Irish History Live

The development of Unionism before 1912

Dr Andrew Holmes

I. Introduction
II. The basis of unionist opposition
III. The first two Home Rule crises: 1885-6 and 1892-3
IV. The unionist coalition
V. Reasons for opposing Home Rule
VI. How did unionists organise their opposition?
VII. Subsequent developments

I. Introduction

The development of unionism in nineteenth-century Ireland raises and interacts with a number of general questions and themes.

1. Growth of popular politics

In the aftermath of the Irish Famine, landlords enjoyed a significant period of social and political influence. However, in the medium term, this influence was gradually weakened as the world of organised politics was opened to more and more groups within society. This was the result of economic and social changes, the widening of the franchise, and the willingness of sections of the elite to mobilize for their own ends popular forces such as the Orange Order and the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

2. Religion and political identity

The relationship between, on the one hand, Catholic religion and nationalism, and, on the other, Protestantism and unionism, is seen by many as natural and inevitable. Were there any real alternatives to these alignments? Did Young Ireland, agrarian and Liberal politics in Ulster, or the early Home Rule movement under the leadership of Isaac Butt represent a real alternative? Was polarization along these lines inevitable?

3. Unionism and nationalism

The question of inevitability ought to remind us that the emergence of unionism and nationalism in the last quarter of the century was a new development. For most of the 1800s, Ireland shared the same political divisions as the rest of the United Kingdom, Conservative versus Liberal. The question is, when did Ireland develop a different pattern of political alignment? What made nationalism and unionism distinctively Irish phenomena? It is important to remember that both groups were broadly based coalitions that cut across lines of party allegiance, economic interest, and, in the case of unionism, religious denomination.

4. What is Unionism?

At face value, unionists were protestants who thought that the Union between Great Britain and Ireland was the best framework for ensuing the peace and prosperity of both regions. Yet Alvin Jackson suggests that unionism was the ‘normative condition’ of Irish politics for much of the nineteenth century. Both Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell could be classified as unionists because they wanted a better functioning of the Union rather than a clear separation between Great Britain and Ireland. What precisely do we mean when we talk about unionism?

II. The basis of unionist oppositionBACK TO TOP

For protestants in Ireland, the turn of the nineteenth century was a time of upheaval. Many Presbyterians in the north of Ireland had been conspicuously involved in the formation of the Society of United Irishmen in October 1791, and the 1798 rising in the north has been described as a ‘Presbyterian rebellion’. At the other end of the protestant political spectrum, many members of the Protestant Ascendancy of Church of Ireland landlords, supported by the Orange Order (formed in 1795), were opposed to the passing of the Act of Union as it would mean a reduction of their power and influence, especially as it raised the probability of Catholics being allowed to sit as MPs in Westminster. By 1886, however, these two groups, along with a variety of others, were united in their opposition to Gladstone’s proposal for Home Rule for Ireland. What had happened in the intervening years to bring about such an alliance?

1. Religion

In religious terms, all protestant churches in Ireland underwent a process of reform and revival in the first decades of the century. This process is associated with a form of protestant religion known as evangelicalism, which united protestants together in terms of religious experience, doctrine, and activity. In terms of religious experience, evangelical religion may be described as ‘born again’ Christianity, a form of religion that stresses the importance of an individual’s relationship with God through Jesus Christ. The implication of this was that you could be a good protestant evangelical whether you were Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Congregationalist, and so on. It was the experience of individual conversion that mattered rather than adherence to the tenets of a particular denomination. In terms of doctrine, evangelicals were united in their belief in the final authority of the Bible and the protestant understanding of salvation. This meant that evangelical religion was firmly protestant and reflected the religious anti-Catholicism of the protestant Reformation. Finally, evangelicals were active in spreading their version of Christianity. To do this, they set up a variety of missionary and philanthropic societies that came to dominate large sections of popular Protestantism, especially in Ulster. This growth of evangelical religion led directly to the Anglican Second Reformation of the 1820s and, more spectacularly, the great religious revival that swept Protestant Ulster in 1859.

The person most associated with evangelical religion within Ulster portestantism was the Presbyterian minister Henry Cooke, whose statue can be seen in the centre of Belfast in front of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. Cooke was an evangelical in religion and a conservative in politics. On the basis of the former, he advocated protestant unity against Daniel O’Connell’s demands for repeal of the union and the attempts of the Whig government in the 1830s to dilute the protestant character of the state. At a meeting in Hillsborough, County Down, in October 1834, he famously pronounced ‘banns of marriage’ between Presbyterians and Anglicans. In 1841 he defended in public the Union against Daniel O’Connell and came to be known as ‘the Cooke who dished Dan’. According to the historian Finlay Holmes, Cooke became the ‘archetypal Ulster protestant political parson’, bringing together evangelical religion, anti-Catholicism, and conservative political unionism.

