Presbyterians, Ulster unionism and the establishment of Northern Ireland 1905-47

  • Mark Wilson

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis examines the influence of Irish Presbyterianism on Ulster Unionism in particular, and on the political life of Ireland and Northern Ireland in general between 1905 and 1947. Its role has been contentious, under-examined and even the nature of the Church has often been misunderstood.

This study uses official Presbyterian publications and other published and manuscript sources, combined with information drawn from the very large body of contemporary newspaper reports. Until recently these newspaper reports have been very difficult to access and utilise systematically.

In 1840 the two largest Presbyterian bodies merged, forming the Presbyterian Church in Ireland to which a majority of non-Catholic Christians in Ulster have, consistently, chosen to adhere. Irish Presbyterians hold that the ordained leadership of the Church consists of ministers and ruling elders, holding the same office and divided only by function. This means that its ordained leadership is much less obvious than that of other Irish denominations.

Part 1. examines the Church’s role in the years before 1905. Many Irish Presbyterians supported the Conservative Party and deferred to its landed, Church of Ireland leadership but gradually, more assertive Presbyterians who had supported the Liberal Party came to form a distinctive part of the Unionist alliance, contributing to its re-orientation towards Ulster. Together, they deliberately created an inclusive Ulster-Scots identity which united a very diverse non-Catholic Ulster.

Part 2. concerns the Church’s place in the events leading to the foundation of Northern Ireland. This includes the subversion of its institutional machinery by Presbyterian Unionists, its hyperpatriotic stance in the Great War and the way in which temperance activists sought to impose their agenda both upon, and through it.

Part 3. examines events after the Great War as most of the Church’s potential influence was squandered in internal conflict, ending in compromise which limited both its internal and external effectiveness. Nevertheless, it influenced Unionism’s attitude to the Second World War and its policies on education.

In conclusion, we see a community and an ordained leadership which was much more influential than the Church as an institution, united only in times of crisis and only in broad terms. The influence of the Church was strongest before the Great War, peaked during the Ulster Crisis and declined thereafter to a point where, in 1947, while it retained the loyalty of a large membership, its central bodies were often ignored by them and where it was treated with merely conventional respect by the government of Northern Ireland.
Date of AwardJul 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorGraham Walker (Supervisor)

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