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Party games in Ulster - THE POLITICS OF FAILURE

Although Ulster is formally a part of `The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland', it is politically as well as geographically separate from what unionists like to call `the mainland'. The strategy of successive British governments has been to keep Ulster at arm's length from full involvement in British public life. This is best illustrated by the case of Dr Brian Mawhinney MP, the only Ulsterman to have reached high political office, who represents the English constituency of Peterborough. If Dr Mawhinney had lived in Belfast he would not even have been able to join the Conservative Party until a few years ago. Indeed the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties still prohibit Ulsterfolk from membership. Naturally local parties have filled the vacuum created by this deliberate exclusion from the politics of the State. Politics in Ulster are generally conducted on `religious' communalist lines: Protestant/unionist/loyalist and Catholic/nationalist/republican. The five major political parties which dominate Ulster politics are the Ulster Unionist Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the Ulster Democratic Unionist Party, Sinn Fein and the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland. In this article we will look briefly at each party in turn.

Ulster Unionist Party

The `Official' Unionist Party Is Ulster's largest party. It holds nine of Ulster's 17 parliamentary seats at Westminster. The UUP governed Ulster from partition in 1921 until the Heath government abolished the Government of Northern Ireland and the Stormont parliament in 1 972. The Unionist Party broke with with the Conservative Party in protest. The party retains strong links with the Orange Order. The UUP still commands the support of the majority of unionist voters. The party always regarded itself as the natural party of government and has never fully recovered from Ted Heath's act of treachery in 1972. The signing of the Hillsborough Pact in 1985 which gave the Leinster House regime a say in the administration of Ulster further unnerved party members. The UUP is no longer a party that is sure of itself. The party is equally split between those who want a new devolved parliament for Ulster - a sort of Stormont II, and those like the party's leader Jim Molyneaux who aspire to `total integration' with the `mainland'. Recent hints from the NIO and Sir Patrick Mayhew indicate that the British State is gradually whittling away Ulster's formal status as part of the UK. The UUP's protestations of fervent lose and devotion to Britain and the queen cut no ice here. The UUP has not yet come to terms with the fact that it is impossible to keep a marriage alive if the stronger partner is determined on divorce.


The Social Democratic and Labour Party has the electoral support of most Ulster Catholics. Despite only having four MPs, the SDLP is the most influential political party, in Ulster. The party leader, John Hume enjoys the backing of successive Dublin governments. In the Hillsborough Pact the London and Dublin governments virtually endorsed and implemented SDLP policy as their own. The SDLP's supporters like to describe themselves as `constitutional nationalists'. The SDLP has always been conscious that a large majority of Ulsterfolk do not wish to be incorporated into a unitary All-Ireland State. This has been no deterrent to John Hume. Rather than attempt to persuade unionist voters to support its aims, the party has sought go over their heads and to involve outside parties such as the EC and American politicians. The SDLP does not believe that there can be any `internal settlement' to the problems in Ulster. In effect they will not countenance any settlement which does not shift Ulster permanently into Dublin's domain.


Dr Ian Paisley is probably the best known politician in Ulster. His Democratic Unionist Party has three seats in Westminster. The DUP, given its charismatic leadership, is much more of a populist party than its bigger rival, the UUP. Its members have often a deep personal commitment to Dr Paisley and are slow to see any faults or inconsistencies in his political leadership. Despite the existence of a pact with the UUP, the DUP is deeply critical of the larger party and often accuses it of selling Ulster short. The party has no links to the Orange Order but is heavily dominated by Dr Paisley's Free Presbyterian Church. Like the Official Unionists, the DUP are at a loss as to what to do next. The party is convinced that the British government is not to be trusted. This is fair enough - nobody trusts the British government! The DUP is committed to full-blooded devolution for Ulster- another Stormont. How this can be achieved in the face of British government opposition is not made clear. The DUP is fighting a frantic rearguard action in defence of Protestant unionism which is already a lost cause. Its members' inability to see this obvious fact is one of Ulster's greatest political tragedies.

