top of page


The Order's Fight for the Union 1886-1921

Ballynahinch Welcomes Sir Edward Carson.

The introduction of Gladstone's Home Rule Bill in 1886 gave the Order a membership which was to transform it completely to make it a highly respectable and exceedingly powerful religious political organisation.

The whole influence of the Order was to be on the side of continuing union with Great Britain on the existing pattern.

The Orange Institution had a vision and a mission.

The revitalised Orange Order sponsored meetings for all who were against Home Rule. It arranged a meeting in the Ulster Hall, in February, 1886, at which the main speaker was Lord Randolph Churchill. He gave, to a wildly enthusiastic audience, a slogan which was to be the rallying cry for the struggle ahead, "Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right".

The first Home Rule Bill was defeated on the second reading by 343 votes to 313, to be immediately followed by the dissolution of Parliament.

The defeat of the Bill was received by unionists with delirious rejoicing. Bonfires were lighted on the hills around Belfast.

There was respite for the unionists when Gladstone and his party found themselves in Opposition to the Conservatives, who had committed themselves to the maintenance of the Union.

The return of the Liberals in 1892 and the certainty that Gladstone would sponsor another Home Rule Bill produced a further alignment of unionist resources. The Orange Order was joined with the newly-formed Unionist Clubs founded by Lord Templetown.

When the second Home Rule Bill was defeated in 1893 the jubilation of 1886 was repeated. On 4 April, 1893, Balfour represented Lord Salisbury, the Prime Minister, at a four hour long march past of loyalists in Belfast.

The Orange Order, long used to harmony in the ranks, had any notion of perfection rudely shattered at the Twelfth demonstration, 1902, held at Castlereagh. There the County Grand Master of Belfast, Colonel Edward Saunderson, was heckled by Bro. Thomas Sloan, a member of the Belfast Protestant Association. The complaint was that Saunderson, an M.P., had voted against the inspection of Roman Catholic Convent laundries. Sloan was in error.

Sloan was charged with unbecoming conduct and brought before the Belfast County Lodge's disciplinary committee. On his expulsion by Grand Lodge, June, 1903, Sloan with some other dissidents founded the Independent Orange Order.

The Independent Orange Order held its own demonstrations and at one of them in 1905 at Magheramorne, a declaration was made to the public which roundly condemned unionism and appeared to argue for Home Rule. The Home Rule emphasis of the Independents owed its impetus to Robert Lindsay Crawford. In May, 1908, Crawford was expelled and a reversion was made to the policy which had produced the society.

In 1905 with the landslide return of the Liberals the Home Rule controversy entered its final phase.

The Unionists and the Orangemen readied themselves for the clash they knew to be inevitable if and when Home Rule was forced upon them.

The Unionist and Orange programme was made clear at a meeting in Lisburn in 1910. At this time there were three strands of Unionism - the Ulster Unionism of Craig and the Unionist Council; the Irish Unionists with Edward Carson; and the British Unionism and Bonar Law. The Irish position changed when Carson, M.P., for Dublin University, was invited to lead Ulster Unionists in February, 1910.

A meeting was held at "Craigavon", Craig's home, to receive the new leader on 23 September, 1911; 100,000 attended. The meeting marked the beginning of the campaign against the Home Rule Bill of Asquith which was to go before Parliament in 1912. The decision was taken to appoint a commission to draft a constitution for the Provisional Government of Ulster in the event of the passing of the Bill.

The great Balmoral demonstration of Easter Tuesday showed the world where Ulster stood. The chairman was the Primate, Archbishop Crozier, and the special speaker Bonar Law, who declared, "Ireland is not a nation but two peoples, separated by a deeper gulf than that dividing Ireland from Great Britain". Carson was with him on the platform and seventy M.P.'s, English, Scottish and Welsh, were there too with 200,000 people.

In all these events the Orange Order was inextricably bound up. The leaders and the led were for the most part members of the Institution. In July, 1913, 150,000 Orangemen and Loyalists met at Craigavon. In September the Provisional Government of Ulster was formed.

