Ulster Unionism – A History of Delusion & Decline

Ulster Unionism – A History of Delusion & Decline.

Ulster Covenant Belfast 1912
Ulster Covenant Belfast 1912

In 1912, at the time of the signing of the Ulster Covenant, the population of the six north eastern counties of Ireland, that would become ‘Northern Ireland’, was 1.2 million; of these approximately 800,000 were Protestants, of which 600,000 were adult.


471,000 Protestants signed the Covenant supporting the continuance of the union with Britain, approximately three-quarters of the adult Protestant population.  However this left around 130,000 or 21% of adult Protestants not signing the Covenant: a sizeable minority.

            Political Decline

Fast forward one hundred and five years to the 2017 UK general election – yet another time of political turmoil. The population of Northern Ireland had increased by 50% from 1912 to 1.8 million. In the 2011 Census 876,000 claimed to be ‘British’.  Yet in 2017 only 382,000 people voted for unionist candidates.  So, discounting 20% for those under 18 years of age, roughly half of those claiming to be ‘British’  – 300,000 adults – did not vote unionist: a major decline in unionist support from the time of the Ulster Covenant.

This decline has been quite recent. In the assembly elections of 1973 450,000 voted unionist. By 2007 this had declined to 330,000 while the size of the electorate had increased by 200,000 or 20% from 1973.

Also in 2017 unionists lost their majority in the Stormont assembly: something that would have been unthinkable in 1973.

A similar pattern is seen in the provincial capital, Belfast – a previous bastion of Ulster unionism. In the very place where Carson signed the Ulster Covenant in 1912, Belfast City Hall, unionists last held a majority of the seats in the 1980’s.

Arlene Foster, DUP Leader 2017
Arlene Foster, DUP Leader 2017

            Economic Decline

But it’s not all about voting patterns and population trends since the Ulster Covenant began the separation of the north-east of Ireland from the rest of the island.

The opening line of the Covenant placed ‘material well-being’ above all other considerations:

‘BEING CONVINCED in our consciences that Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster….’ (my emphasis)

This emphasis on prosperity in 1912 could be understood. After all at that time 80% of Ireland’s industrial output came from the north-east and Belfast was the largest and most economically vibrant Irish city.

One hundred years later and that position has been reversed. Now ROI’s industrial output is ten times that of NI (David McWilliams 2017).

When I was a boy at school our young breasts filled with pride as we were told that we had the biggest shipyard in the world, the biggest aircraft manufacturer and the biggest rope works. All of that no longer applies. Most large manufacturers have gone; right down to the present day with the closure of Michelin and Gallagher’s in Ballymena, the heartland of Ulster Protestantism.

Now material well-being in Northern Ireland is a sick joke for many families whose breadwinners used to enjoy well-paid jobs in these large companies.

  • Today Northern Ireland households have the lowest income in the United Kingdom (Office of National Statistics).
  • Over 40% of all households in Northern Ireland are in fuel poverty. This is higher than the rest of the UK and Ireland (Consumer Council).
  • With over 40% of homeowners in negative equity, Northern Ireland has the highest levels of negative equity in the UK (Housing Rights).
  • Male suicide is the highest in the UK and Ireland with more people dying now by suicide since 1998 than died through violent acts during the ‘Troubles’ (BBC NI).
  • Youth and over 50’s unemployment is the highest in the UK (ONS).

Yet it can’t all be about money either.

What about those other themes in the Ulster Covenant?

‘our civil and religious freedom, destructive of our citizenship, and perilous to the unity of the Empire’   (my emphasis)


It is true that in 1912 outside the province of Ulster, Ireland was dominated by the ethos of the Roman Catholic Church. In fact it could be argued that upon independence for the twenty-six counties the British handed over control not to the Irish people, but to the Catholic Church and this remained the case for many decades, reassuring northern Protestants that they had made the right decision in 1912.

However since the fall from grace of the Catholic Church, Ireland  has become a secular state with attendance at Mass declining from 90% in the 1980’s to 18% today –  in a country 78% nominally Catholic (O’Doherty).  This year, the once monolithic Catholic Church has only six priests beginning training. The tiny Church of Ireland has twice that number. The average age of a Catholic priest is approaching 70 (Irish Times).

In 2015 the Irish voted in referendum to legalise equal or same sex marriage in spite of the opposition of the Catholic Church. In Northern Ireland equal marriage remains illegal.

Today Ireland is far from being a ‘Popish backwater’. It is a much more cosmopolitan country than Northern Ireland. In Ireland one in six people are foreign born. In Northern Ireland it is one in one hundred (McWilliams).


The Covenanters of 1912 believed their ‘civil freedoms’ and their position as ‘citizens’ would be better protected under the union. In reality the exact opposite has been the case.

Irish citizens have the protection of a written constitution. The British do not. In fact the British are not ‘citizens’, they are subjects of a monarch who demands that elected representatives cannot take their seats in the people’s assembly until they swear an oath of loyalty to her.

But worse than this, since partition no British ‘citizen’ living in Northern Ireland can take part in electing the British Government: a government that levies their taxes, decides their pensions and social security and takes them to war. None of the parties of government in Britain make themselves accountable to the electorate of Northern Ireland. Since partition no politician elected in Northern Ireland has held any British cabinet position. Unlike England, Scotland and Wales, no Northern Ireland politician has ever been British Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary or Chancellor. Since partition Northern Ireland has been effectively marginalised and denied equal citizenship within the UK in spite of the desires of the Covenanters. It is a colony of Britain in a way that Scotland and Wales are not.

And of course the empire, as the Covenanters knew it in 1912, has ceased to exist – even though today’s unionists still have their imperial palace – Stormont. However even this iconic building is now under threat.

Imperial Palace, Stormont, Belfast
The Imperial Palace, Stormont, Belfast


Cruel delusion

Given this significant and consistent change and decline in the fortunes of the unionist north-east of Ireland, how much longer do unionist parties believe they can maintain their position within this dysfunctional union? What price are they prepared to inflict on their people to maintain the delusion and to save face?

It seems to me that the union negotiated by Big House unionism in 1920 was a smoke and mirrors trick. It was a cruel illusion that the British ruling elite are very good at creating. Ulster unionists were given a prison of second class citizenship to live in. It only looked good for a while because their fellow Irish men and women in the republic were even worse off under another cruel illusion. But comparisons today with the south – itself still no shining example, but better than it was in the 1920’s – now leave the truth about Northern Ireland exposed.

In conclusion, Ulster unionism has so far shown itself to be incapable of reversing these trends, or of even accepting that they exist and that their forefathers were fooled, and incapable of renegotiating their constitutional position in the 21st century.

The strategy seems to be one of drift, hoping like Micawber that their ‘ship will come in’ or that no one will notice that the emperor has no clothes or that ‘them’uns’ will simply emigrate down south. The impact of this drift is extremely detrimental not just on ‘Protestants’ or ‘unionists’ – evidenced by the decline in the unionist population and the unionist vote – but on all the people of Northern Ireland and on our children, and why we must begin to force the pace of radical change.