Over the 100 years which Northern Ireland has been in existence as a state and even well before partition, Unionism has had its fair share of pressure groups and political parties all pushing their specific agenda and policies as to how the Union with Great Britain can be maintained and Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom saved.
Indeed, during my time in journalism since I started my training in 1978, I have reported on the developments and demises of many such pressure groups and parties.
However, if there was one group which has exerted the most influence in the pro-Union community, it was Ulster Vanguard - once fronted by the hardline MP for East Belfast, the late Bill Craig.
It can be suggested that Vanguard’s biggest mistake was to become a separate political party in March 1973, thereby fragmenting the pro-Union vote even more.
It was formed as a pressure group a years earlier when Unionism was forced to take seriously that the Tory Westminster Government would prorogue the original Stormont Parliament and impose Direct Rule from London.
Its purpose in those early 1970s was to provide an umbrella organisation for the pro-Union community, and especially loyalists, in a bid to overcome the weaknesses of their party divisions.
Vanguard enjoyed strong support from the loyalist terror groups and if developed properly could have been seen as a mechanism to keep the loyalist terror gangs in check. However, Vanguard tumbled into the very pitfall it sought to avoid by becoming yet another Unionist party!
Vanguard, in its pressure group days, organised rallies. Bill Craig travelled frequently in an open car with a motor cycle escort provided by the Vanguard Service Corps, a paramilitary group linked to Vanguard.
Indeed, one Vanguard rally in Belfast’s Ormeau Park in March 1972 attracted around 60,000 people.
However, it was Craig’s remarks at the Ormeau Park rally that “if the politicians fail, it will be our duty to liquidate the enemy” brought accusations Vanguard was a fascist movement more akin to General Eoin O’Duffy’s Blueshirt movement in Southern Ireland in the 1930s, which eventually became the Fine Gael party.
Likewise, Vanguard was also compared at times to a little known ultra Right-wing pressure group in mid 20th century Northern Ireland known as the Ulster Protestant League.
When Vanguard was launched as a political party, it took the title Vanguard Unionist Progressive Party, winning 14 seats in the 1975 Northern Ireland Convention election and polling over 83,000 votes - well behind both the Ulster Unionists and DUP.
At one time, in February 1974, Vanguard boasted three Westminster MPs in the General Election of that month - Craig in East Belfast, Rev Robert Bradford (later murdered by the IRA in 1981) in South Belfast, and John Dunlop in Mid Ulster (who later joined the short-lived United Ulster Unionist Party, known as the Treble UP).
Vanguard held its three Commons seats in the later October 1974 General Election. Its 1974 election victories were achieved under the banner of the United Ulster Unionist Council, or Unionist Coalition, which decided on the Unionist party best placed to win a Commons seat.
However, Craig and Bradford later defected to the Ulster Unionists and Dunlop went to the UUUP. That effectively saw the end of Vanguard as a separate political movement. It was briefly revamped as a group in 1978, but made no impact within the pro-Union community.
However, the spirit of that original movement needs to be rekindled within the pro-Union community in 2021. To say there is much unease within that community about the Northern Ireland Protocol is stating the situation rather mildly.
In spite of Northern Ireland voting ‘remain’ in the 2016 EU membership referendum, there is growing anger - especially in the loyalist community - at how Brexit is playing out economically with fears escalating that the Westminster Government, with its very comfortable Tory majority in the Commons, really wants to get rid of the expensive little colony known as Northern Ireland.
The real fear among many in the pro-Union community is that the economic effects of Brexit will be used to create a united Ireland is all but name. In reality, the pro-Union community, and especially loyalism, has no workable alternative to the Protocol and the Irish Sea border.
Street protests are a waste of time. All the marching under the banners of the Ulster Says No and Ulster Still Says No could not get rid of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement.
Those who seek Irish unity learned the lessons from the failure of the 1974 Sunningdale power-sharing Executive and the effects of the Ulster Workers’ Council strike. Put bluntly, Irish nationalism now knows how to side-step the marching feet of loyalism.
What the pro-Union community urgently needs is an umbrella movement like Vanguard under which all shades of pro-Union thinking can meet and hammer out an agreed agenda. In short, using the Biblical quotation, it needs to take the beam out of its own political eye, before it starts to deal with the mote known as the Protocol.
If it does not have this unified approach, the pro-Union voice will end up in a barrel of noise - almost like the Biblical Tower of Babel - and no one will know who either speaks for Unionism, or what Unionism is planning.
That vast array of voices will range from the liberalism of civic Unionism (known to Right-wing Unionism as Appeasement Unionism) to the hardline utterances from the Loyalist Communities Council (viewed by liberal Unionists as outdated rhetoric).
A Vanguard style unity is needed otherwise it may not be the voice which shouts the loudest which is heard, but the sound of terrorist attacks from the pro-Union community’s lunatic fringe.
Unless the extreme loyalist mentality is muzzled, that loyalist bulldog will eventually bite. Taking this analogy of the pro-Union community as a dog, the Protocol could be viewed as the stick taunting that dog.
The democratic process is at the heart of Northern Ireland politics. A situation must never be allowed to emerge where a significant section of pro-Union thinking views ‘democracy’ and ‘democratic politics’ as a complete and utter waste of time. The spirit of the original Ulster Vanguard can be that muzzle.
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Listen to Dr John Coulter’s religious show, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 10.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM, or listen online at www.thisissunshine.com