Ulster Unionist Party

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"UUP" redirects here. For the chemical element, see Ununpentium.
Ulster Unionist Party
Leader Mike Nesbitt MLA
Chairman The Lord Empey
General Secretary Colin McCusker
Founded 3 March 1905
Preceded by Irish Unionist Alliance
Headquarters Strandtown Hall,
2-4 Belmont Road, Belfast, County Down,
Northern Ireland
Youth wing Young Unionists
Ideology British unionism
Soft euroscepticism[1]
Political position Centre-right[2]
European affiliation Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists
European Parliament group European Conservatives and Reformists Group
Colours Red, white and blue
House of Commons
0 / 650
House of Lords
2 / 793
EU Parliament
1 / 3
NI Assembly
13 / 108
Local Councils
88 / 462
Official Website
Politics of Northern Ireland
Political parties

The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) – sometimes referred to as the Official Unionist Party (OUP) or, in a historic sense, simply the Unionist Party – is the older of the two main unionist political parties in Northern Ireland.[3] Before the split in unionism in the late 1960s, when the former Protestant Unionist Party began to attract hardline Ulster loyalist support away from the UUP, it governed Northern Ireland between 1921 and 1972 as the sole major unionist party. It continued to be supported by most unionist voters throughout the conflict known as the Troubles.

The UUP has lost support among Northern Ireland's unionists to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in successive elections at all levels of government since 1999. The party is currently led by Mike Nesbitt.

In 2009 the party agreed to an electoral alliance with the Conservative Party and the two parties fielded joint candidates for elections to the House of Commons and the European Parliament under the banner of "Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force" (UCUNF).[4] Literature and the website for the 2009 European Parliament election used "Conservatives and Unionists" as the short name.[5] The party held its European seat but lost all its Westminster seats when their sole MP left the party in protest at the alliance and ran as an Independent.


1880s to 1921[edit]

The Ulster Unionist Party traces its formal existence back to the foundation of the Ulster Unionist Council in 1905. Before that, however, there had been a less formally organised Irish Unionist Alliance (IUA) since the late 19th century, sometimes but not always dominated by Unionists from Ulster. Modern organised Unionism properly emerged after William Ewart Gladstone's introduction in 1886 of the first of three Home Rule Bills in response to demands by the Irish Parliamentary Party. The IUA was an alliance of Irish Conservatives and Liberal Unionists, the latter having split from the Liberal Party over the issue of home rule. It was the merger of these two parties in 1912 that gave rise to the current name of the Conservative and Unionist Party, to which the UUP was formally linked to varying degrees until 1985.

The party had a strong association with the Orange Order, a Protestant religious institution. The original composition of the Ulster Unionist Council was 25% Orange delegates,[6] however this was reduced through the years. Though most unionist support was based in the geographic area that became Northern Ireland, there were at one time Unionist enclaves throughout southern Ireland. Unionists in Cork and Dublin were particularly influential. The initial leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party all came from outside what would later become Northern Ireland, with people such as Colonel Saunderson, Viscount (later the Earl of) Midleton and the Dubliner Sir Edward Carson, members of the Irish Unionist Alliance. However, after the Irish Convention failed to reach an understanding on home rule and with the partition of Ireland under the Government of Ireland Act 1920, Irish unionism in effect split. Many southern unionist politicians quickly became reconciled with the new Irish Free State, sitting in its senate or joining its political parties. The existence of a separate Ulster Unionist Party became entrenched as the party took control of the new government of Northern Ireland.

Carson inspecting the Ulster Volunteers, pre-1914

The leadership of the UUP was taken by Sir Edward Carson in 1910. Throughout his 11 year leadership he fought a sustained campaign against Irish Home Rule, including the formation of the Ulster Volunteers in 1912. In the 1918 general election Carson switched constituencies from his former seat of Dublin University to Belfast Duncairn. Carson had also strongly opposed the partition of Ireland and the destruction of unionism as a pan-Ireland political force, so he refused the opportunity to be Prime Minister of Northern Ireland or even to sit in the Northern Ireland House of Commons, citing a lack of connection with the place. The leadership of the Party and, subsequently, Northern Ireland was taken by Sir James Craig.

