In February 1974, 40 years before NI21 fought its first election, another small-u unionist/pro-Union, middle-of-the-road party was laying down foundations.
Like NI21, its founders were former UUP members who believed that their old party was too hardline and too keen on “the sham of unionist unity rather than the reality and necessity of power-sharing.”
They were supporters of Brian Faulkner, who had resigned from the leadership of the UUP in January 1974, a few days after the party’s governing council had rejected the Sunningdale Agreement. At the general election in February 1974 seven pro-Faulkner, pro-Assembly candidates — including Stanley McMaster and Rafton Pounder, the sitting MPs for East and South Belfast — allowed their names to go forward under the ‘Unionist: Pro-Assembly’ banner.
They actually did pretty well: with 94,301 votes and 13 per cent of the total vote. Indeed, they did better than the DUP, Vanguard and Alliance and got more than 20 per cent in five of the seven constituencies. It was a level of support which hinted at a market for a ‘unionist’ party which had moved on from the majoritarianism of the Stormont Parliament: a ‘unionist’ party which would be led by moderates and liberals rather than just accommodating them.
Also, it was probably that level of support which encouraged Faulkner to carry on with his determination to make the Assembly and the new Executive work, even though the anti-Sunningdale United Ulster Unionist Coalition had captured 51 per cent of the total vote. When the Assembly fell in May 1974 it left Faulkner with a dilemma because he no longer had a group of elected representatives supporting him.
He didn’t even belong to a political party. As he noted in his autobiography, Memoirs of a Statesman, “UUUC representatives in the Assembly and Westminster had been elected by people who thought they would be able to drive a hard bargain and who were badly let down when it was discovered they could produce no bargain at all. Westminster would refuse to implement (anything) that did not show sufficiently widespread agreement to provide a stable basis for devolved institutions”.
Hoping to capitalise on the UUUC’s predicted inability to deliver an alternative to the power-sharing arrangements they had wrecked, Faulkner and his supporters launched the Unionist Party of Northern Ireland on September 4, 1974. Very few members of the UUP defected to this new party, although Faulkner did succeed in persuading about 12 local councillors to come on board. At the general election in October the new party fought just two seats (Belfast East 27 per cent and North Down 10.6 per cent), winning 20,454 votes and a three per cent share.
In May 1975 the party contested the election to the Convention (a glorified conference to discuss what type of constitution would have the broadest acceptance) but only managed to win five out of 78 seats and, as Faulkner said, “able to play only a limited watching role as the SDLP struggled without success to reach a compromise with the UUUC”. By that point Faulkner’s own influence had already waned and his vote in his South Down constituency had fallen from 16,000 first preferences in 1973, to 6,000.
That election was to be the high point for UPNI. Within a year Faulkner had resigned as leader and withdrawn from active politics — to be replaced by the virtually unknown Anne Dickson.
In the 1979 general election UPNI contested just three seats (East, North and South Belfast) and their intervention is reckoned to have cost the UUP victories in the east and north of the city.
Peter Robinson beat William Craig by just 64 votes, which maybe explains why Robinson is still so aware of the dangers presented by small, vote-splitting parties! After winning only seven seats in the 1981 local council elections (although it had a pact with another party in North Down which accounted for four of the seats) UPNI folded. At this point the party is merely an historical footnote, yet it does deserve some attention because it was the first serious attempt to test the electoral appeal of a self-styled ‘moderate’ or ‘liberal’ unionist party. It almost certainly failed because there wasn’t the sort of stability required to sustain that type of party.
About a decade later, in 1989, the Conservatives also tried—and similarly failed—to make an electoral breakthrough. And a few months ago NI21—which had a lot of similarities with UPNI—also crashed and burned.
They would argue that it was “personal stuff” that cost them votes, yet there was polling, anecdotal and doorstep evidence months before the election which suggested that they wouldn’t be making a breakthrough, either.
Is there a market for a ‘moderate,’ pro-Union, small-u unionist, middle-of-the-road party here? The evidence from UPNI onwards is that there isn’t. Which raises a separate, yet crucially important question: what type of party would the growing number of non-voting pro-Union supporters be interested in?
l Read Alex Kane’s column in the News Letter every Monday