Four years ago, I penned an article suggesting that Unionism’s Right-wing needed to find itself a workable niche on the political spectrum if it was to have any relevance in a future Northern Ireland:
In the Sixties and Seventies, Unionism’s Right-wing always held sway because of the numbers game, especially in the Ulster Unionist Party camp. Numerically, the West Ulster Unionist Council was a powerful UUP pressure group west of the River Bann, particularly when it was fronted by Harry West.
East of the Bann, the Right-wing Ulster Monday Club was the rallying point for UUP Right-wingers for several years, boasting at least four Westminster MPs and numerous UUP councillors.
In 1974, Right-wing Unionism had really shown its political muscle when the so-called ‘Treble UC’ - the United Ulster Unionist Council - comprising at least four main Unionist parties - the UUP, DUP, Vanguard Unionists and United Ulster Unionist Party (UUUP) - joined forces with the loyalist paramilitaries and successfully brought Northern Ireland to a standstill during the Ulster Workers’ Council strike which toppled the Sunningdale power-sharing Executive.
So Right-wing Unionism was not so much a political ideology, but the ability of Unionist parties and groups to mobilise at elections or in street protests. Perhaps the most influential Right-wing Unionist group was Vanguard, before it made the electorally fatal decision to relaunch itself as a political party.
Both London and Dublin realised that Right-wing Unionism was essentially a mobilisation movement rather than a coherent ideology when it signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement in November 1985.
Westminster and the Dail had learned the lessons of the 1974 UWC strike and accurately predicted Unionism’s reaction to the Hillsborough Accord.
While Unionism tramped the cold and wet streets of Northern Ireland in late 1985 and early 1986 with its Ulster Says No and Ulster Still Says No campaigns, Dublin was able to set up the Maryfield Secretariat near Belfast to give Southern Ireland its first major say in the running of Northern Ireland since partition in the 1920s.
Put bluntly, as with 1974, and 1985/86, Right-wing Unionism may have shown its ability to take to the streets, but was ideologically bankrupt when it came to workable alternatives and solutions, always relying on significant turnouts at the ballot box.
But gone are the days when a Unionist MP could boast of a Commons majority of 38,000. The bitter medicine which Unionism must now face in 2023 is that electorally, Unionism is a minority ideology in Northern Ireland.
Unionism no longer holds the coveted position of First Minister at Stormont. The street protests over the Union flag and the Northern Ireland Protocol have had little impact or influence.
Given the crude census interpretation that there are now almost as many Catholics in Northern Ireland as Protestants has fuelled talk of a Border Poll and the Irish Unity debate, but does not take account of the Catholic Unionist tradition in Ulster who are smart enough to know that the Republic cannot afford Irish Unity and that economically, Northern Ireland is better off in the Union with the rest of the UK.
Unlike Unionism under the Molyneaux and Paisley senior era, it is no longer politically acceptable to be socially conservative in Northern Ireland. Coupled with the so-called ‘Alliance Bounce’, Unionism now has embarked on a lemming-style dash to the political centre ground as Unionism generally tries to rebrand itself as a popular, trendy, liberal and moderate movement.
If Stormont is again finally prorogued as in 1972, and the Protocol remains in some shape and influence, will Right-wing Unionism get the blame for any nationalist-leaning Direct Rule or Joint Authority which replaces the Northern Ireland Assembly?
Is Right-wing Unionism now comprising a minority fringe element within the UUP who seek a relaunch of the Ulster Monday Club, the fundamentalist faction in the DUP, and all of the single-MLA TUV?
If Right-wing Unionism does not get its act together before King Charles’ Coronation in May, the council elections and any future Stormont poll could deliver the electoral death knell to Right-wingers.
In such a scenario, Right-wing Unionism will deteriorate into the same political nursing home which the republican movement found itself in prior to the 1980 and 1981 hungers strikes. Sinn Fein pre-1980 was merely a ‘get together club’ for the failed 1956-62 Border Campaign. Unionist Right-wingers could find themselves branded as Unionism’s ‘lunatic fringe’.
Its escape route is two-fold. Firstly, it must ensure that every Unionist entitled to vote is both registered and comes out to vote. Unionism must aim for 90 per cent turnouts. Secondly, it must relaunch the ‘Treble UC’ so that agreed candidates are fielded, no matter what shade of Unionism they come from.
Liberal Unionism only exists by default because Right-wing Unionism has ignored two of its core voter bases - the Christian Churches and the loyalist working class.
That’s how the late Rev Ian Paisley built his DUP - giving a voice to these two voiceless sections of Northern Ireland society. In Right-wing Unionism terms, history needs to repeat itself, otherwise the loyalist terror gangs will try and steal the mantel of being a Right-winger in Unionism.
The latter scenario can never be allowed to happen again. If Right-wing Unionism allows Joint Authority or the Protocol to be foisted on Northern Ireland, there will always be an element within loyalism which sees a repeat of the 1974 Dublin and Monaghan no warning bomb massacres as a way forward. That day must never happen again.
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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.