In the News: Roots of Unionist Political Parties in Northern Ireland

Since last week’s election, the Democratic Unionist Party has received more attention outside of Northern Ireland than it has in years, now holding the balance of power in the UK Parliament.  While the DUP was founded by Ian Paisley in 1971, the separation of political parties in Northern Ireland from the main United Kingdom parties has roots in the late nineteenth century before and during the Home Rule era.

2017 Election

2017 General Election Results – BBC News

In the 1870s, sectarian strife in the north of Ireland was at a low ebb as both Catholics and Protestants united through Liberal Party politics.  The Land League, founded in 1878 in County Mayo, helped to direct land agitation for the goals of tenant rights and the redistribution of land.  A land war erupted, including boycotting and intimidation, though the Land League itself remained officially nonviolent.

Conservative unionist writers in the north characterized the League as extreme and terroristic.  However, some northern Protestant farmers were attracted to the Land League’s principles, and they joined with northern Catholics to combat landlordism.  Presbyterians in the north long celebrated a “traditional” liberalism, whether or not this had actually played out for the majority in the political and social realms.  By 1879, Conservative party support in Ulster had weakened significantly. In less than a decade, this trend would be completely reversed as unionists formed a pan-Protestant bloc in the north in the face of the Home Rule threat.  The 1885 general election saw the “starkest possible polarization” of sectarian political parties, with seventeen parliamentary seats in Ulster going to the Home Rule Party, sixteen seats to the Conservatives, and none to the Liberals. As Brian Walker points out, from this point forward there would never again be such a close political alliance between Protestants and Catholics in Ulster.

Conservatives in Ulster associated the Land League with the dynamite attacks on British cities from 1881-1885, orchestrated by Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa and the Clan-na-Gael, as well as the Phoenix Park murders of 1882.  Ulster Conservatives seized on extremist images of the land war, dynamite attacks, and the Phoenix Park murders to color all Irish nationalists as militant and violent.  Nationalists were characterized as unfit for self-government and a threat to Irish Protestants.

The characterization of Irish nationalists as extreme and violent made it even more important for most northern Protestants to protect their position as a minority group in Ireland, leading to the polarization of politics in the region.  As it was almost impossible for northern Protestants to support Home Rule when it was introduced in 1886, the death knell was signaled for the Ulster Liberal Party.  This left the political parties in the north of Ireland divided into stark sectarian camps: the pan-Protestant bloc of the Conservatives and the Catholic-dominated Home Rulers.

The November/December 1885 general election gave Irish nationalists the balance of power in the House of Commons. Lord Salisbury and the Conservatives managed to stay in government for only a month before the Irish Parliamentary Party combined with the Liberals to throw them out of office, initiating Gladstone’s third ministry. With the imminent threat of Home Rule, unionists began to organize both in Ireland and the United Kingdom as a whole. Dublin’s Irish Loyal and Patriotic Union formed in May 1885, leading the effort to spread information and propaganda for the unionist cause.  In the south, unionists were generally Protestant landowners or merchants, with a small number of Catholic adherents. In Ulster, local organization developed through the Ulster Loyalist Anti-Repeal Union, a central association for agitation and propaganda founded in January 1886. Ulster Conservatives worked to forge an electoral alliance with local Liberals, who declared their support of Union in March 1886. In Parliament, Conservatives and Liberals joined in an uneasy alliance to form the Ulster Unionist Party, led by Edward Saunderson.

Following the defeat of the Home Rule bill in 1885, the Parnell split, and the defeat of the second Home Rule bill, Irish nationalists began to rebuild support in the early 1900s.  Irish unionists faced divisions of their own due to the influence of labor and tenant rights. The devolution debacle in 1904-1905, entangling George Wyndham, undersecretary Antony MacDonnell, and Lord Dunraven, led to increasing distrust of Ulster unionists for the British unionist elite and Dublin Castle. The Ulster Unionist Council emerged out of a conference held in 1904 to condemn Dunraven’s devolution proposals. The new central unionist organization had 200 members representing local unionist associations, the Orange Order, MPs, peers, and other prominent Ulstermen. The creation of the UUC aided in the re-centring of the unionist movement from the south of Ireland to Ulster. However, both the UUC and its Dublin counterpart, the Irish Unionist Alliance, joined in the Unionist Joint Committee formed in 1907.  The Ulster Unionist Party became more formalized, particularly after Edward Carson became its leader in 1910.

While the Ulster unionists resisted Home Rule and independence for Ireland, they became gradually accepting of partition in the years during and following World War I.  The UUP controlled the government of Northern Ireland from 1921 until 1972, when the Northern Ireland Parliament was suspended in favor of direct rule.  Meanwhile, Paisley, who had previously entered politics as part of the Protestant Unionist Party, joined with hardline unionists to found the Democratic Unionist Party in 1971.  Paisley led the DUP for 37 years.  The DUP overtook the UUP as the main unionist party in Northern Ireland in the early 2000s.

The UUP lost its final two seats in Parliament last week, while the DUP now has 10 MPs.

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