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Unionists (Ireland)

Unionists are a group of largely though not exclusively protestant people in Ireland, of all classes, who wish to see the continuation of the 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.

Prior to 1921, the unionist demand was that the Act of Union, which in 1801 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 since the 1870s had been the demand of mainstream Irish nationalists. Home Rule would have involved Ireland, while still remaining in the United Kingdom, having its own native religional parliament and government. This latter demand, as expressed by the Home Rule League[?] (later known as the Irish Parliamentary Party), was expressed by nationalist leaders such as Isaac Butt. William Shaw, Charles Stewart Parnell, John Redmond and John Dillon[?]. The Home Rule League/Irish Parliamentary Party caputured the vast majority of Irish parliamentary seats from the 1870s to 1918.

Four Bills were introduced by various British governments to create an Irish Home Rule parliament in Dublin. The 1886 Bill never made it through the House of Commons. The 1894 Bill was voted through the Commons but vetoed by the House of Lords. The 1914 Bill passed (or was deemed to have passed all stages under the Parliament Act, 1911, which curbed the veto power of the Lords) but never came into force, due to the intervening World War One and the Easter Rising in Dublin. The fourth Bill, known as the Government of Ireland Act, was enacted in 1920, creating two Irish home rule states, Southern Ireland which would have a nationalist majority, and Northern Ireland which would have a unionist majority. Only the latter state became a reality.

The reasons why Irish unionists opposed home rule were as complex as the nature of their support base. Much of their support in southern Ireland (the provinces of Munster, Leinster and Connacht came from landed gentry who feared that a nationalist state would swamp them, forcing nationalist symbols like the Irish language and Roman Catholicism on them. Some also feared that they would experience the sort of discrimination that the protestant parliament of Ireland up to 1800 had practiced on Irish catholics and nationalists, namely the notorious Penal Laws. Others identified with the Crown and British rule, and which to see both continue unchanged in Ireland. However it would be a mistake to presume that Irish unionist support all came from the landed gentry, or that all protestants were unionists. Many working class and middle class unionists also supported the maintenance of the union, while other protestants (the most famous being Parnell) were home rulers.

Others unionists, particularly in Ulster, had economic fears, that a nationalist parliament in Dublin, on an island that was predominantly agricultural, would impose economic tariffs against industry. Parts of Ulster were in reality the only industrialised part of Ireland and so would be hit disproportionately.

For much of the period up until 1920, though the unionist support base was strongest in six of the nine counties of Ulster (where protestants and anglicans outnumbered Roman Catholics), the Irish Unionist Party's leadership came from southern Ireland. Its most prominent leader was the Dublin-born barrister and politician, Sir Edward Carson, who 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 the use of violence if home rule was conceded. It received the support in the period from the 1880s to 1914 from leading British Conservative Party 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.

The creation of the unionist-dominated Northern Ireland under the Government of Ireland Act, 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. Some unionists in the south associated themselves with the new southern Irish regime of W.T. Cosgrave and Cumann na nGaedhael. Leading unionists were appointed to the Irish Free State Senate, where the Earl of Dunraven became speaker or Cathaoirleach (pronounced 'ka-here-loch' (loch pronounced as in Loch Ness)).One unionist political family, the Dockrells, joined and became TDs (MPs) over number of generations for Cumann na nGaedhael and its successor party, Fine Gael (the governing party in the 1920s, the main opposition from 1932 on). The Dublin borough of Rathmines had a unionist majority up to the late 1920s, when all Dublin borough councils were abolished in a local government re-organisation. (A new Irish unionist 'Conservative Party' was founded in the late 1990s in the Republic of Ireland!)

However most Irish unionists simply withdrew from public life. The number of protestants declined sharply in the Irish Free State and its successor state, Éire. Irish Republican Army IRA ethnic cleansing in the 1920s drove many families away, the IRA in the process burning many historic homes. Others had been disproportionately hit by World War One, losing their sons and heirs on the bloodied fields of Flanders and the Somme. Those that remained were hit by the Roman Catholic Church's Ne Temere[?] decree imposed by Pope Pius X, under which protestants marrying Catholics were required to ensure that all children of the marriage were brought up in the Church of Rome. As a result, vast numbers of eligible protestant women, who because of the deaths of protestant sons in World War One were denied the availability of protestant husbands, either married catholics or remained unmarried, either way ending the protestant family line.

