The objective of Ulster unionism was to preserve the union between Britain and Ireland. Its leaders therefore consistently aimed to create a strong, united, disciplined movement in the province whose purpose was to convince the British government that Ireland should not be granted self-government. It proved immensely difficult to integrate northern opponents of Irish home rule into a cohesive organisation. This was because they were so deeply divided - by past political affiliation (Conservative or Liberal), by social class (landlord and tenant, middle and working class,) and by religious denomination (Church of Ireland, Presbyterian or Methodist). It was mainly due to a deep-rooted and shared fear of home rule that these difficulties had largely been overcome by 1905.
When the first Home Rule Bill was introduced at Westminster in 1886 Ulster unionists were ill-prepared and their organisation was rudimentary. As a consequence of the tensions which the issue generated, sectarian riots erupted in Belfast in which 32 people died. In 1893, when the second Home Rule Bill was being debated, the unionist leaders were better prepared; they encouraged the formation of Unionist Clubs and a central council was elected to coordinate opposition across the province. But after the House of Lords had rejected the measure and the danger appeared to have passed, these initiatives lapsed and the divisions between those who supported the union re-surfaced over the years which followed.
In 1904, however, a number of southern Irish landlords suggested that local government powers in Ireland should be increased in order to improve the quality of its administration. A number of the younger northern unionist leaders were alarmed, regarding this proposal as ‘home rule by instalments’. They urged that a conference be organized to place the party on a ‘war footing’, and reform its organization so that it would be capable of ‘continuous political action’ and in a position ‘generally to advance and defend the interests of Ulster unionism’. As a consequence of their pressure a conference was convened in December 1904, and it resulted in the creation of the Ulster Unionist Council (UUC), which was launched in Belfast in March 1905.
The UUC was comprised of 200 delegates, drawn from all nine Ulster counties (they included Unionist MPs and peers, 100 representatives of local Unionist constituency branches and 50 from the Orange Order). It helped elect a 30-man Standing Committee for day-today administration; a permanent staff of full-time officials was also appointed. These new structures mark the inauguration by the Ulster Unionist Party of a permanent organisation, separate from and independent of all existing Irish unionist political bodies, though it did of course co-operate with these as the need arose. The stated purpose of the UUC was to draw together all Unionist Party branches throughout Ulster, help bond Ulster Unionist MPs and their constituents, contribute to the debate over future policy and to provide greater opportunity for the opinion of the broader movement to be expressed. The UUC was to play the vital role in mobilising Ulster unionist resistance to the third Home Rule bill, 1912-14 - the movement’s greatest challenge up to then. The Ulster Unionist Council has remained a central feature of the party’s structure ever since.