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A View North Unionism’s center fights for survival

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

The breakup of the United Kingdom Unionist Party last week is another stage in the transformation if Ulster Unionism into an something of an oxymoron. What else can a movement be but oxymoronic that has now six different "unionist" parties, each with the same basic tenet of union, but whose main characteristic is disunion?

Northern Ireland now enjoys the following varieties of unionism: the Ulster Unionist Party, the Democratic Unionist Party, the United Kingdom Unionist Party, the just-formed Northern Ireland Unionist Party, the Progressive Unionist Party and the Ulster Democratic Party.

The NIUP was created by four dissident members of the UKUP who objected to plans by their leader, Bob McCartney, for all five of them to resign from the assembly as a protest if Sinn Fein members are allowed to take their seats in the executive of the new Northern Ireland assembly prior to IRA disarmament. McCartney, a millionaire lawyer from North Down, can do without the $45,000 a year salary assembly members are being paid, but the other four — Paddy Roche, Cedric Wilson, Roger Hutchinson, and Norman Boyd — probably can’t. The UKUP is now in the ludicrous position of having the only party leader without a party to lead in the assembly.

McCartney’s party was anti-agreement, and along with the Rev. Ian Paisley’s DUP remained outside the talks process. The newly formed NIUP also claims to be anti-agreement but wants to work inside the assembly, not outside, and has threatened the bring it down if Sinn Fein members place their republican rear ends on ministerial seats before decommissioning begins.

McCartney has proved to be an educated ignoramus, insulting to friend and foe alike, and egotistical. His rudeness to members of the Women’s Coalition in the peace forum rivaled that of the DUP’s uneducated ignoramuses. In June, during the assembly election campaign, he outraged even his own constituents when he described a group of them who had assembled at a Bangor shopping center for a political meeting as a "rent-a-mob." One middle-class woman took particular offense, and explained that she was voting for the Alliance Party — a very respectable party indeed.

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How did the once powerful unionist movement fall into such a state of dis-union?

When I was growing up in Belfast, the Ulster Unionist Party was a monolith, apparently immutable. It just seemed to always have been there, and would always be there, as much a part of Ulster as the Giant’s Causeway. But even in the 1960s the cracks were beginning to show.

The UUP was shaken in 1962 when the small Northern Ireland Labor Party poached votes from the Protestant working-class, enough to elect four of its members to the Stormont parliament. It came within 8,000 votes of overtaking the Unionist Party in Belfast. The UUP depended for its survival on the Protestants of the Shankill and East Belfast. The then prime Minister, Terence O’Neill, was much more concerned about winning back their support than he was with addressing the grievances of an increasingly vocal Catholic minority, a few of whom were engaged in a letter-writing campaign to English politicians in an attempt to draw their attention to discrimination against Catholics in housing allocation and jobs.

Actually, this lack of attention early on and the later failure to push through reforms fast enough, doomed O’Neill, and eventually brought about the break-up of unionism into the disunionism which is evident today. O’Neill tried but did not succeed in building a moderate Unionist center, able to accommodate Catholic demands. His own right-wing — represented in those days by Brian Faulkner and William Craig, members of O’Neill’s cabinet — frustrated him. Right-wing unionists, having lost part of the Protestant working class to the NILP, did not want to lose more to the rabble-rousing preacher named Paisley, who was then making his name as a loud-mouth bigot. Unionism’s continued uncertainty in the face of the civil rights movement created the crisis that was to dominate Northern Ireland for 30 years.

What moderate unionists there were peeled off and formed the Alliance Party in 1970. A year later, Paisley established his own party, the DUP, to hound his fellow unionists. At the beginning of 1972, when Stormont was threatened with suspension, William Craig founded the Vanguard movement to oppose it. The movement later became the Vanguard Unionist Progressive Party with David Trimble as deputy leader.

By then the UUP was having to call itself the Official Unionist Party, to distinguish it from the others.

The breakup continued as pressure mounted from London for radical changes in how Northern Ireland was governed. Faulkner led the Ulster Unionists into the power-sharing executive in early 1974, but soon found himself deserted by a majority of the unionist parliamentary party who opposed the deal. After the executive was forced to resign, in May 1974, Faulkner cut his links to the Ulster Unionists and set up the Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. His attempt to create a moderate unionist party failed abysmally and the party folded after a few years. Faulkner, the consummate political animal, retired from politics in 1976.

The strains within unionism do not become so obvious when Northern Ireland is under attack. They emerge most dramatically whenever Unionists are drawn into negotiations with the aim of arriving at a settlement. As soon as the possibility of compromise arises, another chip falls off the Unionist block.

With the emergence of the UDP and PUP, both of which are linked to loyalist paramilitary groups, the Unionist Party and the DUP lost support among a section of Belfast’s working-class Protestant community. With the Good Friday Agreement, the Ulster Unionist Party effectively split into pro- and anti-agreement factions, with those in favor, under Trimble, having a slight majority in the assembly. Trimble’s hard-line stance on decommissioning has been adopted in order to preserve that majority. The potential is always there for another split in Unionist ranks as the deadline draws closer for the new executive and the cross-border bodies to come into office — unless, of course, the IRA makes some move to disarm.

The story of the decline of the Ulster Unionist Party and the rise of disunionism has been the tale of a failed attempt to find a moderate center within unionism which is able to bring the majority of the party along with it into a deal acceptable to nationalists. It has been such a failure that some have doubted there a moderate unionist center exists. Let’s hope for Trimble’s sake there is.

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