OPINION: Harold McCusker – one of unionism’s most coherent voices

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Mention the unionist reaction to the Anglo-Irish Agreement in November 1985 and most people will cite the huge rally in Belfast city centre, Ian Paisley’s “never, never, never, never” line, or the 15 by-elections forced by the resignation of all of the unionist MPs.

Yet the most powerful response came from one MP, speaking in the House of Commons on November 18:

“I never knew what desolation felt like until I read this agreement last Friday afternoon. Does the Prime Minister realise that, when she carries the agreement through the House, she will have ensured that I shall carry to my grave with ignominy the sense of the injustice that I have done to my constituents down the years – when, in their darkest hours, I exhorted them to put their trust in this British House of Commons which one day would honour its fundamental obligation to them to treat them as equal British citizens? Is not the reality of this agreement that they will now be Irish-British hybrids and that every aspect – not just some aspects – of their lives will be open to the influence of those who have harboured their murderers and coveted their land? Is the Prime Minister aware that that is too high a price for me and hundreds of thousands of others in Northern Ireland to pay?”

The MP was Harold McCusker, the UUP member for Upper Bann and deputy leader of the party. What made it such a powerful contribution – and I was in the Commons to hear it – was his personal sense of guilt at having failed the very people who had elected him to represent their interests. While other unionists pointed the finger entirely at others he was prepared to shoulder some of the blame. That was the mark and measure of the man: and those who knew him would have expected nothing less.

McCusker wasn’t fiery, or mercurial, or rabble-rousing, or even particularly controversial (although he had very strong views on border security and victims). He was always thoughtful and measured. He paused before he spoke. He didn’t wind people up and leave them hanging. He didn’t threaten or rattle sabres. He didn’t seek headlines or brief the media with his personal agenda. He avoided cabals and plots. And that’s why he was one of the most respected and quietly influential people within the party and why he was trusted with the deputy leadership. As one of his Westminster colleagues from that time told me: “Harold was always one for the quiet word and gentle admonishment rather than the raised voice and enemy-making argument.”

But the Anglo-Irish Agreement changed him. His faith in Westminster withered and he suggested on a number of occasions that independence might, in fact, be preferable to a form of the Union that seemed to be only “acceptable to Margaret Thatcher and the Tory party”.

Along with Peter Robinson and UUP general secretary Frank Millar he wrote the Task Force response to the AIA, outlining a joint strategy for unionism and presented it to Ian Paisley and Jim Molyneaux in July 1987. Neither leader was prepared to endorse or embrace the recommendations (which they regarded as too radical and defeatist).

In early 1986 a number of senior figures within the UUP were suggesting – albeit very quietly – that Jim Molyneaux, having failed to “get wind of the damage that Thatcher was about to inflict upon the Union” should stand aside. McCusker was the obvious replacement, yet there is no evidence that he was prepared to lead, let alone be part of a coup against Molyneaux. Those same ‘replace the leader’ suggestions were made again in the late summer of 1987, when Molyneaux ignored the Task Force and after Millar left the party and Robinson stood down as deputy leader of the DUP. Again, there is no evidence that McCusker was prepared to move against Molyneaux.

The failure to remove Molyneaux at that point – and he hung on until 1995 – damaged the UUP. He was not a risk taker in terms of policy or strategy and the party that David Trimble inherited, while still the dominant party of local politics, was drifting fairly aimlessly and reacting to events rather than leading them.

Someone like McCusker might have been able to inject some new thinking into both the party and into unionism generally. The Task Force report indicated that he was, like Millar and Robinson, a long-term thinker and strategist: someone who was prepared to take unionism outside its natural comfort zone.

His death in February 1990, at the age of 50, robbed unionism of one of its most coherent and thoughtful voices. It also robbed it of someone who would probably still have been the front runner to replace Molyneaux and that, in turn, would have changed the unionist dynamics of the peace process. Harold McCusker tends to be forgotten nowadays. That’s a pity: he was a key player at a very diffi cult time for unionism. I think he would have been a very good leader, too.