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