Origins of Unionism in Ireland
At the time of the Act of Union in 1800, the Protestant community was divided over whether to support the Act. The Union came in the aftermath of the 1798 Rebellion, in which elements of Irish Protestants – particularly Presbyterians – had supported republican United Irishmen and others had been mobilised to defend the status quo in the Yeomanry and Orange Order. Others still, parliamentary 'patriots' such as Henry Grattan did not support the rebellion but had lobbied for more independence for Ireland and for equal rights for Catholics.
The Act of union was first proposed in the Irish Parliament in 1799 but defeated by 111 votes to 116. The idea of Union was supported by in Parliament those whose main concern was security in the wake of the 1798 rebellion and the need for the 40,000 strong British military garrison to remain. It was opposed by two distinct groups. On one side, by those known as the 'ultra Protestants', who feared that direct British rule would mean reforms that would give Catholics equal rights and overturn Protestant supremacy in Ireland, and from the other side by the 'patriot' tendency led by Henry Grattan who wanted to defend Ireland's constitutional independence and were also worried about the effect that a Union would have on Irish trade. Lord Castlereagh managed to tip the balance in favour of the Union by offering titles, land and in some cases cash payments to Parliamentarians. The Act was passed at the second attempt in 1800.
The Orange Order was split over the Union and adopted policy of neutrality in order to avoid a split. Conversely, the Catholic Bishops and much of the Catholic middle class initially accepted the Union, as it promised to undo the last of the Penal Laws.
However, what radically changed the balance of forces for and against the Union was Catholic Emancipation in 1829. This enabled Catholics to hold public office for the first time since the 1690s. It now meant that an Irish Parliament, even one elected under strict property requirements, would have a majority of Catholic voters and potentially of Catholic representatives.
For this reason, most Protestants in Ireland opposed the agitation, under Daniel O'Connell and the Repeal Association for Repeal of the Union or restoration of the Irish Parliament, in the 1830s and 1840s. The Orange Order, by this stage committed to the Union, increased its membership to over 100,000 by 1835 and "working class Protestants...developed effective militant politics of their own". The political representative of Unionism was the Irish Conservative Party – which urged the suppression of O'Connell's 'monster meetings' for Repeal. The British Conservative government eventually agreed to this in October 1843, banning a proposed mass meeting for Repeal at Clontarf, Dublin and deploying troops and a warship to prevent it.
The Conservative Party successfully mobilised Protestant voters against Repeal, by such means signing on more freemen of the cities (hereditary trade guilds, open only to Protestants from the 1690s to the 1840s) to get around the greater number of Catholic property holders. The Conservative Party remained the largest in Irish politics until 1859.
The final challenge to the Union in this era was the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848, which largely failed to come off and which was suppressed after minor military action.
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