Political Terms

Loyalist – This term generally refers to the more extreme expressions of unionism, the loyalist paramilitaries and the various loyalist workers’ organisations who have attempted to sow division among the working class.

Nationalist – This is a broad term which refers to those who favor a capitalist united Ireland. Here it is most often used to refer to the political forces who advocate this.

Republican – By this is generally meant more militant nationalists, especially those who have advocated military methods of struggle. The term ‘republican movement’ today is used to describe Sinn Fein and the IRA combined.

Unionist – Although this is a broad term describing the desire of Protestants to retain the link with Britain, its use is generally more narrow, referring to the right wing political movement which has built itself around this.


Alliance Party – Launched in 1970 by a group of liberal unionists who had previously been known as the New Ulster Movement. Its appeal is to the middle class and its votes are concentrated in less troubled are as in the east of the province. Has established links with the Liberal Democrats in Britain.

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – The Reverend Ian Paisley’s Protestant Unionist label was changed in 1971 with the launching of the Democratic Unionist Party. It is the more hard-line and more nakedly sectarian of the Unionist parties and its support tends to come from rural and Protestant working class areas. Still led by Ian Paisley.

Irish Republican Army (IRA) – The title Irish Republican Army was first used by those who fought the war of independence against Britain after 1919. After partition the IRA split into ‘pro’ and’ anti’ Treaty groups. After a civil war the pro- Treatyites were victorious and became the army of the new southern state. The anti- Treatyite group kept the IRA title but declined as a force. From the 1930’s to the late 1960’s they were a marginal group both North and South.

Various attempts to launch military campaigns against the North failed. By the 1960s, they were seen as largely irrelevant in both parts of the country. In 1969/1970 the IRA split into two groups, the Officials and the Provisionals. Both grew quickly in the North during the first years of the current ‘Troubles’ after 1969. The Officials declared a military ceasefire in 1972. They now exist as a small political group called The Workers Party. The Provisionals’ maintained their campaign until 31 August 1994, with only two breaks, one for two weeks in 1972 and one which lasted for several months in 1975. Although several other republican paramilitary groups emerged, the Provisionals remained the largest, with the broadest base of support, mainly in Catholic working class areas.

Nationalist Party – Before partition the forces of conservative nationalism, sometimes known as the United Irish League, were led by John Redmond. In the radical era which followed the first world war they were swept aside by Sinn Fein and by the growth of socialism.

After partition nationalists supplanted Sinn Fein in the North. However they only loosely existed as a party and provided a very weak opposition to the Unionists.

In the late ’20s and ’30s they were known as the National League of the North. After 1945 they campaigned under the banner ‘Anti-Partition League’. Although they called themselves the Nationalist Party in the 1960s, they had no real party structure -their first ever conference was held in 1966.

When the Civil Rights struggle developed at the end of the 1960s, they could not provide any leadership and were swept away, eventually to be replaced by the SDLP.

Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) – The Northern Ireland Labour Party was formed in 1924 by socialists and trade unionists active in the North. Although the Party had a right wing leadership and eventually leaned to a tame pro-union rather than a socialist position, it built a powerful support base among both Protestant and Catholic workers. The high point of its success came in the late 1950s and early 1960s when, over two successive elections, it returned four MPs to Stormont.

The Party failed to intervene in the Civil Rights Movement and the subsequent upheaval and began to decline. By the early 1970s its leaders adopted a sectarian position, some even having links with loyalist paramilitaries. By the mid 1970s it had effectively disappeared.

Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) – At the end of 1920 the British government willingly acceded to Unionist pressure and set up an Ulster Special Constabulary, made up of ‘loyal citizens’ to help police the North. There were to be full time Specials, the A Specials -and reserves, the B Specials.

In 1922 a new Royal Ulster Constabulary was set up recruited partly from the A Specials and partly from the now defunct Royal Irish Constabulary, the pre-partition police.

The RUC took over the role of the A Specials and became a repressive wing of the Unionist state, overwhelmingly Protestant in composition. The B Specials remained as a police reserve and became notorious for their ill discipline and their anti-Catholic bigotry. They were involved in attacks on civil rights marchers early in 1969 and in pogroms against Catholic areas in August of that year.

The B Specials were disbanded by the British government in 1969. Despite attempts to ‘professionalize’ the RUC (now called the Police Service of Northern Ireland – PSNI), it remains a sectarian force in character and composition. Its repressive role during the Troubles, plus evidence of collusion at some level with loyalist paramilitaries, leave it still unacceptable in many Catholic areas.

Sinn Fein – The original Sinn Fein was launched in 1905 and became the major political force in Ireland after 1918.

After partition it declined as a force in the South as its leaders deserted to the new political parties which would dominate the new state. Apart from a brief spell in the 1950s and again during the 1980’s hunger strikes, it has never attracted significant votes in the South.

In the North it also declined, only polling significantly when given a clear run by other nationalists in the 1950s.

The current Sinn Fein was for a long period a political rump appended to the Provisional IRA. Its real birth as a political force came through the votes cast for Bobby Sands and other IRA prisoners during the hunger strikes of 1981.

