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In the Irish context, Unionists form a group of largely (though not exclusively) Protestant people in Ireland, of all classeses, who wish to see the continuation of the Act of Union, as amended by the Government of Ireland Act 1920, under which the Northern Ireland provincial state created in that latter Act remains part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Prior to 1921, Irish Unionists wished to see the Act of Union (which in 1801 had merged the Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland) remain in place. They opposed Irish Home Rule, which mainstream Irish nationalistss had demanded since the 1870s. Home Rule would have involved Ireland, while still remaining in the United Kingdom, having its own native regional parliament and government. This latter demand, the policy of nationalist leaders such as Isaac Butt. William Shaw, Charles Stewart Parnell, John Redmond and John Dillon, became the aim of the Home Rule League (later known as the Irish Parliamentary Party). The Home Rule League/Irish Parliamentary Party caputured the vast majority of Irish parliamentary seats in the Westminster parliament from the 1870s to 1918.
Various British governments introduced four successive Bills to set up an Irish Home Rule parliament in Dublin. The 1886 Bill never made it through the House of Commons. The 1894 Bill passed in the Commons but succumbed to the veto of the House of Lords. The 1914 Bill passed (or at least passed all stages under the Parliament Act, 1911, which curbed the veto power of the Lords) but never came into force, due to the intervening World War One (1914 - 1918) and the Easter Rising in Dublin (1916). The fourth Bill, known as the Government of Ireland Act, and enacted in 1920, envisaged two Irish home rule states: Southern Ireland which would have had a nationalist majority, and Northern Ireland which would have a unionist majority. Only the latter state became a reality.
Irish unionists opposed home rule for reasons as complex as the nature of their support base. Much of their support in southern Ireland (the provinces of Munster, Leinster and Connacht) came from landed gentry who feared that a nationalist state would swamp them, forcing nationalist symbols like the Irish language and Roman Catholicism on them. Some also feared that they would experience the sort of discrimination that the Protestant parliament of Ireland up to 1800 had practised on Irish Catholics and nationalists, namely the notorious Penal Laws. Others identified with the Crown and British rule, and wished to see both continue unchanged in Ireland. However one should not presume that Irish unionist support came entirely from the landed gentry, or that all Protestants supported Unionism. Many working class and middle class Unionists also supported the maintenance of the union, while other Protestants (most notably Parnell) supported home rule.
Other Unionists, particularly in Ulster, had economic fears, suspecting that a nationalist parliament in Dublin, on a predominantly agricultural island, would impose economic tariffs against industry. Parts of Ulster were then the most industrialised parts of all Ireland and so would suffer disproportionately.
For much of the period up until 1920, though the Unionist support base predominated in six of the nine counties of Ulster (where Protestants and Anglicans outnumbered Roman Catholics), the Irish Unionist Party's leadership came from southern Ireland. Its most prominent leader, the Dublin-born barrister and politician Sir Edward Carson, opposed not merely Home Rule but any attempt to divide Ireland into two states. Other southern Unionist leaders included the Earl of Middleton and the Earl of Dunraven.
When, following the curbs placed on the power of the House of Lords in 1911 it became clear that home rule would come, Unionists, particularly in parts of Ulster, mounted a campaign that threatened the use of violence if home rule were to come about. Irish Unionism received the support in the period from the 1880s to 1914 from leading British Conservative Party politicians, notably Lord Randolph Churchill and future British prime minister Andrew Bonar Law. Slogans such as 'Ulster Will Fight and Ulster Will Be Right' expressed the determination of unionists to oppose Irish home rule by whatever means.
The creation of the Unionist-dominated Northern Ireland under the Government of Ireland Act 1920, and the later creation of the Irish Free State in the territory the above Act had called Southern Ireland separated Southern and Northern Irish unionists. Some unionists in the south associated themselves with the new southern Irish regime of W.T. Cosgrave and Cumann na nGaedhael. Leading unionists gained appointment to the Irish Free State Senate, where the Earl of Dunraven became speaker or Cathaoirleach (pronounced 'ka-here-loch' (loch pronounced as in "Loch Ness")).One Unionist political family, the Dockrells, joined and became TDs (MPs) over a number of generations for Cumann na nGaedhael and its successor party, Fine Gael (the governing party in the 1920s, the main opposition from 1932 on). The Dublin borough of Rathmines had a unionist majority up to the late 1920s, when a local government re-organisation abolished all Dublin borough councils. (A new Irish unionist 'Conservative Party' emerged in the late 1990s in the Republic of Ireland.)
However most Irish unionists simply withdrew from public life. The number of Protestants declined sharply in the Irish Free State and in its successor state, Éire. IRA ethnic cleansing in the 1920s drove many families away, the IRA in the process burning many historic homes. Others had sufferred disproportionately in World War One, losing their sons and heirs on the bloodied fields of Flanders and the Somme. Some that remained became targets of the Roman Catholic Church's Ne Temere decree imposed by Pope Pius X, which required Protestants marrying Catholics to ensure that all children of the marriage were brought up in the Church of Rome. As a result, vast numbers of eligible Protestant women, who because of the deaths of Protestant sons in World War One were denied the availability of Protestant husbands, either married Catholics or remained unmarried, either way ending the Protestant family line.
Furthermore, land reform from the 1870s to the 1900s broke up many of the large estates. Protestant families, who had ownwd most of the land, saw it divided among their largely Catholic tenantry. While they did receive compensation, many chose in the 1920s to use this money to re-settle in Britain, often in other estates they owned there. In addition, the dis-establishment of the Church of Ireland from 1871 by an Act of Parliament led the Church to sell many of its estates and bishops' palaces, in the process laying off many Protestant workers who themselves then moved away. (Previously, the Church had had considerable wealth thanks to tithes (mandatory taxes) which the local Catholic community had to pay to the local parish of the (Anglican) Church of Ireland. The loss of this money undermined the economic viability of the Church of Ireland.)
