The Ireland Act 1949 – Westminster's response to the Irish government's announcement that it was severing all links with the British Commonwealth – had one key clause for Unionists: "Parliament hereby declares that Northern Ireland remains part of His Majesty's dominions and of the United Kingdom and affirms that in no event will Northern Ireland or any part thereof cease to be part of His Majesty's dominions and of the United Kingdom without the consent of the Parliament of
Unionism was, in constitutional terms at least, in a stronger position than ever before. Strong enough, in fact, to refashion its public image and reach out beyond traditional parameters.
In November 1951, a few days after the Conservatives won their first post World War Two general election, Viscount Brookeborough spoke of the need for the Unionist Party to reform itself to “reflect the new realities and needs of a changed and changing world”. But apart from some internal tinkering with the party’s structures he did nothing. Terence O’Neill was forced into reform by external pressures, but never managed to reform the party itself. In the autobiographical Memoirs of a Statesman, Brian Faulkner commented on the difficulties of leading a body as dysfunctional as the Unionist Party and regretted the fact that he hadn’t been able to reform it.
Between 1949 and 1969 there were opportunities for the Unionist Party to emerge as a less buttoned-up, more pluralist-minded party. It missed every one of those opportunities. And even in the short period between 1969 and the eventual prorogation of the Northern Ireland Parliament in March 1972, there were moments which could have been better handled by the party leadership.
I know that it is fashionable to say that Sunningdale was the biggest missed opportunity, but that is not true. Unionists were still in a state of shock that the constitutional guarantee written into the 1949 Act had been torn up. The newly formed Provisional IRA had given no indication that Sunningdale was acceptable to them. And the SDLP’s insistence upon forcing a Council of Ireland down Faulkner’s throat made his position untenable within his own party. (And let’s not forget that the Executive Committee of the party and the Ulster Unionist Council had both, albeit by slim majorities, endorsed power-sharing in the autumn of 1973.)
After the overthrow of Faulkner in January 1974 and the later collapse of the United Ulster Unionist Coalition in 1977, the primary task of the UUP – still the largest party in Northern Ireland – was survival. It had opponents on the right in the shape of the DUP and opponents on the left in the shape of the Alliance Party. And, as ever, it had its own internal wrangles between the pragmatists and the hardline traditionalists. But as early as the Euro election in 1979 – when Paisley topped the poll – and the local government elections in 1981, when the DUP eclipsed them by one per cent, it was clear that the UUP’s task was an enormous one.
Just before his 1981 party conference, UUP leader Jim Molyneaux had this response: “If we want to resist and rise above the challenge to us from the DUP, as witnessed in Dr Paisley’s personal mandate two years ago and his party’s success four months ago, then we must reassess every facet of our structures and overhaul every aspect of our operations.”
The reality, of course, is that Mr Molyneaux didn’t do that. He opted, instead, for the easier strategy of maintaining the “broad church” structures of the UUP and allowing each of the various internal pressure groups to believe that he sympathised with their particular agenda. He also let it be known that he had a “special relationship” with Mrs Thatcher.
Unfortunately that so-called special relationship blinded him to the relationship she had been building up with the Irish government since 1981 and he was entirely unprepared for the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
Consequently, he left David Trimble with an unreformed, ill-disciplined party and the political wreckage of the 1985 Agreement, the missed opportunity of the Task Force Report and the 1995 Framework Documents (which his “special relationship” with John Major hadn’t prevented, either). Molyneaux would insist that when he stood down as UUP leader in 1995 the party had twice as many local councillors as the DUP and nine MPs to their three. But Paisley was still dominating the Euro poll, the DUP was still prepared to do a deal on 14 of the Westminster seats, and the UUP was beaten in the 1995 North Down by-election.
I don’t deny the fact that Molyneaux was able to give the impression of keeping the UUP together; but I do think that there was a fatal element of complacency to his leadership which left the party in a much weaker internal state than his supporters are prepared to acknowledge.
Almost 60 years after Brookeborough’s reformist noises, and a year after the very poor results of the 2007 Assembly election, the UUP has finally completed its long overdue review and reform process. When Sir Reg Empey kick-started that process in his AGM speech last April, there were many members who believed that the exercise, like so many before it, would fizzle and die. Yet on Saturday he will be unveiling a package of reforms and standing orders that have overhauled every aspect of the party and how it does its business.
No one should underestimate the importance of these changes; and nor should anyone underestimate the enthusiasm for them from the party’s grassroots. The Ulster Unionist Party has had a tough time in the past decade and there were many observers who were prepared to write off any possible chance of recovery. But as the DUP faces its own internal and external pressures, and as evidence mounts that the carve-up of office with Sinn Fein is based on mutual contempt rather than genuine cooperation, there is every reason to believe that new political and electoral opportunities will emerge for the UUP.
The key to survival and recovery lies in being regarded as a modern, effective, reliable and relevant political party, capable of winning back former voters and winning over new ones. The Ulster Unionist Party faces huge challenges at the coming Euro, general, council and Assembly elections: but it is better placed to meet and conquer those challenges than it has been for a very considerable time.