In the 1980s, when I was a News Letter journalist investigating the activities of the Far Right in Northern Ireland, I once interviewed an ageing English Nazi who was living in the Province about how he evaded investigation by anti-fascist groups.
His answer was brutally simple. He talked about the concept he called ‘entryism.’ In his earlier days on the Far Right in England, he had been linked to Colin Jordan’s National Socialist Movement and then followed John Tyndall into the National Front.
Ironically, the BBC has just concluded an excellent Sunday evening four-part drama - Ripley Road - about how Jewish anti-fascists from the 62 Group infiltrated Jordan’s NSM.
The English Nazi confided in me how he and a Far Right chum ‘hid out’ by joining a local branch of the then Liberal Party, which later merged with the Social Democratic Party to form the Liberal Democrats. Their thinking was pragmatically simple - who would think of looking for two Nazis in the Liberal Party!
While this may seem like an irrelevant analysis as to the future tactics of Unionism’s Right-wing, the choice for those who call themselves Unionist Right-wingers is equally brutally simple - you can rant from the sidelines and be ignored or written off as a crank, or go with the flow and work the system from the inside and have real influence.
There is a very strong perception that the next Assembly election, scheduled for May 2022, will be fought in the centre ground of Northern Irish politics; that Northern Ireland has evolved where liberalism, moderate politics, and the impact of the Alliance Bounce will dictate the outcome of the next Stormont Executive.
I’m not suggesting all Right-wing loyalists and Unionists pile into the Alliance Party and manipulate policy from the inside. But if the Unionist Right-wing is to have any influence in a future Northern Ireland parliament, it must learn to box clever.
In short, it must adopt the strategy of Pragmatic Liberalism. Okay, a recent LucidTalk poll showed within the Unionist community a rise in support for the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice party led by North Antrim MLA and former DUP MEP Jim Allister.
While the TUV has only Mr Allister in the current Stormont mandate, could a situation conceivably emerge whereby the TUV enters the 2022 mandate with around 10 MLAs from across Northern Ireland?
The same Lucid Talk poll also showed the impact of the so-called Beattie Bounce with the once election-battered Ulster Unionists now the leading voice for the pro-Union community, with the DUP drifting behind in third place - a few percentage points behind both the UUP and TUV.
During the history of the UUP, there have been three significant Right-wing pressure groups within the movement. In the Sixties and Seventies, the Right rallied behind the West Ulster Unionist Council; in the Eighties, it was the Ulster Monday Club, and in the post Belfast Agreement era it was Union First.
In short, the Unionist Right must adopt the view ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do!’ In an increasingly secular Northern Ireland, the Unionist Right must implement a policy of Pragmatic Liberalism to get back into power, and then change the system from within.
Put bluntly, it must be a gradual shift to the Right, not a huge lurch. It could be suggested strongly that the Lucid Talk outcome was merely an opinion poll, and the real result is that which is achieved at the ballot box. In this scenario, would the TUV replicate the Lucid Talk poll outcome?
Would this also push the DUP further to the Unionist Right-wing in a bid to counter the TUV ‘surge’, leaving the UUP using the Beattie Bounce to counter the Alliance Bounce.
Then again, how much of the Alliance Bounce is really a Unionist protest vote against the DUP’s record in the power-sharing Stormont Executive?
Likewise, if we return to pre-Covid days in 2019, when Orange Order spokesmen delivered their speeches and sermons across the Twelfth demonstration venues, and the Royal Black Institution bosses delivered theirs at the traditional Sham Fight at Scarva, one question was uppermost in the minds of speech makers and listeners alike - does the once mighty Unionist Right-wing still have a future in Irish politics?
Indeed, does Right-wing Unionism still have a role amid this seemingly mad dash to occupy the so-called ‘centre ground’ on the Northern Ireland political spectrum?
The reality check which Right-wing Unionism has to recognise is that the collapse of the Stormont power-sharing Executive in January 2017 witnessed words and phrases such as ‘moderate’, ‘liberal’, ‘radical moderate’ and ‘soft unionist’ enter - and seemingly dominate - the pro-Union political vocabulary.
Unionism, as an ideology, now seems more obsessed with trying to ‘persuade’ moderate nationalists and Catholics that their future lies with the Union than trying to encourage the vast legions of ‘stay at home Unionists’ to get active again.
The massive boost for the Alliance Party in the 2019 local council elections and party leader Naomi Long snatching the 40-year-old Ulster Unionist European seat sent shivers through Unionism, with - like Private Frazer from the TV sitcom Dad’s Army - liberal Unionists screaming ‘we’re doomed’ unless all pro-Union parties jump ship to the centre ground.
Likewise, is there a difference between a liberal Unionist, and a Unionist with liberal views? Similarly, it is possible for a Unionist to be socially conservative on the Union, yet liberal on bread and butter issues?
Indeed, mention the phrase ‘Right-wing’ in some Unionist circles and you could be branded as living in the past, needing to move on, not accepting the inevitable, and not recognising how times have changed!
