Unionism in Ireland is a political ideology that favours the continuation of political union between the islands of Ireland and Great Britain. Since the partition of Ireland, unionism in Ireland has focused on maintaining and preserving the place of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. In this context, a distinction may be made between the unionism in the province of Ulster and unionism elsewhere in Ireland.
Today in Northern Ireland, unionist ideology is expressed in a number of ways: voting for political candidates who espouse unionism, participation in unionist culture, and preferences for particular newspapers or sports teams.
Irish nationalism is opposed to the ideology of unionism. Most unionists come from Protestant backgrounds; most nationalists come from a Roman Catholic background. Exceptions to these generalisations exist: there are Protestant nationalists and there are Catholic unionists.
The political relationship between England and Ireland dates from the 12th century with the establishment of the Lordship of Ireland. After almost four centuries of the Lordship, the declaration of the independence of the Church of England from papal supremacy and the rejection of the authority of the Holy See required the creation of a new basis to legitimise the continued rule of the English monarch in Ireland. In 1542, the Crown of Ireland Act was passed by both the English and Irish Parliaments. The Act established a sovereign Kingdom of Ireland with Henry VIII as King of Ireland. Both parliaments later passed the Acts of Union 1800 by which a new state was created - the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
In 1922, after the Irish War of Independence, the Partition of Ireland, and the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the twenty-six "southern" counties of Ireland gained autonomy from the UK as the Irish Free State, a self-governing Dominion that remained part of the British Commonwealth. The northern six counties, now called Northern Ireland, remained part of the United Kingdom, where they continue to the present day. In 1937, the Irish Free State took a new constitution and changed its name to "Ireland". In 1949, Ireland declared itself a Republic, called the Republic of Ireland, abolishing the last vestiges of royal power there and officially left the British Commonwealth.
Today, unionism is an ongoing political issue in Northern Ireland. It is concerned with the governance of and relationship between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
Irish unionism is often centred on an identification with Protestantism, especially in the sense of Britishness, although not necessarily to the exclusion of a sense of Irishness or of an affinity to Northern Ireland specifically. Unionism emerged as a unified force in opposition to William Ewart Gladstone's Home Rule Bill of 1886.Irish nationalists believed in separation from Great Britain, whether through repeal of the 1800 Act of Union, "home rule", or complete independence. Unionists believed in maintaining and deepening the relationship between the various nations of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. They expressed pride in symbols of Britishness.
A key symbol for unionists is the Union Flag. Unionist areas of Northern Ireland often display this and other symbols to show the loyalty and sense of identity of the community. Unionism is also known for its allegiance to the person of the British monarch, both historically and today.
Historically, most unionists in Ireland have been Protestants and most nationalists have been Catholics, and this remains the case. However, a significant number of Protestants have adhered to the nationalist cause, and likewise with Catholics and unionism. These phenomena continue to exist in Northern Ireland.
Both unionism and nationalism have had sectarian and anti-sectarian elements. While nationalism has had a number of Protestant leaders (for instance, Henry Grattan, Theobald Wolfe Tone, Charles Stewart Parnell, Douglas Hyde, and Ivor Bell), unionism was invariably always led by Protestant leaders and politicians. Prior to a decades-long ban, Catholics had been allowed to be members of the UUP as recently as the 1920s, including Denis Henry (the first Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland), who was a member of the UUP from its foundation in 1905 and a UUP MP for South Londonderry. Catholics were once more permitted to join the UUP in the 1960s but their continued dearth, particularly among the leadership, meant the UUP were still vulnerable to accusations of sectarianism. Only one Catholic, G. B. Newe, served in the Government of Northern Ireland (Newe was specially recruited to boost cross-community relations in the last UUP government in the 1970s).
People espousing unionist beliefs are sometimes referred to as loyalists. The two words are sometimes used interchangeably, but the latter is more often associated with particularly hardline forms of unionism. In some cases it has been associated with individual or groups who support or engage in political violence. Most unionists do not describe themselves as loyalists. In Irish, the terms aontachtóir (from aontacht, "union") and dílseoir (from dílis, "loyal") are used.
