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 1800-1904[edit]

The Act of Union 1800[edit]

Detail of the Battle of Ballynahinch 1798 by Thomas Robinson. Government Yeomanry prepare to hang 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." The focus of their patriotism was an Ascendancy parliament in Dublin. Largely confined on a narrow franchise to members of the Anglican communion, the established Church of Ireland, the parliament denied equal protection and public office 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 prospect of aid from revolutionary France, these United Irishmen resolved that "if the men of property will not support us, they must fall,"[1] and that if they were to fall that "Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter" should unite "to break the connection with England."[2] Such Jacobin resolve was broken upon the wheel of their 1798 uprising, and by the reporting of rebel outrages against Protestant Loyalists in the South (the Scullabogue and Wexford Bridge massacres).[3]

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 Crown in the Westminster Parliament was a resolution of what was ultimately the key issue for the governance of the country, the Catholic question.:[4]

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.[5]

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."[6] 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 which, having refused every call for reform--to remove the last of the sacramental tests, to curb patronage, to broaden the franchise--"they had in any case little cause to lament."[7] In time the legislative union with Great Britain came to be seen both as occasion for their relative prosperity and, as the Roman Catholic majority in Ireland began to stir and gather in a new national movement, as a guarantee of their "liberty."

Catholic Emancipation and the emergence of Nationalist Ireland[edit]

Catholic Emancipation as a world 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."[8] 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.[9] 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."[10]

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.[11]

Protestant unity and the New Reformation[edit]

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.[12]

A critic of the "lax" ("Arian") 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). In Ireland the new evangelism lent itself 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.[13]

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[14]

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.[15] 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.[16]

Victim of this polarisation of Protestant-Catholic relations were the proposals of the Dublin Castle executive to provide Ireland, "in advance of anything available at that time in England", a system of grant-aided non-denominational education.[17] 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."[18] 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."[19] Disregarding the plea of Young Irelander Thomas Davis that "the reasons for separate [Catholic/Protestant] education are reasons for separate life", O'Connell joined the bishops' in condemning the "Godless colleges".[20]

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 been at the forefront of the subsequent "Bible War."[21] The central revivalist commitment to personal witness through Jesus Christ did appear to transcend the ecclesiastical differences between Protestants[22] at a time, so Cooke insisted, of supreme political peril.[23]

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."[24]

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.[25] 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 Westminster[edit]

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."[26]

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.[27] 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."[28]

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 Protestant Charles Stewart Parnell.[29] 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 Bills[edit]

"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. "No Irishman worthy of the name", declared the anti-home-rule Liberal James Shaw, "would be contented" with the "subordination and dependence" implicit in the new dispensation. The only "reasonable hope of peace" lay in either "complete union or complete separation".[30]

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."[31] 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.[32] 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,[33] to which Irish Unionists made conscious appeal.[34]

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."[35]

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 an epitaph for the Liberal Party in Ireland, Shaw characterised Gladstone's swing from coercion to Home Rule to "half-hearted, wavering, inconsequent policy. . . , continued through centuries of confusion and misrule, which would neither thoroughly subdue the Irish as enemies, nor frankly accept them as friends and fellow subjects."[36]

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."[37] 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."[38]

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.[39]

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 Unionism[edit]

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."[40] 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."[41] 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.[42]

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.".[43] 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" 1905-1920[edit]

"The democracy of Ulster"[edit]

Unionist march in Belfast, 9 April 1912

In 1905 the Ulster Unionist Council was established to coalesce unionists in the north including, with 50 of 200 seats, the Orange Order. 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.[44] Crucially, while southern landowners had been politically at war with their tenants, northern employers could generally 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, but sash-wearing loyalists were not necessarily reliable. In the mind of many ordinary Belfast Protestants there was no contradiction between the defence of Protestant principle and political radicalism, "indeed, these were often seen as one and the same because it was the wealthy who were most prone to conciliation and treachery".[45]

In 1902 the shipyard worker Thomas Sloan, presented as the democratic candidate by the plebeian Belfast Protestant Association, defeated the Conservative Party nominee for South Belfast. His campaign was marked by what his opponents considered a classic piece of bigotry. Sloan protested the exemption of Catholic convents from inspection by the Hygiene Commission (the Catholic Church should not be "a state within a state"). But it was also as a trade unionist that Sloan criticised the "fur-coat brigade" in the leadership of unionism. With his Independent Orange Order Sloan supported dock and linen-mill workers, led by the syndicalist James Larkin, in great Belfast Lockout of 1907.[46][47] ("Russellite Unionists" were another expression of class-related tension. Thomas Russell MP, the son of an evicted Scottish crofter, broke with the Conservatives in the Irish Unionist Alliance to be returned to Westminster from South Tyrone in 1906 as the champion of the Ulster Farmers and Labourers Union).[48][49]

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".[50] 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."[51]

The difficulty for nationalists and for those, like James Connolly, who believed that class solidarity should draw workers down the path of Irish independence, was that without having to break unionist ranks with their employers, workers were beginning to see the link to what the Belfast labour leader William Walker represented to Connolly as a "larger and more advanced democracy" paying dividends.[52] Thanks to the legislative union with Great Britain, 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".[53] 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:[54]

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 suffrage[edit]

Isabella Tod, 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.[55]

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. Determined lobbying by her North of Ireland Women's Suffrage Society ensured the 1887 Act creating a new municipal franchise for Belfast (a city in which, thanks to their employment in linen and tobacco mills, women predominated) conferred the vote on "persons" rather than men. This was eleven years before women elsewhere Ireland gained the vote in local government elections.[56] During the height of the Home Rule crisis in 1912-1913 the WSS held at least 47 open-air meetings in Belfast, and mounted dinner-hour pickets at factory gates to engage working women.[57]

Unionist WSS activists were not impressed by the women's Ulster Declaration. Elizabeth McCracken, a regular contributor to the Belfast News Letter, noted the failure Unionist women to formulate "any demand on their own behalf or that of their own sex."[58] The Declaration, nonetheless, was a political affirmation of intent by women, organised and publicly staged by women. Founded in January 1911, with well over 100,000 members the Ulster Women's Unionist Council UWUC was the largest women's political group in Ireland.[59]

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."[60] 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's parliamentary suffrage, albeit on a highly restrictive property basis.[61]

In the spring in 1914, seeming to over rule Craig whom WSS 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.[62] 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.[63] In July 1914, in a plan hatched with Evans, Lillian Metge bombed Lisburn Cathedral.[64]

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.

1912 Home Rule Crisis[edit]

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.

