Unionists (Ireland)

From Academic Kids

In the Irish context, Unionists form a group of largely (though not exclusively) Protestant people in Ireland, of all social classes, who wish to see the continuation of the 1801 Act of Union, as amended by the Government of Ireland Act 1920, under which the Northern Ireland provincial state created in that latter Act remains part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The terms Unionist and Loyalist are often used interchangeably; however, the term "loyalist" is often used in recent times to denote other unionists who are not above breaking the law to maintain the status quo, or whose views are unusually hardline.


Irish Home Rule

Prior to 1912, Unionists wished to see the Act of Union (which in 1801 had merged the Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland) remain in place. They opposed Irish Home Rule, which mainstream Irish nationalists had sought since the 1860s. The Unionists of this period (especially outside Ulster) were almost entirely made up of the governing and landowning classes and the minor gentry. Home Rule would have involved Ireland having its own regional parliament while still remaining in the United Kingdom. This demand, the policy of nationalist leaders such as Isaac Butt. William Shaw, Charles Stewart Parnell, John Redmond and John Dillon, became the aim of the Nationalist Party, also known as the Home Rule League and later the Irish Parliamentary Party. The Home Rule League/Irish Parliamentary Party won the majority of Irish parliamentary seats in the Westminster parliaments from the 1870s to 1914.

Various British governments introduced four successive Bills to set up an Irish Home Rule parliament in Dublin. The Irish Home Rule Bill 1886 never made it through the House of Commons but managed to destroy the Liberal Party government, with Whig and Radical elements leaving to form the Liberal Unionist Party in alliance with the Conservative Party. Eventually the two parties merged, calling themselves the Conservative and Unionist Party.

The Irish Home Rule Bill 1893 passed in the Commons but succumbed to the veto of the House of Lords.The House of Lords had far more Conservatives than the House of Commons. The Home Rule Act 1914 passed (or at least passed all stages under the Parliament Act, 1911, which curbed the veto power of the Lords) but never came into force, due to the onset of World War I (191418). The fourth Bill, known as the Government of Ireland Act 1920, envisaged two Irish home rule states: Southern Ireland which would have had a nationalist majority, and Northern Ireland which would have a much smaller unionist majority. Only the latter became a reality, while the former became the Irish Free State.

Irish unionists opposed Home Rule for many reasons. Much of their support in southern and western Ireland (the provinces of Munster, Leinster and Connacht) came from landed gentry who feared that a nationalist assembly would introduce property and taxation laws more suitable to a small island than the laws imposed from Westminster, which were designed for a much larger area, the entire United Kingdom. Some also feared that they would experience a similar sort of discrimination that the Protestant Parliament of Ireland up to 1800 had practised on Irish Catholics and nationalists, namely the notorious Penal Laws, or the more subtle discrimination that followed, although this is hard to credit as Ireland would have remained part of the UK. Others identified strongly with the Crown and British rule, and wished to see both continue unchanged in Ireland. However one should not presume that Irish unionist support came entirely from the landed gentry, or that all Protestants supported Unionism. Many working class and middle class Unionists and some gentrified Catholics supported the maintenance of the union, while other Protestants (most notably Charles Stewart Parnell) supported home rule.

Other Unionists, particularly in Ulster, had economic fears, suspecting that a nationalist parliament in Dublin, on a predominantly agricultural island, would impose economic tariffs against industry. Parts of Ulster were then the most industrialised parts of Ireland and so would suffer.

For much of the period up until 1920, though the Unionist support base predominated in four of the nine counties of Ulster (where Presbyterians and Anglicans outnumbered Roman Catholics), the Irish Unionist Party's leadership came from southern Ireland. Its most prominent leader, the Dublin-born barrister and politician Sir Edward Carson, opposed not merely Home Rule but any attempt to divide Ireland into two states. Other southern Unionist leaders included the Earl of Middleton and the Earl of Dunraven.

When, following the curbs placed on the power of the House of Lords in 1911 it became clear that home rule would come, Unionists, particularly in parts of Ulster, mounted a campaign that threatened to establish a Provisional Government of Ulster through the use of violence if Home Rule were to come about. They set up the Ulster Volunteer Force, the first modern Irish paramilitary organisation, and imported 25,000 rifles from Imperial Germany. 90,000 men had joined by the middle of 1914. Irish Unionism received the support in the period from the 1880s to 1914 from leading British Conservative politicians, notably Lord Randolph Churchill and future British prime minister Andrew Bonar Law. Slogans such as 'Ulster Will Fight and Ulster Will Be Right' expressed the determination of unionists to oppose Irish Home Rule by whatever means it deemed necessary.


