From Basil McIvor To Basil McCrea…

I have been watching “liberal unionism” for over forty years. And playing poker almost as long……….and I know a busted flush when I see one. When the cards are dealt, there is some Hope. But it all ends in Failure.

Take the Spring of 1969. Newly elected Stormont MP for Larkfield, Basil McIvor visited our school and talked to the A Level students. Those of us studying Politics (or Economics and Political Studies as it was then) felt a kinda buzz. He was……if I recall “our” MP……the school was probably inside his constituency. It was a day like today…..crisp in early Spring…..who knows it might even have been 14th March 1969. McIvor was a “liberal” unionist, elected a month previously at the Crossroads support to Terence O’Neill.

Although we did not know it in March 1969, McIvor’s career had already peaked. Within six weeks, O’Neill had resigned as Prime Minister of Norn Iron and been replaced by James Chichester-Clark. And in August 1969, before we returned to school for that final “A” level year………..the Troubles had broken out and everything was too late anyway. McIvor worked on in the Unionist Party and within two years was Minister for Community Relations in Brian Faulkner’s Cabinet. …during Internment. Without a hint of Irony, he was a big supporter of Amnesty International. Liberal?

More honourably, McIvor was Minister for Education during the 1974 Sunningdale Power Sharing Executive. And when that collapsed McIvor dropped out of Politics and was a prominent Judge. In fairness, he will be better remembered as an advocate of Integrated Edcucation. Thats the fate of “liberal” unionists. Political Failure.

Look at other “liberal” unionists from 1969……Robert Porter (left Unionist Party and politics became a Judge), Robin Baillie (actually quite right wing but left the Unionists joined the Alliance Party…….went to the Law), Richard Ferguson (left Unionist Party and became high profile barrister……in England) and Tom Caldwell left Unionist Party, joined Alliance who dropped him, developed his Fine Arts Gallery).

In 1969, McIvor, Porter, Baillie, Ferguson and Caldwell looked like a “good hand” but ultimately became a busted flush.

Other Unionists notably Peter McLachlan in the 1970s have been lauded as “liberal” but disappeared from mainstream politics.

The 2010 Westminster Election produced a group of UUP candidates heralded as “liberal”.

Bill Mainwaring (West Belfast) is now a Conservative. Trevor Ringland (East Belfast) has left politics to be a leading figure in Platform for Change. Paula Bradshaw (South Belfast is now Mrs Parsley) left the UUP a few months later and joined the Alliance Party……she is already on the Party Executive but unlikely to progress. Husband Ian Parsley (North Down) left UUP to be a Tory but canvassed for Alliance in 2011 (he left the Party in 2009) and although likely to join the Alliance Party (again!) he has little hope of advancement. Harry Hamilton (Upper Bann) joined the Alliance Party in 2011 and was fast tracked to stand and fail in the 2011 Assembly Election.

Mainwaring, Ringland, Bradshaw, Parsley and Hamilton also looked like a decent hand. Another busted flush.

Staying within the UUP was Basil McCrea who ws perhaps heralded as the Great White Hope of the “liberal” Unionists. He was defeated for the Leadership of the UUP by Tom Elliott in 2010 and his decision to not let his name go forward (now that Elliott has resigned) and to back John McCallister signafies that McCrea has given up on his own ambitions.

“Liberal” Unionism has been the most over-rated failure in Norn Iron Politics……for which nationalists are extremely grateful.

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10 Responses to From Basil McIvor To Basil McCrea…

  1. bangordub says:

    Very good Post FJH.
    You have given a most informative overview of “Liberal” Unionism.
    What it reveals, I think, is that since O’Neill at least, there has always been a liberal wing of Unionism? That wing however has never enjoyed any degree of electoral success. Largely due, in my opinion, to the scaremongering siege mentality (Carefully fostered…ahem).
    Perhaps that is where the opportunity lies for the uup’s?