There had long been discussion of giving "an option to Ulster." As early as 1843, The Northern Whig reasoned that if differences in "race" and "interests" argue for Ireland's separation from Great Britain then "the Northern 'aliens', holders of 'foreign heresies' (as O'Connell says they are)" could not be denied their own "distinct kingdom", Belfast as its capital.[65] 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) likewise argued that "the Protestant part of Ulster should receive special treatment . . . on grounds identical with those that support the general contention for Home Rule"[66] Northern unionists expressed no interest in a Belfast legislature. As The Northern Whig had noted, the only desire was "to continue as fellow-subjects of all the inhabitants of the British Isles." But the riposte to nationalists remained. In summarising The Case Against Home Rule (1912), L. S. Amery observed 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."[67]

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[68] 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 23 September, 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."[69]

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.[70]

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.[71]

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.[72][73]


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.[74]

On August 4, 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.”[75]

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.[76][77]

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[78] and spelt the end of Home Rule as a popular cause.[79] 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.[80]

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. (Joining "Red Glasgow" in the demand for a ten hour reduction in the work week, early in 1919 Belfast shipyard and engineering workers sustained the largest and longest walk out in the history of the city).[81]

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"[82] 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."[83]

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").[84] 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."[85] 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,[86] a system of government for the six north-eastern counties that was "set up as an instrument of British policy towards Ireland as a whole" and not for their "own good."[87]

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."[88] 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."[89]

In debating the Government of Ireland Bill, Craig had conceded that, while unionists did "not want" a parliament by which they would be "to a certain extent separated from England", having themselves "all the paraphernalia of Government" might help them resist pro-Dublin pressures from a future Liberal and/or Labour government. The argument--the only argument--for a Belfast parliament was "safety".[90]

Unionist majority rule: Northern Ireland 1921-1972[edit]

Exclusion from Westminster Politics[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."[91] 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."[92]

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 of 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.[93] 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.[94] 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.[95]

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."[96] The principal sources of government revenue, income and corporation taxes, customs and excise, were entirely beyond Belfast's control.[97]

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.[98]

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."[99]

On the edge of the Union[edit]

Election poster 1923

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."[100] 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 acts of Northern Ireland legislature was to scrap proportional representation (PR), prescribed for all Irish elections 1919. Preference voting was seen as having assisted nationalists to the control of a large number of local and district councils including, in a "blow to Unionist pride", Derry,[101] authorities which then pledged 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 (which had displaced Unionist councillors in Belfast) was "to bring about disunity among our people."[102]

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.[103] 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."[104][105]

The "knife-edge" fate of the constitution was the justification for much else that was seen to define 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[106] (left-wing "agitators" were a target of later exclusion orders).[107]  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.[108]

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."[109] In 1922 in Northern Ireland a total of 232 people were killed, including four other Unionist MPs. Nearly a thousand were wounded.[110] 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",[111] and that many Catholics preferred "second-class citizenship to working for the government".[112][113] 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."[114] 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,"[115] and of the future prime minister Basil Brooke (Lord Brookeborough) labelling 97 per cent of Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland as "disloyal and disruptive."[116] No allowance was made for the reluctance of the minority to serve a "foreign" government. Loyalty oaths were required.

Stormont government[edit]

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.[117] 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.[118] However, when in this expectation the Revolutionary workers Group (Communist Party of Ireland) took to the streets in 1935 they found themselves pushed aside in bitter sectarian rioting.[119] 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 (UULA), it did not fundamentally alter "the expectations the Protestant masses had of 'their' state."[120]

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,"[121] 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."[122]

For unionists, democracy in Northern Ireland effectively meant rule by one party. In his 28 years in Stormont (1925-1953) Tommy Henderson, a North Belfast independent ex-UULA, was a one-man unionist opposition. In the 1938 the Ulster Progressive Unionist Association attempted to join him, averaging a little better than a quarter of the vote in ten otherwise safe Government seats. After resolving positively for the Union, in 1953 the Northern Ireland Labour Party won three seats. But for the most part Government candidates were returned by unionist voters without contest. The Nationalist Party did not take their seats during the first Stormont parliament (1921–25), and did not accept the role of official Opposition for a further forty years.[123] Proclaimed by Craig a "Protestant parliament",[124] and with a "substantial and assured" Unionist-Party majority[125] the Stormont legislature could 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.[126]

Although they had no positive political programme for a devolved parliament, 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.[127] 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.[128]

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.[129]

1960s: reform and protest[edit]

NICRA 1968 Derry march.jpg

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."[130]

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.[131]

Unionist unease was particularly acute in Derry and the west.[132] 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."[133] 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."[134]

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."[135] 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, a broad labour and republican grouping with Communist Party veteran Betty Sinclair as chair. Seeking to "challenge . . . by more vigorous action than Parliamentary questions and newspaper controversy," NICRA decided to carry out a programme of marches.[136]

"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,"[137] 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.".[138] 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.[139] 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'Neill[edit]

February 1969 election

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,"[140] 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.[141] 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.[142][143] the UPA promoted and defended Protestant claims to housing and employment.[144][145]

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; the abolition of the rates-based 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."[146]

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?[147]

O'Neill, who in Belfast personally canvassed Catholic households,[148] 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.[149] 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[150][151] 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".[152]

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.[153] (The bombers, styling themselves "the Ulster Volunteer Force," had announced their presence in 1966 with a series of sectarian killings).[154][155] 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.[156]

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".[157]

Unionist perspectives on The Troubles[edit]

Loyalist mural: comment on 30 years of Republican violence

All parties to the 1998 Good Friday 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."[158] 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."[159][160]

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."[161] 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.[162]

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. 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."[163]

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.[164][165] 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")[166] and by the "structural" characteristics of low social status, of larger families and lower education attainment.[167][168]

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".[169]

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".[170] 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[171] 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.[172][173]

Unionists viewed the Provisionals' interpretation of physical-force republicanism 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, suppliers and contractors. 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.[174][175][176] Then there were the massacres such as Tullyvallen (an Orange hall), Darkley (a gospel hall), and Kingsmill (a labourers' bus) and the so-called "Baedeker raids", bombing "the heart out of small [largely Protestant] provincial towns", all an attempt "to break the spirit of the Unionist population."[177]

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."[178]

Imposition of direct rule[edit]

Bloody Sunday mural in Derry

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"[179]—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.[180]

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.[181]

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.[182][183] In what was reported as the biggest British military operation since the Suez Crisis,[184] Operation Motorman, on 31 July 1972, the British Army did eventually act to re-establish control.[185][186] 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.[187]  

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".[188] 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."[189]

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 10 August 1971 342 persons suspected of IRA involvement were arrested without charge or warrant.[190] 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.[191] Leading Provisionals, some of whom were new to the IRA, entirely escaped the net. Unionists blamed the poor intelligence on London's decision to tolerate no-go areas.[192]

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,[193] (and subsequently, in a case brought by the Irish government, ruled "inhuman and degrading" by the European Court of Human Rights),[194] and by the Army's fatal use of live fire against anti-internment protesters, "Bloody Sunday" in Derry (20 January 1972) being the most notorious incident.[195] 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."[196]

Negotiating the Irish Dimension: 1973-2020[edit]

Sunningdale Agreement and the Ulster Workers strike[edit]

Anti-Faulkner Unionist election poster

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 those 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 ...[197]

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 difficulty 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",[198] Faulkner had committed them to agreement with "Republican Catholics"[199]

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.[200] 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".[201] 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."[202]

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, Unionists feared these created the possibility of their being manoeuvred into a minority position. "In retrospect", Devlin regretted the SDLP had not "adopted a two stage approach, by allowing power sharing at Stormont to establish itself", 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.[203]

Within a week of taking office as First Minister, Faulkner was forced to resign as UUP leader. A surprise Westminster election at the end of February was a triumph for the United Ulster Unionist Coalition, in which the bulk of his old party stood as "Official Unionists" with William Craig's Ulster Vanguard and Paisley's new Democratic Unionists. Faulkner's pro-Assembly grouping was left with just 13% of the unionist vote. Arguing that they had deprived Faulkner of any semblance of a mandate, the victors called for new Assembly elections.