Sinn Féin

The Provisional IRA has been waging its largely one-sided war in Ulster for 23 years. Dressed up as an anti-imperialist freedom struggle, the Provo campaign is designed to undermine Ulster's right to self-determination by means of sheer force of arms. The IRA's military campaign in Ulster is backed up by the political support and leadership of Sinn Féin. Sinn Fein's President Gerry Adams was an abstentionist Westminster MP from 1983 until he was ousted by an SDLP candidate in April last year. Nevertheless, Sinn Fein enjoyed the support of 78,291 voters, [10% of the votes cast in the last general election}. Sinn Féin declares itself in favour of an All-Ireland `Democratic Socialist Republic' and it recognises the right of `Irish people' to take up arms to achieve such a state. Sinn Féin used to say that it gave `unequivocal' support to the IRA's armed struggle. Today it refuses to comment on IRA operations. Sinn Féin says it recognises the right to self-determination of the Irish people `as a whole' basing its claim on its victory in the last All-Ireland election in 1918.  Even in that election the bulk of Ulster voters rejected Sinn Féin and an Irish unitary state - hence Partition in the first place! Sinn Féin, like the SDLP, recognises that a majority of the population want nothing to do with Dublin rule of any kind. Sinn Féin also do not try to win political support for their professed aims. The party operates in effect as the public relations wing of the IRA. Their political weapons are not those of diplomacy or persuasion but of brute force and coercion. The big obstacle in their way is not the British state but the unrelenting opposition of the majority of the Ulster people. Sinn Féin cannot succeed unless their IRA colleagues' campaign breaks the will of Ulsterfolk to resist their aims.

The Alliance Party

The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland was launched in April 1970 in order to attract political support from both the Protestant and Catholic communities. Although it is regarded as one of the main Ulster political parties, the Alliance Party has no Members of Parliament. In the last general election the party gained 68,695 votes, [8.7%). Alliance is generally regarded as a well-meaning but somewhat out of touch middle class party - the stuff of wine and cheese evenings. It has fraternal links with Paddy Ashdown's Liberal Democrats. Alliance is a pro-union party which believes in some form of devolved `power-sharing' government for Ulster. This aim seems less likely to be achieved now that the SDLP and the British government seem to have totally ruled out any purely internal political settlement. In recent months the party's leader, Dr John Alderdice, has shown a lot more political acumen than the two unionist leaders. He claimed that the Secretary of State, Sir Patrick Mayhew, sees himself in a similar role to that of Chris Patten in Hong Kong - paving the way for a gradual British withdrawal. Like the unionists, Dr Alderdice realises that the union is virtually dead. He doesn't trust the British government. Having had this vision of the truth, be seems unable to translate it into political action beyond the traditional Alliance 'niceness'.

Other parties

Apart from the main parties there are a number of smaller political organisations and fringe groups. The Progressive Unionists and the Ulster Democratic Party have between them a handful of council seats in greater Belfast and Londonderry and some radical or even socialist ideas. They are generally regarded as political wings of the UVF and UDA respectively. The Workers' Party and its splinter faction, Democratic Left espouse a more left leaning version of Alliance politics.

A Third Way for Ulster

Ulsterfolk feel more uncertain and uneasy today than at any time since the early 1970's. Many unionists and Protestants are alienated because they believe that the British state which they had formerly regarded as the guarantor of their freedom - is about to sell them out. At the same time, many Catholics who regard themselves as Irish nationalists, are shocked to find that the people of the Republic reject them as fellow citizens. The recent deaths of two children in an IRA bomb attack in Warrington unleashed a wave of sympathy all over Eire. Ulster Catholics wondered aloud why they had received so little sympathy for the deaths of their children in similar circumstances at the hands of loyalist killers. The unspoken answer is that the people of Eire reject them and the claim of the IRA to act on behalf of the Irish people. The Third Way has always argued that Ulsterfolk of whatever religion have more in common than that which divides them. It is that reason why we advocate independence for Ulster on the basis of mutual cultural respect. Rather than acting as outposts of London or Dublin our people can work together to build a new Ulster Nation. The only alternative is increasing polarisation, civil strife and bloody civil war.

David Kerr

This article first appeared in Third Way magazine issue 17, 1993.

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