The Stormont era[edit]

Until almost the very end of its period of power in Northern Ireland, and in common with many party leaders of the time in the rest of the UK, the Unionist Party was led by a combination of landed gentry (Lord Brookeborough and James Chichester-Clark), aristocracy (Captain O'Neill) and gentrified industrial magnates (Lord Craigavon and John Miller Andrews – nephew of Viscount Pirrie). Only its last Prime Minister, Brian Faulkner was from a middle-class background.

Lord Craigavon governed Northern Ireland from its inception until his death in 1940 and is buried with his wife by the east wing of Parliament Buildings. His successor, J. M. Andrews, was heavily criticised for appointing octogenarian veterans of Craigavon's administration to his cabinet. His government was also believed to be more interested in protecting the statue of Carson at the Stormont Estate than the citizens of Belfast during the Blitz. A backbench revolt in 1943 resulted in his resignation to be replaced by Sir Basil Brooke (later Viscount Brookeborough), although he was recognised as leader of the party until 1946.

Brookeborough, despite having felt that Craigavon had held on to power for too long, was Prime Minister for one year longer. During this time he was on more than one occasion called to meetings of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland to explain his actions, most notably following the 1947 Education Act which made the state responsible for the payment of National Insurance contributions of teachers in Catholic Maintained Schools. Ian Paisley called for Brookeborough's resignation in 1953 when he refused to sack Brian Maginess and Sir Clarence Graham, Bt. who gave speeches supporting Catholic membership of the UUP. He retired in 1963 and was replaced by Terence O'Neill, who emerged ahead of other candidates, Jack Andrews and Faulkner.

In the 1960s, identifying with the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King and encouraged by attempts at reform under O'Neill, various organisations campaigned for civil rights, calling for changes to the system for allocating public housing and the voting system for the local government franchise (which was restricted to rate payers). O'Neill had pushed through some reforms but in the process the Ulster Unionists became heavily divided. At the 1969 Stormont General Election UUP candidates stood on both pro and anti-O'Neill platforms, with several independent pro-O'Neill Unionists challenging his critics, whilst the Protestant Unionist Party of Ian Paisley mounted a hard-line challenge. The result proved inconclusive for O'Neill, who resigned a short time later. His resignation was probably caused by that of James Chichester-Clark who stated that he disagreed with the timing, but not the principle, of universal suffrage at Local Elections.

Chichester-Clark won the leadership election to replace O'Neill and swiftly moved to implement many of his reforms. Civil disorder continued to mount, culminating in August 1969 when republicans clashed with Apprentice Boys in Derry, sparking days of riots, and decades of violence. Early in 1971 Chichester-Clark flew to London to request further military aid following the murder of three off duty soldiers by the IRA. When this was all but refused, he resigned to be replaced by Brian Faulkner.

Faulkner's government struggled though 1971 and into 1972, however following Bloody Sunday the British Government threatened to remove security primacy from the devolved Government. Faulkner reacted by resigning with his entire cabinet, and the British Government suspended, and eventually abolished the Northern Ireland Parliament, replacing it with Direct Rule.

The liberal Unionist group the New Ulster Movement, who had advocated the policies of Terence O'Neill left and formed the Alliance Party in April 1970, while the emergence of Ian Paisley's Protestant Unionist Party drew off some working-class and more hard-line support.


Ulster Unionist Party, 1974. Troubled Images Exhibition, Linen Hall Library, Belfast, August 2010

In June 1973 the Unionists won a majority of seats in the new Northern Ireland Assembly, but the party was divided on policy. The Sunningdale Agreement, which led to the formation of a power-sharing Executive under the Ulster Unionist leader Brian Faulkner, ruptured the party. In the 1973 elections to the Executive the party found itself divided, a division that did not formally end until January 1974 with the triumph of the anti-Sunningdale faction. Faulkner was then overthrown, and he set up the Unionist Party of Northern Ireland (UPNI). The Ulster Unionists were now led by Harry West from 1974 until 1979. In the February 1974 general election, the party participated in the United Ulster Unionist Coalition (UUUC) with Vanguard and the Democratic Unionists. The result was that the UUUC won 11 out of 12 parliamentary seats in Northern Ireland on a fiercely anti-Sunningdale platform, although they barely won 50% of the overall popular vote. This result was a fatal blow for the Executive, which soon collapsed.

