The Ulster Volunteers were a unionist militia founded in 1912 to block self-government (or Home Rule) for Ireland, which was then part of the United Kingdom. The Ulster Volunteers were based in the northern province of Ulster, the part of Ireland where unionists and Protestants were the majority. Many Ulster Protestants feared being governed by a Catholic-dominated parliament in Dublin and losing their local supremacy and strong links with Britain. In 1913 the militias were organised into the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and vowed to resist any attempts by the British Government to ‘impose’ Home Rule on Ulster. Later that year, Irish nationalists formed a rival militia, the Irish Volunteers, to safeguard Home Rule. In April 1914 the UVF smuggled 25,000 rifles into Ulster. The crisis was halted by the outbreak of World War I in August 1914. Many UVF members enlisted with the British Army’s 36th (Ulster) Division and went to fight on the Western Front.
After World War I, the British Government agreed to set up two self-governing regions in Ireland: Northern Ireland (made up of six Ulster counties with Protestant/unionist majorities), and Southern Ireland. However, by 1920 the Irish War of Independence was raging and the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the army of the self-declared Irish Republic, was launching attacks on British forces in Northern Ireland. As a response to these attacks, the UVF was revived. However, this revival was largely unsuccessful and the UVF was absorbed into the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC), the reserve police force of the Northern Ireland Government.
A unionist paramilitary group calling itself the Ulster Volunteer Force was formed in 1966. It claims to be a direct descendant of the older organisation and uses the same logo, but there are no organisational links between the two.
Before World War I:
By 1912, the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), an Irish nationalist party who sought self-government (Home Rule) for Ireland, held the balance of power in the Parliament of the United Kingdom. In April 1912, Prime Minister H. H. Asquith introduced the third Home Rule Bill. Previous Home Rule Bills had fallen because of the veto power of the Tory-dominated House of Lords, however since the crisis caused by the Lord’s rejection of the “People’s Budget” of 1909 and the subsequent passing of the Parliament Act, the House of Lords had seen their powers to block legislation diminished and so it could be expected that this Bill would (eventually) become law. Home Rule was popular in all of Ireland apart from the northeast of Ulster. While Catholics were the majority in most of Ireland, Protestants were the majority in northeast Ulster and in Britain. Many Ulster Protestants feared being governed by a ‘Catholic-dominated’ parliament in Dublin and losing their local supremacy and strong links with Britain.
The two key figures in the creation of the Ulster Volunteers were Edward Carson (leader of the Irish Unionist Alliance) and James Craig. At the start of 1912, Unionists and members of the Orange Order (a Protestant fraternity) began forming small local militias and drilling. On 9 April Carson and Andrew Bonar Law, leader of the Conservative & Unionist Party, reviewed 100,000 ‘Ulster Volunteers’ marching in columns. On 28 September, 218,206 men signed the Ulster Covenant, vowing to use “all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland”, with the support of 234,046 women.
On 13 January 1913, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was formally established by the Ulster Unionist Council. Recruitment was to be limited to 100,000 men aged from 17 to 65 who had signed the Covenant, under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir George Richardson KCB.
The Ulster unionists enjoyed the wholehearted support of the British Conservative Party, even when threatening rebellion against the British Government. On 23 September 1913, the 500 delegates of the Ulster Unionist Council met to discuss the practicalities of setting up a provisional government for Ulster, should Home Rule be implemented.
On 25 November 1913, partly in response to the formation of the UVF, Irish nationalists formed the Irish Volunteers – a militia whose role was to safeguard Home Rule.
In March 1914, the British Army’s Commander-in-Chief in Ireland was ordered to move troops into Ulster to deal with any threat from the UVF. However, 57 of the 70 officers at the Army’s headquarters in Ireland chose to resign rather than enforce Home Rule or take on the UVF. The following month, the UVF smuggled 20,000 German rifles with 3,000,000 rounds of ammunition into the port of Larne. This became known as the Larne gunrunning.
World War I:
The third Home Rule Bill was eventually passed despite the objections of the House of Lords, whose power of veto had been abolished under the Parliament Act 1911. While Carson had hoped to have the whole of Ulster excluded, he felt a good case could be made for the six Ulster counties with slim unionist or Protestant majorities. However, in August 1914 the Home Rule issue was temporarily suspended by the outbreak of World War I and Ireland’s involvement in it. Many UVF men enlisted in the British Army, mostly with the 36th (Ulster) Division of the ‘New Army’. Others joined Irish regiments of the United Kingdom’s 10th and 16th (Irish) Divisions. By the summer of 1916, only the Ulster and 16th divisions remained, the 10th amalgamated into both following severe losses in the Battle of Gallipoli. Both of the remaining divisions suffered heavy casualties in July 1916 during the Battle of the Somme and were largely wiped out in 1918 during the German Spring Offensive.