A similar distinction exists in relation to Irish nationalists. Mainstream nationalists, such as the supporters of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the main parties in the Republic of Ireland, are generally referred to by that term. The more militant strand of nationalism, which includes groups such as Sinn Féin and 32 County Sovereignty Movement, is known as republicanism. In the Republic of Ireland, the republican tradition has moderated and moved into the mainstream. Today the republican party, Fianna Fáil, has little in common with militant republicans other than certain ideological and historical perspectives. In Irish, the terms poblachtánach (from poblacht, "republic") and náisiúnach (from náisiún, "nation") are used.
Unionism has traditionally been associated with strong loyalty to the British monarchy. Five members of the current Royal Family hold titles with roots in Northern Ireland: the Duke of York (Baron Killyleagh), the Earl of Ulster, the Duke of Kent (Baron Downpatrick), the Duke of Cambridge (Baron Carrickfergus) and the Duke of Sussex (Baron Kilkeel). Older Irish royal titles included Lord of Ireland, Duke of Connaught and Strathearn, Earl of Athlone and Baron Arklow. The Queen is still technically Sovereign of the Order of St Patrick, the highest Irish order of chivalry, and the Norroy and Ulster King of Arms is an officer in the College of Arms in London.
Division between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland pre-dates the conflict over the Union. To some extent, it can be traced back to the wars of religion, land, and power arising out of the 16th- and 17th-century Plantations of Ireland. In the 18th century, Ireland was ruled by a Protestant-only Irish Parliament, autonomous in some respects from Britain. Catholics and Presbyterians were denied full political and economic rights under the Penal Laws.
At the time of the Act of Union in 1800, the Protestant community was divided over whether to support the Act. The Union came in the aftermath of the 1798 Rebellion, in which elements of Irish Protestants - particularly Presbyterians - had supported republican United Irishmen and others had been mobilised to defend the status quo in the Yeomanry and Orange Order. Others still, parliamentary 'patriots' such as Henry Grattan did not support the rebellion but had lobbied for more independence for Ireland and for equal rights for Catholics.
The Act of Union was first proposed in the Irish Parliament in 1799 but defeated by 111 votes to 116. The idea of Union was supported in Parliament by those whose main concern was security in the wake of the 1798 rebellion and the need for the 40,000 strong British military garrison to remain. It was opposed by two distinct groups. On one side, by those known as the 'ultra Protestants', who feared that direct British rule would mean reforms that would give Catholics equal rights and overturn Protestant supremacy in Ireland, and from the other side by the 'patriot' tendency led by Henry Grattan who wanted to defend Ireland's constitutional independence and were also worried about the effect that a Union would have on Irish trade. Lord Castlereagh managed to tip the balance in favour of the Union by offering titles, land and in some cases cash payments to Parliamentarians. The Act was passed at the second attempt in 1800.
The Orange Order was split over the Union and adopted a policy of neutrality to avoid a split. Conversely, the Catholic Bishops and much of the Catholic middle class initially accepted the Union, as it promised to undo the last of the Penal Laws.
However, what radically changed the balance of forces for and against the Union was Catholic Emancipation in 1829. This enabled Catholics to hold public office for the first time since the 1690s. It now meant that an Irish Parliament, even one elected under strict property requirements, would have a majority of Catholic voters and potentially of Catholic representatives.
For this reason, most Protestants in Ireland opposed the agitation, under Daniel O'Connell and the Repeal Association for Repeal of the Union or restoration of the Irish Parliament, in the 1830s and 1840s. The Orange Order, by this stage committed to the Union, increased its membership to over 100,000 by 1835 and "working class Protestants...developed effective militant politics of their own". The political representative of Unionism was the Irish Conservative Party - which urged the suppression of O'Connell's 'monster meetings' for Repeal. The British Conservative government eventually agreed to this in October 1843, banning a proposed mass meeting for Repeal at Clontarf, Dublin and deploying troops and a warship to prevent it.