The creation of the Unionist-dominated Northern Ireland under the Government of Ireland Act 1920, and the later creation of the Irish Free State in the territory the above Act had called Southern Ireland separated southern and northern Irish unionists. The exclusion of three Ulster counties, Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan from Northern Ireland, and hence the United Kingdom, left Ulster unionists there feeling isolated and betrayed. Many assisted in the policing of the new region, serving in the B-Specials, while continuing to live in the Free State. See external link (http://www.reform.org/TheReformMovement_files/article_files/articles/donegal.htm)

Some unionists in the south simply adapted and began to associate themselves with the new southern Irish regime of William T. Cosgrave and Cumann na nGaedhael. On January 19th 1922, leading unionists held a meeting and unanimously decided to support fully the government of the new Free State. Many gained appointment to the Irish Free State Senate, where the Earl of Dunraven became speaker or Cathaoirleach (pronounced 'ka-here-loch'). One Unionist political family, the Dockrells, joined and became TDs (MPs) over a number of generations for Cumann na nGaedhael and its successor party, Fine Gael (the governing party in the 1920s, the main opposition from 1932 onwards). The only Ulster Protestant in the Dáil is a member of Fine Gael. The Dublin borough of Rathmines had a unionist majority up to the late 1920s, when a local government re-organisation abolished all Dublin borough councils. (A new Irish Unionist Alliance in addition to the Reform Movement emerged in the late 1990s in the Republic of Ireland, but as yet they have no political representation.)

However, having lost their privileged status, most Irish unionists simply withdrew from public life. The number of Protestants declined in the Irish Free State and in its successor state, the Republic of Ireland. IRA attacks in the 1920s drove away many who assisted the British in the Anglo-Irish War, in the process burning many historic homes as reprisals for the destruction of the homes and property of republicans. Others had suffered disproportionately in World War I, losing their sons and heirs on the bloodied fields of Flanders and the Somme. Some that remained became victims of the Roman Catholic Church's Ne Temere decree imposed by Pope Pius X, which required Catholics in mixed marriages to ensure that all children of the marriage were brought up in the Church of Rome. This decree contributed greatly to the religious divide in Ireland, and is still in force. As a result, many eligible Protestant women, who because of the deaths of Protestant men in World War I were denied the availability of Protestant husbands, either married Catholics or remained unmarried, either way ending the Protestant family line. This reversed an earlier trend of Catholics becoming Protestant to avoid discrimination. A disingenuous tactic used by the British in the Anglo-Irish conflict was to draw attention to the religion of IRA victims if they were Protestant, and to play it down if they were Catholic. This was a crude but effective device, used to great effect in the press in Ireland and Britain, to portray the IRA as sectarian. In reality, the IRA killed anyone they believed was aiding the Crown forces, regardless of religion, and had many Protestant volunteers. In Castlederg in Tyrone, Protestants outnumbered Catholics in the local IRA at the time.

Furthermore, land reform from the 1870s to the 1900s broke up many of the large estates. Protestant families, who had owned most of the land, saw it returned to their largely Catholic tenantry. Many chose in the 1920s to use their compensation money to re-settle in Britain, often in other estates they owned there. In addition, the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland from 1871 by an Act of Parliament led that Church to sell many of its estates and bishops' palaces, in the process laying off many Protestant workers who themselves then moved away. (Previously, the Church had had considerable wealth thanks to tithes (mandatory taxes) which the local Catholic, Presbyterian and Methodist communities had to pay to the (Anglican) Church of Ireland. The loss of this money underlined the economic vulnerability of the Church of Ireland.)

However, little evidence of widespread discrimination against Protestants in the Irish Free State/Éire exists. The first President of Ireland, Douglas Hyde (193845), and the fourth, Erskine Hamilton Childers (1973-74), belonged to the Church of Ireland. Mary Robinson, the seventh had both Catholic and Protestant branches in her family and was married to a Protestant. Leading ex-Unionists like the Earl of Granard and the Provost of Trinity College Dublin gained appointment to the President of Ireland's advisory body, the Council of State.

In contrast, anti-Catholic discrimination was widespread and condoned at the highest level of government in Northern Ireland, even though Sir Edward Carson (now raised to the peerage as Lord Carson) had expressly urged the Northern Ireland Unionist prime minister, Sir James Craig to ensure absolute equality in the treatment of Roman Catholics, to ensure the stability of the new entity. (Craig openly encouraged discrimination against Catholics.) Boundaries demarcated electorates in such a way as to produce Protestant majorities in areas that would otherwise, by a fair drawing of boundaries, have produced nationalist MPs and local councillors. Decades later, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, openly described the Northern Ireland of most of the twentieth century as a 'cold house of Catholics', a process he said the Belfast Agreement must change. Many unionist leaders, particularly in the DUP, continue to deny that discrimination ever took place.