Although many UVF officers left to join the British Army during the war, the unionist leadership wanted to preserve the UVF as a viable force, aware that the issue of Home Rule and partition would be revisited when the war ended. There were also fears of a German naval raid on Ulster and so the UVF was recast as a home defence force.
World War I ended in November 1918. On 1 May 1919, the UVF was ‘demobilised’ when Richardson stood-down as its General Officer Commanding. In Richardson’s last orders to the UVF, he stated:
Existing conditions call for the demobilisation of the Ulster Volunteers. The Force was organised, to protect the interests of the Province of Ulster, at a time when trouble threatened. The success of the organisation speaks for itself, as a page of history, in the records of Ulster that will never fade.
After World War I:
In the December 1918 general election, Sinn Féin—an Irish republican party who sought full independence for Ireland—won an overwhelming majority of the seats in Ireland. Its members refused to take their seats in the British Parliament and instead set up their own parliament and declared independence for Ireland. The Irish Volunteers became the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the army of this self-declared Irish Republic. The Irish War of Independence began, fought between the IRA and the forces of the United Kingdom (which included the British Army and Royal Irish Constabulary, RIC). The Government of Ireland Act 1920 provided for two Home Rule parliaments: one for Northern Ireland and one for Southern Ireland. The Unionist dominated Parliament of Northern Ireland chose to remain a part of the United Kingdom.
As a response to IRA attacks within Ulster, the Ulster Unionist Council officially revived the UVF on 25 June 1920. In early July, the UUC appointed lieutenant colonel Wilfrid Spender as the UVF’s Officer Commanding. At the same time, announcements were printed in unionist newspapers calling on all former UVF members to report for duty. However, this call met with limited success; for example, each Belfast battalion drew little more than 100 men each and they were left mostly unarmed. The UVF’s revival also met with little backing from unionists in Great Britain.
During the conflict, loyalists set up small independent “vigilance groups” in many parts of Ulster. Most of these groups would patrol their areas and report anything untoward to the police (the RIC). Some of them, however, were armed with UVF rifles from 1914. There were also a number of small loyalist paramilitaries. The most notable of these was the Ulster Imperial Guards, who may have overreached the UVF in terms of membership. Historian Peter Hart wrote the following of these groups:
Also occasionally targeted [by the IRA] were Ulster Protestants who saw the republican guerrilla campaign as an invasion of their territory, where they formed the majority. Loyalist activists responded by forming vigilante groups, which soon acquired official status as part of the Ulster Special Constabulary. These men spearheaded the wave of anti-Catholic violence that began in July 1920 and continued for two years. This onslaught was part of an Ulster Unionist counter-revolution, whose gunmen operated almost exclusively as ethnic cleansers and avengers.
The sluggish recruitment to the UVF and its failure to stop IRA activities in Ulster prompted James Craig to call for the formation of a new special constabulary. In October 1920, the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC) was set up. This was an armed reserve police force whose main role, during 1920–1922, was to bolster the RIC and fight the IRA. Spender encouraged UVF members to join it, and although many did so, the USC did not engulf the UVF (and other loyalist paramilitaries) until early 1922. Craig hoped to “neutralise” the loyalist paramilitaries by enrolling them in the C Division of the USC; a move that was backed by the British government. Historian Michael Hopkinson wrote that the USC, “amounted to an officially approved UVF”. The USC was almost wholly Protestant and was greatly mistrusted by Irish Catholics and Irish nationalists. Following IRA attacks, its members sometimes carried-out revenge killings and reprisals against Catholic civilians during the conflict.
In his book Carson’s Army: the Ulster Volunteer Force 1910–22, Timothy Bowman gave the following as his last thought on the UVF during this period:
It is questionable the extent to which the UVF did actually reform in 1920. Possibly the UVF proper amounted to little more than 3,000 men in this period and it is noticeable that the UVF never had a formal disbandment … possibly so that attention would not be drawn to the extent to which the formation of 1920–22 was such a pale shadow of that of 1913–14.
Photo: Ulster Volunteers in 1914