What Were the Characteristics of Ulster Unionism From the 1880’s Until The Partition

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Last updated: November 15, 2019

To pertinently answer this question, certain issues and characters must be understood before an attempt to respond to the essay title is possible.

The time frame to which this essay pertains to is from 1880- 1921 (When the Partition occurred). To understand the question it, a definition of Characteristics must first be found. Characteristics can be defined as a feature that helps to identify, tell apart, or describe recognizably; a distinguishing mark or trait.In this case, an exploration of how the characteristics of Ulster unionism evolved and changed over this period must be undertaken. What then is Ulster unionism? Within Ireland, the strongest opposition to home rule came from the Protestants of Ulster Since the Union, Ulster had become much more prosperous than the other provinces.

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Tenant farmers had greater security than elsewhere, had a valuable cash crop in flax, and escaped the worst of the potato famine. Industry flourished, and Belfast was a thriving port.Ulster unionism was the opposition to home rule, emanating from Ulster. Within this period there were several key figures, with reference to the issue of unionism, the first was Gladstone. William Ewart Gladstone became British prime minister in 1868. “My mission is to pacify Ireland”, he immediately affirmed.

Among his first measures was the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, recognition that it was inappropriate to have a formal link between the state and a denomination supported only by a small minority of the Irish people.His Land Act of 1870 gave greater security to some tenants, and those who left their holdings could claim compensation for improvements they had made. However, the act proved unsatisfactory in practice, and agitation for land reform steadily increased. Equally important was the demand for home rule.

Gladstone’s advocacy of Home Rule for Ireland was a notable recognition of Irish demands, but wrecked his third ministry (1886) after a few months. Many anti-Home Rule Liberals allied themselves with the Conservatives, and the slow decline of the Liberal party may be traced from this date.Gladstone also split with the Irish leader Charles Stewart Parnell because of the divorce case in which Parnell was involved. By 1885 Gladstone “had committed himself to what was vaguely termed ‘Justice for Ireland’ as part of the Kilmainham Treaty.

” (Peter and Fiona Somerset Fry) During the elections of 1885 Parnell, urged Irishmen living in England to vote Conservative when the elections came. In the election the liberals may have lost twenty seats as a result.In any event, their majority over the Conservatives was eighty-six- exactly the number of seats the home rule party commanded, Parnell had put Home rulers into the position which all third parties in the House of Commons hoped to attain: he held the balance. He could either keep a party out of office or keep them in. Parnell had as Gladstone put it ‘set the Home rule argument on its legs’.

In January 1886 Gladstone formed a government, with the support of the Home rule party, and prepared his first Home Rule Bill providing for the government of Ireland by an executive in Dublin responsible to an Irish parliament.As Mike Cronin comments in his book a history of Ireland “It is clear that in the second half of the nineteenth century unionists across the country felt threatened by talk of home rule. ” In Ulster especially as in severing the link with Britain and the Empire, would destroy their comparative economic wealth. “In the demands for home rule, and amidst the overriding power of the Catholic church, unionists could see little which appealed to them” (Mike Burn). Gladstone’s home rule spurned an alliance between the forces of British conservatism and that of Ulster Unionism.In 1886, the conservative Lord Randolph Churchill spoke in Belfast, and in uttering the phrase ‘Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right’ and “encapsulated the spirit of unionist resistance for the decades ahead” as the ideal of home rule was fought over.

