Ulster loyalism

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The Union Flag, Ulster Banner and Orange Order flags are often flown by loyalists in Northern Ireland

Ulster loyalism is a strand of Ulster unionism associated with working class Ulster Protestants in Northern Ireland. Like most unionists, loyalists are attached to the British monarchy, support the continued existence of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, and oppose a united Ireland. Unlike other strands of unionism, loyalism has been described as an ethnic nationalism of Ulster Protestants and "a variation of British nationalism".[1][2]

Ulster loyalism emerged in the late 19th century, as a response to the Irish Home Rule movement and the rise of Irish nationalism. Although Ireland had a Catholic majority who wanted autonomy, the province of Ulster had a Protestant and unionist majority, largely due to 17th-century colonisation. Ulster was also more industrialised and dependent on trade with Britain. Loyalism began as a self-determination movement of Ulster Protestants who did not want to become part of an autonomous Ireland. Although not all unionists were Protestant or from Ulster, loyalism emphasised Ulster Protestant heritage. These movements led to the partition of Ireland in 1921; most of Ireland became an independent state, while most of Ulster remained within the United Kingdom as the self-governing territory of Northern Ireland.

Since partition, most loyalists have supported upholding Northern Ireland's status as a part of the United Kingdom, i.e. unionism. Historically, the terms 'unionist' and 'loyalist' were often interchangeable, but since the beginning of the Troubles, 'loyalist' is usually used when referring to paramilitary unionism.[3][4] Loyalists are also said to be loyal primarily to the Protestant British monarchy rather than to British governments and institutions.[5] Garret FitzGerald argued that loyalists are loyal primarily to 'Ulster' rather than to 'the Union'.[6] A small minority of loyalists have called for an independent Ulster Protestant state, believing they cannot rely on British governments to support their cause (see Ulster nationalism).

In Northern Ireland there is a tradition of loyalist Protestant marching bands. There are hundreds of such bands who hold numerous parades each year. The yearly Eleventh Night (11 July) bonfires and The Twelfth (12 July) parades are associated with loyalism.


The term loyalist was first used in Irish politics in the 1790s to refer to Protestants who opposed Catholic Emancipation and Irish independence from Great Britain.[7][need quotation to verify]

Ulster loyalism emerged in the late 19th century, in response to the Irish Home Rule movement and the rise of Irish nationalism. At the time, all of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom. Although the island had a Catholic majority who wanted self-government, the northern province of Ulster had a Protestant majority who wanted to maintain a close union with Britain, a political tradition called Unionism. This was largely due to 17th-century British colonisation of the province. Eastern Ulster was also more industrialised and dependent on trade with Britain than most other parts of Ireland. Although not all Unionists were Protestant or from Ulster, loyalism emphasised Ulster Protestant heritage. It began as a self-determination movement of Ulster Protestants, who did not want to become part of a self-governing Ireland dominated by Catholic Irish nationalists.

The British government's introduction of the Third Home Rule Bill in 1912 sparked the Home Rule Crisis. Ulster unionists signed the Ulster Covenant, pledging to oppose Irish home rule by any means. They founded a large paramilitary force, the Ulster Volunteers, threatening to violently resist the authority of any Irish government over Ulster. The Ulster Volunteers smuggled thousands of rifles and rounds of ammunition into Ulster from Imperial Germany. In response, Irish nationalists founded the Irish Volunteers to ensure home rule was implemented. Home rule was postponed by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Both loyalists and nationalists fought in the war, with many Ulster Volunteers joining the 36th (Ulster) Division.

By the end of the war, most Irish nationalists wanted full independence. Following victory in the 1918 general election, Irish republicans declared an Irish Republic, leading to the Irish War of Independence between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and British forces. Meanwhile, the Fourth Home Rule Bill passed through the British parliament in 1920. It would partition Ireland into two self-governing polities within the UK: a Protestant-majority Northern Ireland, and a Catholic-majority Southern Ireland. During 1920–22, in what became Northern Ireland, partition was accompanied by violence both in defence of and against partition. Belfast saw "savage and unprecedented" communal violence, mainly between Protestant loyalist and Catholic nationalist civilians.[8] Loyalists attacked the Catholic minority in reprisal for IRA actions. Thousands of Catholics and "disloyal" Protestants were driven from their jobs, and there were mass burnings of Catholic homes and businesses in Lisburn and Banbridge.[9] More than 500 were killed in Northern Ireland during partition[10] and more than 10,000 became refugees, most of them Catholics.[11]

In 1926, about 33.5% of the Northern Ireland population was Roman Catholic, with 62.2% belonging to the three major Protestant denominations (Presbyterian 31.3%, Church of Ireland 27%, Methodist 3.9%).[12]

The Unionist governments of Northern Ireland were accused of discrimination against its Irish nationalist and Catholic minority. A non-violent campaign to end discrimination began in the late 1960s. This civil rights campaign was opposed by loyalists, who said it was a republican front.[13] Loyalist opposition was led primarily by Ian Paisley, a Protestant fundamentalist preacher. They held counter-protests, attacked civil rights marches, and put pressure on moderate unionists. Loyalist militants carried out false flag bombings that were blamed on republicans and civil rights activists.[14][15] This unrest led to the August 1969 riots. Irish nationalists/republicans clashed with both police and with loyalists, who burned hundreds of Catholic homes and businesses.[16] The riots led to the deployment of British troops and are often seen as the beginning of the Troubles.

