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Ulster unionists

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Ulster unionists

This article is about political unionism. For trade unionism, see Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

In Ireland, unionism, also called Ulster unionism in the context of Northern Ireland or – chiefly historically – Ulster specifically, refers to an ideology which favours the continuation of some form of political union between the islands of Ireland and Great Britain. Since the separation of the Irish Free State from the United Kingdom as a Dominion and its subsequent emergence as an independent state, unionism in Ireland has focused primarily on maintaining and preserving the place of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.

The political relationship between England and Ireland dates from the 12th century Norman invasion. In the Act of Union 1800, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was created. In 1922, twenty-six counties of Ireland gained autonomy from the UK as the Dominion of the Irish Free State; in 1949, this Dominion became a Republic and ipso facto, left the Commonwealth. The remaining six counties constituted the territory of Northern Ireland, which has remained part of what in 1927 was renamed the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland". Today, active unionism is overwhelmingly an Northern Ireland issue, concerned primarily with the governance of and relationship between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. In the Republic of Ireland today, there is scant support for unionists who would advocate the state rejoining the UK, and only a substantial minority who would politically support Irish reunification.

Unionism and its opposing ideology, Irish nationalism, are associated with particular ethnic and/or religious communities. Most, but not all, unionists are of one of various Protestant backgrounds. Nationalists are mostly of a Catholic background. However, these are generalisations, because there are both Protestant Nationalists and Catholic Unionists,[1] as well as more recent immigrants, and their descendants, some of whom are neither Catholic nor Protestant.

Unionism and British identity

Irish unionism is often centred on an identification with Protestantism, especially in the sense of Britishness,[2] though not necessarily to the exclusion of a sense of Irishness or of an affinity to Northern Ireland specifically.[3] Unionism emerged as a unified force in opposition to William Ewart Gladstone's Home Rule Bill of 1886.[4][5] 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 symbols of Britishness.

A key symbol for unionists is the Union Flag.[6] Unionist areas of Northern Ireland often display this and other symbols to show the loyalty and sense of identity of the community.[7] Unionism is also known for its allegiance to the British Crown, both historically[8] and today.[9]


Historically, most Unionists in Ireland have been Protestants and most Nationalists have been Catholics. This remains the case. However, a significant number of Protestants have adhered to the Nationalist cause, and a significant number of Catholics have espoused Unionism. The phenomenon of Catholic Unionism continues to exist in Northern Ireland, where it may be seen in the context of middle-class Catholics' misgivings regarding the economic consequences of a united Ireland.

Both Unionism and Nationalism have had sectarian and anti-sectarian elements, and that both have attracted supporters from outside their base religious communities. While Nationalism has historically had a number of Protestant leaders (for instance, Henry Grattan, Theobald Wolfe Tone, Charles Stewart Parnell, and Douglas Hyde), Unionism was invariably led by Protestant leaders and politicians. The lack of Catholics among the leadership made them vulnerable to accusations of sectarianism, particularly during the period when the Ulster Unionist Party had undisputed control of Northern Ireland (1921–1972). Only one Catholic served in government throughout this period (G. B. Newe, who was specially recruited to boost cross-community relations in the last UUP government in the 1970s). Ulster Unionist Leader and Nobel Peace Prize-winner David Trimble suggested that Northern Ireland had been a "cold house" for Catholics in the past.

Wales as part of the United Kingdom


Unionists and Loyalists

People espousing unionist beliefs are sometimes referred to as Loyalists. The two words are sometimes used interchangeably, but the latter is more often associated with particularly hardline forms of Unionism. In some cases it has been associated with individual or groups who support or engage in violence. Most unionists do not describe themselves as loyalists.

Nationalists and Republicans

A similar distinction exists in relation to Irish nationalists. Mainstream nationalists, such as the supporters of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the main parties in the Republic of Ireland, are generally referred to by that term. The more militant strand of nationalism, which once comprised groups such as Sinn Féin, has been known as republicanism. In the Republic of Ireland, the republican tradition has moderated and moved into the mainstream. Today the republican party, Fianna Fáil, has little in common with militant republicans other than certain ideological and historical perspectives.

