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  • Colin W. Reid (a1)


This paper examines ideas about democratic legitimacy and sovereignty within Ulster unionist political thought during the revolutionary period in Ireland (c. 1912–22). Confronted by Irish nationalists who claimed that Home Rule (and later, independence) enjoyed the support of the majority of people in Ireland, Ulster unionists deployed their own democratic idioms to rebuff such arguments. In asserting unionism's majority status, first, across the United Kingdom and, second, within the province of Ulster, unionists mined the language of democracy to legitimise their militant stand against Home Rule. The paper also probes the unionist conception of sovereignty by examining the establishment of the Provisional Government of Ulster in 1913, which was styled as a ‘trustee’ for the British constitution in Ireland after the coming of Home Rule. The imperial, economic and religious arguments articulated by unionists against Home Rule are well known, but the space given to constitutional rights and democratic legitimacy in the political language of unionism remain obscure. While the antagonisms at the heart of the revolutionary period in Ireland assumed the form of identity politics and sectarianism, the deployment of normative democratic language by unionists reveals that clashing ideals of representative government underpinned the conflict.



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I am very grateful to Ultán Gillen, Matt Kelly, James McConnel, Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid, Graham Walker and the two anonymous readers for their insightful reading of earlier drafts of this work.



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1 Hart, Peter, ‘Definition: Defining the Irish Revolution’, in The Irish Revolution, 1913–1923, ed. Augusteijn, Joost (Basingstoke, 2002), 30 .

2 See, for example, recent works by R. F. Foster, Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890–1923 (2014); McGarry, Fearghal, The Rising: Ireland, Easter 1916 (Oxford, 2010); Pašeta, Senia, Irish Nationalist Women, 1900–1918 (Cambridge, 2013); McConnel, James, The Irish Parliamentary Party and the Third Home Rule Crisis (Dublin, 2013); Charles Townshend, The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence, 1918–1923 (2013).

3 McBride, Ian, ‘The Edge of Enlightenment: Ireland and Scotland in the Eighteenth Century’, Modern Intellectual History, 10 (2013), 135 .

4 D. George Boyce, Robert Eccleshall and Vincent Geoghegan, ‘Introduction’, in Political Thought in Ireland since the Seventeenth Century, ed. D. George Boyce, Robert Eccleshall and Vincent Geoghegan (1993), 1.

5 See, for example, Kelly, M. J., The Fenian Ideal and Irish Nationalism, 1882–1916 (Woodbridge, 2006); Dwan, David, The Great Community: Culture and Nationalism in Ireland (Dublin, 2008); Bew, John, The Glory of Being Britons: Civic Unionism in Nineteenth-Century Belfast (Dublin, 2009).

6 Some of the best and most original work within Irish political history over the past decade is distinguished by an engagement with political languages and ideas: see the books mentioned in n. 5 and, especially, Richard Bourke, Peace in Ireland: The War of Ideas (2003).

7 Jennifer Todd has provided an overview of unionist political thought after partition: ‘Unionist Political Thought, 1920–72’, in Political Thought in Ireland, ed. Boyce, Eccleshall and Geoghegan, 190–211.

8 McBride, Ian, ‘Ulster and the British Problem’, in Unionism in Modern Ireland: New Perspectives on Politics and Culture, ed. Walker, Graham (Basingstoke, 1996), 1 .

9 Bew, Paul, Ideology and the Irish Question: Ulster Unionism and Irish Nationalism, 1912–1916 (Oxford, 1994); Jackson, Alvin, The Two Unions: Ireland, Scotland and the Survival of the United Kingdom, 1707–2007 (Oxford, 2012); Walker, Graham, A History of the Ulster Unionist Party: Protest, Pragmatism and Pessimism (Manchester, 2004).

10 Walker, Graham, ‘The Ulster Covenant and the Pulse of Protestant Ulster’, National Identities, 18 (2015), 314 . As well as ibid., see, for example, Bowman, Timothy, Carson's Army: The Ulster Volunteer Force, 1910–22 (Manchester, 2007); Jackson, Alvin, Sir Edward Carson (Dundalk, 1993).

11 The classic works are Buckland, Patrick, Irish Unionism, ii: Ulster Unionism and the Origins of Northern Ireland, 1886–1922 (Dublin, 1973), and Gibbon, Peter, The Origins of Ulster Unionism: The Formation of Popular Protestant Politics and Ideology in Nineteenth-Century Ireland (Manchester, 1975), but see the important revisions by Jackson, Alvin in The Ulster Party: Irish Unionists in the House of Commons, 1884–1911 (Oxford, 1989), and Ireland, 1798–1998: Politics and War (Oxford, 1999).

12 A fascinating approach to the (uneasy) Victorian transition to parliamentary democracy in Britain is found in Baer, Marc, The Rise and Fall of Radical Westminster, 1780–1890 (Basingstoke, 2012).

