The Ulster Volunteers was a unionist, loyalist militia founded in 1912 to block domestic 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. Many Ulster Protestants feared being governed by a Catholic-majority parliament in Dublin and losing their links with Great 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 from Imperial Germany. The Home Rule Crisis was interrupted by the First World War. Much of the UVF enlisted with the British Army’s 36th (Ulster) Division and went to fight on the Western Front.
After the war, the British Government decided to partition Ireland into two self-governing regions: Northern Ireland (which overall had a Protestant/unionist majority) and Southern Ireland. However, by 1920 the Irish War of Independence was raging and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was launching attacks on British forces in Ireland. In response, the UVF was revived. It was involved in some sectarian clashes and minor actions against the IRA. However, this revival was largely unsuccessful and the UVF was absorbed into the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC), the new reserve police force of Northern Ireland.
A loyalist 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.
By 1912, the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), an Irish nationalist party which sought devolution (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, the first rejected by the House of Commons, the second because of the veto power of the Tory-dominated House of Lords, however since the crisis caused by the Lords’ 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 Ulster and in Great 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, supported sub rosa by figures such as Henry Wilson, Director of Military Operations at the British War Office. At the start of 1912, leading unionists and members of the Orange Order (a Protestant fraternity) began forming small local militias and drilling. On 9 April Carson and 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.
In 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. William Gibson was the first commander of the 3rd East Belfast Regiment of the Ulster Volunteers.
In March 1914, the British Army’s Commander-in-Chief in Ireland was ordered to move troops into Ulster to protect arms depots 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.
The Ulster Volunteers were a continuation of what has been described as the “Protestant volunteering tradition, in Ireland”, which since 1666 spans the various Irish Protestant militias founded to defend Ireland from foreign threat. References to the most prominent of these militias, the Irish Volunteers, was frequently made, and there were also attempts to link the activities of the two.