Unionists and the British monarchy

Unionism has traditionally been associated with strong loyalty to the British monarchy. Four members of the current Royal Family hold titles with roots in Northern Ireland: the Duke of York (Baron Killyleagh), the Earl of Ulster, the Duke of Kent (Baron Downpatrick) and the Duke of Cambridge (Baron Carrickfergus). Older Irish royal titles included Lord of Ireland, Duke of Connaught and Strathearn, Earl of Athlone and Baron Arklow. The Queen is still technically Sovereign of the Order of St. Patrick, the highest Irish order of chivalry, and the Norroy and Ulster King of Arms is an officer in the College of Arms in London.


Division between Catholic and Protestant in Ireland pre-dates the conflict over the Union. To some extent, these can be traced back to the wars of religion, land and power arising out the 16th and 17th century Plantations of Ireland. In the 18th century, Ireland was ruled by a Protestant-only Irish Parliament, autonomous in some respects from Britain. Catholics and Presbyterians were denied full political and economic rights under the Penal Laws.

Origins of unionism in Ireland

At the time of the Act of Union in 1800, the Protestant community was divided over whether to support the Act. The Union came in the aftermath of the 1798 Rebellion, in which elements of Irish Protestants – particularly Presbyterians – had supported republican United Irishmen and others had been mobilised to defend the status quo in the Yeomanry and Orange Order. Others still, parliamentary 'patriots' such as Henry Grattan did not support the rebellion but had lobbied for more independence for Ireland and for equal rights for Catholics.[10]

The Act of union was first proposed in the Irish Parliament in 1799 but defeated by 111 votes to 116. The idea of Union was supported by in Parliament those whose main concern was security in the wake of the 1798 rebellion and the need for the 40,000 strong British military garrison to remain. It was opposed by two distinct groups. On one side, by those known as the 'ultra Protestants', who feared that direct British rule would mean reforms that would give Catholics equal rights and overturn Protestant supremacy in Ireland, and from the other side by the 'patriot' tendency led by Henry Grattan who wanted to defend Ireland's constitutional independence and were also worried about the effect that a Union would have on Irish trade. Lord Castlereagh managed to tip the balance in favour of the Union by offering titles, land and in some cases cash payments to Parliamentarians. The Act was passed at the second attempt in 1800.[11]

The Orange Order was split over the Union and adopted policy of neutrality to avoid a split.[12] Conversely, the Catholic Bishops and much of the Catholic middle class initially accepted the Union, as it promised to undo the last of the Penal Laws.

However, what radically changed the balance of forces for and against the Union was Catholic Emancipation in 1829. This enabled Catholics to hold public office for the first time since the 1690s. It now meant that an Irish Parliament, even one elected under strict property requirements, would have a majority of Catholic voters and potentially of Catholic representatives.

For this reason, most Protestants in Ireland opposed the agitation, under Daniel O'Connell and the Repeal Association for Repeal of the Union or restoration of the Irish Parliament, in the 1830s and 1840s. The Orange Order, by this stage committed to the Union, increased its membership to over 100,000 by 1835 and "working class Protestants...developed effective militant politics of their own".[13] The political representative of Unionism was the Irish Conservative Party – which urged the suppression of O'Connell's 'monster meetings' for Repeal. The British Conservative government eventually agreed to this in October 1843, banning a proposed mass meeting for Repeal at Clontarf, Dublin and deploying troops and a warship to prevent it.[14]

The Conservative Party successfully mobilised Protestant voters against Repeal, by such means signing on more freemen of the cities (hereditary trade guilds, open only to Protestants from the 1690s to the 1840s) to get around the greater number of Catholic property holders.[15] The Conservative Party remained the largest in Irish politics until 1859.

The final challenge to the Union in this era was the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848, which largely failed to come off and which was suppressed after minor military action.

Home Rule

"Home Rule" was the name given to the policy of establishing a devolved parliament to govern Ireland as an autonomous region within the United Kingdom. Home Rule was supported from the 1860s onwards by mainstream nationalist leaders such as Isaac Butt, William Shaw, Charles Stewart Parnell, John Redmond and John Dillon, and it became the aim of the Nationalist Party, subsequently known as the Home Rule League and the Irish Parliamentary Party, which was the largest political party in Ireland from the 1880s until the end of the First World War.