Cooke was a very popular figurehead, but he did not have everything his own way. The majority of Presbyterian ministers in Ireland shared his evangelical and unionist principles, but they objected to his conservative politics and especially his support for Anglican landlords. Presbyterians were at the forefront of the agitation for the legalisation of tenant right and voted with Catholics for Liberal candidates in the period between 1840 and 1885. It was in the context of Home Rule that political conservatives and liberals within Presbyterianism united together in a common political cause.

2. Economic developments

At the same time as these religious developments, the north of Ireland was undergoing unprecedented economic growth. The population of Belfast grew from 20,000 persons in 1800 to 349,000 in 1901. People came to take up employment in the linen mills, shipyards, and engineering works, which were amongst the largest in the world and laid the basis for the unprecedented prosperity of the north east. As this economic growth was occurring under the Union and was affecting protestants in Ulster, it naturally led to support for the continued constitutional link between Ireland and Britain. Cooke was one of the first to link together this economic prosperity and the Union. During his exchange with O’Connell in 1841, he memorably said, ‘Look at Belfast and be a repealer, if you can.’

The influx of workers from outside Belfast changed the character of the town (Belfast only became a city in 1888), for with prosperity came sectarian tensions. The Catholic proportion of the population reached a high point of around 40% in the 1840s. The immigrants brought with them the sectarian divisions of County Armagh and rioting became a common feature of life in Belfast during the Victorian period, especially in 1857, 1864, 1872, and 1886. 

3. Franchise

In addition to religious and economic developments, it is important to mention the practical changes to the franchise discussed by Brian Walker that transformed the composition of the electorate and how elections were organised. The Corrupt Practices Act of 1883 restricted the amount of money an individual candidate could spend on his election thus increasing the importance of party organisation and fundraising. The Representation of the People Act (1884) introduced a £10 franchise, thus allowing the majority of males amongst labourers and small farmers the vote. Finally, the Redistribution of Seats Act (1885) abolished all but nine borough constituencies in Ireland and replaced them with new constituencies. The main outcomes of these changes was to increase the importance of party organization and the size of the electorate from 226,000 to 738,000. This meant that the Liberals who had managed to maintain some sort of interdenominational vote of Catholics and Presbyterians in the north were about to be swamped as the new voters were attracted to the better organised and more articulate Home Rule and Conservative parties.

III. The first two Home Rule crises: 1885-6 and 1892-3BACK TO TOP

The first Home Rule Crisis may be said to have begun in December 1885 when Gladstone announced his conversion to Home Rule. In his previous term as Prime Minister between 1868 and 1874, he had sought to ‘pacify Ireland’ through the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland and the passage of the largely ineffectual Land Act of 1870. After the Land War of 1879-81, Gladstone began to consider constitutional reorganization as necessary to safeguard the integrity of the United Kingdom. The results of the 1885 General Election made him dependent for his majority in Parliament upon the support of the Home Rule members. He introduced a bill into the House of Commons in 1886 after the so-called Home Rule election, but it was defeated in the lower house. A second bill was introduced in 1893. This time it passed through the Commons but was defeated in the Lords, and it is clear that both Gladstone and Home Rule MPs lacked enthusiasm for the measure.

The first Home Rule crisis had two important consequences. In Ireland, it meant the end of political Liberalism in Ulster and the beginning of religio-political voting – Catholics voted for nationalists and protestants voted for Conservative / unionists. The 1885 General Election returned for Ulster constituencies 16 Nationalist MPs and 11 Conservatives / unionists. The Conservatives were much better organised than the Liberals and were able to take advantage of the changes to the franchise. In addition, their more strident attitude and rhetoric appealed to working-class protestants who now began to join the Orange Order in unprecedented numbers. Second, the Home Rule crisis of 1885-6 also had a significant impact on British politics. It led to a split within the Liberal party and the emergence of an important Liberal Unionist tradition, which had considerable support amongst Presbyterians in the north of Ireland. More importantly, the crisis led to a loss of flexibility on the part of the two main British parties – from now on, Liberals would be associated with Home Rule and Conservatives with the Union.

IV. The unionist coalitionBACK TO TOP

For a variety of reasons, unionism has not attracted the same degree of scholarly interest as nationalism and republicanism. Yet one of the key themes that has emerged in the existing scholarship is the complexity of the coalition assembled against Home Rule. According to the best expositor of unionism, Alvin Jackson, ‘Late Victorian and Edwardian Unionism was a formidable if unlikely combination of landed and commercial capital, of the southern gentry and Belfast industrialists, of small-town Orange brokers as well as metropolitan Tories and imperialists.’ Consequently, this coalition was divided along political, social, economic, geographical, and denominational lines. 

