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24 September 2014
Wars and Conflict - 1916 Rising

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Unionist resistance Hear audio clips Audio Clips
Image of an anti-Home Rule postcard showing a boy ready to fight

A postcard reflecting unionist opposition to Home Rule ©

Irish unionism first emerged in Dublin in 1885 and spread to Ulster later that year. Its organisers had become alarmed by the activities of the Irish Parliamentary Party and believed that the Union between Britain and Ireland was under serious threat. This viewpoint seemed to have been confirmed after the British Liberal Party leader Gladstone announced his ‘conversion’ to the home rule cause also in 1885. Unionism attracted its most committed and enduring support amongst the Protestant population in Ulster who established their own organisation, separate from its supporters elsewhere in Ireland.

Ulster unionism’s single objective was to preserve the Union. It hoped to do this by establishing a strong, united disciplined movement in the province; this was achieved after much effort by the formation in 1905 of the Ulster Unionist Council. Its purpose was to impress opinion in Britain with the level of their popular appeal and to convince those with influence there that Ireland should not be given home rule.

The Ulster unionist movement faced its greatest challenge yet with the introduction of the third Home Rule Bill at Westminster in 1912. This measure made provision for the establishment of a parliament in Dublin with jurisdiction over all 32 Irish counties; it seemed certain to become law. In response, the unionist leaders, James Craig and Edward Carson, first organised a series of protest demonstrations. Their climax was Covenant Day, 28th September 1912, when in an atmosphere of fervent religious devotion, 470,000 men and women across the province signed ‘Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant’. Its signatories, some writing in their own blood, pledged ‘to stand by one another in defending for ourselves and for our children our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom and in using all means that may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a home rule parliament in Ireland’. Through this event, the organisers aimed to mobilise and enthuse their own supporters, whilst hopefully preserving their discipline. They also hoped to impress the government in Britain by highlighting the party’s strength, unity and determination.

Image of Ulster Division at Thiepval, 1st July 1916

Charge of the Ulster Division at Thiepval, 1st July 1916 ©

In the background, however, more ominous steps were being taken by the Unionist Party’s leaders. In December 1912, they agreed to form a paramilitary organisation, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), to be composed of all males of military age who had signed the Covenant. It was a decision which, in due course, was to transform the face of Irish politics. At the time, James Craig considered the step to be fully justified. The demonstrations and protests had made no measurable impression on the Irish policy of British ministers; the Home Rule Bill was continuing to make slow but steady and unamended progress through Westminster. Rank and file unionist supporters had therefore for months urged the necessity for more drastic action and had begun to drill and train in considerable numbers. The UVF was established, therefore, as a means of preserving party unity and discipline as well as of exerting additional pressure on the British government. It was also a means of preparing for the worst – the possible need to use physical force to resist an all-Ireland government based in Dublin. By mid 1914, 90,000 men had enlisted province-wide.

Meanwhile, the force had been partially armed. The Unionist leaders organised the purchase in Germany of 25,000 rifles and 3 million rounds of ammunition and succeeded in landing them on the night of 24-25th April 1914, mainly at the port of Larne. Thus organised, armed and led and with influential support in Britain, Ulster unionism was able to exert considerable pressure on the Liberal government.

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Image of Professor Paul Bew Paul Bew, Professor of Irish Politics, Queen's University of Belfast
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Image of Professor Alvin Jackson Alvin Jackson, Professor of Modern History, Queen's University of Belfast
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Image of Dr. Timothy Bowman Dr. Timothy Bowman, Research Fellow, Institute of Irish Studies, Queen's University of Belfast
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Image of Professor Liam Kennedy Liam Kennedy, Professor of Modern History, Queen's University of Belfast
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