Unionist pacts rarely solve anything, but they could become the norm

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

Things began to get very complicated for the Unionist Party during Terence O’Neill’s ‘crossroads election’ in February 1969.

Of the 39 unionists returned 24 were Official (pro-O’Neill); 3 Unofficial (pro-O’Neill); 10 Official (anti-O’Neill); and 2 Official (but ‘unclear’ in their attitude to O’Neill). Unionist constituency associations were divided (selecting pro- and anti-O’Neill candidates) and even some of the supposedly pro candidates were, at best, lukewarm. And added to the mix were another 35,000 votes for Independent and Protestant Unionists, most of whom were anti-O’Neill. O’Neill may have ‘won’ on paper, but it was a Pyrrhic victory and he stood down as prime minister a month later. It was the end of the Unionist Party that had dominated politics and government since June 1921.

It had survived on the mantra ‘united we stand, divided we fall’ and an arm’s length detachment from Westminster which had allowed it to do pretty much what it wanted to do. That suited the party very nicely, allowing it to keep internal divisions under control. But the fallout from O’Neill’s attempted rapprochement with the South, the rise of the Civil Rights Association and increasing attention from both Westminster and the world’s media brought the sort of pressure which the party had never had to deal with before.

New, more hardline voices – both inside and outside the party – began to emerge; voices that O’Neill could not control. Critics accused the party of being ‘big house liberals’ and of not listening to the concerns of working class unionists, loyalists, Protestants (concerned about the rise of secularism) and ‘core unionists’ who didn’t want Northern Ireland ‘reshaped to suit the enemy’.

Maybe if O’Neill and Stormont had survived things would have been different, but the collapse of the Parliament in March 1972 led to the emergence of yet new voices, parties and challenges.

But the difficulty with too many unionist voices and vote shredding at elections (particularly when the UK government was now insisting that any return to devolution must embrace power-sharing and an ‘Irish dimension’) was that a majority could/would be built which didn’t require a majority of unionism. In 1973 Brian Faulkner was able to construct a government with Alliance, SDLP and the bulk of his own Assembly team: yet a majority of unionist members (DUP, Vanguard, the West Belfast Loyalist Council and his own rebels) in the Assembly opposed him and opposed the Sunningdale Agreement.

The strategy they adopted was a pact – the United Ulster Unionist Coalition – embracing the DUP, Vanguard and the UUP (now under the leadership of Harry West, after Faulkner had lost what amounted to a vote of confidence at a meeting of the UUP Council in January). In the February 1974 general election they won 11 of the 12 parliamentary seats with just over 51% of the total vote.

That pact, that vote, paved the way to the destruction of both Faulkner and Sunningdale. Ironically, in the October 1974 general election, Harry West was to lose his Fermanagh/South Tyrone seat to the Independent Frank Maguire (in essence a nationalist pact candidate, with the SDLP not standing).

Within three years the UUUC had collapsed. Vanguard had split over voluntary coalition with the SDLP in 1975 and some senior figures in the UUP wanted to distance themselves from the ‘wilder fringe elements,’ as well as clipping Ian Paisley’s wings. The pact had been able to destroy what it didn’t want; yet it wasn’t able to deliver an alternative.

Something similar happened in January 1986, in response to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The UUP/DUP forced by-elections in the 15 seats they held; but lost one and had to put up a sham candidate in others to ensure there actually was an election. But, unlike 1974, the pact didn’t destroy anything and nor did Molyneaux/Paisley deliver an alternative.

The DUP, UKUP and elements of the UUP constructed an anti-Agreement pact in the run up to the GFA referendum in May 1998. UKUP has now disappeared and the DUP – along with many of the UUP people who backed No – is now at the heart of the Assembly.

In 2015 the UUP/DUP agreed an electoral pact to win back East Belfast from Naomi Long and to give the UUP a chance to win at least one seat – they hadn’t won one since 2005. The pact delivered, but within a matter of months the parties were at each other’s throats again.

The latest pact is required to give both Tom Elliott and Nigel Dodds the best chance of holding Fermanagh/South Tyrone and North Belfast. The two parties will be meeting this week to explore other possibilities – particularly South Belfast, East Belfast and Upper Bann. And with another Assembly election a possibility, I’d be surprised if the negotiations didn’t cover an examination of a strategy to regain the overall unionist majority that was lost in March.

The problem with pacts (and I’m referring to unionist ones) is that they tend to be a reaction – often kneejerk – to a perceived or actual political/electoral setback. Yet, while they may deliver seats and votes in the short term, there is very little evidence of progress, genuine alternatives or lessons learned.

Pacts also send out mixed messages to a unionist electorate (a very broad base) that differs on key issues like Brexit, socio/moral policy and Executive strategy. They often end in acrimony and accusations of bad faith (just look at the collapse of the Unionist Forum in 2013/14 and the collapse of the UUP/Conservative pact in 2011) and a return to the usual ding-dong-putting-the-boot-into-each-other exchanges.

But with Brexit having changed the dynamics; a worse than expected Assembly result for unionism; Sinn Fein’s electoral tail up; a deteriorating relationship between unionism and republicanism; and NI’s 2021 centenary focusing their collective minds, I suspect that unionist pacts will probably become fixed rather than temporary arrangements.