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The Order's Fight For The Union
1886 - 1921

The struggle against Home Rule in Ireland
Part of the massive crowd at Balmoral, Easter Tuesday 1912


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 maintainence 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 explusion by Grand Lodge, June, 1903, Sloan with some other dissidents founded the Independent Orange Order.

The Independent Orange Order held its own demonstations 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 Unionsim 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 ough 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 gainst 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.