Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-65dc7cd545-54nbv Total loading time: 0.207 Render date: 2021-07-25T21:15:18.539Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "metricsAbstractViews": false, "figures": true, "newCiteModal": false, "newCitedByModal": true, "newEcommerce": true, "newUsageEvents": true }

The ‘best and most forward-looking’ in Ulster unionism: the Unionist Society (est. 1942)

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 March 2016

Marc Mulholland
St Catherine’s College, Oxford
Get access


During the premiership of Captain Terence O’Neill, from 1963 to 1969, an inclusive, liberal unionism for the first time guided the policies of the Northern Ireland state. Liberal roots in the Unionist Party, however, were never deep, and liberal unionism was effectively destroyed by the onset of the ‘Troubles’. It was an ambiguous creed, more pro-British than anxious to conciliate Irish nationalism. Liberal unionism’s aversion to overt and offensive anti-Catholicism struck a chord with perhaps the majority of the Protestant population. However, it did not encourage a proactive stance; rather a passive reciprocation of nationalist ‘goodwill’, defined, in effect, as acquiescence. It was an ideology of comfortable superiority. This can be illustrated by the fate of the Unionist Society. Uniquely for any unionist organisation of the post-war era, this association has left all its records open for inspection. The weaknesses and strengths of liberal unionism over a thirty-year span can thus be elucidated by a case-study examination of the Unionist Society.

Research Article
Copyright © Irish Historical Studies Publications Ltd 2002

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below.


1 Barritt and Carter describe Catholic-Protestant relations as, in general, ‘friendly ... with a consciousness of difference’ (Barritt, Denis P. and Carter, Charles F., The Northern Ireland problem: a study in group relations (2nd ed., Oxford, 1972), p. 58Google Scholar; original emphasis).

2 Harbinson, John F., The Ulster Unionist Party, 1882–1973: its development and organisation (Belfast, 1973), p. 40Google Scholar.

3 Boyd, Andrew, Brian Faulkner and the crisis of Ulster unionism (Tralee, 1972), p. 36Google Scholar.

4 ’The Unionist Society’, [1977] (P.R.O.N.I., D/3292/C/1, miscellaneous records of the Unionist Society (henceforth U.S.)).

5 Lt-Cdr Robert McConnell to Billy Douglas (sec, U.U.C.), 31 Dec. 1941 (ibid.).

6 Memo from McConnell to Taggart, 8 Jan. 1942 (ibid.).

7 Nancy Kingham (organising sec, U.W.U.C.) to Edith Taggart, 4 Dec. 1941 (ibid.).

8 Speech transcript, n.d. (ibid.).

9 Cutting from agenda for the U.W.U.C. A.G.M., [4 Dec. 1941] (ibid.). See also ‘Unionist Society. Draft amendment to rules — the past’, n.d. (ibid.).

10 U.S. meetings, 2, 18, 25 Feb. 1942 (ibid., D/3292/A/1, U.S. minute book, 1942–52).

11 ‘Junior Unionist Society — Objects’, n.d. (ibid., D/3292/C/1).

12 In 1944 the society turned down a challenge to debate with the N.I.L.P., as it felt itself to be unrepresentative of unionist workers (Junior Unionist Committee minutes, 12 Apr. 1944 (ibid., D/3292/A/1)).

13 In 1941 the Dunlop Report censured corruption in Belfast Corporation and in 1942 the Ministry of Home Affairs pushed through a reform against the Corporation’s wishes. For the next three and a half years three administrators ran Belfast local government. See Budge, Ian and O’Leary, Cornelius, Belfast: approach to crisis: a study of Belfast politics, 1613–1970 (London, 1973), pp 1535Google Scholar.

14 Speech transcript, n.d. (P.R.O.N.I., D/3292/C/1).

15 First of three untitled drafts, Sept. 1942 (ibid.; original emphasis).

16 Second of three untitled drafts, Sept. 1942 (ibid.).

17 Third of three untitled drafts, Sept. 1942 (ibid.). It was adopted at a J.U.S. meeting on 8 Sept. 1942 (Junior Unionist Committee minutes, 16 Sept. 1942 (ibid., D/3292/A/1)).

18 May and Taggart to William Douglas (sec, U.U.C.), 1, 4 Mar. 1943 (ibid., D/3292/C/1).

19 May to Taggart, n.d., ‘Notes for standing committee meeting’ (ibid.).

20 ‘Unionist Society — Draft amendment to rules’, n.d. (ibid.).

21 Nevertheless, ‘it was a caucus which controlled the Unionist Party: the democratic process was at best a façade and at worst a fraud’ (Harbinson, Ulster Unionist Party, pp 38, 52).

22 Junior Unionist Committee minutes, 7 Aug. 1942, resolution passed for the attention of the Prime Minister and the press (P.R.O.N.I., D/3292/A/1).