13 Mulholland, Marc, Bourgeois Liberty and the Politics of Fear: From Absolutism to Neo-Conservatism (Oxford, 2012), 84 .

14 Rodney Barker, Political Ideas in Modern Britain: In and After the Twentieth Century, 2nd edn (1997; first published 1978), 116.

15 W. E. H. Lecky, Democracy and Liberty (2 vols., 1896), i, 212.

16 Ibid ., 18.

17 Bourke, Peace in Ireland, 4.

18 Adams, Gerry, Before the Dawn: An Autobiography (Dingle, 2001; first published 1996), 91 .

19 See, for example, Terence O'Neill, Ulster at the Crossroads (1969), 11.

20 Belfast News-Letter, 23 Aug. 1918.

21 Belfast News-Letter, 16 Jan. 1919.

22 Miller, David W., Queen's Rebels: Ulster Loyalism in Historical Perspective (Dublin, 1978), 105 .

23 de Valera, Éamon, Ireland's Request to the Government of the United States of America for Recognition as a Sovereign Independent State (Washington, DC, 1920), 5 . Wilson's argument from 1916 can be found in The Wisdom of Woodrow Wilson: Being Selections from his Thoughts and Comments on Political, Social and Moral Questions, ed. Charles J. Herold (New York, 1919), 88.

24 Good, J. W., Irish Unionism (Dublin, 1920), 232–3.

25 Good, J. W., Ulster and Ireland (Dublin, 1919), 200–1.

26 Good, Irish Unionism, 235.

27 Ibid ., 233.

28 George Peel, The Reign of Sir Edward Carson (1914), 51.

29 Quoted in Meleady, Dermot, John Redmond: The National Leader (Dublin, 2014), 208 .

30 Quoted in O'Day, Alan, Irish Home Rule, 1867–1921 (Manchester, 1998), 248 .

31 Jackson, Alvin, ‘Unionist Myths, 1912–1985’, Past and Present, 136 (1992), 164 .

32 Walker, History of the Ulster Unionist Party, 35.

33 Chase, Malcolm, Chartism: A New History (Manchester, 2007), 710 . Also see Kennedy, Liam, Unhappy the Land: The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish? (Dublin, 2016), 132 .

34 William Lovett, Chartism: A New Organization of the People (1840), 2. Emphasis in original.

35 ‘Ulster Solemn League and Covenant’ (1912). The document has been digitised by the National Library of Ireland: (last accessed 28 Oct. 2016).

36 Thomas Sinclair, ‘The Position of Ulster’, in Against Home Rule: The Case for the Union, ed. S. Rosenbaum (1912), 174.

37 Ibid ., 170.

38 ‘Ulster Solemn League and Covenant’ (1912).

39 Miller, Queen's Rebels, 16.

40 Hill, Jacqueline, ‘Loyalty and the Monarchy in Ireland, c. 1660–1840’, in Loyalism and the Formation of the British World, 1775–1914, ed. Blackstock, Allan and O'Gorman, Frank (Woodbridge, 2014), 89 .

41 Edward Carson, ‘Introduction’, in Against Home Rule, ed. Rosenbaum, 18.

42 ‘Ulster Solemn League and Covenant’ (1912).

43 A. V. Dicey, A Fool's Paradise: Being a Constitutionalist's Criticism of the Home Rule Bill of 1912 (1913). Dicey made his name in unionist circles for his brilliant attack on the Home Rule Bill of 1886 in England's Case against Home Rule (1886).

44 L. S. Amery, The Case against Home Rule (1912), 12.

45 Ian Cawood, The Liberal Unionist Party: A History (2012), 56.

46 Biagini, Eugenio, British Democracy and Irish Nationalism, 1876–1906 (Cambridge, 2007), 259–60.

47 F. E. Smith, Unionist Policy and Other Essays (1913), 105.

48 For this angle during the Treaty controversy and resulting civil war, see Garvin, Tom, 1922: The Birth of Irish Democracy (Dublin, 1996); Regan, John M., The Irish Counter-Revolution, 1921–1936 (Dublin, 2000); Knirck, Jason, Imagining Ireland's Independence: The Debates over the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 (Plymouth, 2006); Kissane, Bill, The Politics of the Irish Civil War (Cambridge, 2005); Foster, Gavin, ‘ Res Publica na hÉireann?: Republican Liberty and the Irish Civil War’, New Hibernia Review, 16 (2012), 2042 .

49 Alvin Jackson, Home Rule: An Irish History, 1800–2000 (2003), 61.

50 See the illuminating series of essays in Republicanism in Ireland: Confronting Theories and Traditions, ed. Iseult Honohan (Manchester, 2008), which constitute a rare scholarly engagement with Irish republican ideas.

51 See, for example, the speech of C. C. Craig in Belfast News-Letter, 27 Feb. 1913. For unionism within Great Britain, see Jackson, Daniel M., Popular Opposition to Irish Home Rule in Edwardian Britain (Liverpool, 2009).

