An examination of how today’s unionists measure up against the political legacy of Edward Carson
LATER on this month, there will be two important events; one will be the election of a new leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, the other will be a seminar on Edward Carson and his legacy. It will be addressed by three distinguished academics and should prove an interesting evening for those of us who have long admired Carson’s historical legacy.
The reason for the event is to mark the 75th anniversary of Carson’s demise and interment in St Anne’s Cathedral.
Carson was a formidable politician in his day. He was appointed Solicitor General for Ireland in 1890, forged a successful career at the bar and was made a Queen’s Council in 1899.
His political career blossomed and he eventually served in the War Cabinet of David Lloyd George.
The seminar will be an opportunity to assess the great man and also to pass judgment, albeit briefly, on the manner in which his political descendants have looked after Northern Ireland and political unionism.
In short, there will be a chance to speculate whether or not his party, the Ulster Unionist Party, will be around to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his death.
Also, there is the question as to whether there will be a recognisable DUP to protect the wicket long after the UUP has been run out and retired to the pavilion.
Carson never wanted Stormont. He once pleaded with government not to give us power over our Catholic fellow countrymen.
He obviously feared how things might end up. He opposed the concept of partition and once famously remarked, quite incorrectly, that one county will be enough. In other words, save one county for the Union and the other 31 cannot leave. He saved six but lost the rest.
The dangers which Irish unionism faced 100 years ago are no less real today. Ironically the Union has been secured, with nationalism and even the provisional republican movement helping unionism to govern Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. This should be a period of great rejoicing within unionism but yet it is not. If the Union is safe, political unionism is not.
And there is always the suspicion that if political unionism collapses then a later onslaught against Ulster might be successful because apathy has bowled the rest of the unionist team out.
The current leadership election has underlined some of the difficulties, possibly terminal, to be faced by the Ulster Unionist Party.
The necessary concessions made to nationalism by the UUP during the Brooke and Mayhew talks almost 20 years ago awoke the far right to the dangers of power-sharing. They did not stop an agreement some years later but it was the springboard the right needed within the party to gain control.
For the last decade, the UUP leadership has been drawn from the ranks of the old Vanguard Movement and the Craigavon Society.
As the political fortunes of Carson’s party collapsed, the leadership looked for a crutch.
Forgetting the great man’s commitment to maintaining a broad church approach to the Union, the UUP jettisoned all pretence of contesting the recent elections in its own right and instead ran as Ulster Conservatives and Unionists New Force. Needless to say, they did not grab the public’s imagination and gained no seats.
Carson, the consummate parliamentarian, would have been stunned by the inability of the party he formed and led being unable to garner enough support to return even one Member of Parliament. And rather than rethink and regroup it is clear that some within the leadership of UUP are looking for another crutch – this time the Democratic Unionists.
This may reflect a lack of confidence, and after the complete “horlicks” the current leadership has made of the UUP it is no wonder that they lack confidence in their own ability.
But what of the larger unionist party? The DUP should be riding high.
The great opportunity to damage their party at the recent polls was missed by both the UUP and the TUV. Having done a complete turnaround on a lifetime’s policy of no power-sharing with nationalists – let alone republicans – this was their danger time.
However, any delight at their success at the polls was tempered by the loss of their leader’s seat. Only one-quarter of the capital city of Northern Ireland now has unionist representation at Westminster.
The difficulty that unionism now faces is that with the emasculation of the UUP, the DUP may well become the only show in town. Can it garner support for 2021 and take up the mantle of a century ago? Will Peter Robinson become the new Carson? Is he the man to lead us into the second century of Northern Ireland?
The answer to these two questions is probably not.
Ulster unionism requires a modern, pluralist, democratic and culturally diverse party to lead a resurgent movement capable of securing Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom for the foreseeable future.
Whether either party is fit for purpose remains to be seen.
Dr McGimpsey is a unionist, businessman and member of the Unite trade union