Irish History Live

Ulster Crisis

The Ulster Crisis of 1912-14, described by A. T. Q. Stewart as ‘the most bitter political crisis experienced in Britain since the days of the Long Parliament’ [1], had several long and short-term causes. In the long-term, unionists had opposed the introduction of Home Rule for Ireland since the first campaign in 1886 and unionism had become increasingly focused in Ulster after the formation of the Ulster Unionist Council (UUC) in 1905. The immediate causes of the crisis were the removal of the House of Lords veto in 1911 and the introduction of the Third Home Rule bill in the House of Commons in 1912. The removal of the House of Lords veto meant that Home Rule could no longer be held up indefinitely by the Lords and could now be implemented by a simple majority in the House of Commons. With the removal of the last constitutional impediment to Home Rule for Ireland, the Ulster Unionists turned to more radical means of maintaining Ulster’s position in the United Kingdom.

Ulster’s cause received keen support across the United Kingdom, most notably from Andrew Bonar Law’s Conservative Party. In order to highlight this widespread support, the Ulster Unionists organised the signing of the Solemn League and Covenant on Ulster Day, 28 September 1912. The signatories of the covenant pledged to resist Ulster’s inclusion in the Home Rule bill and reiterated their desire for the province to remain within the United Kingdom. 471,414 people from across the United Kingdom signed the covenant, some using their own blood instead of ink, [2] clearly exhibiting the large amount of supporters backing the unionists.

Under the leadership of Sir Edward Carson and James Craig, the Ulster Unionists maintained a high level of organisation throughout the crisis. [3] Plans were drawn up for a constitution and a provisional government, which would be enacted if Home Rule in Ireland became a reality. The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was formed and armed, largely through the Larne gun-running episode, to enable Ulster to forcibly resist Home Rule. The Curragh Mutiny of March 1914, in which fifty-eight British officers resigned rather than follow orders that they believed would lead them into conflict with the UVF, proved that it would be very difficult for the British government to force Ulster to accede to Home Rule. [4]

The outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 averted a full scale rebellion. The Ulster Unionists remained determined to resist Home Rule yet refused to exploit Britain’s international difficulties and Carson pledged their unconditional support for the British war effort. The war provided the idle opportunity to highlight Ulster’s loyalty to the British Empire. The Home Rule bill passed through the House of Commons on 18 September 1914 in the form of the Government of Ireland Act, yet its implementation was postponed until the cessation of hostilities. Ulster’s fate was put on hold until the conclusion of the First World War.

The Ulster Crisis of 1912-14 produced several key consequences. The Ulster Unionists succeeded in convincing the British government that the province was a special case and the exclusion of part or all of Ulster from the Home Rule bill came under serious consideration. The formation of the UVF during the crisis also provided the precedent for the role played by the Irish Volunteers in the 1916 Easter Rising and the War of Independence 1921-2. [5] The transformation of the UVF into the 36th Ulster Division and its exploits during the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 reaffirmed Ulster’s loyalty to and desire to remain within the United Kingdom. [6] It can therefore be concluded that the Ulster Crisis had a major impact on what Diarmaid Ferriter describes as ‘the transformation of Ireland’ [7]in the first decades of the twentieth century. 


[1] A. T. Q. Stewart, The Ulster crisis (London, 1969), p. 18.

[2] Stewart, The Ulster crisis, p. 66.

[3] P. Buckland, Irish unionism 2: Ulster unionism and the origins of Northern Ireland 1886-1922 (Dublin, 1973), p. 47.

[4] D. Ferriter, The transformation of Ireland 1900-2000 (London, 2005), p. 127.

[5] D. Fitzpatrick, ‘Militarism in Ireland 1900-1922’ in T. Bartlett and K. Jeffrey (eds), A military history of Ireland (Cambridge, 1996), p. 384.

[6] J. Loughlin, Ulster unionism and British national identity since 1885 (London, 1995), p. 83

[7] Ferriter, The transformation of Ireland, p. 31


Further Reading:

Bew, P., Ideology and the Irish Question: Ulster unionism and Irish nationalism (Oxford, 2002).

Boyce, D. G. and A. O’Day (eds), The Ulster crisis (London, 2006).

Buckland, P., Irish unionism 2: Ulster unionism and the origins of Northern Ireland 1886-1922 (Dublin, 1973).

Ferriter, D., The transformation of Ireland (London, 2005).

Loughlin, J., Ulster unionism and British national identity (London, 1995).

Stewart, A. T. Q., The Ulster crisis: resistance to Home Rule 1912-1914 (London, 1979).

Walker, G., A history of the Ulster Unionist Party: protest, pragmatism and pessimism (Manchester, 2004).


This entry was written by Chris Irvine.  At time of writing, Chris is a third-year student in the School of History and Anthropology and is studying for a Single Honours BA degree in Modern History. His research interests include Modern Irish and European history.


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