Sinn Fein: A Catalyst For Unionist Unity

Former Blanket columnist and Radical Unionist Dr John Coulter takes what he considers a realistic look at how Sinn Fein could spark the process of lasting Unionist unity. This article was written before the May elections but unfortunately slipped of the radar.

A four-year dose of Martin McGuinness as Sinn Fein First Minister is the perfect remedy to bring about unionist unity, and ultimately a single Unionist Party.

Since my primary school days, I have watched unionist rip unionist apart, and become convinced that Irish unity will eventually come about because of Protestant voter disunity. It is going to take some very bitter medicine to create a situation like the early 1960s when all shades of unionism were represented by a sole movement, simply known as The Unionist Party.

And in last year’s General Election, even when we Prods had an agreed candidate in Fermanagh South Tyrone along with a split nationalist vote, they still managed to allow ‘Shinner’ farming minister Michelle Gildernew to hold the seat.

Unionist unity has become almost as big an aspiration as Irish unity. Realistically, the wounds of unionist infighting will take generations to heal.

Even the latest campaign of violence by the factions which comprise the so-called dissident republican movement does not seemed to have sparked an enthusiasm among Unionists for the ballot box.

Had it not been for the collapse of the Celtic Tiger and the need for a multi-million euro bailout, the island would have been well on the way to political unity by the Shinners’ target date of 2016 – the centenary of the failed Dublin Easter Rising.

Since the late 1960s, there have been so many movements whose aim was unionist unity, they have now run out of names to call themselves. If you thought divisions were bad between Peter Robinson’s DUP and Tom Elliott’s feud-festering Ulster Unionists, you should see the political exchanges between the DUP and its even more bitter rivals in Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice party.

While it will take decades to bring about an eventual single Unionist Party, nationalists have the chance on 5 May’s Stormont poll to create a scenario where there will be Irish unity in everything but name only. But this means moderate Catholics sacrificing the ‘Stoops’ in favour of ‘Shinners’. It may mean respectable, middle class nationalists having to vote for ex-IRA jailbirds.

For many Catholics, snubbing the moderate SDLP may be one bitter pill too much to swallow. A Sinn Fein victory on 5 May will not just mean McGuinness ascending to the First Minister’s throne. It will also mean a huge rise in power for the cross-border bodies.

For republicans, would an increase in cross-body numbers and powers be enough to get the dissident terror groups to call a halt to their campaigns?
Unionists will be so busy indulging themselves in their favourite political pastime, the ‘Blame Game’, that they will have totally missed the all-island structures which mainstream Sinn Fein will have sneaked into place.

And nationalists should not underestimate how deep the divisions in unionism run. I grew up in Bannside, the launching pad for political Paisleyism. As a Primary Six pupil in the heart of unionist North Antrim, I remember a fundamentalist fellow pupil waving a ‘Vote Paisley’ poster at me in class. When I laughed, I literally got the boot stuck in me.

During the 1970 General Election campaign, I brought cups of tea to a very physically shaken Unionist MP Henry Clark, who lost his seat to Paisley senior, after he witnessed a painted slogan ‘Shoot Clark’ in a 100 per cent Protestant village.

My father and a fellow Orange chaplain, the late Rev John Brown, had to try and calm Clark’s nerves in Clough Presbyterian manse after Paisley supporters blocked his canvassing team from entering a staunchly unionist area.

The RUC once called my father – then the local mainstream Irish Presbyterian minister - to physically escort the chairman of a local Unionist branch out of an Orange hall after Paisley supporters surrounded it and forced the meeting to be abandoned.

In those days, attending a Unionist Party meeting in North Antrim was by formal invitation only. A one-time Paisley supporter told me he was ‘leaked’ his ticket to infiltrate the party meeting in an Orange Hall by hardline Right-wing elements in the Unionist Party itself.
Even within their own Unionist Party ranks in the early 1970s, the Hard Right was working in cahoots with Paisley supporters to undermine Prime Ministers Terence O’Neill and James Chichester-Clark.The anti-liberal Unionist Party members were using Paisleyite ‘boo-boys’ to undermine the liberising policies of the UP leadership.

In the coming years, many UUP meetings ended in chaos as Paisley supporters disrupted the party in an orchestrated campaign. This drove many Ulster Unionist branches out of the Orange Hall, especially in rural areas, and into people’s homes, which could only accommodate a limited attendance.

Eventually, many once thriving Unionist Party rural branches folded, both because people were too scared to attend, or there was nowhere big enough to hold the meetings. This policy of having to meet in people’s homes was even still taking place as late as 1979.