The beginning of the Troubles saw a revival of loyalist paramilitaries, notably the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Defence Association (UDA). Their stated goals were to defend Protestant areas, to fight Irish republicanism (particularly the Provisional IRA), and to thwart any move towards Irish unification. Loyalist paramilitaries attacked the Catholic community as alleged retaliation for IRA actions, and the vast majority of their victims were random Catholic civilians.[17]

Signed in 1973, the Sunningdale Agreement sought to end the conflict by establishing power-sharing government between unionists and Irish nationalists, and promoting greater co-operation with the Republic of Ireland. In protest, loyalists organized the Ulster Workers' Council strike in May 1974. It was enforced by loyalist paramilitaries and brought large parts of Northern Ireland to a standstill. During the strike, loyalists detonated a series of car bombs in Dublin and Monaghan, in the Republic. This killed 34 civilians, making it the deadliest attack of the Troubles. The strike brought down the agreement and power-sharing government.[18]

Political parties[edit]

Loyalist graffiti and banner on a building in a side street off the Shankill Road, Belfast (1970)
Active parties
Former parties

Paramilitary and vigilante groups[edit]

Loyalist paramilitary and vigilante groups have been active since the early 20th century. In 1912, the Ulster Volunteers were formed to stop the British Government granting self-rule to Ireland, or to exclude Ulster from it. This led to the Home Rule Crisis, which was defused by the onset of World War I. Loyalist paramilitaries were again active in Ulster during the Irish War of Independence (1919–22),[19] and more prominently during the Troubles (late 1960s–1998). The biggest and most active paramilitary groups existed during the Troubles, and were the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA)/Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF). They, and most other loyalist paramilitaries, are classified as terrorist organisations.

During the Troubles, their stated goals were to combat Irish republicanism – particularly the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) – and to defend Protestant loyalist areas.[20][21] However, the vast majority of their victims were Irish Catholic civilians, who were often killed at random in sectarian attacks.[22][20] Whenever they claimed responsibility for attacks, loyalists usually claimed that those targeted were IRA members or were helping the IRA.[23] M. L. R. Smith wrote that "From the outset, the loyalist paramilitaries tended to regard all Catholics as potential rebels".[24] Other times, attacks on Catholic civilians were claimed as "retaliation" for IRA actions, since the IRA drew most of its support from the Catholic community.[20][22][25] Such retaliation was seen as both collective punishment and an attempt to weaken the IRA's support; some loyalists argued that terrorising the Catholic community and inflicting a high death toll on it would eventually force the IRA to end its campaign.[24][26]

Loyalist paramilitaries were responsible for about 30% of all deaths in the Troubles,[27] and were responsible for about 48% of all civilian deaths.[28] Loyalist paramilitaries killed civilians at far higher rates than both Republican paramilitaries and British security forces.[29]

The modus operandi of loyalist paramilitaries involved assassinations, mass shootings, bombings and kidnappings. They used sub machine-guns, assault rifles, pistols, grenades (including homemade grenades), incendiary bombs, booby trap bombs and car bombs. Bomb attacks were usually made without warning. However, gun attacks were more common than bombings.[26] In January 1994, the UDA drew up a 'doomsday plan', to be implemented should the British Army withdraw from Northern Ireland. It called for ethnic cleansing and re-partition, with the goal of making Northern Ireland wholly Protestant.[30]

Some loyalist paramilitaries have had links with far-right and Neo-Nazi groups in Britain, including Combat 18,[31][32] the British National Socialist Movement,[33] and the National Front.[34] Since the 1990s, loyalist paramilitaries have been responsible for numerous racist attacks in loyalist areas.[35] A 2006 report revealed that 90% of racist attacks in the previous two years occurred in mainly loyalist areas.[36]

In the 1990s, the main loyalist paramilitaries called ceasefires. Following this, small breakaway groups continued to wage violent campaigns for a number of years, and members of loyalist groups have continued to engage in sporadic violence.

Fraternities and marching bands[edit]

In Northern Ireland there are a number of Protestant fraternities and marching bands who hold yearly parades. They include the Orange Order and Apprentice Boys of Derry. These fraternities, often described as the "Loyal Orders",[4] have long been associated with unionism/loyalism.[37] Yearly events such as the Eleventh Night (11 July) bonfires[38] and The Twelfth (12 July) parades are strongly associated with loyalism. A report published in 2013 estimated there were at least 640 marching bands in Northern Ireland with a total membership of around 30,000, an all-time high.[39] According to the Parades Commission, a total of 1,354 loyalist parades (not counting funerals) were held in Northern Ireland in 2007.[40] The Police Service of Northern Ireland uses different statistics, and recorded a total of 2,863 parades in 2007. Of these, 2,270 (approximately 80%) were held by loyalist marching bands.[41]