The Conservative Party successfully mobilised Protestant voters against Repeal, by such means as signing on more freemen of the cities (hereditary trade guilds, open only to Protestants from the 1690s to the 1840s) to get around the greater number of Catholic property holders. The Conservative Party remained the largest in Irish politics until 1859.
The final challenge to the Union in this era was the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848, which largely failed to come off and was suppressed after minor military action.
"Home Rule" was the name given to the policy of establishing a devolved parliament to govern Ireland as an autonomous region within the United Kingdom. Home Rule was supported from the 1860s onwards by mainstream nationalist leaders such as Isaac Butt, William Shaw, Charles Stewart Parnell, John Redmond and John Dillon, and it became the aim of the Nationalist Party, subsequently known as the Home Rule League and the Irish Parliamentary Party, which was the largest political party in Ireland from the 1880s until the end of the First World War.
Unionists comprised the opposition to Home Rule. They believed that an Irish Parliament dominated by Catholic nationalists would be to their economic, social and religious disadvantage, and would move eventually towards total independence from Britain. In most of Ireland, Unionists were members of the governing and landowning classes and the minor gentry, but Unionism had a broad popular appeal among Protestants of all classes and backgrounds in northeastern Ireland. This part of the island had become industrialised, and had an economy that closely resembled that of Britain.
A series of British governments introduced Home Rule Bills in the British Parliament. The 1886 Bill was rejected by the House of Commons, and managed to destroy the Liberal government in the process: Whig and Radical elements left the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Unionist Party, which allied itself with the Conservative Party. Eventually, the two middle-class parties merged into the Conservative and Unionist Party (generally known as the Conservative Party), which remains Britain's dominant right-of-centre party. The Ulster Unionist Labour Association, known as "Labour Unionists", represented the working class. The 1893 Bill passed the Commons but was rejected by the House of Lords, which had a permanent and large Conservative majority.
Political Unionism crystallised around the Protestant areas in the northern part of Ireland. By the early 20th century, the Irish Unionist Party had become predominantly associated with this territory, and in 1905 the Ulster Unionist Council was founded, which in turn produced the Ulster Unionist Party, which replaced the IUP in northeastern Ireland. In the period up to 1920, most of the IUP's leadership (including the Earl of Midleton and the Earl of Dunraven and Mount-Earl) came from other parts of Ireland, and its most prominent leader, Sir Edward Carson, opposed not merely Home Rule but also any attempt to partition Ireland.
In 1911, the House of Lords' veto over legislation was removed, and it became clear that a Home Rule Bill would finally be enacted. Unionists, particularly in northern Ireland, mounted a campaign against Home Rule, drawing up a "Solemn League and Covenant" and threatening to establish a Provisional Government in Belfast if Home Rule were imposed upon them. They set up a militia called the Ulster Volunteers and imported 25,000 rifles from Germany. By mid-1914, 90,000 men had joined the Volunteers.
On the eve of the First World War, the Government of Ireland Act 1914 passed into law. The War, however, prevented it from coming into force. The Easter Rising of 1916 and the events that followed it led to the enactment of a fourth Home Rule Bill after the War, known as the Government of Ireland Act 1920. This was heavily influenced by the Unionist leader Sir Edward Carson, and provided six of the nine counties of Ulster with its own devolved parliament independent from that of the rest of the island ("Southern Ireland"). The 1914 Act had provided for a similar partition as a temporary measure, for an unspecified length of time. In the end, only Northern Ireland became a functioning entity, as the Irish War of Independence began in 1919 with nationalist rebels boycotting both Northern and Southern parliaments, preferring their own rebel parliament, however in Northern Ireland, a minority of members (12 out of 52 members of the House of Commons) boycotted the Parliament.
