By Jack Holland
The news that Ken Maginnis, the Ulster Unionist MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone, is not going to defend his seat at the next British general election is bad news in more ways than one. At a political level, it is a serious blow to David Trimble. Maginnis was the only Unionist Westminster MP on whom he could depend for support. He was the most reliable when it came to the Good Friday agreement – indeed, he is probably the only reliable backer left among the UUP team at Westminster, apart from Trimble himself. His decision not to fight the next election almost certainly means that the seat will go to a nationalist or an anti-agreement unionist.
However, the loss is more than just political. The Westminster Unionists are for the most part a nondescript lot. Think, for instance, of William Ross or Cecil Taylor or Willie Thompson. There are others whose names one doesn’t even remember – at least not easily. As far as contributing to the political debate is concerned, they are as exciting as a wet Sunday in Belfast. The truth is, most of them are political lightweights who are lucky to sit in safe seats where very little is expected of them. Apart from Maginnis, who stands out? The Rev. Martin Smyth? Snore. Jeffrey Donaldson – that callow youth – no thank you. That leaves only Trimble and John Taylor. Trimble, whatever his intellectual gifts – and he is quite clever – has that petty bourgeois air about him, a sort of stiffness which is a product of social insecurity. Taylor is a maverick, but not a very entertaining or charming one.
That is, the Unionist Party has a personality problem. Or should I say a lack of personality problem, which is most obvious when you look at its Westminster benches. Now it is going to be inconceivably worsened by the retirement of Maginnis. He is the only one of the whole lot that you could imagine sitting down and having a pint with or a pleasant chat around the pub’s fireside.
Maginnis is generally regarded as belonging to the "liberal" wing of the UUP. This is somewhat surprising, given the fact that until 1970 he was a member of the B-Specials, notorious among nationalists for its sectarianism. When the B-Specials were shut down, he joined the Ulster Defense Regiment, which replaced it, and rose to the rank of major and company commander. He won a seat on the Dungannon town council in 1981. This recommended him as security spokesman for the Ulster Unionists in the assembly, set up in 1982. A year later, during the British general election, he ran for the Fermanagh-South Tyrone seat and won in what is a majority nationalist constituency, thanks to the intervention of an SDLP candidate who took on Sinn Fein (which had held the seat) and split the vote.
It was a bitter blow to Sinn Fein. In 1981, Bobby Sands had held the seat before his death. Owen Carron, his election agent, had succeeded him. For the Provisionals, to lose to a unionist was bad enough – but to one who was a former B-Special and UDR man. That compounded republican anger. This expressed itself in a series of murderous plots against him.
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When I spoke with him in 1995, Maginnis said that there had been 11 attempts to assassinate him. Two of the most serious came in 1988. The RUC Special Branch learned that the Provisionals were planning to kill him as he drove between his home and the Dungannon council offices. An SAS officer posed as the MP and made the dangerous drive on several nights, acting as a decoy. Another undercover soldier was hidden in the car, ready for action if the IRA struck. The Provisionals abandoned that plan but came up with another, more aggressive scheme. This time, the guerrillas would launch an all-out assault on Maginnis’s home, using an RPG-7 rocket to blow in the front wall. A squad of gunmen would then burst in, armed with high-velocity rifles, and murder the MP, and presumably whoever else got in their way.
Altogether, the Active Service Unit involved numbered about 12. The amount of force seems disproportionate, considering that their target was one middle-aged civilian. But it is an indication of the hatred the Provisionals felt for him.
Throughout the stakeout Mrs. Maginnis refused to leave her home, preferring to run the risk of death rather than betray any sign that life in the house was not going on as normal and thus warn off the ASU. When the day of the expected assault came, the Provisionals were in place, and sent a scout to make one last check of the house before launching the attack. For whatever reason, he was unhappy with what he saw, and advised that the ASU abandon its plan.
Lucky for the IRA that it did. The SAS was waiting. Said one: "It would have made Loughgall look like a picnic." In the end, the security forces let the ASU slip away but managed to retrieve some weapons, including an RPG-7 rocket launcher that presumably was intended to be used to blow away the front of the house.
While Maginnis himself escaped injury in the course of the conflict, many of his friends and constituents did not. He carried around a list of 220 names of people from South Tyrone and Fermanagh murdered during the Troubles. Most of the murders, he claimed, remain unsolved. Among them were friends and colleagues of the MP.
In October 1997, just as the all-party talks got under way, Maginnis told The Independent on Sunday: "I have a deep, deep bitterness about the IRA. I think I have lost almost all my closest friends in the UDR. I lost Cormac [McCabe], who used to come to my house quite a lot; George Shaw, who took me to my first scout camp; Eric Shiells, who I was very friendly with in the rugby club – all decent, dependable fellows. There are lots more who come to mind."
His hostility toward the IRA has led him into advocating tough security measures. In 1993, when the Provisionals rejected the Downing Street Declaration, he demanded that the British introduce selective internment.
Still, despite his assertion about being bitter toward the IRA, Maginnis is exceptional among unionists precisely because he does not exude it. That and his readiness to talk will be sorely missed. If Unionism had a friendly face, it was that of Ken Maginnis.