However, little evidence of widespread discrimination against Protestants in the Irish Free State/Éire exists. (Indeed the first President of Ireland, Douglas Hyde (1938-1945) and the fourth, Erskine Hamilton Childers (1973-74) belonged to the Church of Ireland, although nationalist protestants, while Nicholas Robinson, the husband of the seventh president, Mary Robinson (in office 1990 - 1997) also belonged to the Church of Ireland. Mary Robinson has Catholic and Protestant branches of her family.) Leading ex-Unionists like the Earl of Granard and the Provost (in effect, president) of the Protestant Trinity College Dublin gained appointment to the President of Ireland's advisory body, the Council of State. In contrast, anti-Catholic discrimination occurred widely in Northern Ireland, even though Sir Edward Carson (now raised to the peerage as Lord Carson) had expressly urged the Northern Ireland Unionist prime minister, Sir James Craig to ensure absolute equality in the treatment of Roman Catholics. (Craig openly called for discrimination.) Boundaries demarcated electorates in such a way as to produce Protestant majorities in areas that would otherwise, by a fair drawing of boundaries, have produced nationalist MPs and local councillors. Decades later, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, openly described the Northern Ireland of most of the twentieth century as a 'cold house of Catholics\', a process he said the Belfast Agreement must change.
By the 1960s, belated attempts by a moderate new Unionist Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Terence O'Neill to create equality created a backlash under fundamentalist Protestant preacher and politician, the Rev. Ian Paisley. Nationalists launched a Civil Rights movement under figures like John Hume, Austin Currie and Ivan Cooper. A collapse in civil control, the controversial killing of people by the British Army in Derry/Londonderry on Bloody Sunday (30 January 1972) and the emergence of the Provisional IRA, alongside Protestant paramilitary groups like the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Ulster Freedom Fighters, led to the suspension then abolition of the unionist-dominated Stormont parliament and government in Northern Ireland (1972). After two decades of brutal murder by terrorist groups on both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland, a ceasefire and inter-community negotiations produced the Belfast Agreement (also known as the "Good Friday Agreement"), which attempted with mixed success to produce a power-sharing government for Northern Ireland, to which both Unionist and nationalist communities can give allegiance.
While commentators regularly use the religious terms 'Catholic' and 'Protestant' as interchangable with 'nationalist' and 'Unionist' in Northern Ireland, some differences do exist between them. Not all Catholics support nationalist causes, for example. The Ulster Unionist Party now has Catholic members; one of its most respected MLAss (Member of the power-sharing Legislative Assembly) is Catholic. Catholics served in the former Northern Ireland police force, the Royal Irish Constabulary and in the British army. Indeed one of the biggest surprises in Northern Ireland is that the anti-Catholic right-wing Protestant leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, the Rev. Ian Paisley, attracts a large proportion of Catholic votes in his constituency in elections to the British and European Parliaments (he serves in both). That may be a personal quirk, due to his reputation as a good constituency MP who will help anyone, irrespective of their religion. However it highlights the sheer nature of the complexity of Northern Ireland politics, and of the dangers of drawing simplistic 'catholic = nationalist' 'protestant = unionist' definitions in trying to understand Northern Ireland.
Today, except for the small Irish Unionist 'Conservative Party' founded in the 1990s, southern Irish Unionism no longer exists as a political movement. Northern Ireland has a large number of unionist parties. The largest remains the Ulster Unionist Party (also known for a time as the 'Official Unionist Party) under Northern Ireland First Minister David Trimble. The more right-wing Democratic Unionist Party under the Rev. Ian Paisley, MP, MEP , challenges it for dominance. Their battle for supremacy in the 2002 Assembly elections in Northern Ireland may well decide the future of Unionism, and which form of Unionism dominates, in the next generation.
When Northern Ireland formed in 1921, Protestants dominated the state. Recent census data shows that Protestants now account for less than half the population of Northern Ireland for the first time, with Catholics only a few per cent behind. (Though few abroad realise it, Northern Ireland has citizens who are neither Catholic or Protestant. The third biggest group, interestingly, is the Chinese!) However, contrary to media reports, that does not mean that nationalists and Unionists have equal numbers; some suggest that up to one fifth of Protestants harbour sympathies towards nationalism (even if they still vote for the mainstream Unionist parties), while as many as one-third of Catholics could be called 'soft unionists' (i.e., if given a choice and freed from discrimination, they'd prefer Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom rather than link to the Republic of Ireland, though they may vote for nationalist parties like the Social Democratic and Labour Party or a middle-of-the road Alliance Party.) Furthermore, a strong decline in the Catholic birthrate (through smaller family size, use of contraception or abortion, etc) may slow down or even reverse the growth in the Catholic population. However that may be balanced in turn by an increased rate of emigration of young Protestants, often to study and then work in Britain. How these changes will affect the long-term number of Protestants and Catholics remains currently impossible to assess. Furthermore, until the issue is put to the test in a vote, it remains impossible to calculate with certainty how many Protestants in reality endorse nationalism and how many Catholics in reality endorse Unionism.
One final historical point of interest: while Southern Unionism predominantly (though not exclusively) originated in Church of Ireland circles and the upper-middle to upper classes, Northern Unionism remains and has been predominantly (though not exclusively) associated with the working and middle classes and predominantly Presbyterian.