Unionists opposed Home Rule for several reasons:
Not all Protestants supported Unionism. Some - notably Charles Stewart Parnell - were nationalists, while by contrast some middle-class Catholics supported the maintenance of the union. In addition, Unionism received the support in the period from the 1880s until 1914 from leading mainland Conservative politicians, notably Lord Randolph Churchill and future prime minister Bonar Law. Churchill coined the well-known slogan "Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right".
The creation of Northern Ireland under the Government of Ireland Act 1920 and the later creation of the Irish Free State in the remainder of the island separated southern and northern unionists. The exclusion of three Ulster counties, County Donegal, County Monaghan and County Cavan, from 'Northern Ireland' left unionists there feeling isolated and betrayed. They established an association to persuade their fellow unionists to reconsider the border, but to no avail. Many assisted in the policing of the new region, serving in the B-Specials while continuing to live in the Free State.
Unionists were in the majority in four counties of the Ulster (Antrim, Londonderry, Down and Armagh), and formed a large minority in the remaining counties of Fermanagh and Tyrone. Sir Edward Carson had expressly urged the new Prime Minister, Sir James Craig, to ensure absolute equality in the treatment of Catholics, so to guarantee the stability of the new state. Discrimination, however, took place, particularly in the areas of housing, employment and local government representation, with the former Northern Irish prime minister, Lord Brokeborough proclaiming that the new entity was "a Protestant state for a Protestant people". The extent of such discrimination is disputed, and there was also widespread poverty among Protestants: for example, recovery operations in working-class areas after the Belfast Blitz of 1941 revealed that both communities had disadvantaged elements.
Nobel Peace Prize winner and former Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble has admitted that Northern Ireland was a "cold house" for Catholics for most of the 20th century. Many unionists, particularly in the Democratic Unionist Party, deny that organised discrimination took place and attribute the poverty suffered by both communities to wider economic conditions.
By the 1960s, the reforms of Prime Minister Terence O'Neill, designed to create a more equitable society between unionists and nationalists, resulted in a backlash led by fundamentalist Protestant minister Ian Paisley. Nationalists launched a Civil Rights movement in the mid-1960s with key demands made on matters such as one man, one vote. With attacks on Northern Ireland's infrastructure by loyalists, and the resignation of a relative from the Cabinet over the principle of One man One Vote, O'Neill resigned on 2 April 1969 to be replaced by Chichester Clark.
In August 1969, following the annual Apprentice Boys of Derry parade in the city, serious rioting took place in Derry and Belfast. The Civil Rights Movement responded by calling marches across Northern Ireland to further stretch police resources and on 14 August the British Government allowed the deployment of the Prince of Wales's Own Regiment in Derry to relieve the Police. The following day the deployment was extended to Belfast. Early the next year Chichester Clark flew to London to request more military support in an attempt to stem the increasing violence. Receiving much less than he had requested, he resigned and was replaced by Brian Faulkner.
By 1972 the situation in Northern Ireland had deteriorated considerably, and on 30 January thirteen civilians on a Civil Rights march in Derry were killed by the Parachute Regiment on Bloody Sunday. Three months later the Parliament of Northern Ireland and government were suspended, and later abolished, and replaced by Direct Rule. Within Unionism, Ian Paisley had entered electoral politics and quickly merged his Protestant Unionist Party into the new Democratic Unionist Party with former UUP MPs Desmond Boal and John McQuade. The new party quickly began to win support from the UUP, and since 1975 polled at least 10% of the vote at elections.
A power-sharing government between nationalists and unionists in 1974 was brought down by the Ulster Workers' Council Strike. Faulkner as a result lost the support of his party, where he was replaced as leader by Harry West, and formed his own Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. West subsequently resigned and was replaced by Jim Molyneaux in 1979. Secretary of State Jim Prior made another attempt at restoring devolution by introducing a plan for rolling devolution through an assembly between 1982 and 1986 but this was boycotted by nationalists. Violence intensified throughout this period.