23 Junior Unionist Committee minutes, 16 Sept. 1942 (ibid.). See the minutes for 14 Oct. 1942 (ibid.) for further correspondence: ‘The Committee feel that if the Official Unionist candidate does not meet with the approval of the Portrush J.U.C, it would mean that Portrush J.U.C, have not been sufficiently active in ensuring that suitable persons were elected to the County Selection Committee and should take active steps to rectify this.’

24 Northern Whig, 16 Dec. 1942; Belfast News-Letter, 15 May, 15 Dec. 1942.

25 Junior Unionist Committee minutes, 16 Dec. 1942 (P.R.O.N.I., D/3292/A/1).

26 lbid., 25–26 Feb. 1943.

27 Barton, Brian, Brookeborough: the making of a Prime Minister (Belfast, 1988), p. 222Google Scholar.

28 Junior Unionist Committee minutes, 24 June 1943 (P.R.O.N.I., D/3292/A/1). Bailie had been elected as an Independent Unionist in 1941 and accepted the official Unionist whip in 1945 (Harbinson, Ulster Unionist Party, p. 197).

29 U.S. meeting, 23 July 1943 (P.R.O.N.I., D/3292/A/1).

30 Ibid., 25 Aug. 1943.

31 J.U.S. 1st A.G.M., 13 Oct. 1943 (P.R.O.N.I., D/3292/A/1).

32 Junior Unionist Committee minutes, 20 Oct. 1943 (ibid.).

33 Harbinson, Ulster Unionist Party, p. 63.

34 Junior Unionist Committee minutes, 12 Apr. 1944 (P.R.O.N.I., D/3292/A/1),

35 Ibid., 24 May 1944.

36 Ibid., 7 June l944.

37 Ibid., 28 June 1944.

38 Ibid., 30 Aug. 1944.

39 J.U.S. 2nd A.G.M., 17 Oct. 1944 (P.R.O.N.I., D/3292/A/1).

40 For which see Cradden, Terry, Trade unionism, socialism and partition: the labour movement in Northern Ireland, 1939–1953 (Belfast, 1993) pp 2358Google Scholar.

41 U.S. committee minutes, 13 Dec. 1944 (P.R.O.N.I., D/3292/A/1). The Independent, Mrs L. I. M. Calvert, was defeated by Herbert Quin, the Unionist, by 1,178 votes to 1, 020 (Elliott, Sydney, Northern Ireland parliamentary election results, 1921–1972 (Chichester, 1973), p. 31Google Scholar).

42 U.S. meeting, 24 Sept. 1946 (PR.O.N.L, D/3292/A/1).

43 Ibid., 14 Mar., 15 May 1946.

44 For example, he proposed an exceptionally vehement resolution on the subject for the 1947 Unionist Party annual conference (ibid., 16 Dec. 1946).

45 See the resolutions submitted to the 1948 annual conference of the Unionist Party (P.R.O.N.I., D/3292/A/1). Dominion status was considered by a substantial number of unionists as a viable option to resist pressure from the Labour government in Britain: see Barton, Brian, ‘Relations between Westminster and Stormont during the Attlee premiership’ in Irish Political Studies, no. 7 (Dublin, 1992), pp 120Google Scholar.

46 Gailey, Andrew, Crying in the wilderness: Jack Sayers: a liberal editor in Ulster, 1939–69 (Belfast, 1995), pp 323Google Scholar. However, the Unionist Society did call for a break from ‘step-by-step’ with socialist policies in a resolution to the 1951 annual conference of the Unionist Party (U.S. meeting, 22 Feb. 1951 (P.R.O.N.L, D/3292/A/1)).

47 It donated £10 to the Ulster Defence Fund in reaction (U.S. committee minutes, 18 Oct. 1948 (ibid.)).

48 U.S. committee minutes, 5 Dec. 1945 (ibid.).

49 U.S. meeting, 1 Dec. 1948 (ibid.).

50 U.S. committee minutes, 12 Dec. 1949 (ibid.).

51 Ibid.

52 J.U.S. general meeting, 17 Nov. 1943 (P.R.O.N.I., D/3292/A/1).

53 Between 1942 and 1976 the chairmanship was held for seventeen years by a woman and for eighteen by a man; in 1969 it was held both by a man and a woman. (‘Chairmen of the Unionist Society’ (P.R.O.N.I., D/3292/C/1)). By the society’s rules, the Junior Unionist Committee was to consist at all times of ten men and ten women.

