By Jack Holland
The demise of the Ulster Democratic Party, which announced its dissolution on Nov. 26, marks the end of more than 25 years of political soul searching by the Ulster Defense Association. It is a sad end and, potentially, a sinister one. After all, when the soul searching began back in the mid-1970s, its aim was to give that brand of loyalism the UDA represented some sort of political expression. To conclude after 27 years that it is an impossible task is hardly encouraging for those striving to integrate working-class loyalism fully into the current peace process.
The UDP arose in 1989 from the Ulster Loyalist Democratic Party, which was formed eight years earlier. In its turn, the ULDP sprang from the New Ulster Political Research Group, which the UDA set up in 1974. NUPRG was the starting point, and it arose because the leadership of the UDA — principally Andy Tyrie, Tommy Lyttle, Harry Chicken, Glen Barr and (somewhat later) John McMichael — were disillusioned by what had happened after the Ulster Workers’ Council strike in May 1974, which had brought about the collapse of the first experiment in power-sharing. The UDA, which was largely responsible for the success of the stoppage, was unable to gain any political advantage from the street power that it had displayed. It watched as people like the Rev. Ian Paisley and William Craig pocketed the political gains. That is, the roots of the UDP lay in an intense feeling of frustration born of the realization that a section of the loyalist working class had no significant political role. NUPRG blamed the fur-coat brigade (as they called them) of middle-class Unionism for shunting them aside.
The feeling of political irrelevance and exclusion has haunted working-class loyalists since the beginning of the Troubles. NUPRG set out on a series of political adventures to formulate policies that would give them a political identity and also (unlikely as it may seem) bridge the sectarian divide (something which respectable Unionism could never attempt). At first, they advocated an independent Northern Ireland, with a Bill of Rights which would guarantee civil rights for nationalists. Their search even brought them to New York, where in 1979 they conferred with Paul O’Dwyer on what a constitution for such a state might look like. (It would be modeled on that of the United States.)
In 1981, under the direction of John McMichael, NUPRG became the Ulster Loyalist Democratic Party, advocating independence within the European Union.
Independence for Northern Ireland had been floated before — in 1972, with the suspension of Stormont, William Craig made similar noises. Later came the Ulster Independence Association, one of whose leaders was John McKeague, shot dead by the INLA in 1982, and the Rev. Hugh Ross’s Ulster Independence Committee. But the notion of an independent Northern Ireland was a far-fetched one, with little or no support within the Protestant community. It certainly did not provide a realistic basis on which to build a program for a political party aimed at winning the allegiance of the loyalist working class. This became clear in election after election. In February 1982, McMichael, running in South Belfast, received only 600 votes. In the 1982 assembly elections, the UDP’s two candidates managed to win just over 1,000 votes between them.
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McMichael, along with Glen Barr, produced “Common Sense” in January 1987, outlining the UDA/ULDP’s new political strategy. It switched from independence to stressing a elected proportional-representative, power-sharing assembly, ironically enough for a group which had overthrown the power-sharing executive 13 years before, and a bill of rights. The document was welcomed by the SDLP, the Catholic Church and the Irish and British governments, in spite of its “surprising source,” as the SDLP’s John Hume put it.
There were indeed reasons to be surprised. At the same time as McMichael was reaching out across the sectarian divide, he was helping organize a murder campaign against nationalists. After the hiatus of the late 1970s, the UDA (using its pseudonym Ulster Freedom Fighters) was stepping up its attacks as part of an escalation of sectarian violence which would continue until 1994. But McMichael did not live to see it. In late December 1987, the Provisional IRA murdered him.
The UDA’s political soul searching went on, however, and two years later the ULDP became the Ulster Democratic Party, under the leadership of McMichael’s son Gary. At first, the UDP enjoyed somewhat more electoral success than its predecessor. Gary McMichael won a seat on the Lisburn district council in 1993 and in 1996, during the elections for the forum, the UDP took 16,715 votes, representing 2.2 percent of the overall vote. There was some euphoria that now at last the UDA/UDP had made its political breakthrough, with a brand of politics that had a base in the loyalist working class. But it was to prove the high point of the party’s political fortunes.
Two years later, in the assembly elections which followed the signing of the Good Friday agreement, the UDP scored only 8,651 votes, representing 1.07 percent of the electorate, and no seats. Its failure to put any candidates in the new assembly would prove a disaster. Electoral failure strengthened those forces within the UDA who were unhappy with the political direction the peace process was taking. The UDA, never as well organized as the Ulster Volunteer Force, began to fragment. A faction under Johnny Adair wanted to resume violence while using the UDA’s resources to run a profitable drug-smuggling operation. Several “brigades” threatened to go independent. UDA-inspired violence did start again, and though not on the same scale as before it eventually lead the British government in October this year to declare that the UDA’s cease-fire was over.
In spite of the fact that the UDA pioneered the political route for loyalist paramilitaries, the old sectarian and criminal element within its ranks proved too strong. The respectable Protestant working-class vote eluded it, and there was never any chance that middle-class Unionists would be tempted to a party with such criminal links. In the end, the UDP manifested all the contradictions that were inherent within the UDA from the start — a populism that attempted to reach out to Catholics coexisted with a bitter sectarianism, and men who aspired to real politics stood alongside pure criminals. Unfortunately, it was this, the dark side of the UDA, that finally won the battle for the soul of the organization.