Unionists comprised the opposition to Home Rule. They believed that an Irish Parliament dominated by Catholic nationalists would be to their economic, social and religious disadvantage, and would move eventually towards total independence from Britain. In most of Ireland, Unionists were members of the governing and landowning classes and the minor gentry, but Unionism had a broad popular appeal among Protestants of all classes and backgrounds in northeastern Ireland. This part of the island had become industrialised, and had an economy that closely resembled that of Britain.

A series of British governments introduced Home Rule Bills in the British Parliament. The 1886 Bill was rejected by the House of Commons, and managed to destroy the Liberal government in the process: Whig and Radical elements left the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Unionist Party, which allied itself with the Conservative Party. Eventually, the two middle-class parties merged into the Conservative and Unionist Party (generally known as the Conservative Party), which remains Britain's dominant right-of-centre party. The Ulster Unionist Labour Association, known as "Labour Unionists", represented the working class. The 1893 Bill passed the Commons but was rejected by the House of Lords, which had a permanent and large Conservative majority.

Political Unionism crystallised around the Protestant areas in the northern part of Ireland. By the early 20th century, the Irish Unionist Party had become predominantly associated with this territory, and in 1905 the Ulster Unionist Council was founded, which in turn produced the Ulster Unionist Party, which replaced the IUP in northeastern Ireland. In the period up to 1920, most of the IUP's leadership (including the Earl of Middleton and the Earl of Dunraven) came from other parts of Ireland, and its most prominent leader, Sir Edward Carson, opposed not merely Home Rule but also any attempt to partition Ireland.

In 1911, the House of Lords' veto over legislation was removed, and it became clear that a Home Rule Bill would finally be enacted. Unionists, particularly in northern Ireland, mounted a campaign against Home Rule, drawing up a "Solemn League and Covenant" and threatening to establish a Provisional Government in Belfast if Home Rule were imposed upon them. They set up a militia called the Ulster Volunteers and imported 25,000 rifles from Germany. By mid-1914, 90,000 men had joined the Volunteers.

On the eve of the First World War, the Home Rule Act 1914 passed into law. The War, however, prevented it from coming into force. The Easter Rising of 1916 and the events that followed it led to the enactment of a fourth Home Rule Bill after the War, known as the Government of Ireland Act 1920. This was heavily influenced by the Unionist leader Sir Edward Carson, and provided six of the nine counties of Ulster with its own devolved parliament independent from that of the rest of the island ("Southern Ireland"). The 1914 Act had provided for a similar partition as a temporary measure, for an unspecified length of time. In the end, only Northern Ireland became a functioning entity, as the Irish War of Independence began in 1919 with nationalist rebels boycotting both Northern and Southern parliaments, preferring their own rebel parliament, however in Northern Ireland, there was still enough members who didn't boycott to have a functioning parliament.

Unionists opposed Home Rule for several reasons:

  • Landowners in southern and western Ireland feared that a nationalist assembly would introduce property and taxation laws contrary to their interests.
  • Some feared that Home Rule would become "Rome Rule" under an oppressive and socially dominant Roman Catholic Church. They feared that they would experience discrimination, including legal disabilities analogous to those imposed on Catholics and dissenting Protestants under the old Penal Laws.
  • Some identified strongly with the Crown and British rule and wished to see both continue unchanged in Ireland.
  • Some, particularly in northern Ireland, viewed the rest of the island as economically backward, and feared that a parliament in Dublin would impose economic tariffs against industry.
  • Again, primarily in the industrialised north and Dublin, many viewed Ireland's economic interests as tied to Britain and her export markets, which would be adversely affected by independence.

Not all Protestants supported Unionism. Some – notably Charles Stewart Parnell – were nationalists, while by contrast some middle-class Catholics supported the maintenance of the union. In addition, Unionism received the support in the period from the 1880s until 1914 from leading mainland Conservative politicians, notably Lord Randolph Churchill and future prime minister Andrew Bonar Law. Churchill coined the well-known slogan "Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right".

Northern Ireland

The creation of Northern Ireland under the Government of Ireland Act 1920 and the later creation of the Irish Free State in the remainder of the island separated southern and northern unionists. The exclusion of three Ulster counties, County Donegal, County Monaghan and County Cavan, from 'Northern Ireland' left unionists there feeling isolated and betrayed. They established an association to persuade their fellow unionists to reconsider the border, but to no avail. Many assisted in the policing of the new region, serving in the B-Specials while continuing to live in the Free State (see here[16]).

