N. Ireland GE2019 (5) The UUP and Fermanagh S. Tyrone


This is the fifth post in the NI GE2019 series. The previous four are on North Belfast and the DUP, Sinn Féin and Foyle, the SDLP and South Belfast and E. Belfast and Alliance.

The UUP was founded in 1905, the same year as Sinn Féin. It is interesting that Alliance and the SDLP were also founded in the same year (1970). Newton’s third law states that “for every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction” – possibly there is something similar in Irish politics.

A Brief History

Modern organised Unionism emerged after Gladstone introduced the first of three Home Rule Bills (1886) in response to demands by the Irish Parliamentary Party.

The UUP, from the time it was founded in 1905, was a party controlled and run for most of its existence by “Big House Unionists” – the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, landed gentry and industrial magnates. The first “middle class” leader was Brian Faulkner (1971-74).

Between 1905 and 1972 its MPs took the Conservative whip at Westminster.

From the beginning, the party had a strong association with the Orange Order. The original composition of the Ulster Unionist Council was 25% Orange delegates. This lessened over the years and it is now the DUP that has a far stronger OO association.

Interestingly, the initial leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party all came from outside what would later become Northern Ireland; most prominently, the Dubliner Edward Carson (leader from 1910-21).

After partition many “Southern” Unionist politicians quickly became reconciled with the new Irish Free State, sitting in its Seanad or joining its political parties. The existence of a separate UUP became entrenched as the party took control of the NI Government.

The UUP had a near iron-grip over NI for half a century, until it started unravelling in the early 1970’s. The reason for this unravelling was that a supremacist Unionist culture had been created, where the slightest compromise or concession to the Catholic/Nationalist community was considered a betrayal.

How did this culture come about and why did it become unsustainable in the 1970’s? In terms of Unionist myth, the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 is the founding event, but in reality, it was the 1910-21 period that crystallised NI Unionist culture.

Brexit-like tactics used in the 1910 to 1921 period

Many of the tactics used then have remarkable similarities to those still being used, during the Brexit campaign, and by populist movements in general.

Dishonesty on an Industrial Scale

The Irish “Independence” the Ulster Unionists were panicked about in 1910 was not actually more than very mild devolution, and a vast amount of hyperbolic political exaggeration and transparent lies were required to “drum up” support.

As the historian (and descendant of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy) Seaan Ui Neill put it:

The anti-Home Rule campaign of northern Unionism was an indulgent farrago of misrepresentation, which might have been amusing had it not unleashed decades of the kind of discriminatory practices which would have been unimaginable to most people in Ireland in 1912.

Alas, Seaan is guilty here of vast understatement. The vitriol and poison unleashed has made normal politics impossible for generations.

Breaking societies is easy, rebuilding them takes great statecraft.

Sloganeering and Sound Bites

The catchy sound bite is not new. We have the Dom Cummings “Take back control.” The Ulster Unionists had “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right” and “Home Rule means Rome rule“.

The “fighting talk” may have been harmless enough, but the formation of a private army, the Ulster Volunteers (UVF) in 1912 was heinous. The Irish Nationalists had for a generation been dominated by those who had abandoned violence and believed that constitutional and peaceful change was the way forward.

The Nationalists felt that they had no option but to reciprocate in kind and the Irish Volunteers were formed in near-immediate response, and estimated to have c. 200,000 members by 1914. Many of the more constitutionally minded members went off to fight in WWI, leaving a more hardened Republican element behind who eventually coalesced around the IRA.

Paramilitary violence had been legitimised by the Unionists, which came to haunt them in more recent years.

Whereas it is true that there was a considerable, though unofficial, element of Rome rule in the Free State, this was due to a set of constitutional, economic, demographic and leadership earthquakes, totally unforeseen and unforeseeable in the early 1910s, which transformed the political landscape out of all recognition, above all, partition.

Populism and Sectarianism

The fear of others and splitting society into two categories “us” and “them” or in NI-speak “us’uns” and “them’uns” goes back into prehistory. In Northern Ireland, at the time, the ramping up of sectarian tension was deliberate. The belief that Catholics were racially and religiously inferior was purposely inflamed. The belief that “We, the Protestants, are the real people, deserving of our privileged place in society” was reinforced and strengthened.