54 Record of U.S. annual dinner, 2 Mar. 1950 (P.R.O.N.I., D/3292/A/1).

55 U.S. meeting, 24 Mar. 1950 (ibid.).

56 For example, 26 Apr. 1950 (ibid.).

57 For example, R. F. Frizzel, general manager of the Northern Ireland Transport Board, at the 3rd A.G.M. of the U.S., 19 Oct. 1950; Harry Midgley, Minister of Education, at a U.S. meeting, 29 Apr. 1952; and on 24 Feb. 1953 ‘one of the most successful meetings of the Society’ was addressed by Lord Glentoran, Morris May (now an M.P.), Brian Faulkner and W. F. McCoy, M.P. (ibid.). The society would usually meet once a month and attract about twenty-five to thirty people.

58 U.S. meeting, 22 Feb. 1951 (ibid.).

59 U.S. 9th A.G.M., 15 Nov. 1951 (ibid.).

60 U.S. meetings, 6 Dec. 1951, 9 Jan.1952 (ibid.). For the recruitment booklet see ‘Unionist Society — Objects and rules’, n.d. (ibid., D/3292/C/1).

61 U.S. 10th A.G.M., 27 Nov. 1952 (ibid., D/3292/A/2); U.S. committee minutes, 8 Jan. 1953 (ibid.).

62 U.S. 11th A.G.M., 12 Nov. 1953 (ibid.).

63 Leaflet (Bodl., Conservative and Unionist Party archive, area files series, CC02/3/22).

64 U.S. meeting, 1 Dec. 1953 (P.R.O.N.I., D/3292/A/2).

65 U.S. committee minutes, 18 Mar. 1953 (ibid.).

66 Arthur V. Cramsie, chairman of U.S., to executive committee, 27 Mar. 1953 (ibid.).

67 U.S. A.G.M., 21 Apr. 1955 (ibid.).

68 Memo from U.S. to executive committee, 24 June 1955 (P.R.O.N.I., D/3292/C/1).

69 U.S. committee minutes, 25 Nov. 1955 (ibid., D/3292/A/2).

70 U.S. A.G.M., 20 Apr. 1961 (ibid.).

71 U.S. committee minutes, 20 Sept. 1955 (ibid.).

72 Ibid., 25 Nov. 1955.

73 Committee of U.S. to Sir Clarence Graham, chairman of U.U.C., 13 Dec. 1955 (draft) (P.R.O.N.I., D/3292/C/1).

74 U.S. committee minutes, 30 Jan. 1956 (ibid., D/3292/A/2).

75 Ibid., 10 Oct. 1956.

76 Ibid., 1 Apr. 1957.

77 U.S. A.G.M., 11 Apr. 1957 (P.R.O.N.I., D/3292/A/2).

78 U.S. meeting, 24 Sept. 1957 (ibid.).

79 Ibid., 24 Nov. l958.

80 Ibid., 20 Jan.l959.

81 Ibid.

82 U.S. committee minutes, 14 Dec. 1959 (P.R.O.N.I., D/3292/A/2).

83 Albert J. Walmsley, It was like this, your worship (privately printed, 1988), p. 93.

84 Belfast Telegraph, 17 Oct. 1962.

85 Review: an Ulster political commentary, Oct. 1962, p. 1.

86 U.S. committee minutes, 10 June 1958 (P.R.O.N.I., D/3292/A/2, 20); The Unionist, Oct. 1959.

87 U.S. A.G.M., 20 Apr. 1961 (P.R.O.N.I., D/3292/A/2). Martin had already proposed that all Unionist Society members be required to join one or other study group, and when this was rejected had resigned from the committee (U.S. committee minutes, 5 Sept. 1960 (ibid., D/3292/A/2, 20)).

88 U.S. A.G.M., 19 Apr. 1962 (ibid., D/3292/A/3).

89 She was honoured thus at a special meeting of the society on 25 Sept. 1962 (ibid.). In the New Year Honours List of 1964 she was awarded an O.B.E. (U.S. meeting, 9 Jan. 1964 (ibid.)).

90 U.S. committee minutes, 11 Sept. 1962 (ibid.).

91 See the remarks of Mr Heron, U.S. A.G.M., 19 Apr. 1962 (ibid.).

92 U.S. committee minutes, 11 Oct. 1962 (ibid.).

93 Interview by the author with Bob Cooper, 24 Oct. 1996.

94 U.S. A.G.M., 2 Apr. 1963 (P.R.O.N.I., D/3292/A/3).

95 U.S. A.G.M., 7 Apr. 1964 (ibid.).

96 ‘Secretary’s report’, 7 Apr. 1964 (ibid., D/3292/C/1).

97 ‘Our forefathers fought to base Ulster firmly’ (The Unionist, Mar. 1964).