Unionists were in the majority in four counties of the Ulster (Antrim, Londonderry, Down and Armagh), and formed a large minority in the remaining counties of Fermanagh and Tyrone. Sir Edward Carson had expressly urged the new Prime Minister, Sir James Craig, to ensure absolute equality in the treatment of Catholics, so to guarantee the stability of the new state. Discrimination, however, took place, particularly in the areas of housing, employment and local government representation, with the former Northern Irish prime minister, Lord Brokeborough proclaiming that the new entity was "a Protestant state for a Protestant people". The extent of such discrimination is disputed, and there was also widespread poverty among Protestants: for example, recovery operations in working-class areas after the Belfast Blitz of 1941 revealed that both communities had disadvantaged elements. Nobel Peace Prize winner and former Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble has admitted that Northern Ireland was a "cold house" for Catholics for most of the 20th century. Many unionists, particularly in the Democratic Unionist Party, deny that organised discrimination took place and attribute the poverty suffered by both communities to wider economic conditions.

The Troubles

Main article: The Troubles

By the 1960s, the reforms of Prime Minister, Terence O'Neill, designed to create a more equitable society between unionists and nationalists, resulted in a backlash led by fundamentalist Protestant minister Ian Paisley. Nationalists launched a Civil Rights movement in the mid-1960s with key demands made on matters such as one man, one vote. With attacks on Northern Ireland's infrastructure by loyalists, and the resignation of a relative from the Cabinet over the principle of One man One Vote, O'Neill resigned on 2 April 1969[17] to be replaced by Chichester Clark.

In August 1969 following the annual Apprentice Boys of Derry parade in the city, serious rioting took place in Derry[18] and Belfast.[19] The Civil Rights movement responded by calling marches across Northern Ireland to further stretch police resources[20] and on 14 August the British Government allowed the deployment of the Prince of Wales's Own Regiment in Derry to relieve the Police.[21] The following day the deployment was extended to Belfast.[22] Early the next year Chichester Clark flew to London to request more military support in an attempt to stem the increasing violence. Receiving much less than he had requested, he resigned and was replaced by Brian Faulkner.

By 1972 the situation in Northern Ireland had deteriorated considerably, and on 30 January thirteen civilians on a Civil Rights march in Derry were killed by the Parachute Regiment on Bloody Sunday. Three months later the Parliament of Northern Ireland and government were suspended, and later abolished, and replaced by Direct Rule.[23] Within Unionism, Ian Paisley had entered electoral politics and quickly merged his Protestant Unionist Party into the new Democratic Unionist Party with former UUP MPs Desmond Boal and John McQuade.[24] The new party quickly began to win support from the UUP, and since 1975 polled at least 10% of the vote at elections.[25]

A power-sharing government between nationalists and unionists in 1974 was brought down by the Ulster Workers' Council Strike. Faulkner as a result lost the support of his party, where he was replaced as leader by Harry West, and formed his own Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. West subsequently resigned and was replaced by Jim Molyneaux in 1979. Secretary of State Jim Prior made another attempt at restoring devolution by introducing a plan for rolling devolution through an assembly between 1982 and 1986 but this was boycotted by nationalists. Violence intensified throughout this period.

After nearly three decades of conflict, a ceasefire and intense political negotiations produced the Belfast Agreement on 10 April 1998 (also known as the "Good Friday Agreement"), which again attempted with mixed success to produce a power-sharing government for Northern Ireland with cross-community support. The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) supported the agreement but it was opposed by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and other smaller parties.

Unionism in Northern Ireland today

Unionist – and nationalist – convictions in Northern Ireland are expressed in a number of different ways: through everyday preferences (which need not be consistent for each individual) such as choice of newspaper or sports team, participation in a locally developed unionist or nationalist subculture, and voting for the appropriate political parties and candidates at election time.

Ties to Unionism in Scotland

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., an association football club in Glasgow, Scotland. Both Rangers and its main 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.