When determining unionist reaction to the first home rule bill, there are three main topics of concern; the first of these being religious for many Ulstermen the ‘phrase of the day’ was ‘home rule is Rome Rule’, Ulster was predominantly protestant.In February 1886 Rudolph Churchill crossed to Ulster stating boldly that there were English hearts- ‘aye, and English hands’- which would not leave the protestant Ulstermen in the Lurch. The second of these was the economic argument: Rudolph Churchill wrote that the ‘orange card was the one to play’; and with the emergence of a hybrid orange order, unionist activities started on the increase, The Belfast New- Letter declared that though the Loyalists did not want civil war they were not afraid to resort to it ‘rather than to submit to be ruled by boycotters and moonlighters’. Reports came in of enrolments of Orange volunteers between eighteen and sixty, and of drilling with and without arms, from various parts of North East Ulster. ” (Robert Kee)On the 8th of May 1886 Major Saunderson declared to a large and enthusiastic meeting of the Loyal and Patriotic Union in Dublin, to make one appeal ‘that appeal was to their own strong right arms’ (Saunderson). He famously quoted that “We are prepared to stand or fall’ he declared, “for weal or woe, with every loyal man who lives in Ireland. “The bill was greeted by severe rioting in Belfast. Sectarian violence was no novelty in the city, but the 1886 riots were the worst the city had seen” (Irelands Eye) The area where unionism was the strongest, namely Ulster, had a great number of industries, which depended on Britain as a source of raw materials and as a vast market because of the size of the British Empire overseas.

Politically many unionists believed that a nationalist- dominated parliament in Dublin would be a disaster, that home rule would lead to total chaos and was only the first step on the road to a republic being created. Mike Cronin describes how in the 1880’s “opposition [to the first home rule bill] grew increasingly vociferous and organised. ” Many political organisations were set up after the First Home Rule Bill of 1886, the Ulster Loyalist Anti- repeal Union, the Ulster Defence Union and the plethora of Unionist Clubs.From these incidents and unionist arguments, a character of the Ulster Unionists is starting to form; Ulster Unionism was mainly protestant, the very fact that the unionism is originating in Ulster, with the emergence of an orange order suggesting, it is those who were more ‘economically’ effected by home rule, were protesting, the very fact that violence was threatened with the rumours of an ‘orange’ army rising against the state and the Belfast riots suggests that they were willing to use violence as a means to an ends, though the unions (such as the Ulster Loyalist Anti- repeal Union) hint at a willingness to pursue other avenues, but as Robert Kee insinuates “the men of Ulster were not primarily concerned with democratic reasoning, nor in the long run with the interests of other Irish protestants. They were thinking as history had trained them to think, in terms of their own interests. ” In 1889, a Captain O’Shea revealed a scandal involving Parnell, who he stated was having a affair with his wife.

Eventually leading to the downfall of Parnell, the fall of Parnell was a heavy blow to Gladstone- the heaviest he said, he had ever received. For five years he had been battling for Irish Home Rule ‘laboriously rolling uphill the stone of Sisyphus’ as he put it. Gladstone, ‘the Grand Old Man’ at 81 was too old to roll it back up again. However he did introduce a second Home Rule Bill in February 1893. Although he was able to force it through the House of Commons he knew “as did everyone else, that the Lords would reject it: as indeed they did, by an overwhelming 419 votes to 41.

” Although the Bill failed, unionist responses to the Bill, allow us to identify their characteristics.They once again employed the religious argument, however “The Unionists said that the safeguard for the protestant minority allegedly contained in the Legislative Council [was set up to protect minority protestant rights] was quite inadequate. ” (Robert Kee) one unionist even claimed that it would be a ‘priest’s house’. In the spring of 1892, even before Gladstone had taken office again, although it seemed as though they would, an ‘Ulster Unionist Convention’ was called in Belfast. With mottoes, such as Lord Spencer’s famous quote: “We feel like the Americans when the integrity of their Country was threatened, and if necessary we must she blood to maintain the strength and salvation of the country. ” Revealing that unionists still were not afraid to use violence.

As the Bill proceeded through its many stages in Parliament, Saunderson himself initiated an Ulster Defence Union and began to receive both arms and many offers of armed support from England. “Further shapes of things to come were outlined when Balfour, the Conservative leader, visited Belfast to watch a march past of some eighty thousand Ulster Loyalists. ” (Robert Kee): From the actions of the Ulster Unionists in reaction to the prospect of a second Home Rule Bill, the ‘Ulstermen’ were much more organised, taking the threat of organised violence to another level; where contemplation of a civil war was not an idle thought. In 1911 the third Home rule Bill was being debated in the House of Commons.In Belfast, tensions were so high over the Bill that spontaneous rioting kept breaking out between the Catholic and Protestant residents of the City. On 28 September 1912, Craig introduced the ‘Ulster Covenant’, which people could sign to pledge their determination to defeat the Third Home Rule Bill.

