Catholic unionist

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Catholic unionist is a term historically used for a Catholic in Ireland who supported the Union which formed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and subsequently used to describe Catholics who support the Union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain or who supports the Republic of Ireland rejoining the United Kingdom.

The term Catholic unionist has become controversial since the start of the Troubles, due to the strong association of Irish Unionism with Protestantism. The most recent surveys suggest that, although a plurality of Catholics in Northern Ireland are technically unionists in that they support Northern Ireland remaining part of Britain, very few would self-identify as unionist or support an explicitly unionist political party. This has led to the nickname unicorns for self-identified Catholic unionists, by analogy with a non-existent creature.[1] They can be contrasted with Protestant nationalists, who supported separation from Great Britain.

Notable Catholic Unionists[edit]

Historically, after the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829, a great number of Irish Catholics served in senior positions in the British Empire of the 19th century.

Among these were:

Irish Catholic unionists were a political minority group without their own representation in the House of Commons. They tended to support the Irish Loyal and Patriotic Union and subsequent Irish Unionist Alliance.

Irish Catholic unionists petitioned against the Government of Ireland Bill 1893 on the grounds that it would create a "revolutionary spirit disastrous to the true interests" of Catholicism.[2]

Irish Catholic Unionists were constantly physically attacked and threatened by republicans for their loyalism, as the Irish poet Edward Dowden would note: "The free expression of opinion by Catholics is checked by a system of intimidation and terrorism".[3]

Whilst sympathetic to Ulster's resistance during the Home Rule Crisis they were not adverse to devolution as they would have preferred that Ireland remained as one united kingdom within the United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland (post-1921)[edit]

Many prominent members of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland have been Catholics, including the majority of its past leaders (such as John Cushnahan, Oliver Napier and Seán Neeson), some of its Deputy Leaders (such as Seamus Close and Eileen Bell), former MP (of the Northern Ireland Parliament) Thomas Columba Gormley, as well as three of its seven current Assembly members. The Alliance Party is not, as such, a Unionist party, as its support for the Union is based purely on that being the wishes of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland.

Republic of Ireland[edit]

Voting trends[edit]

Catholic supporters of the Ulster Unionist Party - the dominant political force in Northern Ireland until the 1970s - tended to support the reformist Prime Minister Terence O'Neill against the emerging hardline Protestant Unionist Party (later the DUP). The UUP later took a more hardline turn itself, and as of 2016 support for either party among Catholics is almost zero. Catholic supporters of the Union today may vote for the moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party (notwithstanding the SDLP's support for a united Ireland), or for the non-partisan Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, or for none of the major parties.

Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey's 2014 poll results suggest that half of Northern Irish Catholics favour Northern Ireland remaining as part of the United Kingdom.[6] The NILT results also suggest that 6% of Catholics would vote for the nominally unionist Alliance Party, but that only 1% would support any of the mainstream or 'hardline' Unionist parties. Similarly, the poll results suggested that 7% of Protestants would vote for the Alliance Party, while 1% of Protestants would vote for the moderate nationalist SDLP.[7]

A 2011 survey by the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey found that 52% of Northern Irish Catholics respondents favoured Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom over a united Ireland.[8][9]


  1. ^ O Connor, Fionnuala (2 May 2017). "Fionnuala O Connor: Time for both sides to stop fighting a war that is over". The Irish News. Retrieved 13 June 2017. We have been here before. Behold the recurring search for the unicorn, the Catholic unionist, the creature who can make up the numbers. 
  2. ^ John Biggs-Davison and George Chowdharay-Best The Cross of St Patrick The Catholic Unionist Tradition in Ireland (1984) p195
  3. ^ John Biggs-Davison and George Chowdharay-Best The Cross of St Patrick The Catholic Unionist Tradition in Ireland (1984) p258
  4. ^ The Belfast Telegraph, 6 November 2013
  5. ^ Obituary: Stan Gebler Davies The Independent 24 June 1994
  6. ^ "NI Life and Times Survey "Do you think the long-term policy for Northern Ireland should be for it..."". Retrieved 17 January 2016. 
  7. ^ "NI Life and Times Survey - 2014: NIPARTY "Which Northern Ireland political party would you support?"". Retrieved 17 January 2016. 
  8. ^ Henry McDonald. "The Kingdom will remain United – in Ireland, at least". the Guardian. Retrieved 23 July 2015. 
  9. ^ The Irish Times, 20 June 2011

See also[edit]