After nearly three decades of conflict, a ceasefire and intense political negotiations produced the Belfast Agreement on 10 April 1998 (also known as the "Good Friday Agreement"), which again attempted with mixed success to produce a power-sharing government for Northern Ireland with cross-community support. The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) supported the agreement but it was opposed by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and other smaller parties.
There is some degree of social and political co-operation between some Scottish unionists and Northern Irish unionists, due to their similar aims of maintaining the unity of their constituent country with the United Kingdom. For example, the Orange Order parades in Orange Walks in Scotland and Northern Ireland. However, many unionists in Scotland shy away from connections to unionism in Ireland in order not to endorse any side of a largely sectarian conflict. This brand of unionism is largely concentrated in the Central Belt and west of Scotland. Loyalists in Scotland are seen as a militant or extreme branch of unionism. Orangism in west and central Scotland, and opposition to it by Catholics in Scotland, can be explained as a result of the large amount of immigration from the Republic and Northern Ireland.
Songs and symbols of unionism, particularly of the Northern Irish variety, are used by many supporters of Rangers F.C., a football club based in Glasgow. Both Rangers and their longtime rival Celtic F.C., which has Irish Roman Catholic roots, have a reputation for sectarian clashes and bitter opposition to each other, frequently characterised by religious taunts, chants and other provocations. This behaviour by some supporters is condemned by the management of the clubs. Despite the symbols associated with the clubs, not all Rangers supporters can be automatically classified as unionists, nor all Celtic supporters as nationalists. For example, there were Celtic supporters of the "No Thanks" campaign for the 2014 independence referendum and Rangers supporters of the "Yes Scotland" campaign- despite Celtic FC having nationalist origins and Rangers FC having unionist origins. There was found to be no link between support of left and right-wing parties at general elections for Rangers or Celtic fans either.
Most Unionists in Northern Ireland are Protestants and most Nationalists are Catholics, but this generalisation (which is evident in the work of some commentators) is subject to significant qualifications. The Ulster Unionist Party, for example, has some Catholic members and supporters, such as Sir John Gorman, a respected former MLA. Polls taken over the years have suggested that as many as one in three Catholics could be considered Unionist, though this may not translate into support for Unionist parties at election time and the size of the foregoing figure has been questioned.
In a more general sense, Catholics cannot be assumed to be hostile to the institutions of the Union: many Catholics serve in the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the British Army, just as their predecessors served in the RIC and the RUC, in the face of sometimes violent opposition from militant nationalists. The PSNI attempted to maintain a 50% quota for Catholic officers until April 2011.
On the Nationalist side, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) has attracted a number of sympathetic Protestants.
Northern Ireland has an increasing number of inhabitants who are neither Catholic nor Protestant, either being adherents of other religions or being non-religious. Increasingly, the trend has been to ignore the question of religion, particularly as the numbers of practising churchgoers on both sides have been in decline.
|Indicator||Survey Date||Overall %||Protestant %||Catholic %||No religion %|
|Support for the union as long-term policy||2006||54||85||22||46|
|Unionist personal identity||2006||36||69||3||17|
|British personal identity||2006||39||63||11||35|
|Support for unionist political party||2006||32||63||2||20|
For some years, there has been a perception both in Britain and in Ireland that the Catholic birthrate will guarantee a Catholic - and hence supposedly Nationalist - majority in Northern Ireland at some point in the first half of the 21st century. However, a strong decline in the Catholic birthrate may slow down or even reverse the growth in the Catholic population (which may in turn be balanced by an increased rate of emigration of young Protestants, often to study and work in Great Britain). Recent influxes of immigrants, especially from Eastern Europe, are also having a significant effect on the demographic balance, although how many choose to reside permanently in Northern Ireland or take an interest in the political scene remains to be seen.
