The Ulster Volunteers were a unionist militia founded in 1912 to block Home Rule for Ireland. In 1913 they were organised into the Ulster Volunteer Force. A modern loyalist paramilitary group founded in 1966 shares the same name (Ulster Volunteer Force or UVF), and lays claims to a direct descendancy from the older organisation, but there were no organisational links between the two.

Formation:

The original Ulster Volunteers were formed by Edward Carson and James Craig as Unionist militias in the tensions surrounding the potential success of the third Irish Home Rule Bill. At the start of 1912, Unionists and members of the Orange Order started drilling and on 9 April (Easter Tuesday) Carson and Conservative Andrew Bonar Law reviewed 100,000 Ulster Volunteers marching in columns. On 28 September 237,368 men signed the Ulster Covenant pledged to "using 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.

On 13 January 1913, the Ulster Volunteer Force 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 charge of Lieutenant-General Sir George Richardson KCB.

During this time the unionists enjoyed the wholehearted support of the British Conservative Party, even when threatening rebellion against the British government. On 23 September 1913 the 500 delegates of the Ulster Unionist Council met to discuss the practicalities of setting up a provisional government for Ulster.

Carson and Craig, supported by some British Conservative politicians, threatened to establish a Provisional government in Ulster should the province be included in any Home Rule settlement. The Curragh Incident in March 1914 showed that it would be difficult to use the British army to enforce home rule from Dublin. In April 1914 20,000 German rifles with 3,000,000 rounds were landed at Larne, with the authorities blockaded by the UVF. These developments led to the formation of the Irish Volunteers by southern nationalists to ensure enactment of the proposed home rule act.

World War I:

The Irish Home Rule Act 1914 was eventually passed despite the objections of the House of Lords whose power of veto had been abolished under the Parliament Act 1911, though Carson managed to force through a provision exempting part or all of Ulster; however the home rule issue was temporarily suspended by the outbreak of World War I and Ireland's involvement in it. Many UVF men enlisted, mostly with the British 36th (Ulster) Division  of the New British Army. Others joined Irish regiments of the United Kingdom's 10th and 16th (Irish) Divisions. By the Summer 1916, only the Ulster and 16th divisions remained, the 10th amalgamated into both following severe losses in Gallipoli. Both of the remaining divisions suffered heavy casualties in July 1916 during the Battle of the Somme, to be largely decimated in 1918 during the German Spring Offensive.

Partition:

The Government of Ireland Act 1920 provided Home Rule for Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland, giving Northern Ireland the option of Irish unity or Irish partition; the Unionist dominated Parliament of Northern Ireland chose to remain a part of the UK, while in the south Irish republicans launched the Anglo-Irish War which led to the creation of the Irish Free State. Many Ulstermen saw this as a reward for their loyal service during the war; others preferred to retain direct rule from London.

Certain remnants of the group reformed in 1920 and were recruited by the Ulster Special Constabulary. They were widely accused of attacks on the Catholic/Irish nationalist population of Northern Ireland during the Anglo-Irish War 1919-1921, in reprisal for Irish Republican Army attacks on civilian, police, and military targets.

Historian Peter Hart has written that, 'also occasionally targeted (by the IRA) were Ulster Protestants who saw the republican guerrilla campaign as an invasion of their territory, where they formed the majority. Loyalist activists responded by forming vigilante groups, which soon acquired official status as part of the Ulster Special Constabulary. These men spearheaded the wave of anti-Catholic violence that began in July 1920 and continued for two years. This onslaught was part of an Ulster Unionist counter-revolution, whose gunmen operated almost exclusively as ethnic cleansers and avengers'.

Another historian Michael Hopkinson has written that the Special Constabulary, "amounted to an officially approved UVF".