Up until 1974 the UUP was affiliated with the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations, and Ulster Unionist MPs sat with the Conservative Party at Westminster, traditionally taking the Conservative parliamentary whip. To all intents and purposes the party functioned as the Northern Ireland branch of the Conservative Party. In 1974, in protest over the Sunningdale Agreement, the Westminster Ulster Unionist MPs withdrew from the alliance. The party remained affiliated to the National Union but in 1985, they withdrew from it as well, in protest over the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Subsequently, the Conservative Party has organised separately in Northern Ireland, with little electoral success.

Under West's leadership, the party recruited Enoch Powell, who became Ulster Unionist MP for South Down in October 1974 after defecting from the Conservatives. Powell advocated a policy of 'integration', whereby Northern Ireland would be administered as an integral part of the United Kingdom. This policy divided both the Ulster Unionists and the wider Unionist movement, as Powell's ideas conflicted with those supporting a restoration of devolved government to Northern Ireland. The party also made gains upon the break-up of the Vanguard Party and its merger back into the Ulster Unionists. The separate United Ulster Unionist Party (UUUP) emerged from the remains of Vanguard but folded in the early 1980s, as did the UPNI. In both cases the main beneficiaries of this were the Ulster Unionists, now under the leadership of James Molyneaux (1979–95).

The Trimble Leadership[edit]

David Trimble led the party between 1995 and 2005. His support (which some nationalists claim to be ambiguous) for the Belfast Agreement caused a rupture within the Party into pro-agreement and anti-agreement factions. Trimble served as First Minister of Northern Ireland in the power-sharing administration created under the Belfast Agreement.

The UUP had a Roman Catholic Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) (the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly), Sir John Gorman until the 2003 election. In March 2005, the Orange Order voted to end its official links with the UUP, while still maintaining the same unofficial links as other interest groups. Mr Trimble faced down Orange Order critics who tried to suspend him for his attendance at a Catholic funeral for a young boy killed by the Real IRA, in the infamous Omagh bombing. Trimble and Irish president Mary McAleese, in a sign of unity, walked into the church together.

2005 General Election[edit]

The party fared poorly in the 2005 general election, losing five of its six Westminster seats – previously seven; one MP had previously defected to the DUP. Only the Labour Party lost more seats in 2005. David Trimble himself lost his seat in Upper Bann and resigned as party leader soon after. The ensuing leadership election was won by Sir Reg Empey.


In May 2006 UUP leader Reg Empey attempted to create a new assembly group that would have included Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) leader David Ervine. The PUP is the political wing of the illegal Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).[7][8][9][10][11] Many in the UUP, including the last remaining MP, Sylvia Hermon, were opposed to the move.[12][13] The link was in the form of a new group called the 'Ulster Unionist Party Assembly Group' whose membership was the 24 UUP MLAs and Mr Ervine. Sir Reg Empey justified the link by stating that under the d'Hondt method for allocating ministers in the Assembly, the new group would take a seat in the Executive from Sinn Féin.

Following a request for a ruling from the DUP's Peter Robinson, the Speaker ruled that the UUPAG was not a political party within the meaning of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.[14]

The party did poorly in the Northern Ireland Assembly election, 2007. The party retained 18 of its seats within the assembly.[15] Sir Reg Empey was the only leader of one of the four main parties not to be re-elected on first preference votes alone in the Assembly elections of March 2007.

Party Leader Candidates Seats Change from 2003
1st Pref Votes 1st Pref % Change from 2003
Executive seats
UUP Reg Empey 38 18 Decrease 9 103,145 14.9 Decrease 7.7 2

In July 2008, the UUP and Conservative Party announced that a joint working group had been established to examine closer ties. On 26 February 2009, the Ulster Unionist Executive and area council of Northern Ireland Conservatives agreed to field joint candidates in future elections to the House of Commons and European Parliament under the name "Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force". The agreement meant that Ulster Unionist MPs could have sat in a Conservative Government, renewing its own former relationship with the Conservatives and that of the Scottish Unionist Party before its merger to form the current Conservative Party.[4][16] The UUP's sole remaining MP at the time, Sylvia Hermon, opposed the agreement, stating she would not be willing to stand under a joint Conservative/Unionist banner.[17] In February 2010, she confirmed that she would not be seeking a nomination as a Conservative and Unionist candidate for the forthcoming general election.[18] On 25 March 2010, she formally resigned from the party and announced that she would be standing as an independent candidate at the general election.[19] As a result, the UUP were left without representation in the House of Commons for the first time since the party's creation.