Other groups[edit]


  1. ^ Ignatieff, Michael. Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism. Vintage, 1994. p.184.
  2. ^ John McGarry and Brendan O'Leary. Explaining Northern Ireland. Wiley, 1995. pp.92–93.
  3. ^ Bruce, Steve. The Red Hand: Protestant Paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. Oxford University Press, 1992. p.15.
  4. ^ a b Glossary of terms on the Northern Ireland conflict. Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN)
  5. ^ Alison, Miranda. Women and Political Violence. Routledge, 2009. p.67.
  6. ^ Cochrane, Fergal. Unionist Politics and the Politics of Unionism since the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Cork University Press, 2001. p.39.
  7. ^ Arthur Lyon Cross (1920). A shorter history of England and greater Britain. The Macmillan company. pp. 593–595, 597. Retrieved 18 November 2011.
  8. ^ Lynch, Robert. The Partition of Ireland: 1918–1925. Cambridge University Press, 2019. p.11, 100–101
  9. ^ Lynch (2019), pp.90–92
  10. ^ Lynch (2019), p.99
  11. ^ Lynch (2019), pp.171–176
  12. ^ "Background Information on Northern Ireland Society – Religion". Conflict Archive on the Internet. Retrieved 21 August 2016.
  13. ^ Maney, Gregory. "The Paradox of Reform: The Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland", in Nonviolent Conflict and Civil Resistance. Emerald Group Publishing, 2012. p.15
  14. ^ Jim Cusack & Henry McDonald. UVF. Poolbeg, 1997. p. 28
  15. ^ Peter Taylor (1999). Loyalists. Bloomsbury Publishing. pp. 59–60. ISBN 978-0-7475-4519-4.
  16. ^ Coogan, Tim Pat. The Troubles: Ireland's Ordeal and the Search for Peace. Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. p.106
  17. ^ Troubled Geographies: A Spatial History of Religion and Society in Ireland. Indiana University Press, 2013. p.185
  18. ^ "Sunningdale and the 1974 Ulster Workers” Council strike". History Ireland, Volume 15, Issue 3 (May/June 2007).
  19. ^ "Irish War of Independence". The Irish War. 24 May 2010. Retrieved 1 December 2016.
  20. ^ a b c Doherty, Barry. Northern Ireland since c.1960. Heinemann, 2001. p15
  21. ^ "A history of the UDA". BBC News. 6 January 2010. Retrieved 28 March 2010.
  22. ^ a b McKittrick, David (12 March 2009). "Will loyalists seek bloody revenge?". The Independent. Retrieved 21 June 2011.
  23. ^ Kentucky New Era, 14 April 1992
  24. ^ a b Smith, M L R. Fighting for Ireland?. Psychology Press, 1997. p.118
  25. ^ Tonge, Jonathan. Northern Ireland. Polity, 2006. p.157
  26. ^ a b Mitchell, Thomas G (2000). "Chapter 7 subsection: The Loyalist terrorists of Ulster, 1969–94". Native vs. Settler. Greenwood Press. pp. 154–165.
  27. ^ "Sutton Index of Deaths: Summary of Organisation responsible". Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN). Retrieved 1 March 2016.
  28. ^ "Sutton Index of Deaths: Crosstabulations (two-way tables)". Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN). Retrieved 1 March 2016. (choose "organization summary" and "status summary" as the variables)
  29. ^ "Statistics of Deaths in the Troubles in Ireland". www.wesleyjohnston.com.
  30. ^ Wood, Ian S. Crimes of Loyalty: A History of the UDA. Edinburgh University Press, 2006. pp.184–185.
  31. ^ Goodrick-Clarke, Nicholas. Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism, and the Politics of Identity. NYU Press, 2003. p.45.
  32. ^ McDonald, Henry (2 July 2000). "English fascists to join loyalists at Drumcree". London: The Observer. Retrieved 30 December 2010.
  33. ^ Goodrick-Clarke, pp.40–41.
  34. ^ Wood, Ian S.Crimes of Loyalty: A History of the UDA. Edinburgh University Press, 2006. pp.339–40.
  35. ^ "Racist war of the loyalist street gangs". The Guardian, 10 January 2004. Retrieved 21 October 2012.
  36. ^ "Loyalists linked to 90 per cent of race crime". The Guardian. 22 October 2006.
  37. ^ Tonge, Johnathan. Northern Ireland. Polity, 2006. pages 24, 171, 172, 173.
  38. ^ Simpson, Mark (10 July 2009). "Turning hotspot into friendly fire". BBC News. Retrieved 13 July 2009.
  39. ^ "Loyalist band numbers at new high" The Newsletter
  40. ^ All information in this section from the Parades Commission website.
  41. ^ "Police Service of Northern Ireland". www.psni.police.uk.


  • Potter, John Furniss. A Testimony to Courage – the Regimental History of the Ulster Defence Regiment 1969 – 1992, Pen & Sword Books Ltd, 2001, ISBN 0-85052-819-4
  • Ryder, Chris. The Ulster Defence Regiment: An Instrument of Peace?, 1991 ISBN 0-413-64800-1

External links[edit]