Just a week after the shock of unionism losing its Stormont majority, a former Ulster Unionist MP has made the first concrete proposal for unionist unity.
Writing in today’s News Letter, former South Antrim MP David Burnside proposes the recreation of the United Ulster Unionist Council (UUUC) – of which he was a member – which fell apart four decades ago.
Against a backdrop of serious discussion about exploring closer links between the unionist parties, Mr Burnside sets out a vision for a pan-unionist front which would involve agreement on candidates for Assembly and council elections and “a pact in every constituency” for Westminster elections.
He says: “We need total unionist co-operation so there is no vote splitting.”
Warning unionists that if they are not totally united “our political influence and power base is under serious challenge at Westminster, and Stormont” as well as in councils, Mr Burnside argues that such a project should encompass all of unionism – including the TUV, UKIP and independents such as Lady Hermon and Claire Sugden.
Mr Burnside, who now works in public affairs in London, was involved in highly confidential 2012 discussions between the DUP and the UUP about merging the parties, a project which became so serious that the individuals involved wanted to commission professional polling to test how such a proposal would be received by the public.
The talks had included former UUP chairman David Campbell and the DUP’s Nigel Dodds.
Meanwhile, North Antrim MP Ian Paisley has warned that younger voters are not as motivated by the tribal divide when it comes to voting. In an interview with the New Statesman, he said: “We’re in a very serious position as a unionist community as a result of this election – probably the most serious and precarious position unionism has been in since the 1980s.”
What was the UUUC?
The United Ulster Unionist Council was an alliance of the Ulster Unionist Party, DUP and Vanguard (at that time a major player under leader Bill Craig).
The umbrella group was set up in January 1974 as a platform to unite those opposed to mandatory power-sharing with the SDLP after the signing of the Sunningdale Agreement in 1973.
The UUUC was immediately electorally successful, capturing 11 of the Province’s then 12 Westminster seats, and it played a key role in toppling the power-sharing Assembly after the Ulster Workers’ Council strike.
However, strains soon began to emerge and by 1976 it failed to survive the then radical proposal from Mr Craig that unionists should share power with the SDLP, ultimately falling apart the following year after Ian Paisley worked with paramilitaries to call a general strike, which the UUP opposed and which failed.