When in May the Assembly affirmed the Sunningdale Agreement, a loyalist coalition, the Ulster Workers' Council (UWC) , called a general strike. Within two weeks the UWC, supported by the Ulster Defence Association and UVF paramilitaries, had an effective stranglehold on energy supplies.[204] Tensions were further heightened by Harold Wilson's claim of a planned IRA offensive intended "to plunge Northern Ireland into civil war" and by the UVF's devastating cross-border Dublin and Monaghan bombings.[205] Concessions sought by Faulkner were blocked by the SDLP. John Hume, then Minister of Commerce, pressed for a British Army enforced "fuel-oil plan" and for resistance to "a fascist takeover".[206][207] After Mervyn Rees, the Northern Ireland Secretary refused his final plea for negotiation, Faulkner resigned. Conceding that there was no longer any constitutional basis for the Executive, Rees shuttered the Assembly.[208]

Unionism and loyalist para-militarism[edit]

Mural for the Red Hand Commando (UVF) which, uniquely, had an Irish-language motto, Lamh Dearg Abu (Victory to the Red Hand)

In inaugurating a prolonged period of Direct Rule, the UWC strike weakened the representative role of the unionist parties. There were to be a number of consultative assemblies and forums in the years that followed, but the only elective offices with administrative responsibilities--and these were minimal--were in down-sized district councils. At Westminster unionist MPs contended with governments that remained committed to the principles of the 1972 Green Paper. A brief honeymoon with the Thatcher government ended with the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. The initiative in protesting what unionists often perceived as inadequate political and security responses to republican violence passed to loyalists. Their principal mode of operation was not to be the work stoppage. With Paisley's blessing, in 1977 the UDA and a number of other loyalists groups sought to replicate the UWC success. Stoppages in support of a "unionist wish-list"--essentially a return to Stormont-era majority rule[209]—failed to secure the support of critical workers and broke up in face UUP condemnation and firm police action.[210] Nor was it to be the be the ballot, although both the UVF and the UDA did establish party-political wings. It was assassination: in the course of the Troubles loyalists are credited with the murder of 1027 individuals (about half the number attributed to republican paramilitaries and 30% of the total killed).[211]

Loyalism, of which the once largely rural Orange Order had been the archetypal expression, is generally understood as a strand of unionism. It has been characterised as partisan but not necessarily party-political, and in outlook as more ethnic than consciously British--the perspective of those who are "Ulster Protestants first and British second."[212] Loyalism can embrace evangelicals, but the term is consistently associated with the paramilitaries and, on that basis, frequently used as if were synonymous with working-class unionism. The paramilitaries are "thoroughly working class."[213] Their hold, typically, has been upon working-class Protestant neighbourhoods and estates where they have compensated for the loss of the confidence they enjoyed as district defenders in early years of the Troubles with racketeering and intimidation.[214]

Paisley combined his radically anti-Catholic evangelism early in his career with a foray into physical force loyalism: his formation in 1956 of Ulster Protestant Action (UPA).[215][143] Ulster Protestant Volunteers implicated Paisely, albeit via supposed intermediaries, in the bombings intended to "blow O'Neill out of office" early in 1969. Leaders of the UVF, however, are adamant that Paisley had nothing to do with them. His rhetoric may have been inspirational, but theirs was a tightly-guarded conspiracy.[216] The motivation to kill came largely "from secular forces within the Loyalist community."[217] Through the DUP, Paisley ultimately was to lead the bulk of his following into party politics, emerging in the new century as unionism's undisputed leader.

The relationship of other, at the time, more mainstream, unionist political figures to loyalist paramilitaries is also a subject of debate. Paramilitaries deny and resent any implication of political string pulling, They suggest, nonetheless, that they could rely on the politicians to deliver their message. The party leaders might condemn loyalist outrages, but inasmuch as they tried to account for them as reactive, as a response to the injury and frustration of the unionist people, they were effectively employing sectarian, frequently random, killings for a common purpose, to extract concessions from the Government: "You know, 'if you don't talk to us, you will have to talk to these armed men".[218] The relationship of unionists to loyalist violence, in this sense, remained "ambiguous."[219]

Opposition to the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement[edit]

Campaign against the Anglo-Irish Agreement

In 1982 unionists were presented with a new initiative, "rolling devolution." Asserting once again that "the difference in identity and aspiration lies at the heart of the 'problem' of Northern Ireland," and that any new structures of government would have to be "acceptable to both sides of the community," Margaret Thatcher's Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Jim Prior, proposed an Assembly which by a 70 percent weighted majority could decide how devolution, whether across the board or department by department, might unfold. From the UUP's James Molyneaux there were the familiar objections to "something very far removed from straightforward democracy" and which could give republicans an effective "veto."[220] "While a return to Stormont was desirable in theory", Molyneaux's successor David Trimble suggests unionists were concluding that it was not "worth the compromise entailed."[221] But with Paisley calling on unionists not to "lose sight" of an opportunity for the "Ulster people" to "freely elect their own Assembly and to begin to bring Direct Rule to account", there was not blanket rejection.[222] That was to come from nationalists.

John Hume dismissed the initiative as "insulting." Not only did it imply, with the 70 percent hurdle, a very much higher degree of unionist unanimity and consent than was required in 1973, it suggested that, for the present at least, the Irish Dimension would have adequate "institutional expression" in continuing "intergovernmental" exchanges with Dublin, then at a low point following the PIRA Hunger Strike.[223] Seconded by the Dublin government, SDLP insisted that without of "a very strong and positive and concrete expression of the Irish identity" the proposals were unworkable.[224]

There were other calculations in an initiative that, in the wake of the Hunger Strike, had the potential to deflect criticism not only from the Republic but also from the United States,[225][226] but in 1985 the British government appeared to reverse tack. With the Irish Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald Thatcher signed an agreement at Hillsborough that projected not rolling devolution but a rolling Irish Dimension. An Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference would invite the Irish government to "put forward views on proposals" for major legislation concerning Northern Ireland, and this Conference would have a permanent secretariat, including officials from the Republic's Department of Foreign Affairs, quartered in Northern Ireland itself. Proposals from The Irish government would be entertained, however, only on "matters [that] are not the responsibility of a devolved administration in Northern Ireland." If unionists wished to limit Dublin's influence, the suggestion was that they would have to climb down from their insistence of "simple majority rule" and think again as to how nationalists could be accommodated at Stormont.[227]

The unionist reaction, Thatcher recalled in her memoirs, was "worse than anyone had predicted to me".[228] The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) led an "Ulster says No" campaign against the Anglo-Irish or Hillsborough Agreement, that included strikes, civil disobedience and a mass resignation of unionist MPs from Westminster and suspensions of district council meetings.[229] On 23 November 1985 upwards of a hundred thousand rallied outside Belfast City Hall. "Where do the terrorists return to for sanctuary?" Paisley asked the crowd: "To the Irish Republic and yet Mrs. Thatcher tells us the Republic may have some say in our province. We say, Never! Never! Never! Never!"[230] Irish historian Dr Jonathan Bardon remarks that "Nothing like it had been seen since 1912".[231]

