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The Ulster Unionist Party 1972 –92

David Hume, Ulster Society Publications, Lurgan 1996. ISBN 1 872076 30 0 £8.50uup72to92.jpg (10533 bytes)

READERS MIGHT be surprised to discover that the Ulster Unionist Party does not officially exist! Ulster Unionists actually belong to affiliated bodies of the Ulster Unionist Council, which came into being in 1905 to oppose Irish home rule. It was the UUC which organised the Ulster Covenant, raised the original Ulster Volunteer Force and established the Provisional Government of Ulster which would have taken control of our homeland had Dublin rule been implemented in 1914. Today, the UUC has delegates from the Orange Order, the UYUC, various constituency associations, the Ulster Women’s Unionist Council, MPs and the Councillors’ Association. This ramshackle organisation seems like to change soon, although most public interest seems to be whether or not the link with the Orange Order will be retained. 

This is one of the author’s interesting insider’s perspectives on the recent history of the UUP. He was after all a prominent member of the Ulster Young Unionist Council and he has had the co-operation of several MPs and other leading members and party activists. David Hume manages to avoid the pitfalls of such a position by keeping a sense of understanding and objectivity. His access to internal party material such as a private recording of a debate between devolutionist and integrationist speakers at an East Antrim constituency meeting indicates the genuine depth of feeling and division within the party in the immediate years after the 1985 Hillsborough Pact. Much of the book refers back to East Antrim which is quite understandable as this is where Dr Hume lives, works and was politically active, but his conclusions seem to be valid enough for the UUP throughout Ulster. The author relies on personal interviews for a fascinating insight on UUP activists and MPs.

The Heath government’s abolition of the Stormont parliament in 1972 came as a great shock to unionist voters and members of the UUP. The party had ruled the state since its foundation in 1921 and found it difficulty to adjust to the new role of ‘opposition’ to the whims and follies of successive ‘Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland’. The apparent UUP ‘monolith’ crumbled, as the militant Ulster Vanguard movement became a separate political party in 1973 and the party split again that year over proposals which led to the notorious Sunningdale Agreement. Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party also made considerable inroads into the "Official Unionist" vote. Vanguard, however, fell apart after proposals in 1976 for a voluntary coalition with the SDLP were rubbished in public by Ian Paisley - despite the fact that they were also agreed by his then deputy, William Beattie. This allowed the UUP to consolidate its position as the largest political party in Ulster.

The next major shock to unionists and loyalists was the Hillsborough Pact, which allowed Dublin to get its ‘foot in the door’. Hume calls this the ‘greatest challenge’ to the party. He runs through the response to the Pact: resignation from parliament and a mini general election, abstention from normal parliamentary business, a petition to Queen Elizabeth, boycotts of boards, suspension of local council meetings, refusal to meet with British government ministers; and the debate within the party on the best option for the future. This ranged from the ‘equal citizenship’ argument, through ‘administrative devolution’ on the model of the former Greater London Council, to calls for outright Ulster independence. Jim Molyneaux favoured the ‘administrative devolution’ option. Although popular within the UYUC, the ‘equal citizenship’ position was greeted coolly within the senior party, as it would envisage the then ‘mainland’ British parties – the Tories, Labour, the SDP and the Liberals - organising and contesting elections here against UUP candidates.

For most UUP members, the independence option was a last resort, not a primary political goal. Hume reminds us that such an option was suggested at various times by Bill Craig, John Taylor, Cecil Walker (honestly!), Jim Nicholson, Harold McCusker and, of course, David Trimble! It’s good to be reminded of this. Hume remarks that although ‘the political scene from unionism’s point of view has not improved’, no MP is currently prepared to rock the boat on this issue. I put this down to Micawberist self-delusion. "Official Unionists" are a far cry from Tim Pat Coogan’s caricature of a bunch of Machiavellian plotters scheming to oppress so-called "Northern nationalists". Read this book if you want some idea of what really makes them tick.

David Kerr

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