With Brexit, it was done more covertly, but it is uncontroversial that a fear of immigrants, in particular, Muslims was used to great effect during the Referendum Campaign. Millions of Turks “invading” the UK totally legally with their imminent EU membership. Zero Border controls, where all EU citizens could avail of the UK world-class welfare state. All, of course, total distortion and misrepresentation.

The US under Trump is possibly a better analogy. Mexicans and Latinos, in general, are painted as “others” and crooks and rapists. Muslims are terrorists polluting the pure Christian ethos of the US. The building of a wall is considered imperative by many of his supporters. One difference in the US is that Irish Catholics are definitely considered by Trump as “us” and true Americans. (A frightening number occupy senior positions in the Trump administration).

Many NI Unionists would also like to see a wall on the island of Ireland (even if they don’t say so overtly these days). Trump gets very high approval ratings among the Unionist community. It is not just the racial supremacy, it is the ultra-Christian conservatism that appeals. It is also the case that some Unionists refer to the “Southern” Irish as Mexicans, though rather than being insulted most “southerners” seem rather amused by this.

Betrayal by the Tory Party

Carson, the chief architect of the disastrous 1910’s Unionist policy, strongly opposed the partition of Ireland. He refused the opportunity to be Prime Minister of Northern Ireland or even to sit in the NI HoC (Stormont). He ended up a very bitter man, feeling totally betrayed by the Tory Party.

The DUP have to some extent suffered a similar fate. Their one secret desire was the re-erection of a hard border on the island of Ireland. Their “blood red line” was no border down the Irish Sea.

The DUP were of course repeatedly warned that an Irish Sea border was an inevitable consequence of Brexit. The balance of power had changed dramatically and wishing something is not sufficient, given equal determination on the other side, when it is far more powerful. What is probably most galling is that PM Johnson seems to have little grasp of the implications of the new Withdrawal Agreement for NI and cares nothing about NI Unionist interests.


Inflaming populist sentiment is very easy and it worked to a far greater extent than had been intended by Carson and the then leaders of Unionism. Once done however it proved impossible to undo. It has produced two long-lasting consequences.

Irrational Terror of a United Ireland

There is in my experience amongst many Unionists a primordial terror of a United Ireland, a fear that is entirely impervious to any reasoned argument. Identity, of course, runs very deep and is often emotionally rather than rationally driven. One of the few upsides of Brexit is that it is easier to engage with a British audience on the issue.

Talking to many NI Unionists is in many ways like talking to a committed Brexiter. As Richard Barfield, on Brexiters, has tweeted: “Support relies on blind faith/ignorance+denying reality” and being “Deaf to counter-arguments.” The mindsets are similar, so it is not surprising that so many Unionists instinctively support Brexit, and in the case of the DUP, did so with no consideration of the economic impact on NI.

There is also an unspoken innate feeling of superiority. Many English Nationalists believe in their cultural and racial superiority over foreigners. What is tragic for the NI Unionists, who feel more British than the British themselves is that they are considered almost universally Irish by the English.

No Surrender! and Inability to Compromise

The most damaging legacy was the creation of a NI Unionist popular culture which sees the slightest compromise as betrayal. In the 1970’s the NI Herrenvolk Democracy became politically impossible to justify, in the wider UK and international context. Change was needed and the UUP, a full half-century too late, did try to implement changes (Sunningdale).

The Unionist population, in particular, the Loyalists, were having none of it. Any move to a more balanced society required concessions to “them’uns”, which in the zero-sum game mindset was a catastrophic loss. They launched a general strike, The Loyalist Workers Strike and forced HMG to back down after fifteen days.

From the Dublin perspective, this was spineless weakness from HMG. It was 25 years from Sunningdale to the Good Friday Agreement. In many ways 25 wasted years, the GFA has been described, famously, as Sunningdale for slow learners. Even at this glacial pace, the UUP was unable to carry its voter base with it. As Fig.1 shows, they had disastrous elections in 2001 and 2005.

