Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Fate of Northern Ireland's New Pro-Union Party

Back in March I had a post about a new party being formed by two defectors from the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), Basil McCrea and John MacCallister, who had left the UUP over its decision to support an agreed unionist candidate in the mid-Ulster by-election. In May the party had its formal launch, but it still has yet to come up with a name for itself. Its main niche marketing distinction is that it advertises itself to be "pro-Union" rather than unionist, thus hoping to position itself somewhere between Alliance, which is agnostic or neutral on the border question, and the UUP. 

The Northern Ireland/British Isles blog Slugger O'Toole did a post on the launch of the party. The consensus on the thread was that in the next election McCrea would be reelected but MacCallister would lose to a UUP or DUP candidate. This in because McCrea seems to have a strong personal following in his constituency, whereas MacCallister was elected on the strength of the UUP as a party and will now lose to the party's replacement nominee. This will make the new party a one-man affair like Jim Allister's Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) and the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP). The TUV represents the old DUP under Paisley before he did a 180 and entered into the Executive with Sinn Fein. The PUP represents a socialist unionism aimed at the loyalist working class. It is also vaguely connected with the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) paramilitary organization out of which many of its representatives and leadership emerged, such as the late David Ervine and present leader Billy Hutchinson. Can the new party under McCrea find enough of a niche to survive?

From 1922 to 1970 there were two parties in Northern Ireland: the ruling Ulster Unionist Party and the opposition Nationalist Party, which usually boycotted the Stormont Parliament for long streches. Starting in 1969-70 four parties emerged that have thrived and been successful: Alliance, the SDLP, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and Sinn Fein (SF). They have all been successful because each appealed to a broad constituency within one of the major communities in Northern Ireland. 

Alliance, which broke the mold in April 1970 emerged as the province's first successful non-sectarian party appealing to those in mixed marriages or the offspring of them and others who for various reasons did not think of themselves as either unionist or nationalist. It appealed to those interested in good government and policy rather than sectarian identity and the border issue. Its representatives were mostly policy wonks or technocrats of the Bill Clinton type. It expanded rapidly for its first three years and thrived for about seven years before hitting its peak electoral performance in 1977 at just under 15 percent and then gradually sliding over the next three decades to under half of that to about five to six percent.

The DUP emerged between 1969 and 1971 as the Rev. Ian Paisley, an independent fundamentalist preacher and moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church that he founded in 1951, challenged Prime Minister Terence O'Neill in a by-election in April 1969. Paisley lost but did well enough to force O'Neill to give up the leadership of the UUP and premiership to his cousin. Paisley then founded the Protestant Unionist Party, which in 1971 became DUP. From 1977 to 2005 the DUP was in the shadow of the UUP, occasionally besting it in an election but remaining less powerful. But its opposition to the Good Friday Agreement led it to gradually replace the UUP as the main unionist party in the 2003-05 period as it first beat the UUP in the Assembly election and then demolished it in the general election. Then in 2007 Paisley did an about face and adopted David Trimble's policy by implementing power sharing with Sinn Fein. The party thrived over decades because of its marriage of Evangelical Protestants from Paisley's church and hardline sectarian loyalists from urban areas.

The SDLP was formed by six opposition members of the Stormont Parliament from either a nationalist or Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association background. In 1971 it began boycotting Stormont so it was not around in the final months before the parliament was closed down by London. John Hume, a nationalist NICRA member from Derry, emerged as the de facto leader although Gerry Fitt, a Westminster MP from West Belfast was the official leader because of his office. In 1979 Hume adopted an openly pro-united Ireland position that forced Fitt to resign his leadership and leave the party. The SDLP's strength was its opposition to the use of violence and its opposition to majoritarian unionist rule. It was supported by both the Catholic Church and by Dublin.

The last of these four parties to emerge was Sinn Fein, which claims to be older than the UUP. But Sinn Fein really dates back to a split in the Republican Movement in December 1969 to January 1970 that resulted in the emergence of two IRAs: the Provisionals and the Officials. Provisional Sinn Fein was just the publicity bureau of the IRA until the hunger strike of 1981 when it ran Bobby Sands from the H Blocs of Maze Prison for parliament. Sands was elected but died of starvation shortly after. He was then replaced by his election agent in a second by-election and Sinn Fein Vice President Gerry Adams, a former key figure in the West Belfast IRA, decided to transform Sinn Fein into an abstentionist political party competing with the SDLP for the nationalist vote. The Shinners were capturing 40 percent of the nationalist vote when the SDLP leveraged its influence in Dublin to get Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald to negotiate the Anglo-Irish Agreement with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in November 1985. This gave the SDLP a consultative role in the running of NI and stopped SF's advance. But that advance started up again once the IRA went on ceasefire in 1997 and the GFA was signed in 1998. In 2001 the Shinners surpassed the SDLP in the local elections to become the leading nationalist party. The party represents the patriotic sacrifice of the prisoners and patriotic dead combined with socialism and modernity. The party has so far failed to make a similar breakthrough in the Republic despite the collapse of Fianna Fail in 2010. 

The most similar of these parties to the new party is Alliance. Unlike the other three parties profiled and the UUP, Alliance did not spend much party resources competing for Westminster seats but competed mainly at the local council and provincial Assembly levels. This became a model for the smaller unionist parties that emerged in the mid-1990s as a result of the fractioning of unionist politics with the peace process. After the next election the new party will probably be a two-man operation: McCrea in the Assembly and MacCallister running the party infrastructure.


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