Unionism from 1885 to 1922

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Unionism from 1885 to 1922

The notion of a constitutional union between Great Britain and Ireland was first mooted in the seventeenth century and later, although there was no continuous unionist political tradition, became a legislative reality in 1800. Until the late nineteenth century the union was tacitly accepted by most Irish constitutional politicians. (Daniel O'Connell was an important—though not singular—exception.) But with the gradual democratization of Irish electoral politics after 1850 and the mobilization of the rural Catholic population in the 1870s and 1880s, support for devolved government ("Home Rule") grew and was more effectively represented at Westminster. In eastern Ulster a concentration of Protestants, relatively harmonious landlord-tenant relations, and the spread of an industrial economy helped to sustain support for the union with Britain. But the remarkable growth of Parnellism in the early 1880s, combined with the franchise extensions of 1884 to 1885, effectively increased the political pressure for constitutional change, and in 1886 the Liberal government of W. E. Gladstone (hitherto a supporter of the union) formulated a measure for the better government of Ireland. This, the first Home Rule bill, was defeated in the House of Commons in June 1886; a second Home Rule bill, again the work of Gladstone, was defeated in the House of Lords in September 1893.

Parliamentary Unionism

In these contexts a movement was created to mobilize the (hitherto largely passive) unionism evident within all classes of Irish Protestantism and also (to a lesser extent) within some propertied sections of Catholic society. An important early geographical focus for these endeavors was south Ulster. In social terms landlords, the Presbyterian entrepreneurial classes, and the Orange Order were all central to the early success of organized unionism. The institutional core of the new movement lay with a distinct Irish unionist parliamentary grouping formed in 1885 to 1886 that united Irish Conservatives with those Irish Liberals who had rejected Glad-stone's Home Rule initiative (the Liberal Unionists). Different popular bodies were also important vehicles for the new cause, particularly the Irish Loyal and Patriotic Union (later renamed the Irish Unionist Alliance), which was founded in Dublin in 1885.

Until the early Edwardian period unionism retained a parliamentary focus and, at least nominally, an all-Ireland organizational scope. At this time the movement faced a variety of external and internal challenges that helped to stimulate several key organizational and strategic revisions. Irish unionism had thrived in the 1880s and 1890s partly on the basis of a strong political relationship with British Conservatism, and partly too on the strength of the Protestant social alliance. But the bond with Toryism was shaken by the conciliatory measures pursued by several British governments toward the Home Rule movement, and the class alliance upon which Irish unionism was based was rocked by the protests of northern Protestant farmers, particularly after 1900. Unionist leaders responded to these challenges with an organizational reform of the northern movement that culminated in the creation of an Ulster Unionist Council in 1905. This, combined with a more conciliatory attitude toward land reform and with the renewal of the Home Rule threat after the Liberals' electoral victory in 1906, provided the basis for some unionist political consolidation.

On the other hand, these developments also brought about the relative diminution of an all-Ireland unionism. Unionism in the three southern provinces was rich but numerically weak, and given the bias toward property ownership in the British constitution at the time, it was overrepresented in the both the House of Commons and particularly in the House of Lords. Southern unionism thus benefited from the parliamentary focus of the late Victorian and Edwardian movement. With the creation of a strong local and regional organization in the north, this focus was blurred, and the corresponding benefits for the south and west were diminished.


The organization of Ulster unionism after 1905 provided the foundation for a popularly regimented northern resistance when a renewed British effort was made in 1912 to pass a Home Rule measure for Ireland. Unionist strategies and institutions were evolving rapidly at this time. Ulster unionists had been alienated from British parliamentary politics in the later Edwardian period, and by 1911, with the reform and weakening of the strongly Conservative House of Lords, they believed that the constitution was now stacked against them. This sense of exclusion underlay an increasing radicalization in Ulster unionist politics after about 1910 that led to the importation of weapons and the creation in early 1913 of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a citizens' militia organized along British military lines. The Ulster unionist leadership attempted to use extraconstitutional endeavors to win concessions inside the parliamentary arena, but they were unsuccessful and were gradually compelled into ever more militant tactics. These efforts culminated on 24 and 25 April 1914, when 25,000 rifles and three million rounds of ammunition were smuggled into eastern Ulster by unionist hawks.

At this time unionist goals shifted in keeping with the organizational and strategic redefinition of the movement. Unionism from 1912 to 1914 was over-whelmingly northern in its roots and focus; unionism in the south and west of Ireland was relatively unimportant in the context of the popular mobilization that was occurring in Ulster. This geographical imbalance had wide implications. Ulster unionists had originally defended the retention of the entire island of Ireland within the union settlement, but they gradually moved toward a demand for the exclusion of all, or part, of the northern province from Home Rule. At first, this seems to have been a tactical ploy that was designed to separate British Liberals from Irish nationalists, but it is clear that by 1913 exclusion or partition was being considered as a substantive goal. By 1914 the Ulster unionists had settled on the permanent exclusion of the six northeastern counties (Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry, and Tyrone) as their minimum terms for a settlement. However, this would cause both the political division of the island, which was hateful to Irish nationalists, and the disintegration of an all-Ireland unionism, which would render the loyalists of the south and west politically isolated and vulnerable. The polarization of Irish unionism into (in the end) mutually repellent northern and southern elements may be dated to this time.


The outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 helped to consolidate Ulster unionism and the partitionist demand. The Ulster Volunteer Force was largely incorporated into the British army as its 36th (Ulster) Division, and was badly mauled on the Somme in 1916 and at Passchendaele in 1917. This sacrifice to the British cause reinforced Ulster unionists' political identity and cemented their belief that the British state was politically indebted to them. Ulster unionists called for the permanent exclusion of the six northeastern counties from Home Rule in June 1916 during negotiations chaired by David Lloyd George, and they repeated this demand at the Irish Constitutional Convention, which met during the winter of 1917 to 1918. The distance that now separated them from southern unionism was compounded by the mythology that was developing around the military exploits of the 36th (Ulster) Division and by the very different public positions that the two unionisms were adopting. By 1917 some southern unionists, led by Lord Midleton and frightened by the swift radicalization of Irish nationalism, were at last prepared to accept a unitary Home Rule settlement. But southern unionism fractured under the pressure of Midleton's conversion, and Ulster unionists were able to pursue their own particularist agenda unburdened by any coherent opposition from southern loyalists.

In the long term the war helped to subvert Ulster unionism by destabilizing the industrial economy of the region and by robbing the movement of youthful talent, drive, and ability. In the short term, however, Ulster unionism was politically strengthened: Its political identity had been sharpened and its ranks were now filled with battle-hardened military veterans, while its allies, the British Conservatives, were the predominant partner in the coalition government returned to power in 1918. Moreover, the war had also seen the consolidation of a revolutionary Irish nationalist movement that was not prepared to be represented in British Parliament. This meant that Ulster unionists were able to exercise a disproportionate influence within British high politics. This influence was clear in the Government of Ireland Act (1920), through which the British sought to partition Ireland and to endow its two parts with Home Rule administrations. The measure met Ulster unionist demands in defining a six-county territory that was beyond the authority of a Dublin parliament, but the Belfast administration that was created under the act was less a result of Ulster unionist pressure than of the British desire to disengage from all aspects of Irish government. Ulster unionists had sought to exclude six counties from the operation of Home Rule entirely, but they swiftly came to see that a government in Belfast offered greater constitutional security than was possible within a British parliament.

The victims within these new arrangements were the substantial minority of nationalists within Northern Ireland, the unionists of outer Ulster (Cavan, Donegal, and Monaghan) who were excluded from the new polity, and the scattered unionists of the south and west. Northern nationalists suffered bloody and disproportionate losses in the intercommunal violence of the early 1920s. Southern unionists were broken by World War I, divided in its aftermath, and suffered heavily in the cross fire of the Anglo-Irish struggle (1919–1921). They were able to sustain their distinctive identity for a while in certain Protestant enclaves (south Dublin, for example), but in the end those who remained were mostly assimilated within the Catholic national tradition.

Ulster unionists, for their part, helped to create a state that institutionalized the struggles of the Home Rule and revolutionary eras. It would prove, as a later leader of the Ulster unionists would concede, "a cold house for Catholics" (McDonald 2000, p. 280).

SEE ALSO Act of Union; Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921; Carson, Sir Edward; Craig, James, First Viscount Craigavon; Plunkett, Sir Horace Curzon; Politics: 1800 to 1921—Challenges to the Union; Protestant Ascendancy: Decline, 1800 to 1930; Redmond, John; Women in Nationalist and Unionist Movements in the Early Twentieth Century; Primary Documents: On the Home Rule Bill of 1886 (8 April 1886); Declaration against Home Rule (10 October 1911); "Solemn League and Covenant" Signed at the "Ulster Day" Ceremony in Belfast (28 September 1912); Address on the Ulster Question in the House of Commons (11 February 1914)


Buckland, Patrick. Irish Unionism I: The Anglo-Irish and the New Ireland, 1885–1922. 1972.

Buckland, Patrick. Irish Unionism II: Ulster Unionism and the Foundations of Northern Ireland, 1886–1922. 1973.

Jackson, Alvin. The Ulster Party: Irish Unionists in the House of Commons, 1884–1911. 1989.

Jackson, Alvin. Colonel Edward Saunderson: Land and Loyalty in Victorian Ireland. 1995.

McDonald, Henry. Trimble. 2000.

McDowell, R. B. Crisis and Decline: The Fate of Southern Unionism. 1997.

Stewart, A. T. Q. The Ulster Crisis: Resistance to Home Rule, 1912–14. 1967.

Alvin Jackson

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Unionism from 1885 to 1922

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