Prior to 1885 Irish pro-Union Irish politics primarily revolved around Conservative and Liberal party competition. In May 1885 the Irish Loyal and Patriotic Union was formed in Connacht, Munster and Leinster to attempt to unite both parties in Ireland under a common banner of maintaining Union. The ILPU was relatively successful in its goal, and in 1891 it was replaced by the Irish Unionist Alliance. The change of label was largely a re-branding exercise, the new organisation now commanding an all-Ireland agenda.
Its first leader was Edward James Saunderson of Castle Saunderson in County Cavan, with its focus resoundingly on stopping Home Rule being implemented. In the early 1890’s the IUA had 86 peers within the House of Lords (out of an operable membership of less than 500), and with the help of this support and a close relationship with the Conservative party it was able to defeat the Home Rule Bill in 1893. During its existence the IUA sent hundreds of members on speaking tours of England, Scotland and Wales to lobby for support against Home Rule, in the process distributing many millions of pro-Union leaflets and books.
Organisationally the IUA had a presence in every county of Ireland. North, South, East and West Kerry all had a ‘County’ Branch; Mayo was divided into North, West and South/East areas. Waterford had East and West County Branches. Even the most Catholic County in Ireland, County Clare, had its own County Branch.
The vast majority of these County Branches were sub-divided into District Branches. North Tipperary had 21 District Branches alone. North Mayo had 8, South/East Mayo 8 and West Mayo had 5 District branches. County Louth had 9 District Branches based at Dundalk, Drogheda, Tallanstown, Ravensdale, Ardee, Castle bellingham, Collon, Fermonferkin and Drumcar.
Electorally the body was never massively successful in the Southern Provinces, although there were occasional notable victories such as the Galway City by-election in 1900. It did however help to maintain a Unionist presence on many county councils that would have otherwise been less likely. In Ulster it had a strong electoral base, a base which eventually resulted in the formation of the Ulster Unionist Council in 1905/1906. While this body still technically was part of the IUA, it was the beginning of division within Irish Unionism, as Ulster Unionism’s own strategies and political goals developed.
The ‘Joint Committee of Unionist Associations of Ireland’ kept superficial co-operation between ‘North’ and ‘South’, but by 1910 the IUA was effectively an organisation of Southern Ireland. This division between Ulster Unionism and the other Provinces came to a head during the Third Home-Rule Crisis, and during the First World War Southern Unionists were at direct loggerheads with their Northern counterparts in relation to the implementation and definition of Home Rule.
Post Great War the organisation continued to exist and operate, but splits and break-away factions such as the Unionist Anti-Partition League emerged. Actual partition negated the organisations existence, and it was dissolved in 1922.