Former Blanket columnist and Radical Unionist commentator DR JOHN COULTER insists that loyalism must also be included in any Unionist unity strategy. He writes this article exclusively for Long Kesh Inside Out.
Loyalism must ensure it is not either ignored or left behind in any forthcoming Unionist unity strategy.
The Mid Ulster Westminster by election, although won by Provisional Sinn Fein, proved that Unionist unity worked as the agreed candidate pushed up the Unionist vote in a predominantly republican constituency.
I have made no secret of my desire to see a single Unionist Party to represent all shades of pro-Union opinion. This single party is a core principle of the political think tank I formed shortly after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 – the Revolutionary Unionist Convention (RUC).
The RUC’s core principles, as well as a single Unionist Party, is to restore true Biblical values to Unionism, and the return of the Occupied 26 Counties back into the British Commonwealth.
The Irish Republic as a political experiment has clearly failed and working class loyalists can be to the fore in encouraging the South of Ireland to rejoin the Commonwealth.
Regarding the single Unionist Party, it is essential that loyalism plays its full part in this process. It is vital that loyalism feels a central part of the new merged Unionist Party.
A major problem which the Unionist Party failed to address during its era of domination in the original Stormont Parliament was effective representation for the Protestant working class.
From the establishment of Northern Ireland in the 1920s until Stormont was axed in 1972, the Unionist Party was run by the upper class ‘Big House Unionism’ and the middle class ‘Fur Coat Brigade’. The Orange Order and Royal Black Institution were used as the main vehicles of communication between the various Unionist social classes.
The loyalist working class was effectively only wheeled out on polling days to ensure the Big House Unionists and Fur Coat Brigade maintained their grip on the Unionist community.
Ian Paisley senior, now Lord Bannside, gained substantial ground politically in the late Sixties and early Seventies because he gave a voice to two sections of the Protestant community which felt they had no clear representation – the loyalist working class and evangelical Christians.
Big House Unionism no longer has any influence and the Fur Coat Brigade has largely defected to the DUP, with a section of middle class Unionist stalwarts remaining in the dwindling Ulster Unionists.
Many in the pro-Union community – especially in the working class – have joined the legions of people dubbed ‘the garden centre Prods’, a term for Unionists who no longer vote, or even register to vote. Initially, this term applied to middle class Unionists who felt so comfortable in the peace process era, that they didn’t need to vote.
However, this voter apathy has now spread considerably to the loyalist working class with some districts only registering a 30 per cent turnout on polling days.
Before Lord Bannside launched his DUP, many working class loyalists who wanted to register their disgust at being ignored by Big House Unionism vote for the now defunct Northern Ireland Labour Party.
Another problem was that political Unionism tends to be dominated by the Right-wing, while working class loyalism is perceived to be a Centre Left movement.
The Progressive Unionist Party and Ulster Political Research Group, which give political advice to the loyalist paramilitaries, are seen as being part of this Centre Left collective.
It can be suggested that one reason working class loyalism was attracted to the Left was as a reaction to the Hell fire preaching of Right-wing working class Unionists who have been blamed for indirectly landing many loyalists in prison.
Many loyalists interpreted these Hell fire sermons as rallying calls to join the loyalist paramilitaries or vigilante groups. When jailed loyalists had time to ponder why they were in jail, many concluded that they had initially been inspired by such sermons.
One appeal of Left-wing politics has been its apparent opposition to religious fundamentalism.
But in setting up their own parties, such as the PUP and UPRG, the loyalist working class is in danger of becoming marginalized, especially bearing in mind this increasing voter apathy in working class Protestant districts.
As part of the campaign to form a single Unionist Party, the PUP and UPRG should be included in this merger. The loyalist working class should form a pressure group in new merged party.
It is well known there have been talks to merge the DUP and UUP. The PUP and UPRG must be included in these merger talks.
The loyalist parties must remember the history and fate of the Vanguard movement. In the Seventies, when Vanguard was a pressure group it was one of the most influential organizations within the Unionist family.
Its fate was sealed when it decided to become a separate political party and compete for votes with the then Big Two – the DUP and UUP. In less than a decade after taking this political step, Vanguard had become a non-entity.
Within the Ulster Unionist Party, pressure groups played a vital role. For example, for many years, the West Ulster Unionist Council ran the party in the west of the Province, while the Ulster Monday Club ran the party largely in the east of the Province.
In mainland Britain, pressure groups within the Conservative and Labour parties have wielded powerful influence for generations.
The PUP and UPRG may claim their existence in the current climate given the perception both the DUP and UUP are comfortably embedded in the middle classes, and the popular trend is for the centre or liberal ground.
That market is becoming increasingly crowded in the pro-Union community with the DUP, UUP, Northern Ireland Tories, and the new party being launched by ex-UUP MLAs Basil McCrea and John McCallister. There would also still be a significant pro-Union element within the Alliance Party.
Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice has had difficulty shaking off the perception that it is merely a ‘bash the DUP over power-sharing with Shinners’ party.
The wild card in the Unionist unity realignment is the emergence of the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip). The clearly Right-wing, Euro-sceptic party is already giving Tory Prime Minister David Cameron plenty of electoral headaches in England.
And with a European election in 2014, all eyes will be on the third Northern Ireland seat. While Provisional Sinn Fein and the DUP are predicted to hold their seats, the focus will be on the seat held for many years by veteran Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson.
With Ukip expected to make major gains in Britain in the Euro poll, that bandwagon could roll over into Northern Ireland.
If the DUP and UUP are perceived to have distanced themselves from the loyalist working class, could Ukip fill the void of a working class, pro-Union movement in Northern Ireland?
Perhaps the initial merger move towards a single Unionist Party will not come in the Centre between the UUP and DUP, but on the Right between Ukip and the TUV. What is left of the UUP after the Euro poll could be sucked into the Ukip/TUV merger.
When the PUP had its Assembly seats, there was talk of a co-operation/coalition/merger between the party and the UUP. That potential merger fell apart because of opposition from the UUP’s liberal wing to the PUP’s links with the UVF and Red Hand Commando.
The running of Unionist unity candidates certainly helps both the DUP and UUP, but if the UUP cannot agree an eventual merger with the DUP, then perhaps the UUP should look to a pact or merger with Ukip.
In these circumstances, the PUP and UPRG should seriously consider a pact or merger with Ukip, especially is Ukip decides to become the national champion of the loyalist working class.
The loyalist working class must also face the economic reality that as the European Union steadily implodes, much-needed European funding to Protestant working class areas could soon cease.
A PUP/UPRG merger with Ukip is not asking the loyalist leadership to ditch their socialist, or Centre Left agenda. The original DUP under Paisley senior was to the Right on the Union, but to the Left on bread and butter issues.
Ukip could score major political ‘brownie points’ if it targeted the loyalist working class, especially if it could mobilize that section of the pro-Union community to return to the polling booths in significant numbers as working class loyalists did in the 1970s during the era of the Unionist Coalition, or ‘Treble UC’.
At this stage, two key issues must be addressed. Firstly, will either the Unionist Forum or the Ulster People’s Forum deliver Unionist unity and loyalist mobilization?
Equally importantly, the PUP and UPRG leaderships must ensure they are not left behind or excluded from any Unionist unity moves.
A century ago, the UVF was to the fore in mobilizing working class Unionists across Ireland against the threat of Home Rule. The UVF and YCV played major roles in developing the concept of Unionist unity.
It would make an interesting historical observation if the PUP and UPRG became the catalysts for modern day Unionist unity. One element is certain, the loyalist working class cannot afford to stand still politically and mark time.