Furthermore, land reform from the 1870s to the 1900s broke up many of the large estates, which had been owned largely by protestant families, the land being divided among their largely catholic tenantry. While they did receive compensation, many chose in the 1920s to use this money to re-settle in Britain, often in other estates they owned there. In addition, the dis-establishment of the Church of Ireland from 1871 by an Act of parliament led the 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 was extremely wealthy thanks to tithes (mandatory taxes) which the local catholic community was forced to pay to the local parish of the Church of Ireland. The loss of this money undermined the economic viability of the Church of Ireland.)

However, there is little evidence of widespread discrimination against protestants in the Irish Free State/Éire. (Indeed the first President of Ireland, Douglas Hyde (1938-1945) and the fourth, Erskine Hamilton Childers (1973-74) were Church of Ireland members, albeit nationalist protestants, while Nicholas Robinson, the husband of the seventh president, Mary Robinson (1990-1997) was a Church of Ireland member too. Mary Robinson has catholic and protestant branches of her family.) Leading ex-unionists like the Earl of Granard, and the Provost (in effect, president) of the protestant Trinity College Dublin were appointed to the President of Ireland's advisory body, the Council of State. In contrast, anti-catholic discrimination was practiced widely in Northern Ireland, even though Sir Edward Carson (now raised to the peerage as Lord Carson) had expressly urging the Northern Ireland unionist prime minister, Sir James Craig to ensure that Roman Catholics were treated with absolute equality. (Craig openly called for discrimination.) Electoral boundaries were drawn 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.

By the 1960s, belated attempts by a moderate new unionist prime minister, Terence O'Neill[?] to create equality created a backlash under 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 people by the British Army in Derry/Londonderry on Bloody Sunday and the emergence of the Provisional IRA, alongside protestant paramilitary groups like the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Ulster Freedom Fighters, led to the suspension then abolition of the unionist-dominated Stormont parliament and government in Northern Ireland. After two decades of brutal murder by terrorist groups on both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland, a ceasefire and inter-community negotiations produced the Belfast Agreement (also known as the Good Friday Agreement), which is attempting with mixed success to produce a power-sharing government for Northern Ireland, to which both unionist and nationalist communities can give allegiance.

While commentators regularly use the religious terms 'catholic' and 'protestant' as interchangable with 'nationalist' and 'unionist' in Northern Ireland, in reality there is some difference between them. Not all Catholics are nationalist, 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. Catholics served in the former Northern Ireland police force, the Royal Irish Constabulary and in the British army. Indeed one of the biggest surprises in Northern Ireland is that the anti-catholic right wing protestant leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, the Rev. Ian Paisley, attracts a large proportion of 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. 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 small Irish unionist 'Conservative Party' founded in the 1990s, southern Irish unionism no longer exists as a political movement. Northern Ireland have a large number of unionist parties. The largest remains the Ulster Unionist Party (also known for a time as the 'Official Unionist Party) under Northern Ireland First Minister, David Trimble. Challenging it for dominance is the more right wing Democratic Unionist Party under the Rev. Ian Paisley, MP, MEP. Their battle for supremacy in the 2002 Assembly elections in Northern Ireland may well decide the future of unionism, and which form of unionism dominates, in the next generation.

When Northern Ireland was founded 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 behind. (Though few abroad realise it, there are people in Northern Ireland who are neither catholic or protestant. The third biggest group, interestingly, is the Chinese!) However, contrary to media reports, that does not mean that nationalists and unionists are equal in number; it has been suggested that up to one fifth of protestants are sympathetic to nationalism (even if they still vote for the mainstream unionist parties), while as much as one-third of catholics could be called 'soft unionists' (ie, if given a choice and freed from discrimination, they'd prefer Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom rather than linked to 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. How these changes will effect the longterm number of protestants and catholics is currently impossible to access. Furthermore, until the issue is put to the test in a vote, it will be impossible to calculate with certainty how many protestants are in reality nationalist and how many catholics are in reality unionist.

One final historical point of interest: while Southern unionism was predominantly though not exclusively Church of Ireland and of upper-middle to upper class, Northern unionism is and has been predominantly, though not exclusively, working and middle class and predominantly Presbyterian.

External Links

Main Unionist Parties

Nationalist/Republican Parties



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