarch, both historically[212] and today.[213]

Unionism and religionEdit

Historically, most unionists in Ireland have been Protestants and most nationalists have been Catholics, and this remains the case. However, a significant number of Protestants have adhered to the nationalist cause, and likewise with Catholics and unionism. These phenomena continue to exist in Northern Ireland.

Both unionism and nationalism have had sectarian and anti-sectarian elements. While nationalism has had a number of Protestant leaders (for instance, Henry Grattan, Theobald Wolfe Tone, Charles Stewart Parnell and Douglas Hyde), unionism was invariably always led by Protestant leaders and politicians. Prior to a decades-long ban, Catholics had been allowed to be members of the UUP as recently as the 1920s, including Denis Henry (the first Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland), who was a member of the UUP from its foundation in 1905 and a UUP MP for South Londonderry. Catholics were once more permitted to join the UUP in the 1960s[214][215] but their continued dearth, particularly among the leadership, meant the UUP were still vulnerable to accusations of sectarianism. Only one Catholic, G. B. Newe, served in the Government of Northern Ireland (Newe was specially recruited to boost cross-community relations in the last UUP government in the 1970s).

In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance lecture in 1998, UUP leader David Trimble suggested that Northern Ireland had been a "cold house" for Catholics in the past.[216]

In a more general sense, Catholics cannot be assumed to be hostile to the institutions of the Union: many Catholics serve in the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the British Army, just as their predecessors served in the RIC and the RUC, in the face of sometimes violent opposition from militant nationalists. The PSNI attempted to maintain a 50% quota for Catholic officers until April 2011.[217]

On the Nationalist side, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) has attracted a number of sympathetic Protestants.

Northern Ireland has an increasing number of inhabitants who are neither Catholic nor Protestant, either being adherents of other religions or being non-religious. Increasingly, the trend has been to ignore the question of religion, particularly as the numbers of practising churchgoers on both sides have been in decline.

2006 Public Support for Unionism in Northern Ireland[218]
Indicator Survey Date Overall % Protestant % Catholic % No religion %
Support for the union as long-term policy[219] 2006 54 85 22 46
Unionist personal identity[220] 2006 36 69 3 17
British personal identity[221] 2006 39 63 11 35
Support for unionist political party[222] 2006 32 63 2 20

For some years, there has been a perception both in Britain and in Ireland that the Catholic birthrate will guarantee a Catholic – and hence supposedly Nationalist – majority in Northern Ireland at some point in the first half of the 21st century. However, a strong decline in the Catholic birthrate may slow down or even reverse the growth in the Catholic population (which may in turn be balanced by an increased rate of emigration of young Protestants, often to study and work in Great Britain). Recent influxes of immigrants, especially from Eastern Europe, are also having a significant effect on the demographic balance, although how many choose to reside permanently in Northern Ireland or take an interest in the political scene remains to be seen.

Ties to Unionism in ScotlandEdit

There is some degree of social and political co-operation between some Scottish unionists and Northern Irish unionists, due to their similar aims of maintaining the unity of their constituent country with the United Kingdom. For example, the Orange Order parades in Orange Walks in Scotland and Northern Ireland. However, many unionists in Scotland shy away from connections to unionism in Ireland in order not to endorse any side of a largely sectarian conflict. This brand of unionism is largely concentrated in the Central Belt and west of Scotland. Loyalists in Scotland are seen as a militant or extreme branch of unionism. Orangism in west and central Scotland, and opposition to it by Catholics in Scotland, can be explained as a result of the large amount of immigration from the Republic and Northern Ireland.

Songs and symbols of unionism, particularly of the Northern Irish variety, are used by many supporters of Rangers F.C., a football club based in Glasgow. Both Rangers and their longtime rival Celtic F.C., which has Irish Roman Catholic roots, have a reputation for sectarian clashes and bitter opposition to each other, frequently characterised by religious taunts, chants and other provocations. This behaviour by some supporters is condemned by the management of the clubs. Despite the symbols associated with the clubs, not all Rangers supporters can be automatically classified as unionists, nor all Celtic supporters as nationalists. For example, there were Celtic supporters of the "No Thanks" campaign for the 2014 independence referendum and Rangers supporters of the "Yes Scotland" campaign- despite Celtic FC having nationalist origins and Rangers FC having unionist origins. There was found to be no link between support of left and right-wing parties at general elections for Rangers or Celtic fans either.

Unionists in southern Ireland 1891–1922 Edit

After 1890, and particularly during the period from the start of the First World War to the mid-1920s, the number of Unionists in what is now the Republic of Ireland declined to a point where their numbers were widely regarded as almost insignificant.[223] This is attributed to a number of factors:

  • Land reform from the 1870s to the 1900s, arranged by the Land Commission. This broke up many of the large Protestant-owned estates, many of whose former owners chose in the 1920s to use their compensation money to settle in Britain, often in other estates that they owned there.
  • The disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1871. This led the Church to sell many of its properties, in the process laying off many Protestant workers who subsequently moved away.
  • The Irish War of Independence and its aftermath. During the War, some elements of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) allegedly conducted a campaign of murder and ethnic cleansing against Unionists in parts of the country such as Cork. Historians disagree as to whether such murders were isolated incidents or parts of a wider organised campaign.[citation needed] Attacks continued in the 1920s against many Unionists who had assisted the British in the War, and in the process 300 historic homes were burned. Such attacks were said to be reprisals for the British forces' destruction of the homes and property of republicans, actual or suspected.
  • Emigration. Large numbers of Unionists left Ireland (voluntarily or otherwise) in the years before and after independence, mainly for Northern Ireland, Great Britain and Canada.
  • Assimilation. Many of the Unionists who remained assimilated to some extent into the majority nationalist culture.[citation needed] This was encouraged by the Free State government, and was largely accepted with resignation. The process was accelerated by the pro-Free State stance taken by most Unionists in the Irish Civil War. The process of assimilation had begun prior to Irish independence, with a number of Protestant Nationalists playing leading roles in the Irish nationalist and Gaelic revival movements.
  • Intermarriage and the Ne Temere decree. Unionists were and are[citation needed] largely Protestant, and in many mixed households the children were brought up as Catholics, often because of family or community pressure and the 1908 papal Ne Temere decree. There was also a high number of single, unmarried female Unionists in the aftermath of World War I who could not find Protestant husbands.[224]

The first President of Ireland, Douglas Hyde (1938–1945) was Protestant, though only two senior Irish politicians attended his Church of Ireland funeral; the Catholic members of the government had to wait on the pavement near the Church to be compliant with Canon law.

Some Unionists in the south simply adapted and began to associate themselves with the new southern Irish regime of Cumann na nGaedheal.[citation needed] On 19 January 1922, leading Unionists held a meeting and unanimously decided to support the Free State government.[citation needed] Many gained appointment to the Free State's Senate, including the 4th Earl of Dunraven and Thomas Westropp Bennett. Several generations of one Unionist political family, the Dockrells, won election as Teachta Dála (TDs). The Dublin borough of Rathmines had a unionist majority up to the late 1920s, when a local government re-organisation abolished all Dublin borough councils. Later, the Earl of Granard and the Provost of Trinity College Dublin gained appointment to the President of Ireland's advisory body, the Council of State. Most Irish Unionists, however, simply withdrew from public life, and from the late 1920s there were no self-professed Unionists elected to the Irish parliament until the election of Ian Marshall to Seanad Éireann in 2018.[225][226]

See alsoEdit


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