Fig.1 NI Westminster seats ’97-’17

This is a real tragedy. There must be a space for modern inclusive progressive Unionism. With the exception of Lady Sylvia Hermon, who left the party in 2010, none have been successful. She was a beacon of progressive Unionism but sadly has now retired. Her success may have been due in part to the fact that her constituency, N. Down, is by far the wealthiest and most middle class in NI. There is a joke that in N. Down there are no “haves and have nots” rather “haves and have yachts.”

In recent years the UUP has floundered, moving from a more centrist and inclusive party, towards being more populist-Unionist than the DUP and back again. They have also been inconsistent on Brexit but currently, support No Brexit over the Johnson Deal.

The 2017-2019 Parliament did not have a single UUP MP, their Unionist Westminster support had been entirely gobbled up by the DUP. Losses to the Nationalist side are nothing to do with policy, but rather demographic change.

The UUP has been through a number of leaders over the past decade, the most recent being Steve Aiken, a former Royal Navy commander and submariner, in November. He started with a determination of challenging the DUP in every constituency but dropped out of N. Belfast, as result of alleged UDA intimidation. Holed below the waterline ever before he started.

Fermanagh and South Tyrone

Fermanagh and South Tyrone (FST) is the most westerly constituency in NI and indeed in the entire UK. It is very much a rural constituency with no cities. The only large towns are Dungannon (pop. 14,340) and Enniskillen (pop. 13,823). It is also very scenic and, for me, Fermanagh is the most attractive county in NI with its two major lakes Upper and Lower Lough Erne.

It has a small but growing Nationalist majority, however the Nationalist vote is normally split between the SDLP and Sinn Féin. The DUP has a famously efficient election machine but it is largely non-existent west of the River Bann. They are not contesting FST, portraying this as a pact in return for the UUP dropping out of N. Belfast.

The seat has changed hands more often than any in NI and is normally fiercely fought, typically having the highest turnout of any seat in NI or indeed the entire UK. It won by Cahir Healy of the Nationalist Party in 1950 and 1951, the closely contested 1951 election seeing a 93.4% turnout – a UK record for any election.

The seat is often won by only a handful of votes, most dramatically by Michelle Gildernew (SF) in 2010 with 21,304 votes and a margin of 4 votes.

In the 2015 election Tom Elliott (UUP) won the seat with 23,608 votes while Michelle Gildernew received 23,078. Gildernew recaptured the seat in 2017, this time with a majority of less than 1,000.

The 2019 election is essentially a re-run of 2017, with Gildernew and Elliott being the candidates for SF and the UUP respectively.

There is some interesting information from Choyaa, a FST Unionist, on Slugger O’Toole in Tom Elliott and the battle for FST. Some interesting quotes.

It may sound odd to outsiders, but most Unionists within FST are content with “losing well”. Unionists realise they are the minority and by giving Sinn Féin a close run it illustrates strongly that there is discontent with how Sinn Féin have been representing the constituency.


At this stage of the election campaign, Tom’s reluctance and lack of motivation is all too apparent. Whilst the Sinn Féin campaign is well under way, Tom’s presence is almost invisible. The UUP movement needs to gather energy, momentum and present a consistent and appealing message.

It may be the UUP’s best shot at regaining a seat but against the well oiled SF machine, it seems unlikely. The bookies have SF as odds-on favourite at 1/4 and the UUP on 5/2 (accessed Dec 5).


  1. SeaánUiNeill -

    Seán, as ever your piece is a model of accurate assessment but I may be able to add a few things as something of an insider on aspects of both Unionism and Fermanagh. While my grandfather’s politics were liberal and (it sounds almost quaint, a century on) “Home Rule”, his father was one of the early founders of Unionism in the north, and our cousins have always been solid Unionist. As you mention above, I am related to one of the “big house” Unionist families of Fermanagh, so I’m still a frequent visitor in the county.