Unionists, however, found that in opposing the prospect of Joint Rule, they were in a position very different to that in which they had been, two generations before, in opposing Home Rule. Standing beside Carson in 1912, the Conservative Party leader Andrew Bonar Law had famously declared "I can imagine no lengths of resistance to which Ulster can go in which I would not be prepared to support her."[232] Now they were isolated, opposing Conservative government and with a Westminster Opposition, Labour, committed to Irish unity. With no obvious political leverage, and possibly to preempt initiative passing to the loyalist paramilitaries, in November 1986 Paisley (not for the first time) announced his own "third force":[233] the Ulster Resistance Movement (URM) would "take direct action as and when required." Recruitment rallies were held in towns across Northern Ireland and thousands were said to have joined. Despite importing arms, some of which were passed on to the UVF and UDA, for the URM the call for "action" never came.[234][235] By the fourth anniversary of the accord, unionist protests against the Anglo-Irish Agreement were drawing only token support.[229]

In March 1991, the two unionist parties agreed with the SDLP and Alliance arrangements for political talks on the future of Northern Ireland.[229] In their submission to the inter-party talks in 1992, the Ulster Unionists said they could envisage a range of cross-border bodies so long as these were under the control of the Northern Assembly, did not involve an overarching all-Ireland Council, and were not designed to be developed in the direction of joint authority. While prepared to accommodate an Irish Dimension unionists, at a minimum, were looking for a "settlement" not an "unsettlement."[236]

Alternatives to Devolution?[edit]

When in 1968 unionism first come under pressure from London to make unwelcome concessions, Bill Craig proposed Northern Ireland follow Rhodesia's example with a unilateral declaration of independence.[237] London also considered a unilateral break. In the wake of the 1974 Ulster Workers Strike, Harold Wilson was briefed on casting Northern Ireland adrift as a Dominion, all British funding to be cut off within five years. The Prime Minister conceded that the outcry would be enormous.[238] A report for his Conservative predecessor Edward Heath concluded that the "redefinition of the border and compulsory transfers of population" that such a withdrawal would imply could not be managed "unless the government were prepared to be completely ruthless in the use of force."[239]

Wilson's Northern Ireland Secretary, Mervyn Rees (1974-1976), nonetheless persisted with the idea that London had a third option: to leave the people of Ulster to "sort out their own affairs".[240] Seconded by The Times of London ("How Long Will Westminster Go Signing A Blank Check for Ulster?""Ulster's Growing Belief That Britain is Planning A Withdrawal", "'Republic of Ulster' Increasingly Canvassed")[241] Rees's Northern Ireland Office appeared to take seriously suggestions of an "Ulster nationalism", but found no credible representatives. In the 1982 Anglo-Irish Agreement protest by election in South Belfast, on a platform of negotiated independence the UDA's Ulster Loyalist Democratic Party took just 576 votes.[242]

If there was a radical alternative to devolution with an "Irish Dimension", unionists were inclined to look to a more radical unionism, to integration. If they did not wish to see Northern Ireland treated as a "colonial condominium", the argument was that they should refuse special status for and return to the original unionist case for full legislative and political union with Great Britain.[243]

Veterans of the UVF had greater success with their Progressive Unionist Party than the UDA had with the pro-independence ULDP. In the tradition of William Walker, the PUP argued that it was no repudiation of "the principles of the United Irishmen" to acknowledge that "the struggle for social justice in the working class cities and towns throughout the United Kingdom" had "killed far less and delivered more for ordinary people than armed struggle in Ireland ever did."[244] Committed integrationists objected that, because of their sectarian association no unionist party could represent "British standards" to Catholics and others who might identify with the British Welfare State. The aim had to be the integration of Northern Ireland into the party political System which determines the government of the United Kingdom. and reversing the Labour Party's policy of deference to Irish "sister" parties (since 1970 to the SDLP), was the key to that possibility.

This had been the argument of the British and Irish Communist Organisation (B&ICO), a small group that coalesced around contrarian commentary of Brendan Clifford. The B&ICO had come to the attention of unionists through their articulation of a "two nations theory" of Partition.[245] This proposed to explain the refusal of "the society which had created the United Irishmen" to embrace nationalism "sensibly, without paradox and without the attribution of moronic qualities to an entire people".[246] The group had also distinguished themselves in the eyes of loyalists by producing sympathetic bulletins both during the UWC Strike in 1974[247] and the subsequent 1977 stoppage, the "Paisley strike".[248]

In 1977 the B&ICO helped mount the Campaign for Labour Representation in Northern Ireland (CLRNI). The British Labour Party, they argued, had been persuaded by "Catholic-nationalist 'socialists'" that Irish unity was the only left option in Northern Ireland less on its merits than on the "superficial" appearance of unionism as the six-county Tory Party.[249] Had Labour tested the "political alliance" that was unionism as it began fracture in the late 1960s "all sorts of possibilities would have opened up." The Labour Party, they believed, would have been "the natural bridge between Catholics and the state".[250] Disappointed in Labour's response, and unable themselves to demonstrated a labour vote, in 1993 the CLRNI dissolved. Their one endorsed elected official, Newtownabbey councillor Mark Langhammer led a loose Labour coalition into elections for the consultative Northern Ireland Forum in 1996 and polled just 571 votes.[251]

The B&ICO was also participated in a broader Campaign for Equal Citizenship for Northern Ireland, (CECNI). This sought to persuade all three major Westminster parties to organise and canvas in Northern Ireland. Notwithstanding that it was "inviting the party to collude in its own dissolution," discussion of a CECNI-supported ‘equal citizenship’ resolution was blocked at the 1986 Unionist Party annual Conference only by an extraordinary intervention from the leadership and, in Unionist exile from the Conservative Party he had hoped to lead, from Enoch Powell MP.[252] CECNI president, Robert McCartney briefly held together five anti-devolution UK Unionist Party MLAs in the 1998 Assembly.

In July 2008, under Reg Empey Ulster Unionists sought to restore the historic link to the Conservative Party, broken in the wake of Sunningdale. With the new Conservative leader David Cameron declaring that "the semi-detached status of Northern Ireland politics needs to end",[253] Empey announced that his party would be running candidates in upcoming Westminster elections as "Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force." The move triggered defections, and in 2010 election the party lost their only remaining MP, Sylvia Hermon[254] who campaigned successfully as an independent. The episode confirmed the UUP's eclipse by the Democratic Unionists, a party that mixed "social and economic populism" with their "uncompromising" unionism.[255] On a range of issues--education, social security, benefit reform, privatisation and low pay--the DUP was to the left of the Conservatives.[256]

1998 Good Friday Agreement[edit]

Peace mural, Loyalist east Belfast

SDLP leader Seamus Mallon quipped that the 1998 Belfast, or Good Friday, Agreement (GFA) was "Sunningdale for slow learners".[257][258][259] This was not the view of David Trimble, with whom Mallon, as joint head of the new power-sharing Executive, shared the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM). Trimble believed that unionism had secured much that had been denied to Faulkner 25 years before.

The Council of Ireland, that Mallon's party colleague, Hugh Logue, had referred to as "the vehicle that would trundle Unionists into a united Ireland".[260] was replaced an North-South Ministerial Council. "Not a supra-national body," and with no "pre-cooked" agenda, the Council was accountable to the Assembly where procedural rules (the Petition of Concern)[261] allowed for cross-community consent, and hence a "unionist veto".[262]

For the first time, Dublin formally recognised the border as the limit of its jurisdiction. The Republic amended its Constitution to omit the territorial claim to "the whole island of Ireland" and to acknowledge that Irish unity could be achieved only by majority consent "democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island." The firm nationalist principle that unionists are a minority within the territory of the state was repudiated.[263][264]

Against these sureties for the Union, unionists had to accept that within new framework for power-sharing there was no escaping the need to secure republican consent. The new Executive would be formed not, as in 1974, by voluntary coalition but by the allocation ministerial posts to the Assembly parties on a proportional basis. This " d'Hondt method" ensured that unionists would find themselves sitting at the Executive table with those they had persistently labelled "IRA-Sinn Fein." In 1998 Sinn Féin, who had been gaining on the SDLP since the eighties, had 18 Assembly seats (to 26 for the SDLP) securing them two of the ten Executive departments.