52 Henry Sumner Maine, Popular Government: Four Essays, 2nd edn (1886; first published 1885), 28; Ronald McNeill, Ulster's Stand for Union (1922), 14–15.

53 McNeill, Ulster's Stand for Union, 15.

54 Ibid ., vi. McNeill explicitly deploys the double majority argument in 15.

55 Maine, Popular Government, 27.

56 Stephen Gwynn, John Redmond's Last Years (1919), 48–9.

57 The Irish Unionist Pocket Book: Containing Radical Questions and Unionist Answers regarding Home Rule (Dublin and Belfast, 1911), 7–8.

58 Hansard, 9 June 1913, vol. 53, c. 1309

59 Bew, Ideology and the Irish Question, 27–53.

60 Walker, History of the Ulster Unionist Party, 30.

61 Saunders, Robert, ‘Democracy’, in Languages of Politics in Nineteenth-Century Britain, ed. Craig, David and Thompson, James (Basingstoke, 2013), 162–3.

62 Belfast News-Letter, 15 Mar. 1913.

63 Belfast News-Letter, 10 Sept. 1918.

64 Quoted in H. Montgomery Hyde, Carson: The Life of Sir Edward Carson, Lord Carson of Duncairn (1974; first published 1953), 315.

65 Robert Eccleshall, English Conservatism since the Restoration: An Introduction and Anthology (1990), 118–31; Standish O'Grady, Toryism and the Tory Democracy (1886).

66 ‘Ulster Provisional Government Proclamation’ (1913): available at (last accessed 4 Nov. 2016).

67 ‘Proclamation of the Irish Republic’ (1916): available at (last accessed 4 Nov. 2016).

68 The 1803 Proclamation was printed but never distributed: the text is reprinted in Madden, R. R., The Life and Times of Robert Emmet (Dublin, 1847), 303–17. For the text of the 1867 Proclamation, see Freeman's Journal, 8 Mar. 1867.

69 Pearse, Pádraic, Collected Works of Pádraic H. Pearse: Political Writings and Speeches (Dublin, [1922]), 187 .

70 McNeill, Ulster's Stand for Union, 51.

71 Jackson, Home Rule, 124.

72 Reid, Colin, The Lost Ireland of Stephen Gwynn: Irish Constitutional Nationalism and Cultural Politics, 1864–1950 (Manchester, 2011), 108–9.

73 Green, Alice Stopford, Ourselves Alone in Ulster (Dublin, 1918), 17 .

74 McNeill, Ulster's Stand for Union, 145–6.

75 Robin, Corey’s pioneering Fear: The History of a Political Idea (Oxford, 2004), which chiefly focuses on the United States, makes a number of suggestive points in this regard.

76 Ronan Fanning, Fatal Path: British Government and Irish Revolution, 1910–1922 (2013), 111–16.

77 A number of these dystopian postcards have been digitised by the Linenhall Library in Belfast: (last accessed 4 Nov. 2016). Also see Killen, John, John Bull's Famous Circus: Ulster History through the Postcard, 1905–1985 (Dublin, 1985).

78 Carson, ‘Introduction’, in Against Home Rule, ed. Rosenbaum, 25.

79 McNeill, Ulster's Stand for Union, 33–4.

80 Miller, Queen's Rebels, 28.

81 Locke, John, Political Writings, ed. Wootton, David (Indianapolis, 2003), 88 .

82 Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan, ed. Gaskin, J. C. A. (Oxford, 1996; first published 1651), 21.114.

83 Alvin Jackson, ‘Irish Unionism’, in The Making of Modern Irish History: Revisionism and the Revisionist Controversy, ed. D. George Boyce and Alan O'Day (1996), 130.

84 Belfast News-Letter, 31 Dec. 1887.

85 Application form to join the UVF, NLI: (last accessed 28 Oct. 2016).

86 Geoffrey Lewis, Carson: The Man Who Divided Ireland (2005), 114.

87 ‘A True Irishman’, Pampered Ireland: Fact, Not Fiction (Belfast, 1919), 6.

88 McNeill, Ulster's Stand for Union, 140–1.

89 W. F. Monypenny, The Two Irish Nations: An Essay on Home Rule (1913), 3.

90 Wilson, T. K., Frontiers of Violence: Conflict and Identity in Ulster and Upper Silesia, 1918–1922 (Oxford, 2010); Hart, Peter, The IRA and its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork, 1916–1923 (Oxford, 1998); Clarke, Gemma, Everyday Violence in the Irish Civil War (Cambridge, 2014).

91 Hobbes, Leviathan, 13.13.

* I am very grateful to Ultán Gillen, Matt Kelly, James McConnel, Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid, Graham Walker and the two anonymous readers for their insightful reading of earlier drafts of this work.

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