Unionism and religion

Most Unionists in Northern Ireland are Protestants and most Nationalists are Catholics, but this generalisation (which is evident in the work of some commentators) is subject to significant qualifications. The Ulster Unionist Party, for example, has some Catholic members and supporters, such as Sir John Gorman, a respected former MLA. Polls taken over the years have suggested that as many as one in three Catholics could be considered Unionist, though this may not translate into support for Unionist parties at election time and the size of the foregoing figure has been questioned.

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 maintains a 50% quota for Catholic officers.

On the Nationalist side, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) has attracted a number of sympathetic Protestants, and Sinn Féin too is said to have some Protestant members and elected officials.

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[26]
Indicator Survey Date Overall % Protestant % Catholic % No religion %
Support for the union as long-term policy[27] 2006 54 85 22 46
Unionist personal identity[28] 2006 36 69 3 17
British personal identity[29] 2006 39 63 11 35
Support for unionist political party[30] 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.

Political Unionism

Recent Unionist Electoral Performance in Northern Ireland
Level Election Total seats Unionist seats Unionist poll Unionist % vote
House of Commons[31] 2010 18 9 340,620 50.5%
European Parliament[32] 2009 3 2 237,436 49.0%
Northern Ireland Assembly[33] 2007 108 55 329,826 47.8%
House of Commons[34] 2005 18 10 371,888 51.8%
Local Government[35] 2005 582 302 343,148 48.8%
European Parliament[36] 2004 3 2 266,925 48.6%
Northern Ireland Assembly[37] 2003 108 59 352,886 51.0%

Northern Ireland currently has a number of pro-union political parties, the largest of which is the traditionalist Democratic Unionist Party led by Peter Robinson, followed by the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party led by Mike Nesbitt. 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. The Conservatives currently have one councillor on Down District Council, who was elected as an Ulster Unionist. No Conservative has been elected in Northern Ireland since the 1997 local government elections.[38]

Under legal pressure from local trade unionists, Labour accepted members from Northern Ireland in October 2002[39] and in September 2006 agreed to organise through a forum.[40] The Liberal Democrats have a branch in Northern Ireland but do not contest elections, but are affiliated with the Alliance Party.[41]

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.

Twenty peers in the House of Lords owe their peerages to a direct connection with Northern Ireland,[42] 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[43] and Unionists also participate in the EU Committee of the Regions.[44]

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.

Southern Irish Unionism 1891–1922

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.[45] 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.
  • World War I. Irish Unionists participated in the War at a higher rate than Nationalists, some of whom opposed participation on principle, and there was a very high casualty rate in Irish regiments.
  • 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. 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. 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 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 surplus of marriageable female Unionists in the aftermath of World War I who could not find Protestant husbands.[46]

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. On 19 January 1922, leading Unionists held a meeting and unanimously decided to support the Free State government. Many gained appointment to the Free State's Senate, including the 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 since the late 1920s there have been no self-professed Unionists elected to the Irish parliament.[47]

See also

Unionism in Northern Ireland

Southern Unionism

Wider interests

Unionist political parties




  • Anonymous (2005) "Ulster Unionism: dead but not gone"
  • Coulter, J. (2005) Open Republic "Revolutionary Unionism"
  • Hastings, M. (2005) The Guardian "The last writhings of a society left beached by history"
  • Langhammer, M. (2005) The North Belfast News "Analysis of the Malaise in Protestant Heartlands."
  • Peacocke, D. (2003) The Observer "A job to be done"
  • Christopher D (2006) "The fate of Cork unionists 1919–1921"
  • Wheatcroft, G. (1998) New Statesman "Ethnic cleansing in the Free State – Protestants in the Republic of Ireland"

Books and reports

  • Alcock, A. (1994) Understanding Ulster (chap 2) The Unloved, Unwanted Garrison – The Unionist Community in Northern Ireland. Lurgan: Ulster Society
  • Buckland, Patrick Irish Unionism I: The Anglo-Irish and the New Ireland, 1885–1922, Dublin: 1972.
  • Buckland, Patrick Irish Unionism II: Ulster Unionism and the Origins of Northern Ireland, 1886–1922, Dublin: 1973.
  • Farrington, C. (2006) Ulster Unionism and the Peace Process in Northern Ireland. Palgrave Macmillan.
  • . Cork: Cork University Press.
  • Jackson, Alvin Colonel Edward Sanunderson: Land and Loyalty in Victorian Ireland, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • Jackson, Alvin The Ulster Party: Irish Unionists in the House of Commons, 1884–1911, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • McCartney, R. (2001) Reflections on Liberty, Democracy and The Union. Dublin: Maunsel.
  • McDonald, H. (2000) Trimble. Bloomsbury.
  • McDowell, R.B. (1998) Crisis and Decline: The Fate of the Southern Unionists. The Lilliput Press Limited.
  • McIntosh, G. (1999) The Force of Culture: Unionist identities in twentieth-century Ireland. Cork University Press.
  • . Blackstaff: Belfast.
  • Pluto: London
  • Walker, G. (2004) A History of the Ulster Unionist Party. Manchester: Manchester University Press.