    Carson’s leadership of northern Unionism is ill understood by most historians. In the Edwardian period Carson had been a bitter political rival of Walter Long, the person elected as leader of Irish Unionism when its first relatively moderate leader Col, Edward Saunderson died in 1906. Saunderson had regarded the Commons vote on the second Home Rule Bill as a watershed and saw Home Rule as inevitable, something to be delayed but, for an “all Ireland Unionist”, something which would require accommodation at some later stage. Long was more hard line, but as an Englishman with an Anglo-Irish mother, neither particularly knew or was interested in the peculiarities developing in the north, where many younger industrialists with Boer war experience were developing an entirely new physical force approach to a Unionism which had been to that date bellicose in its expression, but constitutionalist in its form. In 1905 they created the Ulster Unionist Council (UUC) specifically to fight against the new county councils, whose more democratic nature challenged embedded Protestant privilege in Ireland. They considered them to be “Home Rule by stealth”, a rather interesting example of the kind of hyperbolic exagération Unionism regularly indulged in (as you point out above). While Long was elected as leader of the UUC in 1907 he rapidly found his own more moderate form of Unionism was unwelcome and friction rapidly developed.

    In the general election of January 1910, to the consternation of many Irish unionists, Long exchanged the ultra-marginal South County Dublin seat for the very safe London constituency of the Strand, and stood down as leader of the Irish Unionist Alliance in favour of the Cork peer, Lord Midleton. Carson had expected to succeed Long and was enraged at being passed over. His move to lead the UUC as an alternative power base within Unionism was very much in reaction to what he perceived as a very public snub, and he was never entirely comfortable with the rapid recourse to a threat of physical force by his new following. His Prestigie within the Conservative party give a voice to the UUC at the very highest levels of a party where even the most important of the purely northern leadership were people of little account.

    Long and Carson clashed bitterly over strategy again in 1911, for while Carson was bound to the position of his support base (just as the DUP are today when they consult over policy with “community leaders” who are in fact the leadership of Loyalist paramilitary organisations), Long, like Saunderson before him, was recommending strenuous constitutionalist opposition but acquiescence if the Third Home Rule Bill became law. Carson’s private correspondance shows his attempts to distance himself from the hard line position of his followers, but from a position of, essentially, political entrapment. His public persona was that of harsh and stony-faced intransigence, but temperamentally, as a shrewd lawyer, he was probably even more moderate than his rival Long, but was betrayed through his own driving careerism into endorsing policies which destroyed the more moderate southern Irish Unionism he was himself a product of. The parallels with the intense careerism of the current UKExit from the EU and how it has reformed public opinions and career trajectories within the modern Conservative party are too obvious to require describing.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Seaán, many thanks for this fascinating insight. The detail is always interesting and Carson seems to be a far more complex character than at first appears. Very important to embed yourself in the period week by week as environment, causation and inability to predict the future is paramount for understanding.

      I note also like Prof Brendan O’Leary you are very careful to use UKExit rather than Brexit.

      It is fascinating how intense careerism drives people, not least the current PM.

      1. SeaanUiNeill -

        Seán, I’m very influenced by O’Leary’s approach. He has regularly pointed out that the Anglocentric nature of “Brexit” is implicit in the word. “Britain” is one island, “Ireland” another, and consciously or unconsciously the self-identification as “British” in Northern Ireland flags an “outsider”, a colonialist (even) attitude to where such people were born and where they live. The formal description of the composite state as “the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” flags the all to often ignored relationship. It is important to remember that the decision of England to leave the EU is drawing along with it both Scotland and Northern Ireland, who voted for “remain”, and can only properly be described as a full “UKExit”, rather than the misleadingly inaccurate “Brexit”.

    1. SeaanUiNeill -

      Seán, the review is in hand, but how does one really do justice to what is possibly the most comprehensive evaluation of the history and politics of Northern Ireland ever undertaken? I’ve encountered a few reviews already which so simplify the complex interconnected threads of careful analysis as to seriously mislead over issues such as O’Leary’s nuanced application of post colonial theory. But I’d hope to have a general review of the trilogy out after Christmas on the Slugger O’Toole website, and detailed analysis of the theoretic structure at a later date.

      I’m also preparing a centenary article on the 1920 Belfast Pogroms. These little-remembered acts of Loyalist sectarian civil conflict were the very much the end product of the hyperbolic exaggerations of northern Unionist leaders, as the working class Loyalists of Belfast acted out their lurid fantasies of expulsion on the Catholic minority remaining within Northern Ireland. Historians tend to dwell on the death toll, which was more intense than anything in the recent troubles, and many claim that the headcount shows that this violence was a two way thing which does not merit the description as a Pogrom, but once one properly understands that out of a Catholic population of just under a hundred thousand people in Belfast in 1920 around thirteen thousand were expelled from their workplaces into decades-long unemployment and around 45,000 were driven from their homes and compressed into demarcated ghettos. This brutal demolishing of the earlier pluralist culture of a very mixed Belfast was the inceptive action of partition, and it has led to the confessional apartheid in the modern city which lies at the root of much of the violence of recent decades.