The numerical and social clout was provided by the Irish Conservative Party and Anglican landowners. This group expressed loyalty to the Church of Ireland, property rights, and the British connexion. The Conservative party was, according to Jackson, the untold success story of mid-Victorian politics. It provided organisation and experienced advocates of the loyalist cause; attracted young professionals and had a populist wing exemplified by William Johnstone of Ballykilbeg; and reacted well to changes in the franchise.

It is important to note that unionist opposition to Home Rule in 1885-6 was led by Southern Unionists. This group were numerically small but socially powerful. They comprised the landed elite, were Anglican in religion, and associated with Trinity College, Dublin. They provided the coalition with leadership, money, and, most importantly, social and familial contacts with the upper echelons of political society in Britain. However, the influence of southern unionists declined as the land system was reformed and Ulster became the centre of unionist opposition in the first decade of the twentieth century.

Liberal Unionists provided a mercantile and northern emphasis to the coalition. They were generally Presbyterian in religion and were from the urban middle-class and well-off tenant farmers. They formed the Ulster Liberal Unionist Association (1886), but their slow response to Gladstone’s conversion to Home Rule meant that the better-organised Conservatives were able to dominate unionism. Tensions between political Conservatives and Liberals continued into the 1890s and early 1900s, especially in the person of T. W. Russell who posed a significant reformist threat to landed unionism in this period. Liberal Unionists were the acceptable face of opposition to Home Rule and provided a respectable alternative to Orange populism.

The populist and sectarian element of the unionist coalition may be identified with the Orange Order. Formed in 1795, it was for most of the nineteenth century viewed with great suspicion by landlords and Presbyterians. It voluntarily dissolved itself in 1835 and had a brief revival in the mid 1840s, which led to the infamous Dolly’s Brae incident in 1849. This produced the Party Processions Act of 1850 that aimed to end sectarian parading. With the increasing number of republican marches in the 1860s, a campaign to repeal the act was organised by the Orange hero William Johnston who was imprisoned for leading an illegal march in July 1867 but who eventually won his repal campaign in 1872. The Order became prominent in Belfast in the 1870s and experienced considerable growth amongst the middle and lower middle classes of the town. It was the only populist organisation that could be used to mobilise anti-Home Rule sentiment. It provided a structure that united protestants from different classes, though it was not egalitarian and deference towards social superiors was deeply engrained.

The protestant churches were also united against Home Rule. The Church of Ireland had a genuine, though patchy, all-Ireland presence and had rallied in the aftermath of disestablishment. It emphasised the Irishness of opposition to Home Rule but also appealed to its sister Church of England and its part in the spread of the British Empire. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland was the most cohesive of the protestant churches and had its numerical heartland in the north east. Even though many Presbyterians had been United Irishmen in 1798, they had always been wary of Catholicism and this was reinforced by the growth of evangelical religion. They were concerned about the threat of a new Catholic ascendancy rather than the Anglican ascendancy they had rebelled against in 1798.

V. Reasons for opposing Home RuleBACK TO TOP

The unionist coalition was united against Home Rule for a variety of reasons that reflected the variety of groups in the coalition.

1. Unionists in general were reacting to the fitful emergence of Catholic nationalism from Daniel O’Connell to C.S Parnell.

2.  The Union had benefited Ireland. For Liberal Unionists, this began with the passing of Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and was continued through the reforms of land ownership and local government.

3. Home Rule raised central constitutional questions, including the future of the United Kingdom, Irish representation at Westminster, and levels of taxation.
4. Economic self-interest. Protestants in Ireland continued to dominate landownership despite the ability of tenants to buy their holdings through the land acts of 1881, 1903, and 1909. For northern protestants in particular, Belfast was the symbol of the benefits of the Union, the one industrialised city in Ireland that benefitted enormously from free trade within the British Empire. 

5. Threat to Empire. For Conservatives in particular, Home Rule for Ireland could spell the inevitable end of the British Empire by providing an example and precedent for other parts of the Empire to follow.

6. Identity. Home Rule also challenged unionist identity. It is important to note that unionism comprised a complex set of different identities. Imperial, British, Irish, and Ulster identities could be utilized for different reasons depending on circumstances. This variety was consistent with the nature of British identity, which included the English, Welsh, and Scots, as well as the Irish, and reflected the variety of the unionist coalition. It is also the case that unionist identity was constructed in response to the ‘other’ of Irish nationalism.