My father, who retired at 81 as an MLA last month, still bears the scars of a kicking given to him by DUP hardmen during a Ballymena canvass in the 1983 General Election campaign.

In another sickening episode, fanatical DUP supporters heckled an UUP candidate who had been disabled through an IRA booby-trap bomb. They even goaded his relatives as he walked into an election count to give him a suicide pill.

Incidents like these are burned into the memories of many unionist families. Like malign tumours, no sooner has one been eradicated, than another cancer of disunity appears.
Unionism has already had its crossroads election when Paisleyism landed on the political map. May 5 will be nationalism’s crossroads. The question is simple – can republicans unite and maximise on unionist disunity?

Many Christian outreach workers believe only through a united Ireland will a genuine spiritual revival once more come to the island as it did in 1859. My own political ideology is that of Revolutionary Unionism – one faith, one party, one Commonwealth. That faith is the Christian faith as defined by the Biblical New Testament text of St John 3, verse 16.

I want one single movement, The Unionist Party, to represent all shades of pro-Union opinion. And my aspiration is for the Occupied Twenty-Six Counties to rejoin the British Commonwealth. The South becoming a member of the influential Commonwealth Parliamentary Association would be a welcome start.

Yes, there was some form of unionist partnership in 1974 with the Unionist Coalition and the United Unionist Action Committee in 1986 to combat the Hillsborough Agreement … but neither lasted.

There has to be a short, sharp shock which will bring the unionist family to its senses. I fear a united Ireland or Sinn Fein domination at Stormont may well be that treatment.


  1. Sorry Mackers but this is hardly a 'realistic look'. Unionists like Dr Coulter don't seem to be able to realise that McGuinness and Adams are the best thing to happen to their 'Union'.

    It is more secure today than it ever was. Given time the Adamsites will have forgotten almost completely those who died and whom they carried to many graves.

    You only have to look at McGuinness on TV to realise how content he is with what he has gained for himself and those around him. He has that permanent smile of a kid who got everything he wanted for Christmas. Or maybe it's a smile of 'I got away with it?'

    Either way you can bet on one thing; that long before Unionist unity is seriously considered, the leadership of PSF will be more Unionist than the Unionists themselves.

  2. Dixie

    I agree entirely.

    Dr Coulter is using the specter of a UI to scare his coreligionists out of their lethargy.

    Since the article was written before the elections, he ratchets up the prospect of McGuinness becoming First Minister to galvanise unionist voters.

    What in damnation is the label "Revolutionary Unionist" about? One faith, one party, one Commonwealth: this comes as close to a brand of Fascism as I know.

    Infact, was this not precisely the brand of Unionism which for fifty years ran a one party state in this part of the world?

    Ironically for Sinn Fein, Dr Coulter's prescription for the future is the most likely outworkings of the GFA: Ireland in it's partitionist form reunited with the British Commomwealth.

  3. Don't think there's any doubt that SF are the cement in the Union wall now. No one cares, that's why Adams and Marty mi6 are so smug. The 'neverendingpeaceprocess' will have us all anesthetised into a permanent coma before much longer. Unionism is safer than fort knox.

  4. Dixie,

    don't know why you are telling me you are sorry! The author thinks it is a realistic take. To publish does not mean to approve. As for the union so many in the unionist echelons understand the need to maintain Adams and McGuinness.


    Bangers made a similar claim in the 80s - think he said one party, one people, one nation. Some in the jail thought it fascistic. I didn't see it as such. Same with John Coulter.

  5. Sorry Mackers for saying sorry...

    But I thought you were saying it was a realistic look?

    Anyway, we've come a long way from Gerry Fitt being Deputy Chief Executive to Marty being Deputy First Minister...

    A long way to nowhere and back to Stormont.

    Dr Coulter should realise that the bogeyman doesn't live under the bed these days. He's made his own bed and is laying on it.

    And a very comfy bed it is too; a double bed for him and Peter.

  6. Given that fundamentalist Catholicism is a thing of the past in mainstream society in the Republic, could Dr. Coulter please explain his reasons for objecting to a united Ireland? I oppose British rule in my country because I believe the people on this island, for good or for ill, have the right to complete control over their own affairs. Occupied Twenty-Six Counties, my bollocks!

  7. Mackers

    Interpretation is always subjective.

    Like Dixie, I can't for the life of me understand why some unionist fail to see that the position of Northern within the UK is safer now than ever before? The GFA is an internationally binding agreement recognising the constitutional status of NI based on the principle of consent.

    What is different about the GFA is that it incorporates Irish Republicanism, if it can now be described as such, into the British state thus nullifying it's oppositional dynamic.

    Dr Coulter is correct on one point: so long as a majority of unionist support the union with Britian the position of NI is gauranteed; not to mention the 12% plus middle class catholics who are happy with the ststus quo.

