As election time approaches a ‘new force’ has emerged in unionist politics. It appeals across communities for support and it wants to offer Northern Irish voters a chance to choose their national government. ’Unionist unity’ is the watchword for the group’s opponents and the concept creates serious fissures within the Ulster Unionist party.
The UUP and the DUP step back in order to support an independent ’unionist’ candidate. In North Down, the DUP throws its weight behind a prospective MP who is determined to hinder the emergence of genuine participation in British politics. It is an alliance of self-interest, animated by the party’s stake-holding in sectarian politics.
The candidate prepared to shout loudest about ‘Unionist Unity’ is, in actual fact, a very blatant Ulster nationalist.
Sounds familiar? Perhaps. But it is a description of the campaign preceding the 1987 general election. And it was certainly not the Ulster Unionist party’s final hour.
In the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish Agreement a show of ‘unity’ with the DUP could not hide the unionists' impotence. The Campaign for Equal Citizenship, spearheaded by Robert McCartney, produced the most persuasive critique of unionism’s malaise.
Northern Ireland’s exemption from the party political system at Westminster was the reason that an accord could be imposed upon it, without the assent of the majority of its people. Despite the purported commitment of unionists to the United Kingdom, we had no stake-holding in the state’s national politics.
When the UUP’s North Down constituency association selected Robert McCartney as its Westminster candidate, the party expelled him and then the entire association. The reason given for McCartney’s expulsion was bald. His CEC project, however unionist its intention, envisaged the demise of the UUP and was, therefore, incompatible with membership of the party.
Ulster Unionists, along with the DUP, backed Jim Kilfedder, who had already left the UUP in opposition to its integrationist bent, during the late 1970s. A vicious campaign was launched against McCartney on the pretext that his participation in the election undermined ‘Unionist Unity’. In actual fact, North Down was the only seat in 1987 in which the overall unionist vote went up.
As Conor Lynch commented of the unionist establishment, in a pamphlet lauding McCartney‘s campaign, “when push came to shove they preferred Ulster’s exclusion, the system they’d come to feel comfortable with, the system which made them into politicians … they are Protestant Ulstermen first and everything else is very much secondary to this”.
Although Kilfedder won the election in 1987, his opponent recorded an astonishing total of 14,467 votes. This was in the face of a campaign during which both unionist parties and their combined resources were harnessed against him. McCartney confounded his critics by pushing the agreed candidate all the way.
Twenty three years later and the Ulster Unionist party is, officially at least, on the right side of the equal citizenship debate. It is standing on the basis of ’real unionism’, as the North Down campaign in 1987 styled its politics.
But the ‘little Ulster’ forces are still extant, within the party, and without. The DUP has taken up the rogues’ mantra of ’Unionist Unity’ and opposes, with all its might, the introduction of British party politics and equal political citizenship within the United Kingom.