At a more profound level this sharing of office was based on a principle that, in the unionist view, "rendered dangerously incoherent" the position of state in relation to the Union.[265] The Agreement insists on a symmetry between unionism and nationalism, the two "designations" it privileges over "others" through the procedural rules of the new Assembly. Either can insist (through a Petition of Concern) on decision by parallel consent, and they nominate the First and Deputy First Ministers which, despite the distinction in title, are a joint office. "Parity of esteem" is accorded to two diametrically opposed aspirations: one to support and uphold the state, the other to renounce and subvert the state in favour of another. The UK government may have deflected the republican demand that it be a persuader for Irish unity, but at the cost of professing its own neutrality with regard to of future sovereignty over Northern Ireland.[266] For their profession of loyalty to the state, unionists could expect no acknowledgement or favour.

In the UK's acceptance of Irish unity by consent there was nothing new. It had been there in 1973 at Sunningdale, in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 and again in the 1993 Downing Street Declaration in which London had disclaimed any "selfish strategic or economic interest" in the matter.[267] Unionists were nonetheless discomforted by the republican claim that the 1998 Agreement had, in the words of Gerry Adams, "dealt the union a severe blow": "there was now no absolute commitment, no raft of parliamentary acts to back up an absolute claim, only an agreement to stay until the majority decided otherwise."[268]

In the May 1998 referendum on the Good Friday Agreement, on a turnout of 81%, 71.1% voted in favour. (A simultaneous referendum held in the Republic of Ireland on a 56% turnout produced a majority in favour of 94.4%). The best estimates indicated that all but 3 or 4% of Catholics/Nationalists voted 'Yes', but that almost half of Protestants/Unionists (between 47 and 49%) stood with the DUP and voted "no."[269]

Chief among the DUP's objections was neither the North-South Ministerial Council, although that remained under suspicion, nor the principle of power-sharing as such. When the new Executive was formed, the DUP matched Sinn Féin in taking two ministerial seats. The issue was the continuation of the IRA as an armed and active organisation: the republicans were at the table while retaining, at readiness, the capacity for terrorist action further bolstered by the release of republican prisoners.[270] In an agreement that called parties to use their "influence" with paramilitaries to achieve disarmament, there was no effective sanction. Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams were free to insist that the IRA took their own counsel.[271]

In October 2002, at a time the IRA had finally agreed but not yet complied with a process for decommissioning their arms, a police raid on Sinn Féin's offices at Stormont suggested that the organisation was still active and collecting intelligence. Trimble led the UUP out of the Executive and the Assembly was suspended. (No charges were brought as a result of the raid at the centre of which was a Sinn Féin staffer, Denis Donaldson, later exposed as a government informer, and a public inquiry was ruled "not in the public interest").[272]

Democratic Unionists enter government with Sinn Féin[edit]

In October 2006 the DUP and Sinn Féin found an accommodation in the St Andrews Agreement, paving the way for Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness to be nominated as First, and Deputy First, Ministers by a restored Assembly. For the UUP's new leader Reg Empey the breakthrough was merely the GFA "for slow learners." But while he acknowledged his party's compromises--"in politics, as in life, it is a truism that no-one can ever have one hundred percent of what they desire"—Paisley argued that Ulster was "turning a corner". The IRA had disarmed, and from Sinn Féin support had been won "for all the institutions of policing." Northern Ireland had "come to a time of peace."[273]

Among Paisley's followers there was shock and confusion over his decision to go into government with Sinn Féin. During the preceding Twelfth celebrations Paisley had avowed, in characteristic form, that Sinn Féin would get into government in Northern Ireland only "over our dead bodies".[274] The dismay was compounded by the seemingly "relaxed" relationship he developed with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness,[275] an admitted former IRA commander.[276]

The disquiet within the DUP brought the forward the date of Paisley's retirement. After thirteen months in office the 81-year-old was replaced as First Minister of Northern Ireland by his long-time DUP deputy Peter Robinson[277][278] Robinson, and Arlene Foster who followed him in office from January 2016, had more distant and brittle relationships with McGuinness and with his party colleagues. Citing "DUP's arrogance" in relation to a range of issues, including management of a financial scandal, in January 2017 McGuinness resigned. Sinn Féin refused to nominate a successor, without whom the devolved institutions were unworkable. Assembly elections followed on 2 March 2017. For the first time in the history of Northern Ireland as a political entity, with 45 of 90 seats unionists failed to secure an overall majority in a parliament of the province.

It was not until January 2020 that a deal was brokered ("New Decade, New Approach") to restore Assembly, and to persuade Sinn Féin to nominate their new leader in the North Michelle O'Neill as McGuinness's successor.[279]

The recoil from Paisley within the DUP was not marked by a lasting split over the decision to go into an Executive with Sinn Féin. In the Assembly, Paisley's former lieutenant, Jim Allister has remained a lone Traditional Unionist Voice protesting an "enforced coalition" that "holds at the heart of government" those determined to subvert the state.[280]

Unionism as a minority bloc[edit]


2016 EU Referendum results by parliamentary constituency
  Leave (44.2%)
  Remain (55.78%)

Four months before the UK's June 2016 referendum on the future of UK membership in the European Union, Arlene Foster announced that her party had decided, "on balance", to campaign for "Leave."[281] With equal claim to be a pro-business party with a strong farming support base, the UUP decided that "on balance Northern Ireland is better remaining in the European Union."[282] At a time when Sinn Féin was citing the cross-border, all-island, economic activity facilitated and supported by the EU as a further argument for Irish unity[283][284] there was a sense that Brexit would restore a necessary measure of "distance" from Dublin.[285] For the DUP tipping the balance may have been the belief that this, and other pro-Brexit instincts, could be indulged "at no political cost".[286] The general expectation was that Remain would prevail. In the event, DUP leaders concede that a price was paid, that in the 2020 EU Withdrawal Agreement Act the interests of unionism were compromised.

Sinn Féin's immediate response to the announcement of the "Leave" result in 2016 was to call for a border poll.[287] By a margin of 12% Northern Ireland had voted Remain (along with Scotland, with a majority vote 62% to Remain). [288] That "English votes" were going to "drag the people of the North of Ireland out of the EU" was a demonstration of the "huge democratic deficit of partition."[289] For Arlene Foster it was enough to observe that, consistent with the question on the ballot, Leave had been "UK-wide decision" and that "every vote" within the UK was equal.[288] Yet as Brexit negotiations with the EU 27 proceeded she felt the need to insist that a UK-wide mandate to leave could be honoured only by the UK "leaving the European Union as a whole," its "territorial and economic integrity" intact.[290]

The DUP's ten MPs enabled Theresa May's Conservative Government to remain in power; following the hung parliament that resulted following the snap general election in 2017. [291] However, divisions within May's Conservative Party limited DUP influence on Brexit policy. Legislation on withdrawal from EU would require a very much broader cross-party coalition. At the end of the year, May returned from Brussels with a proposal that Northern Ireland, alone, continue with the Republic of Ireland under a common EU's trade regime.