On 6 December, 1911, the Ulster Area of the Orange Institution became a temporary Grand Lodge with Colonel R.H. Wallace as Provincial Grand Secretary.

The third Home Rule Bill was presented to Parliament, 11 April, 1912. It was rejected by the Lords twice in 1913 but finally got the Royal Assent to become law on 18 September, 1914. The passing of the Bill produced these poignant lines from Sir William Watson:

"She had pleaded and prayed to be counted still,
As one of our household through good and ill;
And with scorn they replied,
Jeered on her loyalty, trod on her pride,
Spurned her, refused her,
Great hearted Ulster,
Flung her aside."

At this time a document to be described as "Ulster's Solemn League and Covenant" was drawn up. It was largely the work of James Craig and was based on the old Scottish Covenant of 1580.

A united meeting of the Standing Committee of the Unionist Council had met at Craigavon on 19 September, when the Ulster Covenant was finally ratified. Covenant signing day was set for 28 September, and prior to that date a series of demonstrations were held throughout the province in which the objects of the Covenant were explained.

On Covenant Day all commercial activities were suspended. In the early morning churches were crowded with worshippers invoking God to be with them in the solemn obligations they were about to undertake. In Belfast the loyalist population marched in formation to the City Hall, the Orange Brethren in regalia, where they were received by the Lord Mayor and Corporation. The corridors of the Hall, nearly half a mile in length, enabled 600 people to sign simultaneously. They came by 500s and passed out by the rear of the building leaving their signatures on a roll and each person carrying his signed covenant with him. The grand total of signatures of men and women was 471,414.

The Covenant Day show of Ulster's determination took legs when the Ulster Volunteer Force was formed under Colonel R.H. Wallace with a strength of 110,000 men.

In March, 1914, the Liberal Government decided to make an imposing demonstration of military force to overawe and coerce Ulster into accepting Home Rule. Whatever was the real motive the move led to the Curragh "Mutiny", better to be described as the Curragh Camp Incident, 20 March, when 58 out of 70 Army officers with General Hubert Gough refused to move against the North, being prepared to accept dismissal before they would take up arms against their kin. The Ulster Volunteer Force with Colonel Fred. Crawford as organiser, ran guns from Germany after experiences by Crawford more exciting than fiction. The arms were landed 24 April, 1914, at Larne, with consignments laid off at Bangor and Donaghadee.

Though Craig, who headed the Provisional Government of Ulster, made overtures to the British Government to stay the passing of the Home Rule Bill in view of the imminence of war - it broke out in August, 1914 - the Government persisted and it became law, 18 September, 1914.

The Act was not operated because Britain had the Great War on her hands.

In the war Ulstermen rallied to the British cause. The famous 36th Ulster Division was recruited from the U.V.F. to earn immortal fame for its prodigious sacrifice at the Somme, 1 July, 1916. Indeed Ulstermen went into service in all the theatres of war.

Even before the Home Rule Bill was passed the Liberal Government had come to realise that Ulster could not be coerced into an Ireland ruled from Dublin.

The Government of Ireland Act, which set up two legislatures in Ireland, one in Dublin, and the other in Belfast for the six counties of Northern Ireland, became law in December, 1920.

From the outset of the campaign against Home Rule the Orange Order had taken a responsible part. There was a high standard of leadership utterly dedicated to the service of the Unionist and Protestant cause. The Grand Masters had been men of consequence, namely the Earl of Enniskillen, the Earl of Erne, Sir James Stronge, W.H. Lyons, and Sir Edward Archdale. They presided over brethren who responded to good leadership and who were concerned to back that leadership against all enemies. It is certain that without the Order the fight for the maintenance of the Union would have been lost.