  2. Korhomme -

    One of the unhappy consequences of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution was the development of eugenics, the idea that there were ‘favoured’ and ‘less favoured’ races. This became widely accepted from the late 19th century until around the time of WW2; it was a ‘mainstream’ concept.

    Of course, we now see it as rubbish, as pseudo-science. You don’t have to look that carefully to see signs that the ideas are there, perhaps in the background, but present none the less.

    In the local context, we have ussuns and themuns, and clearly themuns are painted as the inferior race.

    In the context of the present general election, we heard Jacob Rees-Mogg saying that the people in Grenfell Tower were stupid to heed the official advice. Others, also in the Tory party, have described those on benefits as being unable to manage money, and by implication to lift themselves out of poverty, because they were “genetically” stupid.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      K thanks

      I highlighted Scientific Racism in the first post on the DUP (link above), – warning I am not kind to the DUP. I would also recommend Rogue One’s post: http://www.progressivepulse.org/ireland/why-devolved-government-doesnt-work-when-someone-else-pays-the-bills-a-guest-post-by-rogue-one earlier this week. “Rogue One” just like Seaán is a NI Protestant and uses an alias as there is real danger in NI of “unpleasant things” happening, particularly during the heightened tensions of the GE if you don’t conform.

      I think JRM’s comments have gone down like a lead balloon, but he was essentially “grounded” by the Tory party. He is really quite strange. Both MU on Slugger (though has given up apparently) and @ottocrat on Twitter were undergrads in Oxford at the same time have a very low opinion of a strange cartoonish character.

      One interesting thing on Twitter today. It was alleged Hitler was in Liverpool visiting his sister in law in 1922? and was so impressed by both the pomp and intimidatory nature of an Orange Order march in the city that it inspired Nuremberg (my father was present at the 1938 rally).

      1. Korhomme -

        Thanks for the links, Sean.

        I’d not read your post on the DUP, or Rogue One’s either.

        There was a two-part documentary on BBC quite recently about eugenics; I’d not realised that so many of its ideas were still prevalent, if somewhat disguised. It’s remarkable also that the (supposedly) best education in the UK that money (supposedly) can buy doesn’t inoculate people against such notions. The idea that superiority is genetic, and that wealth somehow improves the genes is proving very difficult to eradicate.

  3. Sean Danaher -

    K thanks
    I missed the documentary. but from my point of view, it is very scary. The class system in England (and my wife is English) still places value in education and accent.

    Accent is a very strange thing in the UK. Seaán has an Anglo Irish accent, which to me was perfectly normal – though my father is Catholic, he had so many Anglo-Irish friends, I spent a large part of my youth, particularly with the Military History Society, surrounded by them. It seemed totally normal when I met him.

    My wife from Yorkshire (and vastly successful as one of the UK’s top consultants) thought it strange and affected, she said “pantomimely posher than the Queen.”

    Seaán has great tales like his hair being ruffled by Brookborough as a young child in Stormont as he was definitely the right sort, as he spoke correctly. It opens certain establishment doors which would be closed not only to the average Irish (or Scots/Welsh) person but the average English person as well.

    I think PM Johnson is a charlatan and a liar, but with the right accent, he seems to be not only be forgiven but must be right because he is born to the right class.

    1. SeaanUiNeill -

      Regarding the ruffling episode by the late Sir Basil, he probably knew my distant Fermanagh Cousins with the much bigger (and colder) house to his own, and recognised me from very early childhood visits. I recently mentioned on Slugger O’Toole, to someone threatened with being put in a Barnardo home for orphans if they were bad, that my equivalent was the threat of being farmed out to my very Unionist Fermanagh cousins. The threat ensured I grew up a model child….

      More later today on the Covenant period…..

Comments are closed.