  8. The presence of the British PM at Stormont revealed the dynamic of government in a very stark way. Not a word of protest nor complaint was uttered by the public representatives of so called Irish republicanism as Cameron lectured them on the future role of local British government. Not a voice was raised against the massive cuts proposed by the Tories; no champion of the working people challenged his plans to destroy the NHS.

    The compliance of Sinn Fein in government is clear for all to see. Martin's sterling proformance as DFM has left many republicans dumbfounded and disllusioned and wondering where it all went wrong. Where is the agressive republican strategy to undermine the institutions that we were promised?

    Those of us who feared that republicanism would be subsumed by the state to the detriment of the struggle have been proven correct. There is no Sinn Fein road map to a United Ireland. What we are feacing is the creation of a new British statelet, with the inclusion of "republicanism", until such times as the majority consent to something else.

  9. Alec, a good example of the 12% plus middle class Catholics who are happy with the status quo is to be found here in Derry. [The Battle of the Bog 'n all that Free Derry Corner, Derry]

    Since Marty helped Derry 'secure' the title of UK City of Culture quite a few wanna-be Catholic Brits have come out of the closet.

    Sure one of PSF's strongest opponents of the title before Marty backed it; one Maeve McLaughlin was seen on TV clapping like a seal and hugging in the Guildhall once the 'victory' was announced.

    Then we had the farce of a Derry guy who wrote and recorded a song about Bloody Sunday, to raise funds for Free Derry Museum [Bloody Sunday] which the local radio stations including Radio Foyle refused to play saying it was too political.

    Too fecking political? And hardly a word of rebuke from PSF. In fact if they said anything I missed it!

    Then again PSF were for years to the fore in getting the 'London' removed from the city's name. And now after the UK City bollocks any mention of Derry has ~Londonderry stuck at the end. Check out the council website.

    As I said; They're becoming more Unionist than the Unionists themselves...

    Not a bit wonder old Carson is giving the fingers to the eejits every time they drive pass in their chauffeur driven cars with their portfolios and advisers on the way up to Stormont.

  10. Alec,

    many of them do know. I have talked to so many unionists over the years. They know who won. Cameron validated it at Stormont for them. Stephen King told me many years ago that the biggest problem unionists had was that they refused to believe that SF could settle for so little - there had to be something else behind it.

  11. Mackers, and Stephen King's a right man for the horror stories...

    Only this is not fiction.

  12. Am-

    Stephen king- wonder where the u.u.p are hiding that brain-box- do you remember that public row between the king brain and peter robinson- the one beside the bus which the d.u.p won- wonder what happened to those u.u.p unionists- wonder what happened to their victory-

  13. Ah michealhenry, when you start cheering on the DUP in very much the same way that you cheer on your own leadership, you know they've got you!

    It might be Macker's reference to Stephen King...I know he's referring to the Unionist and not the writer of horror stories...but why does the likes of yourself keep reminding me of Invasion of The Body Snatchers, in terms of the new Unionist mindset among yourselves?

  14. Dixie-

    No point in being a dramatic like the Dixie chicks- look what happened to those hen's-

    The invasion of the unionist mindset is going well old hand-

  15. michaelhenry you would've made a good Blanket orderly, much like Jim Boots McCarthy and look at where being a Blanket orderly got him...

    West Belfast co-ordinator for Community Restorative Justice.

    Oh and for the likes of yourself; a Blanket orderly was the lowest form of life during the Blanket protest, someone who aided the screws for a few privileges.

    It seems that PSF is full of people these days who would have been Blanket orderlies back then given half the chance.

  16. Are you sure it isn't Stephen Queen rather than Stephen King?

  17. John McGirr,

    Are you sure it isn't Stephen Queen rather than Stephen King?

    Stephen King used to joke that he was Stephanie Queen. What I liked about him was his refusal to bow down to the religious bullies. He was very open about his sexuality.

    Now you have me thinking about Jesus, Queen of Ireland.

  18. Dixie-

    I suppose there are no blanket ordelys that now support the dissidents or are anti Sinn Fein-
    Are there volunters who went through the prison protests now in Sinn Fein- of course there are-

    Would i have made a good blanket ordely Dixie- i dont know if i could have stuck to the protest or squeaky booted- dont know how you would know then-

  19. michaelhenry,
    the only former blanket orderly continously talked about amongst republicans is 'filter tip' Mc Carthy.

    he held a considerable amount of positions before restorative justice.
    Apparently, Jim was able to slide back into the movement all sins forgiven, because he carries a letter from Gerry Adams which totally exonerates him from any wrong doing!