Northern Ireland election seats 1997-2010.svg

At the 2010 General Election, the Conservatives and Unionists won no seats in Northern Ireland (while Hermon won hers as an independent). The Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force label was not used again. Following the election, Sir Reg Empey resigned as leader. He was replaced by Tom Elliott as party leader in the subsequent leadership election. During the leadership election, it emerged that a quarter of the UUP membership came from Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the constituency of Tom Elliott and a disproportionately high figure.[20] The Irish political magazine, the Phoenix, described Elliott as a "blast from the past" and that his election signified "a significant shift to the right" by the UUP.[21] Shortly after his election, three 2010 General Election candidates resigned: Harry Hamilton, Paula Bradshaw and Trevor Ringland.[22] Bradshaw and Hamilton subsequently joined the Alliance Party.[23]

The party further declined in the 2011 Assembly elections (standing again as the UUP). It lost two seats and won fewer votes than the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) (although it won more seats than the SDLP) and two of its candidates, Bill Manwaring and Lesley Macaulay, subsequently joined the Conservative Party. In addition, east of the Bann, it lost seats to the Alliance Party. It was also overtaken by Alliance on Belfast City Council.[24]

Party Leader Candidates Seats Change from 2007
1st Pref Votes 1st Pref % Change from 2007
Executive seats
UUP Tom Elliott 29 16 Decrease 2 87,258 13.2 Decrease 1.7 1

Tom Elliott was criticised for comments he made in his victory speech where he described elements of Sinn Féin as "scum".[25]

The Conservatives and the UUP went their separate ways again,[26] with the Conservatives in NI relaunching as a separate party on 14 June 2012.[27]


The UUP is still organised around the Ulster Unionist Council, which was from 1905 until 2004 the only legal representation of the party. Following the adoption of a new Constitution in 2004, the UUP has been an entity in its own right, however the UUC still exists as the supreme decision making body of the Party. In autumn 2007 the delegates system was done away with, and today all UUP members are members of the Ulster Unionist Council, with entitlements to vote for the Leader, party officers and on major policy decisions.

Each Constituency in Northern Ireland forms the boundary of a UUP Constituency Association, which is made up of branches formed along local boundaries (usually District Electoral Areas). There are also four 'representative bodies', the Ulster Women's Unionist Council, the Ulster Young Unionist Council, the Westminster Unionist Association (the party's Great Britain branch) and the Ulster Unionist Councillors Association. Each Constituency Association and Representative Body elects a number of delegates to the Party Executive Committee, which governs many areas of party administration such as membership and candidate selection.

The UUP maintained a formal connection with the Orange Order from its foundation until 2005, and with the Apprentice Boys of Derry until 1975. Only three of the party's Westminster MPs (Enoch Powell, Ken Maginnis and Sylvia Hermon) have not been members of the Orange Order. This was said to be a factor in discouraging Catholic membership of the party. While the party was considering structural reforms, including the connection with the Order, it was the Order itself that severed the connection in 2004. The connection with the Apprentice Boys was cut in a 1975 review of the party's structure as they had not taken up their delegates for several years beforehand.

Youth wing[edit]

The UUP's youth wing is the Young Unionists, first formed in 2004 as a rebrand of the Ulster Young Unionist Council, which formed in 1946. Many of its members have stayed with the party, such as the present leader of the UUP. Others have left to start other Unionist parties. Having disbanded twice, in 1974 and 2004, the Council was re-constituted by young activists in March 2004. This resulted in the Young Unionists (YU) becoming a representative body of the UUP and subject to its revamp of their Constitution.