    • Cheers.
      I dont think the UUP can ever be a big Party again.
      Basically they blew it in 2010 ……only McCallister & McCrea are left of the 2010 Westminter “liberals”.
      I could have added Lesley Macauley (East Derry) and Irwin Armstrong to the defectors.
      Possibly the UUP-Conservative link up came several years too late or two years too early.
      They confused their own voters as they were too anxious to portray themselves as “new”. And pandered to the Old Guard by not fielding a candidate in Fermanagh South Tyrone. And of course they had already lost Sylvia Hermon which undermined their liberal credentials.
      To some extent John McCallister will be interesting. He is the last hope of “liberals” but if he wins …presumably the Party will go into Opposition which is likely to increase tensions within UUP.
      This McIvor-McCrea post is the first of two posts…the second will be on the Alliance Party. (a very short post)

  2. bangordub says:

    I honestly can’t see them lasting past the summer.
    I recall sitting in Enniskillen having a conversation with 2 elderly UUP supporters at the time of the Rodney Conner debacle explaining why the only result would be to polarise nationalist opinion, drive up the Sinn Fein vote, decimate the SDLP and ultimately why they would lose.
    They actually couldn’t see it at all. They were convinced that they couldn’t lose.
    Horseman wasn’t far wrong

  3. Mick Fealty says:

    If there’s a valid point here, it’s that being ‘liberal’ is simply not enough to sustain a political career. The same goes for the nationalist game. Come to think of it, I don’t know of any successful politicians anywhere who are as pure as some of the liberals mentioned above and still have political career.

    Yet I don’t think that that’s lesson lost on Mike Nesbitt, the notable survivor of the UTV 2.

    Unionism has always had a liberal strand, not all of them reflected in Fitzy’s far from comprehensive list. One I would bid to put in there was one who was a lot more pragmatic would be Edgar Graham, whom some believe was killed precisely because his ‘liberalism’ stood a chance of working rather too well.

    I would also argue with the axiom. Most unionism is now on the ground Norman Porter said it should take (civic as opposed to liberal unionism) if it was to have a pups chance in hell of surviving. Most (especially the liberals) hated him for saying it, but I don’t think he was wrong.

    Porter, btw, would have had Big Bad Bob and the integrationists firmly in the liberal unionist corral.

    • Edgar Graham (RIP) might well have been a future Leader of the UUP. But those of us who recall his TV appearances would hardly use the word “liberal”. Particuarly those related to the Hunger Strike. You have not actually said that you believe what “some believe” but you could certainly have added that the reason (and lets call it an excuse) given at the time by the Irish Republican Army was that he was involved in the Prisons dispute.
      My own theory for what its worth was that he presented a very soft target in leafy South Belfast.
      Alas QUB academics and students suffered during the Troubles…….Miriam Daly, Sheena Campbell (fatally) and Adrian Guelke (happily he survived) as well as Edgar Graham.

      By the way can I ask commenters not to refer to me as “Fitzy”. I dont like it and Mick Fealty would not wish to offend me.

  4. Are you speaking of the impending doom for Slyvia Herman?

    • No Kevin far from it. She is in a long line of maverick MPs for North Down. Indeed I blogged about Bangor last month and how detached it is from the real Norn Iron it is. Syvia will be MP as long as she wants it. Ironically there was a time when Bob McCartney was considered “liberal”.

  5. Mick Fealty says:

    I think that comes down to definitions… what is a liberal in this context?

    • Well if we accept that the majority of Ulster Unionists are “conservative” politically (Fred Cobain perhaps not) and that “social” and “political” conservatives and liberals (ie divorce, abortion) are comparatively recent inventions…..then I think we are left with sectarian attitudes as the main indicator. It would be my contention that most politicians of any hue are not sectarian….Id happily accept most are decent. But there are people who are prepared to think outside the traditional boxes to bring more people on board with their unionism.

  6. Mick Fealty says:

    The sectarian marker crosses both. Simpler and more informative to use the terms conservative and radical as a more functional differentiator.

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