By the 1960s, belated attempts by a moderate new Unionist Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Terence O'Neill to create equality created a backlash led by fundamentalist Protestant preacher and politician, the Rev. Ian Paisley. Nationalists launched a Civil Rights movement under figures like John Hume, Austin Currie and Ivan Cooper. A collapse in civil control, the controversial killing of 13 unarmed civilians by the British army Paratroop Regiment in Derry/Londonderry on Bloody Sunday (30 January, 1972) and the emergence of the Provisional IRA, alongside Protestant paramilitary groups like the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force, led to the suspension then abolition of the unionist-dominated Stormont parliament and government in Northern Ireland (1972). After two decades of brutal killing by paramilitary groups on both sides of the political divide in Northern Ireland and the police and British army, a ceasefire and inter-community negotiations produced the Belfast Agreement (also known as the "Good Friday Agreement"), which attempted with mixed success to produce a power-sharing government for Northern Ireland, to which both unionist and nationalist communities could give allegiance.

While commentators regularly use the religious terms 'Catholic' and 'Protestant' as interchangeable with 'nationalist' and 'unionist' in Northern Ireland, some differences do exist between them. Not all Catholics support nationalist causes, for example. The Ulster Unionist Party now has Catholic members; one of its most respected MLAs (Member of the power-sharing Legislative Assembly) is Catholic. Some Catholics served in the former and current Northern Ireland police forces, the Royal Irish Constabulary and in the British army, although at no time did any of these organisations enjoy widespread support among Ulster Catholics. The Catholics who joined were often unionist, as all of these organisations opposed republicanism, sometimes violently. This put these people at odds with sentiment in their communities. One of the strangest events in Northern Ireland is that the anti-Catholic right-wing Protestant leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, the Rev. Ian Paisley, attracts some Catholic votes in his constituency in elections to the British and European Parliaments (he serves in both). That may be a personal quirk, due to his reputation as a good constituency MP who will help anyone, irrespective of their religion. In contrast his party, the DUP, has never had one Catholic member. The mildly nationalist SDLP, on the other hand, has often attracted sympathetic Protestants and had them elected. Sinn Féin has also had some Protestant members and elected officials, more often in the Republic. However it highlights the sheer nature of the complexity of Northern Ireland politics, and of the dangers of drawing simplistic 'Catholic = nationalist' 'Protestant = unionist' definitions in trying to understand Northern Ireland.

Today, except for the minuscule Irish Unionist Alliance founded in the 1990s, southern Irish Unionism no longer exists as a political movement. Northern Ireland has a large number of unionist parties. The largest is now the right-wing Democratic Unionist Party led by the Rev. Ian Paisley, MP.

When Northern Ireland was formed in 1921, Protestants dominated the state. Recent census data shows that Protestants now account for less than half the population of Northern Ireland for the first time, with Catholics only a few per cent less. (Though few abroad realise it, Northern Ireland has citizens who are neither Catholic or Protestant. The third biggest group, interestingly, is Chinese, and the province also has a small but long-standing Jewish community, with significant numbers of Hindus and Muslims of Indian and Pakistani birth or descent as well.) However, contrary to media reports, that does not mean that nationalists and unionists have equal numbers; some suggest that up to one fifth of Protestants harbour sympathies towards nationalism (even if they still vote for the mainstream Unionist parties), while as many as one-third of Catholics could be called 'soft unionists' (i.e., if given a choice and guarantees against discrimination, they'd prefer Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom rather than join with the Republic of Ireland, though they may vote for nationalist parties like the Social Democratic and Labour Party or a middle-of-the road Alliance Party.) Furthermore, a strong decline in the Catholic birthrate (through smaller family size, use of contraception or abortion, etc.) may slow down or even reverse the growth in the Catholic population. However that may be balanced in turn by an increased rate of emigration of young Protestants, often to study and then work in Britain. These young people are more likely to remain in the lands of their ancestors (England and Scotland) than nationalists. How these changes will affect the long-term number of Protestants and Catholics remains currently impossible to assess. Furthermore, until the issue is put to the test in a vote, it remains impossible to calculate with certainty how many Protestants in reality endorse nationalism and how many Catholics in reality endorse Unionism.

One final historical point of interest: while Southern Unionism predominantly (though not exclusively) originated in Church of Ireland circles and the upper-middle to upper classes, Northern Unionism remains and has been predominantly (though not exclusively) associated with the working and middle classes and predominantly Presbyterian.

External links

Main Unionist parties

Nationalist/Republican parties

Constitutional Reform in the Republic of Ireland


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