Northern Ireland currently has a number of pro-union political parties, the largest of which is the traditionalist Democratic Unionist Party led by Arlene Foster, followed by the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party led by Robin Swann. Both parties are active across Northern Ireland. On a smaller level, the Progressive Unionist Party, which is the political wing of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) paramilitary group, attracts some support in the greater Belfast area. Traditional Unionist Voice is opposed to the current constitutional arrangements in Northern Ireland following the Belfast Agreement and St Andrews Agreement. The pluralist Conservative Party is currently allied to the Ulster Unionist Party. While the Alliance Party supports the status quo position of Northern Ireland, it does not define itself as Unionist.
Moderate unionists who support the principle of Equal Citizenship between Northern Ireland and Great Britain have campaigned for mainstream British political parties to organise and contest elections in Northern Ireland. Equal citizenship pressure groups have included the Campaign for Equal Citizenship (CEC), Labour Representation Campaign, Democracy Now and, currently, Labour - Federation of Labour Groups. Momentum for this concept picked up after the Conservative Party Conference voted in favour of working in Northern Ireland in 1989. No Conservative has been elected in Northern Ireland since the 1997 local government elections.
Under legal pressure from local trade unionists, Labour accepted members from Northern Ireland in October 2002 and in September 2006 agreed to organise through a forum. The Liberal Democrats have a branch in Northern Ireland but do not contest elections, but are affiliated with the Alliance Party.
Pro-union parties and independents contest elections and represent their constituents at a number of different levels. There is a unionist presence at election time in all parliamentary constituencies. A Unionist win is a virtual certainty in ten constituencies: East Antrim, North Antrim, South Antrim, Belfast North, Belfast East, North Down, Lagan Valley, East Londonderry, Strangford, Upper Bann.
In 2007, twenty peers in the House of Lords owed their peerages to a direct connection with Northern Ireland, usually through a political party. Of these there are eight Ulster Unionists (sitting as Cross-benchers), three Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), two Conservative, two Labour and one Liberal Democrat, with the rest independent. As well as the two Unionist MEPs in the European Parliament, DUP MP Nigel Dodds is also an alternate member of the UK Parliament delegations to the Council of Europe and Western European Union and Unionists also participate in the EU Committee of the Regions.
Unionist candidates stand for election in most district electoral areas (small areas which make up district councils) in Northern Ireland. Exceptions, in 2005, were Slieve Gullion in South Armagh, Upper and Lower Falls in Belfast, Shantallow, Northland and Cityside in Derry - all of which are strongly nationalist. Likewise, nationalist parties and candidates did not contest some areas in North Antrim, East Antrim, East Belfast, North Down and the Strangford constituency which are strongly unionist and therefore unlikely to return a nationalist candidate.
Local government in Northern Ireland is not entirely divided on nationalist-unionist lines and the level of political tension within a council depends on the district that it represents and its direct experience of the Troubles.
After 1890, and particularly during the period from the start of the First World War to the mid-1920s, the number of Unionists in what is now the Republic of Ireland declined to a point where their numbers were widely regarded as almost insignificant. This is attributed to a number of factors:
The first President of Ireland, Douglas Hyde (1938-1945) was Protestant, though only two senior Irish politicians attended his Church of Ireland funeral; the Catholic members of the government had to wait on the pavement near the Church to be compliant with Canon law.
Some Unionists in the south simply adapted and began to associate themselves with the new southern Irish regime of Cumann na nGaedheal. On 19 January 1922, leading Unionists held a meeting and unanimously decided to support the Free State government. Many gained appointment to the Free State's Senate, including the 4th Earl of Dunraven and Thomas Westropp Bennett. Several generations of one Unionist political family, the Dockrells, won election as Teachta Dála (TDs). The Dublin borough of Rathmines had a unionist majority up to the late 1920s, when a local government re-organisation abolished all Dublin borough councils. Later, the Earl of Granard and the Provost of Trinity College Dublin gained appointment to the President of Ireland's advisory body, the Council of State. Most Irish Unionists, however, simply withdrew from public life, and from the late 1920s there were no self-professed Unionists elected to the Irish parliament until the election of Ian Marshall to Seanad Éireann in 2018.