But at some stage, with all these various shades of pro-Union thinking trying to clamber aboard the good ship Centre Ground, that ship will also inevitably capsize, sparking a Right-wing backlash in Unionism.
Historically, Unionism needs to accept that there is a Right-wing market still in Northern Ireland. It just needs to find a way of mobilising and persuading that silent majority to re-engage with the ballot box.
Unfortunately, think of Right-wing Unionism and the false perception will be created that you are only talking either about the Progressive Unionist Party, or the Traditional Unionist Voice party.
While the PUP would see itself as a working class loyalist socialist movement, its past links to the outlawed terror groups, the Ulster Volunteer Force and Red Hand Commando, have given the false impression this fringe Unionist movement with only a handful of councillors is a hardline Right-wing movement.
As for the TUV, with one MLA and a handful of councillors mostly dotted across County Antrim, the party is viewed as the Jim Allister Fan Club. Where would the TUV be if it didn’t have Mr Allister as leader?
Perhaps the problem which Right-wing Unionism has to address if it is still to be a recognised force within the pro-Union community is not one of ideology and strategy, but also one of organisation and structure.
In the past, Right-wing Unionism has tended to have been organised from the top down, namely from leadership to grassroots. Realistically, any new Right-wing Unionist surge must first become a grassroots pressure group and organise from the bottom up.
How has Right-wing Unionism flexed its political muscle in the past? The most successful movements have been grassroots to leadership structures.
How did the original Paisleyite movement, known as the Protestant Unionist Party, before it became the DUP in 1971 gain such influence in parts of County Antrim?
In the late 1960s, Right-wing elements within the establishment Unionist Party became concerned about the liberalising ethos of Stormont Prime Ministers Terence O’Neill and James Chichester-Clark.
Rather than be seen as rabble rousers themselves, these middle class Right-wing Unionists secretly urged working class loyalist Paisley senior supporters to disrupt Unionist Party meetings especially in North Antrim.
The Unionist Party in the 1960s was almost a closed shop to working class Protestants. To gain entrance to Unionist Party meetings required paper invitations.
One original Paisley supporter from that era informed me that he would be given such an invitation from a middle class Unionist so that he could attend a meeting to heckle Chichester-Clark.
The tactic was to cause so much mayhem that the meetings would be cancelled, thereby driving middle class and aristocratic Unionists away from such meetings in the Orange Halls. Such Unionists simply did not want to endure the hassle from the working class loyalists.
My late father, a Presbyterian minister and later a UUP MLA, told me how on one occasion he was asked by the then RUC to escort one of his Presbyterian Church elders from a local Orange Hall.
The elder was also the local Unionist Party branch chairman and an avowed liberal, but was besieged inside the Orange Hall by Paisley supporters outside. The RUC could not guarantee the safety of the liberal Unionist and it required my father to physically escort the elder from the hall so that he would not be attacked by the loyalists.
In the Seventies, the Vanguard movement’s success was that it was a pressure group to mobilise the Unionist Right-wing. Its eventual downfall was that it converted itself into yet another political party.
In the late Eighties, the Unionist leaderships of the DUP and UUP could not take advantage of the massive Right-wing mobilisation of Unionist grassroots against the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement.
Right-wing political Unionism in conjunction with the Loyal Orders energised thousands of ordinary grassroots Unionists, spawning organisations such as the Ulster Clubs Movement, Ulster Resistance, and the Ulster Movement for Self-Determination.
But instead of exploiting the weakness of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, namely demanding a say in the running of the Irish Republic, just as the Agreement provided for Dublin to have a say in the running of Northern Ireland via the Maryfield Secretariat near Belfast, the Unionist leadership was content to play the numbers game with massive rallies at Belfast City Hall and a string of street protests under the banners of Ulster Says No and Ulster Still Says No.
That street mobilisation by the Right-wing may have worked in 1974 to bring down the Sunningdale Executive, but London and Dublin were ready for the predicted street tactic of Unionism come 1985.
So given these past mistakes, how should modern-day Right-wing Unionism be organised? The New Right in Unionism should build on three existing power blocs - the Loyal Orders (Orange, Black, Apprentice Boys, Independent Orange), the marching band scene, and the Christian Churches.
It should be a grassroots movement rather than be dictated to by the party executives of the DUP, TUV and UUP. Its central aim is to get as many of the Unionist community who have not registered to vote, to get them to do so - and vote on polling day!
A network of Orange and church halls already exists where it can hold discussion meetings on policy.
Once this Pan Unionist Front pressure group has been established, the Unionist leaderships will listen to the voice of the people.
If liberalism and secularism have gained such footholds within the pro-Union parties, then the Loyal Orders must be prepared to put up Orange Front candidates in elections, simply to get the ‘stay at home’ loyalists out to vote.
And given the strong showing of the Loyal Orders and Protestant Churches in the Southern Irish border counties, the Pan Unionist Front should also be prepared to put up candidates in elections in the Republic in a post Brexit Ireland.
Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter
Listen to commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 10.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online.