At the heart of this dispute is not just the IRA, but unionist rivalries

Posted By: September 15, 2015

Rev Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson at DUP press coference 26/10/79.Picture:  Pacemaker
Rev Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson at DUP press coference  October 26, 1979. 

Picture: Pacemaker
David McKittrick. News Letter (Belfast). Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Back in the 1970s Bill Craig, then a major Unionist figure leading the once important Vanguard party, got into terrible trouble when he tentatively advanced a proposal for what was called voluntary coalition.

The idea was that he would become prime minister of Northern Ireland in a restored Stormont parliament but that he would invite non-unionist parties, principally the SDLP, to serve as members of his cabinet.

The advantage, his people explained, was that this could be presented as a variation of majority rule since Craig, as prime minister, would have the power to dismiss from government any minister who misbehaved. If, for example, Gerry Fitt or John Hume said or did something objectionable, Bill could simply sack them.

In those days Sinn Fein did not figure in the political equation at all, since within republicanism it was very much secondary to the IRA and was intent on achieving a military victory over Britain. The big issue within unionism was whether or not it would be dangerous for the SDLP to be admitted into government.

Some unionists were intrigued by the voluntary coalition idea but the general reaction, inside and outside Vanguard, was one of uproar. Craig was roundly condemned, accused of undermining the Standard unionist position of the day, which was a demand for a return to old-style majority rule.

With Peter Robinson and Ian Paisley leading the charge, Craig was from then on treated as something close to an outcast from the Unionist mainstream. He lost his position as leader of Vanguard, then went on to lose his east Belfast Westminster seat.

The seat was won by Robinson who was to hold it for decades; decades which were marked by various unsuccessful initiatives aimed at reasserting the primacy of politics. It is hardly surprising that so many initiatives failed, given the strength of intercommunal tensions and the relentless toll of killings carried out by the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries.

If violence was a constant, so too was inter-unionist rivalry. Over the years more than a dozen Unionist parties came and went, with parties and individuals often switching allegiances and policies. 

At various times there were advocates for Unionist rule, integration with Britain, negotiated independence and so on.

Most of these parties and policies withered away, but eventually two were left to dominate the scene, the UUP and DUP. 

The two were locked in perennial contest – sometimes reasonably polite but for much of the time the no-holds–barred rhetoric of Paisley and the DUP meant Queensbury rules counted for little.

Their sharpest quarrel took the form of the UUP, most notably under the leadership of Trimble, being prepared to contemplate compromise and power-sharing, which the DUP denounced as Bill Craig-style treachery. 

One of the few who for years stood by Craig was David Trimble, who became the first Unionist leader to head up what might be called an involuntary coalition.

The DUP mindset changed, however, after it overtook the UUP in a series of elections and opted to go into power. 

Like all parties, the DUP and the UUP take many factors into account in making their decisions, but in Northern Ireland an important concern for both is to figure out how to advance their own interests, and how to make life as difficult as possible for their opponents. 

Over the years this has been a major complicating element in politics, and often an unhelpful one.

Although the relative strengths of the parties has been reversed, the pattern of a divided unionism persists. 

The issue of the IRA is clearly at the heart of the present crisis, but the attacks the DUP and UUP daily launch on each other show unmistakably that, as ever, for both of them the battle is not just against republicanism but also against each other.

• Journalist and author David McKittrick was for three decades the Ireland correspondent of The Independent.