The Orange Institution and the Ulster Unionist Council

Whenever the Ulster Unionist Council was formed in 1905, the Orange Institution played a leading role. From that point Orangemen played a prominent part in unionist politics. However, in recent years it was clear that, since there was more than one unionist party, members supported differing political parties. There was also an ongoing debate within the Ulster Unionist Party about the links with the Orange Institution.

The culmination of this situation was that the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland decided in March 2005 not to have formal links with the Ulster Unionist Party. Instead the Grand Lodge has pledged to lobby all unionist parties over issues of concern to Orange brethren. We hope to maintain good relations with the main unionist parties and to encourage a greater sense of unity among our elected politicians.

In this article it is not our intention to comment on the debate which led to the present situation, but simply to provide historical information as to the background of the relationship.

The Ulster Unionist Council was constituted formally at a meeting in the Ulster Hall, Belfast, on March 3, 1905 under the chairmanship of Colonel James McCalmont, M.P. for East Antrim and a Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland. The Duke of Abercorn was elected President of the Council and Dr. T.H. Gibson, B.L. the Secretary.

A preliminary meeting, organised by North Armagh M.P., William Moore, had been held on December 2, 1904 with the following resolution passed: "That an Ulster Unionist Council be formed, and that its objects shall be to form an Ulster union for bringing into line all local Unionist associations in the Province of Ulster with a view to consistent and continuous political action, to act as a further connecting link between Ulster Unionists and their parliamentary representatives; to settle in consultation with them the parliamentary policy, and to be the medium of expressing Ulster Unionist opinion as current events may from time to time require, and generally to advance and defend the interests of Ulster Unionism in the Unionist Party".

The Council consisted of not more than 200 members of which 100 were nominated by local Unionist associations, 50 (25 per cent) were nominated by the Orange Order and not more than 50 were co-opted as "distinguished Unionists".

A standing committee was established by the Council, with a third of its memberhsip nominated initially by Colonel Edward Saunderson, M.P. first leader of the Ulster Unionist Parliamentary Party at Westminster. Saunderson, of Castle Saunderson, Belturbet, Co. Cavan, represented the constituency of North Armagh from 1885 until his death in 1906. Bro. Saunderson, whose statue stands in the centre of Portadown, was a Deputy Grand Master of Ireland and the Deputy County Grand Master of Cavan. The remainder of the committee were elected by Council delegates.

This body included leading Orangemen of the day: The Earl of Erne (Grand Master of Ireland and County Master of Fermanagh); Colonel Robert H. Wallace, D.L. (Deputy Grand Master), Walter H.H. Lyons, D.L. (Deputy Grand Master), Edward M. Archdale (Deputy Grand Master), Sir James Stronge (Deputy Grand Master and County Master of Armagh) and William J. Allen (Deputy Grand Master of Armagh).

In 1911 the elected membership of the Ulster Unionist Council was raised to 370, and included representatives from the Unionist Clubs and the Apprentice Boys of Derry. In 1918 representatives of the women's associations were added, bringing the total membership to 432.

Unionist clubs, formed in 1893 by Viscount Templeton, Castle Upton, Templepatrick, spread with great rapidity across Ulster and were in existence even in the southern Irish counties and on the British mainland. More than 100 clubs existed.

After 1921, Unionist leaders felt it desirable to demonstrate the unity of all the Protestant people in supporting the link with Britain, and the composition of the Council changed again, and by 1925 it had a membership of 508. Each of the 28 divisional associations sent 10 Unionist and four Orange representatives, as did associations in Cavan, Donegal, and Monaghan. The Queen's University Unionist Association sent 10, the Apprentice Boys four and the Ulster Liberal Unionist Association, Unionist Clubs Ireland, the Ulster Unionist Labour Association and the Ulster Women's Unionist Council 12 each.

