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Summary Article: unionism
from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Belief in the retention of the link between Britain and Ireland; the opposite of Irish nationalism, which supports separation from the British government and the unification of Ireland. Unionists, who may be from Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, or from mainland Britain, believe that the two areas are united in culture and history, and should not be forced apart. Unionists in Northern Ireland see themselves as British people who happen to live in Ulster, and no less British than the people of England, Scotland, or Wales.

Unionist history The roots of unionism go back to the 12th century, from the Norman invasion and settlement of Ireland, through the plantations established by English monarchs from the 16th century, to the political union of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801. Unionists in Northern Ireland today are descended from the Protestant planters of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, who were given land taken from Catholic Irish rebels by the crown. Although Irish nationalists regard the historical actions of the British in Ireland with bitter resentment, unionists view the same events as part of the history of their British identity, and a demonstration of their loyalty as British subjects.

Unionist support for British Protestant causes, such as the Siege of Londonderry (1688) and the Battle of the Boyne (1690), are regarded as proof of their willingness to fight for their British identity. The Orange Order, founded in 1795 to commemorate William of Orange's campaigns against the Catholic king James II in 1688 and 1690, is a permanent reminder of unionist sentiment in Northern Ireland. Orange Order marches are organized throughout the year, especially in Ulster, with major marches on 1 July, the date of the Battle of the Boyne, and 12 July, to commemorate the Battle of Aughrim – the last major battle of the Williamite forces. The Orange Order remains a strong symbol of unionism in Northern Ireland.

In 1912, when Irish home rule was becoming increasingly likely, unionists armed themselves under the leadership of Edward Carson in the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) to defend the unification of Britain and Ireland.

Unionists cite their patriotism and sacrifice during World War I as evidence of their service as British subjects, while Irish nationalists and republicans were staging the Easter Rising in 1916. After World War I, and following the Anglo-Irish War (War of Independence), Ireland obtained independence from Britain, but only with an agreement to partition. The Anglo-Irish Treaty (Treaty of London) of 1921 established the Irish Free State, but left the six Protestant- and unionist-dominated counties of Northern Ireland within the UK.

Political unionism Unionism has continued to dominate the politics of Northern Ireland's Protestants since partition. The two main political parties in Northern Ireland are the Ulster Unionist Party, and the Democratic Unionist Party. Other parties, such as the Progressive Unionist Party and the United Kingdom Unionist Party, compete for votes among the unionist community. With the advent of the Northern Ireland peace process in 1993, unionists began to work with members of the Irish republican and nationalist groups.

However, unionism often views itself as an identity under threat as more concessions and rights are given to nationalists and republicans. The decision to change the name of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) to the ‘Police Service of Northern Ireland’, and the ban by the Sinn Fein education and health ministers on the flying of the Union Jack on government buildings, have inflamed unionist passions. Such actions are viewed as direct attacks on the ‘Britishness’ of Northern Ireland, and are seen as diminishing the link between the UK and Northern Ireland.

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

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