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International Socialism, April 1974


George Johnston

The Ulster Unionist Party


From International Socialism, No.68, April 1974, pp.31-32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Ulster Unionist Party, 1882-1973
John F. Harbinson
Blackstaff Press, Belfast, £2.00.

‘THEY MAINTAINED themselves in power by banging the big drum, waving the flag, and playing upon the emotions of the Protestant population ... What was unique about the Unionist Party was that, Union apart, they placed no distinctive principles or programme before the people.’

Thus Dr Harbinson opens his chapter on The Dilemma of Ulster Unionism, and anyone unfortunate enough to have lived through the heyday of Unionism in Northern Ireland can only echo his sentiments. But no programme was required. Unionism was at one and the same time both the symbol of Protestant ascendancy and the means whereby the mass of Protestants, necessarily working-class Protestants, were deliberately stunted in their political development. So long as the symbol remained intact the Protestant worker had a better chance of getting an underpaid job and a slum house than his Catholic counterpart.

All the struggles of the Protestant workers were, despite a high degree of industrial militancy, purely economistic. Any sound political development in their struggles would have led them to question the right of an assortment of effete landed gentry (Brookborough, O’Neill and Chichester-Clarke, for example), petty capitalists (Faulkner) and the well-heeled middle-class (the rest of the Unionist Party) to rule unchallenged with unparalleled complacency over the highest unemployment rates in these two islands. As soon as such political developments made even the most tentative appearance, the professional bigots (O’Neill, Faulkner and the rest of the gang) were at hand to demonstrate on platforms provided by the Orange Order (of which they were all members) how a challenge to the ruling clique would put in jeopardy the precious Union.

Dr Harbinson presents most of the evidence required to support that sort of thesis, though he himself may not see the issues in those terms. His is certainly the best work yet done on the Ulster Unionist Party, though it should be added that practically all previous writing on this subject has been pathetically weak. This is a good piece of obviously painstaking work and should be read by everyone involved or interested in the ongoing crisis in Ireland, especially in the light of the recent debacles in and around the new Northern Ireland Assembly and its Executive. Accurately enough, Harbinson concludes the main body of his work with the sentence,

‘Paradoxically it may be that only through the destruction of the Unionist Party that the Ulster problem can be solved.’

That is partly true – but only partly, and it is the apparent inability or unwillingness to consider the historical phenomenon of Unionism in the context of an Ireland dominated by British capitalism flat is the main shortcoming of the analysis. Nowhere is this more true than in the opening chapter of the book. When you do read it skip Chapter 1, on the historical origins of partition. It’s dreadful.

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