Coalescing behind the Dublin government, the EU 27 had ruled that the interests of the Northern Ireland peace process are "paramount". To avoid the "step backwards" that would be represented, "symbolically and psychologically", by a "hardening" of the Irish border, Northern Ireland should remain in regulatory alignment with the European Single Market and behind the Customs Union frontier. That would allow necessary physical checks on goods to be removed to air and sea points of entry.[292]

Foster protested that the hazards of a "no deal Brexit" would be better than this "annexation of Northern Ireland away from the rest of the United Kingdom."[293] She was supported by prominent Brexiteers. Boris Johnson told the 2018 DUP conference that the EU had made Northern Ireland "their indispensable bargaining chip": "if we wanted to do free trade deals, if we wanted to cut tariffs or vary our regulation the we would have to leave Northern Ireland behind as a semi-colony of the EU . . . damaging the fabric of the Union with regulatory checks . . . down the Irish Sea." It would be an "historic mistake."[294] Privately, Johnson complained that the attention to Northern Ireland sensitivities was a case of "the tail wagging the dog"[295] Within three months of replacing May in July 2019, he had reheated her withdrawal agreement, stripping the "Irish backstop" not of its essential provisions—Northern Ireland would remain a customs point of entry for the EU—but rather of the suggestion that to avoid a singling Northern Ireland out UK as a whole might accept an interim regulatory and customs partnership.[296]

The DUP acknowledged the sense of "betrayal."[297] Johnson's deal was "the worst of all worlds."[298] With the Prime Minister secure in his "Get-Brexit-Done" mandate from the 2019 UK general election, the DUP's last line of defence was themselves to appeal to the international and constitutional status of the Good Friday Agreement. Johnson had made one apparent concession: every four years the Northern Ireland Assembly would be called upon to renew the region's new double-border trade arrangements. Pointedly, however, this was to be by "simple majority vote". The decision could not be subject to a Petition of Concern, and thus to the prospect of a unionist veto.[299] For the DUP this was to drive "a coach and horses through the professed sanctity of the Belfast Agreement." Arrangements that "diminish the powers of the NI assembly [and] which will treat NI differently to the rest of UK" had be on the basis of parallel unionist-nationalist majorities.[300]

For unionists, the appeal to the cross-community consent provisions of the Good Friday Agreement was a significant admission. They now conceived themselves, not in Ireland alone but in Northern Ireland, as a minority, deserving of minority protection. The novel predicament was underscored in the 2019 Westminster election. Although the combined nationalist vote actually fell 3%, Northern Ireland for the first time returned more nationalist MPs than unionist.[301].

Unionist demographics[edit]

(See also Demography of Northern Ireland, Religion in Northern Ireland and United Ireland)

Detail from 2015 Sinn Fein election flyer, North Belfast

Asked to account for the 2019 loss to Sinn Féin's John Finucane of North Belfast, a seat her deputy Nigel Dodds had held for nineteen years and which never previously returned a nationalist MP, Arlene Foster replied "The demography just wasn’t there. We worked very hard to get the vote out . . . but the demography was against us".[302] The "demography" that "wasn't there" was a once pronounced Protestant majority. When Sinn Féin's Gerry Kelly ran against Dodds in 2015 it was with a campaign flyer that, advertising the changed ratio of Catholics to Protestants in the constituency (46.94 per cent to 45.67 per cent), had a simple message for Catholic voters, "Make the change".[303]

Demography, in this sense, has been turning against unionism for decades. The proportion of people across Northern Ireland identifying as Protestant, or raised Protestant, has fallen from 60% in the 1960s to 48%, while those raised Catholic has increased from 35 to 45%. Only two of the six counties, Antrim and Down, now have "significant Protestant majorities", and only one – Lisburn – of its five official cities. A majority Protestant Northern Ireland "is now restricted to the suburban area surrounding Belfast."[304][305] Unionist representation has declined. The combined unionist vote, trailing below 50% in elections since 2014, fell to a new low of just 42.3% in the 2019 Westminster poll.

Unionism "losing", however, has not necessarily meant nationalism "winning": overall there has been "no comparable increase in the nationalist vote mirroring the decline in the unionist bloc".[306] With Sinn Fein's victory in North Belfast and a gain for the SDLP in South Belfast (constituencies that once returned Ulster Unionists unopposed), in 2019 nationalist parties did secure nine MPs (the 7 Sinn Féiners, on a policy of "abstention", refusing to take their seats at Westminster) to eight for the unionists (all DUP). But across Northern Ireland the nationalists' overall share of the popular vote, 37.7% was still below the 42.3% unionist turnout, and lower than it had been in 2005, 41.8%.

Surveys suggest that more people than ever in Northern Ireland, 50%, say they are "neither unionist nor nationalist". The electoral impact of eschewing "tribal labels" (upwards of 17% also refuse a religious designation) is limited since those who do so are younger and less likely to turnout in Northern Ireland's still largely polarised elections.[307] It is still the case that Protestants will not vote for nationalists, and Catholics will not to vote for unionists. But they will vote for "others", for parties that decline to make an issue of Northern Ireland's constitutional status. The principal "other" party has been the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland. In 2019, Alliance more than doubled its vote from 7.9% to 18.5% in the Northern-Ireland wide May European elections, and from 7.1% to 18.5% in the December Westminster election (gaining the seat of the retiring independent unionist, Sylvia Hermon). According to exit polling it is a surge that drew both on past unionist and on past nationalist voters. In the Westminster election, 18% of Alliance's new backers said they voted DUP at the previous contest and 3% for the UUP. 12% had voted for Sinn Fein, and 5% for the-SDLP. The party meanwhile gained a quarter of all non-voters from two years earlier.[308]

Civic unionism[edit]

For unionist strategists there is the frustration knowing that most of those who vote Alliance are sound on the Union (a recent poll suggests that just 30% of Alliance voters favour Irish unity).[309] They also appreciate that Catholics who vote nationalist, including for Sinn Féin, are not necessarily prioritising the border. Surveys regularly suggest that between a quarter and a third of Catholics might vote for the Northern Ireland to remain in the UK and that the half that favour Irish unity generally view it as a longer term goal (unity after 20 years or more).[310] Even allowing for a strengthening of anti-partition sentiment post-Brexit,[311] there are a substantial number of Catholics who meet the standard of "functional unionists"; voters whose "rejection of the unionist label is more to do with the brand image of unionism than with their constitutional preferences."[312] Scarcely one half of one percent of DUP and UUP members identify as Catholics, numbers that can be counted "on the fingers of your hand."[313]

As a contribution to "a new unionist manifesto", Arthur Aughey has written of unionism as "a pure political doctrine . . . concerned almost exclusively with issues of right and citizenship." Unionism may have had "its share of bigots and sectarians and religious fundamentalists like Irish nationalism", but at its core is an "idea of the Union" that, unlike the "regressive" goal of nationhood, is capable of "uniting people with nothing in common save the state itself".[314] There was a brief attempt to forge a unionist appeal to Catholics on what appears to have been these lines following a split from the UUP. In 2013 two disaffected UUP MLAs formed "NI21" (Northern Ireland, twenty-first century) with Tina McKenzie (daughter of an ex-IRA prisoner) as chair. For their first test at the polls, the 2014 European elections, the new party even "went Gaelic" with billboards in Irish: "Although we believe that NI is better off remaining part of the United Kingdom we do not see why we should not be pluralist and diverse."[315] (The new party starting breaking up before the first ballots were cast).[316]