The following Unionist parties have contested at least one election in Northern Ireland since 2001 and produced online manifestos (all PDF format):

Conservative and Unionist Party
  • Westminster 2001
  • Assembly 2003
  • Westminster 2005
Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)
  • Westminster 2001
  • Assembly 2003
  • Westminster 2005
Progressive Unionist Party (PUP)
  • Assembly 2003
Ulster Unionist Party (UUP)
  • Westminster 2001
  • Assembly 2003
  • Westminster 2005


  • Mark Durkan


  • Donaldson, J. (2004) The Bruges Group "The European Union – an Unionist/Ulster perspective"
  • HM The Queen (2002) Golden Jubilee Address to the Northern Ireland Assembly
  • Robinson, P. (2006) The Planter and The Gael
  • Trimble, D. (1998) Nobel Peace Prize
  • Trimble, D. (2001) Conservative Party Conference



Analytical sites do not necessarily imply support for political causes:

  • Act of Union 1800 Archive
  • British Council: website on Anglo-Irish relationships
  • Cadogan Group
  • Devolution and Constitutional Change Project
  • Irish Association
  • Ulster Covenant 1913 Archive


Cultural sites do not necessarily imply support for political causes:

  • Apprentice Boys of Derry
  • Belfast Newsletter
  • Belfast Proms in the Park
  • Glasgow Rangers Football Club (largely unionist following)
  • Independent Orange Order
  • Orange Order
  • Protestant Unionist Loyalist Social Education
  • Royal Black Institution
  • Ulster Scots Agency
  • Ulster Society

Integrationist (with Great Britain)

  • Conservative Party in Northern Ireland
  • Friends of the Union (archive)
  • Labour in Northern Ireland Campaign


A number of Acts of Parliament and other laws provide a legal framework for the union:

  • Act of Union 1800
  • Government of Ireland Act 1920
  • Ireland Act 1949
  • Northern Ireland Act 1998
  • Memorandum of Understanding (Devolution)
  • Concordat between NIO and Northern Ireland Executive

Political parties

  • Conservative and Unionist Party
  • Democratic Unionist Party
  • Progressive Unionist Party
  • Ulster Unionist Party

Southern Ireland/Neo-Unionist

  • Border Minority Group
  • Irish Unionist Alliance
  • Loyal Irish Union
  • Reform Movement
  • Trinity College Unionist Association (archive)


Some official agencies and organisations at a national level have developed specific structural links as part of the union. These links reflect the responsibilities of the agency or organisation to the citizens of Northern Ireland and the other UK regions. However, they do not indicate support for political unionism as the UK Civil Service is regulated by strict laws on impartiality. In addition, Northern Ireland is nowadays part of a web of co-operative links with the Republic of Ireland (north-south), the United Kingdom (east-west), the European Union and the United States.


  • Privy Council
  • The Queen

Central Government

  • 10 Downing Street
  • Government Internet Portal
  • Government News Network (GNN)
  • Northern Ireland Office
  • Scotland Office
  • Wales Office


  • North-South Ministerial Council
  • British-Irish Council
  • Office of the Northern Ireland Executive, Brussels
  • Northern Ireland Bureau, Washington DC


  • Northern Ireland Assembly
  • Northern Ireland Executive
  • Northern Ireland Internet Portal
  • Scottish Executive
  • Scottish Parliament
  • Welsh Assembly


  • Northern Ireland Affairs Committee
  • Northern Ireland Grand Committee 2005/2006
  • Scottish Affairs Committee
  • Welsh Affairs Committee
  • Welsh Grand Committee 2005/2006
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