98 U.S. committee minutes, 30 Apr. 1964 (P.R.O.N.I., D/3292/A/3).

99 Ibid., 10 Mar. 1965.

100 Ibid., 5 Apr. l965.

101 U.S. meetings, 25 Oct. 1965, 18 Feb. 1966 (P.R.O.N.I., D/3292/A/3). On the second meeting it was noted in the minutes that ‘Never before has a platform in Ulster been graced by eight Westminster M.P.s at the same time and never before have eight M.P.s been so near to death by burning — at petrol bombs being thrown at Ufnionist] H.Q. at 8.40 p.m. — the people attending the Society Meeting being blissfully ignorant of the fact!’

102 U.S. A.G.M., 6 Apr. 1966 (ibid.).

103 Lord O’Neill of the Maine, The autobiography of Terence O’Neill (London, 1972), pp 846Google Scholar.

104 U.S. meeting, 11 Oct. 1966 (P.R.O.N.I., D/3292/A/3).

105 Ibid., 22 Jan. 1968. The resolution did not go forward.

106 U.S. A.G.M., 29 Apr. 1968 (P.R.O.N.I., D/3292/A/3).

107 See a letter of support to O’Neill (U.S. committee minutes, 28 May 1968 (ibid.)).

108 U.S. meeting, 28 Oct. 1968 (ibid.).

109 See, for example, resolution passed at U.S. meeting, 10 Dec. 1968 (ibid.).

110 U.S. meeting, 27 Feb. 1969 (ibid.).

111 U.S. A.G.M., 28 Apr. 1969 (ibid.).

112 U.S. committee minutes, 21 Oct. 1969 (ibid.).

113 U.S. A.G.M., 22 Apr. 1970 (ibid.). Calvert soon after vacated the secretary’s position to take a university chair (U.S. meeting, 29 Sept. 1970 (ibid.)).

114 U.S. meeting, 20 Jan. 1971 (ibid.).

115 U.S. committee minutes, 18 May 1970 (ibid.). Dual membership was only prohibited in January 1972 (ibid., 20 Jan. 1972).

116 Ibid., 8 Apr. 1971; U.S. A.G.M., 20 Apr. 1971 (P.R.O.N.I., D/3292/A/3).

117 U.S. committee minutes, 23 Nov. 1971 (ibid.).

118 J. Stuart Hawnt (chairman, U.S.) to Edith Taggart (life president, U.S.), Sept. 1971 (ibid., D/3292/C/1).

119 Joint meetings were held on 18 Jan., 1 and 25 Feb. 1972 in the Stormont Hotel, Belfast.

120 U.S. A.G.M., 25 Apr. 1972 (P.R.O.N.I., D/3292/A/3).

121 U.S. committee minutes, 31 May 1972 (ibid.).

122 Doreen M. Allingham (hon. sec, U.S.) to Edward Heath and William Whitelaw, 12 June 1972 (ibid.).

123 U.S. committee minutes, 28 Sept., 23 Nov. 1972 (ibid.); U.S. A.G.M., 29 Mar. 1973 (ibid.).

124 Address of Peter McLachan (Assembly member, South Antrim) at U.S. meeting, 21 Sept. 1973 (ibid.).

125 U.S. committee minutes, 8 Oct. 1973 (ibid.).

126 Ibid., 10 Dec. 1973.

127 U.S. A.G.M., 29 Apr. 1974 (P.R.O.N.I., D/3292/A/3).

128 U.S. committee minutes, 12 Sept. 1974 (ibid.).

129 J.O.Bailie (secretary, Unionist Party) to Dr E. F. Curragh (hon. sec, U.S.), c. Sept. 1974 (ibid.).

130 U.S. circular, 3 Nov. 1974 (ibid.); U.S. meeting, 13 Nov. 1974 (ibid.).

131 U.S. committee minutes, 23 Jan., 27 Feb., 19 May 1975 (ibid.); U.S. A.G.M., 26 May 1975 (ibid.).

132 U.S. meeting, 22 Apr. 1976 (ibid.).

133 U.S. circular, Nov. 1976 (ibid., D/3292/C/1); U.S. committee minutes, 23 Nov. 1976 (ibid.); Edith Taggart (life president), Frank Curragh (chairman) and Bessie Maconachie (hon. sec.) to U.S. members, Jan. 1977 (ibid.); ‘Note to historians’ by Taggart, Curragh and Maconachie (ibid.); R.U.C, benevolent fund to Edith Taggart, 24 Nov. 1977 (ibid.).

134 ‘Unionist Society — Rules and objects — the past’, n.d. (ibid.); U.S. minutes (ibid., D/3292/A/1-2).

Send article to Kindle

To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

The ‘best and most forward-looking’ in Ulster unionism: the Unionist Society (est. 1942)
Available formats

Send article to Dropbox

To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

The ‘best and most forward-looking’ in Ulster unionism: the Unionist Society (est. 1942)
Available formats

Send article to Google Drive

To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

The ‘best and most forward-looking’ in Ulster unionism: the Unionist Society (est. 1942)
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *