One of the lesser known Loyalist organisations of Ireland, following the announcement of the new Government of Ireland Bill in August 1892 (the 2nd Home Rule Bill) the Ulster Defence Union was an attempt to gather together as many different strains of Ulster Unionism as possible underneath one banner. It adopted the Latin phrase ‘Quis Separabit?’ (Who Shall Separate) as its motto, and officially launched a manifesto of its aims on St Patrick’s Day 1893. The manifesto, addressed to ‘the loyal people of Ulster’, set out clearly that the U.D.U. was to be more than just a political pressure group. It stated that ‘we must be prepared for every possible eventuality’, clarifying the statement with ‘the intense state of public feeling now demands further and more extreme action’. The manifesto included a plan of organisation that would later bear striking similarities to a proposed mass anti-Home Rule organisation in 1886 (the Pall Mall Gazette announced ‘Orange Army’); and another that would arise in 1912/1913, the Ulster Volunteer Force.
Enrollment to the Ulster Defence Union was closed on the 1st June 1893, by which time it was reported that its membership totaled 170,409. This membership now proceeded to elect representatives for a central assembly. The ruling body was to have 600 members, proportionally allocated within every parliamentary constituency according to its Unionist electorate. The chosen representatives were announced in the press in October, with Ulster divided into different regions: Belfast, Eastern (County’s Antrim, Down and the Borough of Newry), Western (County’s Donegal, Londonderry, Tyrone, Fermanagh and City of Derry Borough), and Southern (County’s Armagh, Cavan and Monaghan). Outside Ulster, the Cork Defence Union had been formed in 1886.
Full Central Assembly Membership list here
On the 25th October 1893 this general assembly met in the Ulster Hall, where at 11.30am the main meeting was opened and a portion of prayer read. The highest profile Unionist in Ireland during this period was the Duke of Abercorn, and the first motion before the meeting was ‘that his Grace the Duke of Abercorn should be President of the Central Assembly’. Abercorn addressed the crowd, cheers being given throughout this entire speech. He referenced that they were now into year eight of their anti- Home Rule campaign, and highlighted the immense importance that they were united in common purpose with no dissension in the ranks. The Duke stated ‘We are fighting for a high and noble cause, and not for selfish objects. All personal considerations have been subordinated to public interests. Our object is so sacred that every man’s ambition is satisfied with a place in the ranks, and no man craves leadership or prominence. In a cause so noble and so just the humblest place carries with it as much honour as the highest’.
Referencing the Unionist Convention the previous year, he stated that then they had ‘told the people of Great Britain that the freedom our fathers had won for us with their blood no power on earth could force us to abandon’. The language of the Duke was careful to not be intemperate, however the militancy was apparent with further calls for strong organisation; and more tellingly that they ‘must be equipped for the struggle. The sinews of war must be procured’. In the short term as Abercorn had also stated in his speech, the Home Rule Bill was indeed ‘dead’. It had passed the House of Commons earlier in the year but it was destined to be defeated in the House of Lords.
With the defeat of the 1893 Government of Ireland Bill, the Union was safe yet again, and this particular effort by Unionism at facilitating and creating strong and active organisation soon slipped into obscurity. With Gladstone’s Liberals out of power yet again there was no danger of Home Rule being placed back on the statute books, however the return of the Liberals in 1906 revived the old fears. That year the Ulster Unionist Council was formed to again bring together all the different shades of Unionism in one common purpose. The Ulster Defence Union continued to exist even at this stage, and was given minor representation on the new council. Soon however, it was recognised as being irrelevant and disappeared without fanfare.