"Pluralism" and "diversity" are grounds on which nationalists are already competing. Unionists have had to concede that it is no longer possible to view the Republic from the vantage of old fixations: the "Mother and Child Scheme, Articles 2 and 3, Ne Temere, the birthday wishes to Hitler, censorship, the laws forbidding contraception and divorce, De Valera's sectarian vision of Ireland, and the fate of the Anglo-Irish".[317] There was no longer the confidence in the contrast that Trimble was still to draw as First Minister between a diverse United Kingdom and "the pathetic sectarian, mono-ethnic, mono-cultural State to our south".[318]

Toward the end of its first century the Southern state has discovered for itself those "the autonomous principles of the modern state" Aughey ascribes alone to the Union--those principles in which the "relevant concept is citizenship and not nation"[319] Prime Minister Boris Johnson formally brokered the New Decade, New Approach agreement that restored the Assembly in January 2020 with Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar. Varadkar is married to his gay partner under an equality law popularly endorsed in 2015 in the third of four referenda--recognising divorce (1995), transforming Articles 2 and 3 (1998), and permitting abortion (2018)--that conservatives decry as marking "the end of Irish exceptionalism"[320][321] and to which Westminster brought Northern Ireland into line in 2019 only over unionist (DUP) objection. Varadkar is also the son of an Indian immigrant in a state in which one in eight residents is foreign born (a proportion higher than in Britain).[322] In contrast to Britain, where a strong anti-immigrant sentiment stood behind the 2016 Leave vote, the Republic has yet to give xenophobia electoral expression.[323] Sinn Féin emerged from the March 2020 Irish election as the largest party on a populist manifesto whose only commitment on immigration is to give asylum seekers the "dignity" of proper cash benefits and access to health care.[324]

Critics of the Good Friday Agreement, including from within unionism,[325] suggest that no matter how distinctive it might otherwise be, there is little space or incentive for "an inclusive, non-sectarian and fresh unionism which is constitutionally robust".[326] The logic of parallel consent "does nothing to disentangle Protestantism from unionism or Catholicism from nationalism."[327] On the contrary, the "direct and compelling interest of the leadership of nationalist and unionist parties [is] to reinforce communal loyalty as the basis of political allegiance, and to present themselves as the most forthright and uncompromising advocates of their own community's interests vis-a-vis the interests of 'the other side'".[328] Publicly unionist parties may accept the need to grow beyond their Protestant base. When he was DUP leader, Peter Robinson spoke of not being "prepared to write off over 40 per cent of our population as being out of reach."[329] But having lost their electoral majority within Northern Ireland the charge is that unionists are settling down to a role within the framework of the GFA as a "permanent ethnic minority bloc."[330]

Defence of British-Unionist culture[edit]

Loyalist mural in Belfast: solidarity with Orange marchers at Drumcree

At lunchtime on Good Friday, April 10, 1998, just as UK Government negotiating team was hinting to the media that a deal had been struck, the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble objected that no provision had been made for Ulster Scots. Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister recorded in his memoirs: "It turned out that there was some obscure language called Ullans [Ulster Scots], a Scottish dialect spoken in some parts of Northern Ireland which was the Unionist's equivalent to the Irish language.".[331] This may have been news to the British, but in response to what had been last minute concessions to Sinn Féin on recognition and support for the Irish Language, it was "entirely consistent" with Trimble's record for him to counter sue.[332]

In 1985, Trimble had founded the Ulster Society for the Promotion of Ulster-British Heritage and Culture. The aim of the society, and of its Orange Lodge and Young Unionist Association sponsors, was to reverse an "insidious erosion of the culture and ethnic national identity of the British people of Ulster" systematically pursued by "the Provisional IRA and its fellow travellers".[333] In the wake of the 1994 Downing Street Declaration, this sense of contending with a cultural-political offensive was to become acute. Underscoring the disclaimer of any "selfish or strategic interest" in Northern Ireland, the Declaration (Annex A) had effectively ruled that "there could no such thing as disloyalty within Northern Ireland".[334] The conflicting ambitions of nationalism and unionism were to enjoy a "parity of esteem". They were of "equal validity." Unionists saw nationalists taking this as a license for a policy of "unrelenting harassment".[335] "British symbols and traditions" were to be progressively removed and replaced, "completely changing the ethos of Northern Ireland", and making it "an unpleasant and uncomfortable place for those of the British tradition to live."[336]

Orange parading, long contentious, became more so from the mid-1980s. Nationalists complained of the growing number of parades and of the participation of new "blood and thunder", "kick the Pope", bands sponsored by loyalist paramilitaries.[337] For unionists the issue was the manipulation by a "pan-nationalist front" of public order powers to ban, re-route or otherwise regulate time-hallowed marches. On the one hand, republicans began forming their "their own musical shock troops" paraded in commemoration of such events as the Easter Rising, the introduction of Internment, the deaths of the Hunger Strikers,[338] and on the other nationalist residents' groups were organised to protest processions and to demand "community consent". According Trimble, Dublin's role was to ensure that the Anglo-Irish Secretariat, "regularly visited" by the RUC when public order determinations were to be made, gave these developments maximum consideration.[339]

"Fed up with the way in which the British government has continually surrendered and retreated to a republican/nationalist offensive", in July 1995 Trimble, the local MP, joined Orange marchers seeking to force their way through police lines down the Garvaghy Road in Portadown, claimed as their traditional return route from an annual church service at Drumcree.[340] The police eventually brokered a compromise with residents that allowed the Orangemen to proceed without their bands, but neither side was satisfied. Drumcree confrontations continued for several more years, long enough for Trimble, as First Minister, to become the focus for Orange fury over the restrictive rulings of a new Parades Commission.

In the new century, there were to be similar conflicts in Belfast over both parades and the display of flags. A decision at the end of 2012 by the Alliance Party to back a compromise with Sinn Féin councillors that reduced the number of days the Union Flag was hoisted on Belfast City Hall to 18 designated days sparked large and sustained City-Hall protests[341] orchestrated by high-ranking members of the UVF and UDA.[342] The flag's decision was seen by the protesters as yet another step in a wider "cultural war" against "Britishness":[343] "they want to take everything British away".[344]

The language conflict[edit]

The cross of St. Patrick superimposed on the Scottish Saltire with a six-county star, Red Hand of Ulster and no crown: a flag variously employed by Loyalist groups to represent an independent, or distinctly Ulster-Scot, Northern-Ireland identity

In demanding "parity of esteem" for Ullans, Trimble and others believed that they were taking this "cultural war" onto the nationalists' own ground. Nationalists, they argued, had "weaponised" the language issue as "a tool" with which to "batter the Protestant people".[345] Sinn Féin's demand for a stand-alone Irish Language Act, a sticking point in 1998 and in all subsequent power-sharing negotiations, was an attempt "to dye Ulster's cultural tartan a solid green."[346]

