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  • War, Patriotism, and the Ulster Unionist Council, 1914–18
  • Thomas C. Kennedy (bio)

By 1905 the struggle over Irish Home Rule had troubled and distorted British politics for two decades. Failed Gladstonian attempts in 1886 and 1893 to provide Ireland with a semi-autonomous government gave rise to new levels of divisiveness as well as to a new political alliance—unionism. This alliance incorporated the diverse elements of opposition (Conservative, Liberal Unionist, and Irish Unionist) to an independent, Dublin-based, Catholic-dominated Irish parliament. Protestant Ulster's resistance to Home Rule, a great political boon for English Conservatives, was centered in a delegation of twenty-odd Ulster unionist MPs headed by Colonel Edward Saunderson, a wealthy County Cavan landlord.1 After the turn of the century, however, dissatisfaction with Saunderson's rhetorically imposing but organizationally antiquated leadership grew apace. Many Ulstermen, particularly representatives of the commercial and professional elite centered in Belfast, believed that Ulster's parliamentary leadership had gotten out of [End Page 189] touch with the party's rank and file. Urban-based members of parliament like William Moore and Charles Craig wanted their party to adopt a more modern, more democratic, and more independent approach to ensuring Ulster's future security and prosperity. They believed that the key to maintaining the union as well as the social, economic, and religious status quo lay not in continuation of the rural struggle to preserve the interests of the old squirearchy, but rather in the strength and solidarity of the Protestant working classes who labored in the mills and shipyards of Belfast and other urban centers. Their chief foes were not Parnellism or the Land League, but northern politicians like Joe Devlin and his supporters in the Ancient Order of Hibernians, who, because they were closely linked to southern nationalists and the Catholic hierarchy, represented the most ominous threat to Ulster's traditional freedom, religion, and laws.2 In December 1904, William Moore and J.B. Lonsdale, the party secretary, took the lead in organizing a special gathering of Ulster unionist MPs which would decisively alter the organization and tone of Ulster politics.3

Among the resolutions approved during the December meeting was one calling for the establishment of a council to ensure direction and unity for the party and the province.4 Thus, on 3 March 1905, the first meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council (UUC) was convened. During the intervening century the UUC has proved to be Northern Ireland's most powerful and enduring political institution. This essay is chiefly concerned with the council's vital role, amid the confusion and dangers of war and revolution, in successfully [End Page 190] leading the struggle against the forces of Irish nationalism and English pragmatism to ensure that Ulster would remain loyalist and Protestant, whatever the cost.

The UUC's original mandate was to create

an Ulster union for bringing into line all local unionist associations in the province of Ulster with a view to consistent and continuous political action, to act as a further connecting link between Ulster unionists and their parliamentary representatives . . . and generally to advance and defend the interests of Ulster unionism. . . .5

Too large and unwieldy to conduct regular business, the council's day-to-day activities were managed by a thirty-man standing committee, ten of whom were appointed by the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party at Westminster and the rest elected by regional delegates. From its inception the UUC and its standing committee were decisively influenced by Ulster's Loyal Orange Order, a secretive fraternal organization dedicated to the maintenance of Protestant ascendancy through watchful oversight of Ulster's Roman Catholic minority, whose very existence was synonymous with disloyalty to the union, political corruption, and papal conspiracy.6 The first standing committee included six prominent Orangemen led by the Earl of Erne, Grand Master of Ireland, and four Deputy Grand Masters.

During the first decade of the UUC's existence Ulster politics became at once more local and more populist.7 After Colonel Saunderson's death in 1906 the party leadership passed to Walter Long, an Englishman with solid Irish connections, including a parliamentary seat in South County Dublin. But while Long was...


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