Catholic Unionists – who needs them?

Graham Walker, unionist and author of A History of the Ulster Unionist Party, has a piece in the Irish Times (subs needed) to mark the centenary of the formation of the Ulster Unionist Council (UUC) where he briefly goes through the Ulster Unionist Party’s history and, more relevant to today, mentions its continuing disinterest in winning over Catholics to the unionist cause.

Walker begins by saying those behind the UUC initiative were “younger, middle-class politicians impatient with the patrician leadership of Col Edward Saunderson. They wanted a political “machine” that would mobilise constituency associations and involve them purposefully in the organisation. Thus half of the membership was drawn from the constituencies….

“In addition, the Orange Order was formally represented, something which continues to this day and is the cause of much internal unionist debate. The incorporation of the order proved a historic and fateful decision; it was a signal that Ulster unionism was willing to identify with Protestant exclusivism. Tensions between this ethnic tendency and civic and inclusive forms of unionist argument were to characterise the party throughout its history.”

Walker also argues that when in government for 50 years, the Unionist Party “gave priority to its own internal unity and the maintenance of its tribal base of support among the majority Protestant population.
Although Craig and his successors, Andrews and Brooke, adopted a minimalist approach to devolution, the impression was given to supporters that the government was more in control of Northern Ireland’s destiny than eventually turned out to be the case. The expectations of the grass roots, so long allowed to grow, were difficult to bring down to reality when London finally insisted on reforms….

….Since relinquishing the title of the leading unionist party to the DUP in 2003, the Unionist Party has not effectively pursued internal reform. The Orange connection remains and no credible attempt has been made to win Catholic votes…

… the party has still not transcended the communal confines of its origins and currently seems torn between the challenges of recouping “traditional” votes from the DUP and staking out the ground of civic unionism.”
© The Irish Times

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