  20. Nuala,

    in his defence, I heard quite a few on the blanket disagree with him being punished when it happened. They thought it was OTT. I didn't know him in the jail at all.

  21. I also know of former blanketmen who now except his punishment was extreme, however, the simple fact he was prepared to work as an orderly whilst his comrades were on protest speaks volumes of the man. Jim was viewed as a prominent republican at the time both locally and in the Crum'. His decision not to go on the protest would have impacted on younger prisoner at the time. He certainly was not leading by example as in the case of young Kieran Nugent.

  22. Alec,

    he was hardly alone in not leading by example. Many people were just not up to it. When I came on the protest the animosity towards those who 'wore the gear' was heavy duty. Two years later when people left the protest it was like someone had died. We felt sorry for them. There was no bitterness toward them.

  23. I don't think I would have lasted a day on the blanket protest, so I have a lot of sympathy for those who couldn't hack it. They had to endure the shame of their weakness as well as the opprobrium of their comrades.

  24. Hold on a minute here, we aren't talking about someone who wore the 'gear'. Many good men couldn't do the Blanket and I know one who wore the gear, got released, returned to the IRA and was shot dead by the Brits.

    We are talking about someone who, for extra privileges, aided the screws on the Blanket wings. I don't know if he was as bad as the likes of the former IRA man from Derry, Tommy Murray, who actually put the hose in windows soaking prisoners, but the fact that McCarthy was one of them made him no better.

    Theres a big difference between those scum and those men who merely couldn't do the Blanket.

  25. Mackers,
    there was a lot of people that believed it was way too lenient.
    There is a huge difference between not being able to endure a protest and downright collaboration.
    When I was on remand in 81 I used to sit and talk through the stairs to the girls who had came off the protest.
    I never gave it a second thought, I just accepted they must have had their reasons. Some people did not like me speaking to them but that did not bother me either.
    But I would never categorize those women like him, never.

  26. The current policies of so called Irish Republicans(PSF)....It almost reads like something from "pleasantville" where they all start suddenly turning to colour, only in the 'shinners' case it's the colour orange .............. and the more time moves on the more and more they depart from all their beliefs and principles. We all change and mature as human beings but if I matured into a unionist i'd think they was something very wrong ...........

  27. Mackers

    I appreciate what you are saying. My first experience of someone putting on the gear was in H5 and it was totally demoralising. But Jim was not the typical """squeaky booter", he went further by working as an orderly in close proximity to the protest. For this he was despised by his comrades possibly leading to grossly exaggerated stories of his behaviour.

    I think Dixie makes a fair point by drawing attention to Jim's privileged position in the new patronage based hierarchy within the PRM.

  28. Dixie,

    as far as I know he worked as an orderly on a wing where there were blanket men rather than a blanket wing. Once he decided to wear the gear I don't know what choice he had. By the time the no-wash protest was in place people had a choice. But he did not work on the wing then as far as I am aware.

    During the no-wash some of the blanket orderlies were sound. We had two brothers from Lurgan doing our wing and they were decent. There were others as you recall who were the lowest of the low like Donkey Head, the Beechmount rapist and Jimmy Doc who made a point of aiding the screws and hosing us down. So not everybody who was a blanket orderly was a scuz bucket or a decent spud.

    I have no knowledge of McCarthy aiding the screws against the blanket men. After he was shot I heard people claim he was sound.


    there may well be people who thought it too lenient. I have just never met any. Although to be fair, it was hardly a topic of conversation with me. I never met the guy until I got out.


    'he went further by working as an orderly in close proximity to the protest. For this he was despised by his comrades possibly leading to grossly exaggerated stories of his behaviour.'

    I think this sums the situation up. How big a 'crime' that was is a moot point but in my view it amounts to little.

    'I think Dixie makes a fair point by drawing attention to Jim's privileged position in the new patronage based hierarchy within the PRM.'

    But he is like so many others. I can only speak from my own dealings with him in the movement after I was released. I found him very fair.


    it was difficult enough for them. At the same time a few of them were arrogant bastards and when the protest was over would try the swagger. As tolerant as I was I was having none of that.

  29. Dixie,

    ‘a long way to nowhere and back to Stormont.’

    Apt way to put it.


    ‘What we are facing is the creation of a new British statelet, with the inclusion of "republicanism", until such times as the majority consent to something else.’

    I see it somewhat differently. The strategy of the British has long been to include republicans but exclude republicanism. That is why there is nothing happening at Stormont today that remotely resembles any of the ideas we shared as activists. When the ideas that SF practice today were raised in the jail they were always in the context of what a defeat would look like or what the Sticks would do. They were never considered republican.