In 1929, when proportional representation for Northern Ireland parliamentary elections was abolished, representation on the Council was again re-organised to give six members for each of the 48 constituency associations and a further six each for the three counties outside Northern Ireland. The 12 places previously reserved for the Unionist Clubs, many of which had been reconstituted as constituency associations, were given to the Junior Imperial League Divisional Council of the Ulster Reform Club. The representation of Orange lodges was provided for separately on a county basis, according to membership: Belfast 36, Down 20, Antrim 16, Armagh 12, Tyrone 12, Fermanagh 8, Londonderry 8, City of Londonderry 4, Monaghan 4, Cavan 4 and Donegal 4. Total 128. During the period of the Stormont Parliament (1921-72), the representation on the Ulster Unionist Council from the loyal orders was as high as 138 - 122 from the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, 10 from the Association of Loyal Orangewomen and six from the Apprentice Boys of Derry.

The vast majority of Unionist M.Ps. during the 51 year period of the Stormont Parliament were members of the Orange Order. Of the 95 who never received cabinet rank until 1969, 87 (including one woman) were members of the Order. The remaining eight were women and three were elected for the first time in 1969. Only three members of the cabinet during this period were not Orangemen and three others who were left the Institution later. Every Stormont senator during the 1921-68 period was an Orangeman, except the one woman senator. And of the 56 members of the Westminster parliament in the same period, all but two (both women) were lodge members. Every Prime Minister of Northern Ireland during the period 1921-72 was an Orangeman. An estimated 35 of the 60 Unionist members returned to the Northern Ireland Assembly in June 1998 were Orange Order members. Most of them in the Ulster Unionist Party with a significant number in the DUP.


"I have always said I am an Orangeman first and a politician and Member of Parliament afterwards". - Sir James Craig, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, in 1934.

"I am delighted to have behind me the great Orange Order" - John M. Andrews, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, in 1941.

"Indeed, I am proud to be in the (Orange) Order and those criticising it know nothing about it" - Major James D. Chichester Clark, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, in 1969.

"The Orange Institution is simply a pressure group which is concerned to see that the Ulster Unionist Party remains firm on the Constitution" - the Rev. W. Martin Smyth, Grand Master of Ireland (1972-1996).

There are a few Orange Brethren who feel that we are exclusively a religious Order. While I agree that we are mainly a religious body, the Order has been in the front rank for generations in preserving our constitutional position. The Orange ritual lays it down that it is the duty of Orangemen to support and maintain the laws and constitution. It is fundamentally important that we should continue to do so, for if we lost our constitutional position within the United Kingdom "civil and religious liberty for all" which we are also pledged to support would be endangered" - John M. Andrews, Grand Master of Ireland, in 1950.

The Orange hall has traditionally been the meeting place for the constituency Ulster Unionist associations and branches.

Appendix 1

Under the rules of the Ulster Unionist Council from 1905, the Orange Order was entitled to representation on the Council and on the Executive Committee of the Party. All Orange delegates had to be members of local constituency associations.

Appendix 2

"The Orange Order took on a distinctively Unionist flavour when Home Rule threatened in the 1880s. The effective beginning of the Ulster Unionist Party was a meeting of seven Orangemen, elected as M.Ps. at Westminster in 1886". From Northern Ireland. A Political Diary by W.D. Flackes and Sydney Elliott.

Appendix 3

Resolution from County Armagh Grand Lodge approved by Grand Lodge of Ireland in December 1921: "Returning thanks to Sir James Craig and his colleagues for the firm stand they are making for the liberties of Northern Ireland. That we are quite unable to believe that any concession on our part could make Sinn Feiners into loyal men, and we refuse to sell or surrender our British nationality".

Appendix 4

From Minutes of Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland 1901-1910

Nine Delegates were annually elected from the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland to the general committee of the Irish Unionist Alliance, with three on the Alliance's audit and finance committee.

Appendix 5

Minute from meeting of Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland December 7, 1910: "That the Grand Lodge of Ireland give every assistance to the Sub-Committee for Practical Purposes, recently formed by the Ulster Unionist Council".

For further information see "The Ulster Unionist Party 1882 - 1973, It's Development and Organisation" by John F Harbinson, Blackstaff Press 1973

bottom of page