It was a huge success and 450,000 Irish people signed it, some in their own blood. The week came to a climax on 28 September 1912, which was known as Ulster Day. The whole event was remarkably peaceful, considering the tension, and received huge publicity in Britain. As the Bill was discussed, one proposition put forward was that the 4 counties with a Unionist majority (Antrim, Down, Londonderry and Armagh) could be left out of the Home Rule scheme.This was proposed as a compromise, since both sides were threatening to use force if the other got their way. At first the Unionists were horrified, since it made Home Rule much more likely, but they quickly resigned themselves to the idea.

Many of them decided they would need a back up military force as ‘insurance’ to make certain that at least Ulster was left out of Home Rule. So in January 1913, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was set up. Thousands of Unionists joined, and they met in Orange Halls around Ulster. The only thing missing was weapons. On the 24th and 25th of April 1914, 25,000 rifles and 3,000,000 bullets were illegally landed by the UVF at Larne, Bangor and Donaghadee, all near Belfast.By the end of 1913 (the Bill was still being debated) the Nationalists realised that the Liberal government was likely to agree with the Conservatives and leave part of Ulster out of Home Rule.

They were horrified, as they felt an Irish nation could only be forged with the whole island included in Home Rule. So some of them set up their own military force, the Irish Volunteer Force (IVF) in November 1913. It recruited even more men than the UVF. Since many Nationalists felt that the Home Rule leader, John Redwood, was ready to compromise Ireland, Redwood was frightened by the size of the IVF.

The IVF landed 1,500 rifles and 45,000 bullets at Howth, near Dublin, on 26 July 1914. In this case, the police did intervene and shot 3 people dead.It looked as if the police were treating the UVF and IVF very differently. In March 1914, the government introduced a new scheme, which it hoped would prevent a Civil War between the UVF and IVF. This was called the ‘County Option Scheme’, under which each county in Ireland would vote whether or not to join Home Rule. If it said No, then it would be outside Home Rule for 6 years. Under this, the 4 eastern counties in Ulster (Antrim, Armagh, Down and Londonderry) would be out of Home Rule.

But the Unionists felt that if the dug in their heels, they could get counties Tyrone and Fermanagh out of Home Rule too, even though they had a slim Nationalist majority.During the passage of the Home Rule Bill through the Houses of Parliament in the years 1912-1914 it became abundantly clear that the British Army’s top ranking officers would be more than reluctant to face down their own `kith and kin’ in the province of Ulster. Discussing this with his Prime Minister, Asquith, in 1913, the King asked: “Will it be wise, will it be fair to the sovereign, as head of the army, to subject the discipline and indeed loyalty of his troops to such a strain? ” It was in March 1914 that the `so-called’ mutiny at the Curragh captured the headlines. Some officers were given the choice of resigning in the event that they might disagree with being sent to Ulster.All of those consulted said that they would prefer to resign. Whatever else may be said about this incident, it was undoubtedly the first time that officers of any army were asked if they would obey lawful orders.

In conclusion, throughout the years 1880 until the partition, the characteristics of Ulster unionism evolved and changed; although there were still many constants, such as the use or threat of violence. During this period, the Ulstermen with a realisation that Home Rule was becoming more and more probable, increased their violent reactions, from the threat of an ‘orange’ army in 1886 by Saunderson, to an actual gathering of arms in 1914, shows this.The Unionists, were however not only an underground group, they were politically active as well with, not only Ulster unionist leaders as Sir David Craig but also Conservative unionists such as Sir Rudolph Churchill aiding their cause. It must also be noted that during this period, the Ulster unionist movement became progressively organised from 1886 to the partition i. e. the Ulstermen moved from small time rioting, to the ‘Ulster Covenant’.

Although successful for almost thirty years, the Ulster unionists came away with a success, however they claimed to speak as people of Ireland, but as IVF and the eventual partition shows this was not the case. Throughout this time frame, most Ulster Unionists were protestant, who had a vested interest with the Union; therefore having the most to loose in the event of Home Rule in Ireland.

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