7. Rome Rule. Religion provided the bedrock of assumptions and language used in opposition to Home Rule. As noted above, all protestant churches were against Home Rule and only a very small minority of individual protestants were in favour. Irish protestants were concerned that any Home Rule arrangement would led to the ascendancy of Catholics over protestants, which would mean that Catholic social teaching would be imposed upon them against their will. They were reacting against the political and institutional consolidation of Irish Catholicism since the famine. They also noted that 80 out of 86 Home Rule MPs were Catholic and that the clergy were heavily involved in the campaign for Home Rule. Significantly, religion was not stressed by southern unionists who focused upon broader social and constitutional principles.

Evangelical religion played a vital role in this pan-protestant opposition. It did so by providing shared principles of personal religion, asserting the supreme authority of the Bible, and by uniting different protestants together in common activity. It also sharpened traditional protestant anti-Catholicism and drew a connection between good evangelical religion and good citizenship. For many unionists, this link between true religion and individual and national prosperity was exemplified in the comparison between Ulster and the rest of Ireland

VI. How did unionists organise their opposition?BACK TO TOP

Opponents of Home Rule organised themselves in a number of ways.

1. In Parliament

As outlined by Jackson, an ‘Ulster party’ emerged in Westminster by mid 1886 in response to Gladstone’s proposals and the changes to the franchise in the early 1880s. The leader of this party was Colonel Edward Saunderson, a landowner and Orangemen from County Cavan, who remained leader of the parliamentary party until the mid 1890s. According to Jackson, ‘He defined several key features of early unionist organization: a measure of independence from the British parties, a parliamentary focus, and gentry domination.’ Gentry influence was crucial in defeating Home Rule in 1886 and 1892 because land was still recognised as a formidable basis for political power and influence. The decline of landlordism in Ireland would have a significant impact on the character and organisation of unionist opposition.

2. Organisations

The first two Home Rule crises led to the formation of a variety of organisations aimed at uniting certain groups against Home Rule: Irish Loyal and Patriotic Union (May 1885); Loyal Irish Union (August 1885); Ulster Loyalist Anti-Repeal Union (1886); Ulster Liberal Unionist Association (1886); Irish Unionist Alliance (1891); Unionist clubs (1892-3).

3. Cultivating support in Great Britain

Unionists made significant attempts to shore-up support for their cause in Great Britain. Since 1885 the Conservative Party was the chief British supporter of the Union. For Liberal Unionists, their attempt to convince their potential supporters in Britain was complicated by the support of British protestant nonconformists for Gladstone and the Liberal party. English Methodists and Scottish Presbyterians belonging to the Free Church wanted to ensure that the established Anglican Church of England and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland were considerably reduced in power. Liberal Unionists sought to change their position through organisations such as the Nonconformist Unionist Association and links with the various Presbyterians churches in Scotland.

4. Public meetings and rioting

On 22 February 1886, a meeting was arranged in the Ulster Hall, Belfast. The Conservative leader Randolph Churchill was invited to give the main address and famously declared that ‘Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right’. Some elements within Belfast Protestantism took this rhetoric to heart. On 4 June, a summer-long season of rioting ensued in the town between protestants, Catholics, and the constabulary. The rioting resulted in 32 deaths, 422 arrests, and the injury of 377 policemen.

In June 1892, a much less belligerent Anti-Home Rule Convention was held in the Botanic Gardens in Belfast. Unlike 1886, the unionist leaders wanted a dignified and respectable opposition. The meeting was organised by the prominent Presbyterian and Liberal Unionist Thomas Sinclair. Around 12,000 delegates met at a specially constructed hall on Stranmillis plains in an attempt to show Gladstone and Irish Nationalists that unionism was not a movement of disgruntled landlords who deliberately injected sectarian hatred to bolster their cause. The speeches were conciliatory towards Catholics and promoted an Irish identity, with a banner of ‘Erin go bragh’ above the main stage. Sinclair would once again take a central role in opposition to the Third Home Rule bill when he penned the Ulster Covenant, directly modelled upon the Presbyterian Solemn League and Covenant of 1642.

VII. Subsequent developmentsBACK TO TOP

Home Rule retreated from the political stage after 1893. Between 1895 and 1905 a period of ‘Constructive Unionism’ was inaugurated by the Conservative government in an attempt to kill Home Rule with kindness. An effort was made to address Catholic and nationalist grievances in areas such as land ownership, local government, and education.

Irish unionism itself underwent a profound transformation. A process of ‘Ulsterization’ occurred. The leadership of the movement changed from southern landlords to the northern commercial and industrial middle classes. This group of young middle-class unionists felt that the Conservatives were ignoring their interests and that the landed elite no longer had the necessary social and political influence. As a consequence, the Ulster Unionist Council  was formed in 1905 and would provide the basis for unionist opposition to Home Rule between 1912 and 1914.


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