At first it disguised its nationalism with radical rhetoric but during the 1980s moved to the right and now adopts a position little different from that of past nationalists. Its main base is among the Catholic working class. Current leader is Gerry Adams.

Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) – Formed in 1970 by a group of opposition MPs in the Stormont parliament. These included ‘moderate’ leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, like John Hume and ex-Nationalist MP, Austin Currie, plus Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin both of whom had a background in the Labour movement. Both Fitt and Devlin later resigned, frustrated by the fact that the party turned out to be nationalist and not at all socialist.

Despite its title the SDLP always had a strictly sectarian appeal. Its more moderate nationalism gives it an appeal primarily among the Catholic middle class. Current leader is John Hume.

Trade Unions – The Irish Trade Union Congress was established in 1894. Became the Irish Trade Union Congress and Labour Party in 1914 at the instigation of Marxist James Connolly.

In 1918 the name was changed to the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress in order to emphasize its political role.

After partition all-Ireland trade union unity was maintained but the political role of Congress was confined to the South.

In 1930 the industrial and political wings separated with the formation of the Irish Labour Party which, with the exception of occasional attempts to build in the North, confined its activities to the South. In 1945 a right wing split-off from the Irish TUC (ITUC) led by-people who were influenced by Fianna Fail, formed the Congress of Irish Unions.

In 1959 the CIU and ITUC merged to form the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), the body which exists today.

The ITUC had a Northern Ireland Committee to deal with Northern matters from 1945. With the merger and formation of the ICTU in 1959, the Northern Ireland Committee was retained. There was to be a separate Northern Ireland conference from which the Northern Ireland Committee would be elected.

Ulster Defence Association (UDA) – This, the largest of the Protestant paramilitary organisations, emerged in 1971 after local Protestant defence organisations came together.

Initially had a mass base in Protestant working class areas especially in Belfast.

Despite efforts to present political opinions through various documents, it was never more than a sectarian murder gang indistinguishable in its activities from the UVF.

Killed under the title Ulster Freedom Fighters.

Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) – Set up as a local regiment of the British army after the disbandment of the B Specials in 1969.

Despite the fact that the leading figures in the Civil Rights Movement, like John Hume, welcomed its formation, it was never anything other than a sectarian force. Ex-B Specials joined en masse and were accepted without restriction. It ended up 97% Protestant in composition.

In Catholic areas it soon acquired a reputation as a partisan force. This was reinforced by the examples of serving UDR soldiers who were found guilty of sectarian assassinations and by the widespread evidence of collusion with loyalist paramilitaries.

In 1992 it was merged with other regiments such as the Royal Irish Rangers to form the Royal Irish Regiment and it operates under this title today.

Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) – The first UVF was formed by Unionist leaders financed by sections of the British-establishment in 1912 as part of the resistance to Home Rule.

After partition the elements of loyalist paramilitarism were either stood down by the unionists or else incorporated into the new police and police reserve, the RUC and B Specials.

In 1966 a few loyalists reformed the UVF to “take out the IRA”. After a few atrocities they collapsed. The modem UVF was in reality re-launched at the beginning of the Troubles, with some people who had been active in organisations led by the Reverend Ian Paisley, playing a key role.

The UVF have been responsible for a catalog of sectarian crimes. Between 1972 and 1977 one UVF unit, who were known as the Shankill Butchers, became notorious for the torturing and mutilation of their victims.

The UVF has killed under other names, notably the Protestant Action Force, and more recently the Red Hand Defenders.

Unionist Party – The Ulster Unionist Party was set up in 1904 by industrialists, merchants and landowners backed by an important section of the British ruling class to resist the proposal to give Home Rule to Ireland. It had close links with the British Conservative and Unionist Party. The Unionist Party ruled the Northern Ireland state as the sole party of government from partition in 1921 until the local parliament was dissolved in 1972.

During the 1970s, after the birth of Paisley’s rival Democratic Unionist Party, it became commonly known as the Official Unionist Party. in 1974 it split over the Sunningdale Agreement which proposed powersharing with the Catholic SDLP and limited Dublin government involvement. A pro-powersharing breakaway led by Unionism’s last Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Brian Faulkner, called the Unionist Party of Northern Ireland (UPNI) quickly became a rump and disappeared.

The Ulster Unionists or Official Unionists, as they are sometimes still known, remain the largest of the unionist parties. They are currently led by David Trimble.

The two major capitalist party’s of the south are:

Fianna Fail – Formed in 1926 by Eamonn De Valera who broke with Sinn Fein over the issue of abstention.

Has been the biggest capitalist party in the South since the 1930s. Current leader is Albert Reynolds.

Fine Gael – Formed in 1933 by a merger of various groups including the first governing party of the new state Cumann Na nGaedheal, plus the fascist Blueshirts of ex-Garda chief, Eoin O’Duffy, who became the new party’s first leader.

Only been in government as the largest party in coalitions, which have included the Irish Labour Party.