While Westminster was debating the first and second Home Rule bills, in 1886 and 1893, scattered, small-scale drilling by unionists took place in Ulster, on local initiative. On 13th December 1912, during the third home rule crisis, the Ulster Unionist Council (UUC) decided officially to establish a paramilitary body, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). It did so partly because the protest demonstrations it had been organising until then against Irish self-government appeared to be having no impact; their activities were dismissed as ‘bluff and blackmail’ by the British government and by nationalist MPs. Already, by February 1912, 12,000 of them were drilling at 100 centres scattered throughout all nine northern counties, having been given legal sanction by sympathetic magistrates. Their leadership felt an initiative was necessary to coordinate this paramilitary action and bring it under effective party control, and also to prepare for the worst – the real prospect of having physically to resist Dublin rule.
By mid 1914, 90,000 men had joined the UVF. It was being led by a retired ex-Indian army general, Sir George Richardson, had motor vehicles, medical and nursing corps, and a troop of cavalry. Its members were meeting regularly for instruction and practice in the parks and demesnes of sympathetic landowners and in local Orange Halls. To increase its credibility and thus its political impact, and to satisfy the demands of its virtually unarmed recruits, the UUC organised the illegal import of weapons from Germany for its use; 25,000 rifles and 3 million rounds were ‘run in’ mainly through Larne, a port north of Belfast, on the night of 24th-25th April 1914. The overall effect of raising and arming the force was measurably to boost the level of unionist confidence and defiance and to make it much more problematical for Westminster to impose Dublin rule on Ulster - to attempt to do so would inevitably result in substantial casualties. Unionist militancy encouraged Irish nationalists likewise to form and arm a paramilitary body - the Irish Volunteer Force - in order to apply comparable pressure on British ministers.
In World War I, Carson encouraged the UVF to enlist in the British Army, a process facilitated by the War Office’s decision to create the 36th (Ulster) Division specifically for its members. The 36th fought bravely and with heavy losses at the Somme. Meanwhile, the UVF at home had languished, with barely 5,000 members by 1918. But it revived subsequently in the context of the Anglo-Irish war (1919-21). Under strong Unionist Party pressure, the British government agreed in mid-1920 to incorporate the force into the newly created Ulster Special Constabulary (USC). The purpose of the USC was to reinforce the Royal Irish Constabulary in Ulster just as the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries were already doing elsewhere in Ireland. Subsequently, the Specials took a leading role in countering IRA attacks in the north, but the tactics they employed further alienated the Catholic population who regarded them as a Protestant vigilante force, exclusively serving unionist interests. A Northern Ireland police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary was established in mid 1922; in 1927, 49 per cent of its members had belonged to the USC.