Ullans, both a neologism merging Ulster and Lallans, the Scots for Lowlands, and an acronym for "Ulster-Scots language in l'iterature and native speech",[347] was popularised by the physician, amateur historian and Ulster Unionist Ian Adamson.[348] For Adamson the promotion of a distinct Ulster "tongue" was part of a broader response to the nationalists' deployment of Gaelic culture and included his own unionist creation myth. According to Adamson those who settled and planted Ulster from Scotland in the 16th century, Catholic and Protestant, were descendants of the Cruthin or Pretani.[349] As chronicled in the ancient Ulster Cycle, the Cruthin had been driven from Ulster by invading Gaels a thousand years before. As a tale of preemptive right and return, and which inverts "the categories of 'native' and 'colonial invader' that are central to the Irish Republican constructions of Irishness and Britishness", Adamson's thesis was taken up by the UDA during their Ulster nationalist phase in the 1970s[350] It may also represent one thread in the continuing identification of loyalists and of the DUP with the State of Israel.[351][352] (An earlier evangelical group  Tara, "the background core of 1960s loyalist conspiracy and resistance to O'Neillism,"[353] had taken this a step further, proposing that the pre-Gaelic people of Ulster were descendants of the Lost tribes of Israel).[354][355]

The thrust of Adamson's own understanding of "Ullanism" may have been less politically directed. His Ullans Academy was praised by Sinn Féin mayor of Belfast Máirtín Ó Muilleoir for using "the past as a tool to unite our people rather than divide", and from Paisely, then retired as Lord Bannside, it solicited a fulsome expression of what many believed was the intended spirit of the GFA's commitment to "parity of esteem." Speaking in 2013 at the 20th anniversary of the Ullans Academy Feast of Columbanus, hosted by O Muilleoir and attended by Irish President Michael D Higgins, Paisely remarked:

As I see it, there is a lot of breakdown now among people, and they are beginning to see that there is a unity between one part of Ireland and the other. That doesn't mean that the Ulster unionists are all going to bow down . . . It means that we see one another, we understand one another, and while we hold strong to what we believe, we believe that they have just as much right.[356]

In 2008, DUP leader and First Minister Peter Robinson matched Trimble earlier initiative announcing the launch of a new "fightback" against the "unrelenting Sinn Féin campaign to promote Irish culture and target British structures and symbols". As his party's first Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure in 2009 Robinson appointed Nelson McCausland. A past member of the Ulster Independence Committee, an evangelical creationist, and a subscriber to belief of the British-Israel-World Federation that British people are descendant from the Lost Tribes,[357] McCausland, until his election to the Assembly in 2003, was director of Th' Ulster-Scotch Heeirskip Cooncil/The Ulster-Scots Heritage Council (USHC). Viewing "the Irish Gaelic language" as "a totemic language for Irish nationalists and republicans," McCausland argues that privileging it through an Irish language act would be an exercise in "ethnic territorial marking". In place of "linguistic plurality" of Northern Ireland, "an English-speaking community with two indigenous minority languages, Irish Gaelic and Ulster-Scots", it would introduce a "divisive linguistic polarity".[358] In the same vein David McNarry, board member of the Ulster Scots Agency (part of The North/South Language Body established as a result of the GFA) describes "the Irish language agenda" as "the creeping application of cultural apartheid" in which it is the unionist population that finds itself being excluded and confined.[359]

The Irish-language activist Aodán Mac Póilin found "the political attractiveness of Ulster Scots for unionists fairly easy to explain": a "long standing sense of affinity" with Scotland based on "millennia of contact and interaction", common ancestry, shared religious tradition . . . but also, in emphasising these, the possibility of fashioning a "version of British political identity which is not English, and therefore not associated with the sense of betrayal that many unionists feel towards Westminster".[360]

For some unionists, among them those who feel little or no ancestral tie to Scotland, or intimacy with Ulster Scots, or who reject what they perceive as "communitarianism",[361] the Ulster-Scots pre-occupation enters dangerous territory. It shifts the case for Union onto precisely that form of self-determination that the Convenanted unionist leadership of Carson and Craig had sought to avoid. With "no desire whatsoever to make Northern Ireland into a distinct and differentiated residuum of the United Kingdom", their concern for self-determination had not been one of "positive ethnic, religious or national special pleading. Rather it was a negative one; namely, that British citizens ought not be compelled against their will for become part of an Irish state."[362] Only "the enemies of the Union (either professed or unwitting)," the sceptics suggest, could "believe that Protestant dialect--fife and drums, political gable murals, the Twelfth of July demonstrations, anti-popery songs--constitutes the sum total of unionist culture." The danger of the Orange and Ulster-Scots counteroffensive is that it defines "unionist culture as subaltern and therefore ripe for absorption into Irish culture as a 'cherished' minor tradition".[363]

The seeming even-handedness of the 2020 New Decade New Approach agreement in promising both the Irish language and Ulster-Scots new Commissioners to "support" and "enhance" their development[364] belies the continuing differences in their legal status.[365] While the UK government recognise Scots and Ulster Scots as a regional or minority language for the "encouragement" and "facilitation" purposes of Part II of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages[366], for Irish it assumes the more stringent Part III obligations in respect of education, media and administration. But New Decade, New Approach does take a step with Ulster Scots that it does not take with Irish speakers: the UK government pledges to "recognise Ulster Scots as a national minority under the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities".[367] This is a second Council of Europe treaty whose provisions were previously applied in Northern Ireland to non-white groups, to Irish Travellers and to the Roma.

Insofar as unionists are persuaded to identity with Ulster Scots and employ it as a marker (as the reference to "the Ulster Scots / Ulster British tradition in Northern Ireland" in New Decade, New Approach might imply)[368] they define themselves, "in effect", as a scheduled ethnicity.[369] They avail of the same protections under the same conventions in the United Kingdom as they might were they within Dublin's jurisdiction.

Unionist political parties[edit]

A flowchart illustrating all the political parties that have existed throughout the history of Northern Ireland and leading up to its formation (1889 onwards). Unionist parties are in orange.


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Further reading[edit]

  • Alcock, Antony (1995) Understanding Ulster. Belfast: Ulster Society.
  • Biggs-Davidson, John (1973) The Hand is Red. London: Johnson.
  • Bruce, Steve (1994) The Edge of the Union: the Ulster Loyalist Political Vision, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Buckland, Patrick (1972) Irish Unionism I: The Anglo-Irish and the New Ireland, 1885–1922, Dublin: Gill & Macmillan.
  • Buckland, Patrick (1973) Irish Unionism II: Ulster Unionism and the Origins of Northern Ireland, 1886–1922, Dublin: Gill & Macmillan.
  • Clifford, Brendan (1992) Against Ulster Nationalism, Belfast: Athol Books.
  • Courtney, Roger (2013) Dissenting Voices: Rediscovering the Irish Progressive Presbyterian Tradition, Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation.
  • Farrington, C. (2006) Ulster Unionism and the Peace Process in Northern Ireland. Dublin: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Good, James Winder (1920) Irish Unionism. London: T Fisher Unwin.
  • Harbinson, J. F. (1973). The Ulster Unionist Party 1882-1973. Belfast: Blackstaff.
  • McIntosh, G. (1999) The Force of Culture: Unionist identities in twentieth-century Ireland. Cork University Press.
  • Stewart, A.T.Q. (1967) The Ulster Crisis. London: Faber & Faber.
  • Tonge, Jonathan; Braniff, Máire (2014). The Democratic Unionist Party: From Protest to Power. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Utley, T. E. (1975) Lessons of Ulster. London: J.M.Dent & Sons.
  • Shirlow, P. & McGovern, M. (1997) Who Are The People? Unionism, Protestantism and Loyalism in Northern Ireland. Pluto: London
  • Walker, G. (2004) A History of the Ulster Unionist Party. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  • Wichert, Sabine (1991). Northern Ireland Since 1945. London: Longman.