Friday, 16 April 2010

The 2010 election campaign echoes 1987 contest.

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.


Gary said...

Its thoroughly depressing, I can't believe I have been so stupid all these years voting for what I thought was a strong "pro-Union" party when in fact they care nothing for national issues thereby keeping the nationalist argument going. Thankfully the scales have dropped from my eyes, I now see what the DUP are, a nationalist party in different coloured clothing. If there is anyone with any clout in the UUP reading this, then please don't let the wolves in sheep's clothing within the UUP itself dance to a DUP tune, the people of NI NEED integrationist politics, its the best chance in decades we have had in turning this little backwater into something better for everyone.

JeffPeel said...

As you know, we differ on our interpretations as to how UCUNF moves the equal citizenship argument forward. I think Bob would agree with me that an accord between the UUP and Conservative Party was never an end-game for the CEC. As you rightly point out, the CEC was really focused on making the UUP and all the other local sectarian parties go away - to be replaced with a largely secular British left/right political discourse. I speak with some degree of authority as I served on the CEC Executive all those years ago (with Bob).

The wonderful thing about the CEC was that it represented all flavours of opinion, all religions, and those, like me, who had (and have) none. It was one of our best hopes for a sea-change in Northern Ireland politics.

What you failed to mention was that in the 1992 election Laurence Kennedy, standing in the election as a Conservative, achieved a similar vote to Bob - over 14,000. He did not stand as a Conservative & Unionist. He funded the campaign himself, pretty much. He was a Conservative candidate.

Laurence, Barbara Finney, James O'Fee and I were all leading members of CEC - and we are all opposed to the current electoral arrangement with the UUP.

After this general election I suspect that the Unionist Unity faction will take the UUP into some type of relationship with the DUP for the Assembly elections - and UCUNF will be no more.

Chekov said...

There should be an article in the Belfast Telegraph soon Jeff with analysis that might interest you. I'm not claiming direct continuity between CEC and UCUNF, but at it's best, it looks to move in a similar direction.

Howard said...

The UK establishment is a lot more devolved than in CEC's days.

A UUP/Tory offering that is too keen on London and not proud enough of NI is going to suffer as the Scottish Tories suffer - they seem "culturally too English" as one very reasonable Scot said to me not so long ago. The Scottish Conservatives might do better if they were more like UCUNF in their arrangements my friend said.

One cannot impose new parties very easily. The UUP/Tory alliance is a very natural arrangement and is good for both parties.

I totally supported CEC but times have moved on and UCUNF is here.

The next step should be to build on UCUNF, not abandon it. Or are you radical reformers rather than Burkean conservatives?

Anonymous said...

The key difference with the CEC in 1987 is that UCUNF is an alliance between a Protestant party and the Conservatives.

Nothing wrong with that as both are Unionist but it is not a means to end sectarian politics here.

Jeffrey Peel who is a purist on these matters is well aware of that.

Nonetheless as he is a unionist he must realise that with devolution and in the absence of an integrationist campaign, it is better than nothing for a few years

Let is be back to the future - the 1950s again.