Party leadership[edit]

Current ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive[edit]

Portfolio Name
Department for Regional Development Danny Kennedy MLA

Party spokesmen[edit]

The current Party spokesman are:[28]

Responsibility Name
Agriculture and Health Jo-Anne Dobson MLA
Culture, Arts and Leisure Michael McGimpsey MLA
Economy and Education Danny Kinahan MLA
Employment and Learning Robin Swann MLA
Environment Sandra Overend MLA
Finance Leslie Cree MLA
Justice Tom Elliott MLA
Policing Ross Hussey MLA
Social Development Michael Copeland MLA

Party Officers[edit]

The current Party Officers are:

Clssification Name
Leader Mike Nesbitt MLA
Party Chairman Lord Empey
Party Vice Chairman Roy McCune
Assembly Group Leader Robin Swann MLA
Westminster Leader Lord Rogan
Party Treasurer Cllr Mark Cosgrove
Chairman of the Councillors' Association Cllr Trevor Wilson
Member of the European Parliament Jim Nicholson MEP
Leader's Nominee Tom Elliott MLA
Leader's Nominee Cllr Phillip Smyth
Members' Nominee George White
Members' Nominee Cllr Alexander Redpath
Members' Nominee Cllr Joy Rollston

Electoral history[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "NORTHERN IRELAND / UK". Parties and Elections in Europe. 
  2. ^ Ari-Veikko Anttiroiko; Matti Mälkiä (2007). Encyclopedia of Digital Government. Idea Group Inc (IGI). pp. 394–. ISBN 978-1-59140-790-4. 
  3. ^ "NI parties step on election trail". BBC News. 5 April 2005. Retrieved 9 April 2010. 
  4. ^ a b "Lady Hermon under 'no pressure'". BBC News. 27 February 2009. Retrieved 27 March 2010. 
  5. ^ Devenport, Mark (12 May 2009). "Profile: Jim Nicholson". BBC News Online. Retrieved 30 May 2009. 
  6. ^ John Harbinson (1973) The Ulster Unionist Party, 1882–1973. Belfast: Blackstaff Press ISBN 0-85640-007-6
  7. ^ "What is the UVF?". BBC News. 14 September 2005. Retrieved 9 April 2010. 
  8. ^ McDonald, Henry (8 January 2007). "David Ervine". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 9 April 2010. 
  9. ^ Federation of American Scientists[dead link]
  10. ^ McKittrick, David (26 July 2005). "Feuding loyalists bring the fear back to Belfast". The Independent (London). Retrieved 9 April 2010. 
  11. ^ "MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Base". 
  12. ^ "Row as Ervine joins UUP grouping". BBC News. 15 May 2006. Retrieved 9 April 2010. [dead link]
  13. ^ "MP 'distressed' over Ervine move". BBC News. 17 May 2006. Retrieved 9 April 2010. 
  14. ^ "UUP-PUP link 'against the rules'". BBC News. 11 September 2006. Retrieved 9 April 2010. 
  15. ^ DUP top in NI assembly election, BBC News Online, 12 March 2007
  16. ^ David Cameron launches biggest Conservative shake-up for decades Telegraph, 23 July 2008
  17. ^ Hermon: why she rejected Tory deal Belfast Telegraph, 14 May 2009
  18. ^ UUP MP Lady Sylvia Hermon rejects UCUNF candidacy BBC News, 23 February 2010
  19. ^ MP Lady Sylvia Hermon quits Ulster Unionists BBC News, 25 March 2010
  20. ^ "Legal threat to the UUP leadership race ebbs". Belfast Telegraph. 17 September 2010. Retrieved 16 January 2015. 
  21. ^ http://www.thephoenix.ie/phoenix/subscriber/library/volume-28/issue-25/contents.pdf
  22. ^ "Troubled backdrop to UUP conference". 
  23. ^ "Queen tribute singer Harry Hamilton with Alliance Party". BBC News. 14 January 2011. 
  24. ^ "'Magnificent' council result for Alliance". u.tv. 
  25. ^ "DUP and Sinn Féin top polls in NI Assembly elections". The Irish Times. 5 May 2011. 
  26. ^ "Can rebranded Northern Ireland Conservatives deliver?". BBC News. 14 June 2012. 
  27. ^ Polley, Owen (14 June 2012). "NI Conservatives launch as fresh, centre-right party, in Belfast". NI Conservatives (Belfast). Retrieved 15 June 2012. 
  28. ^ Our People - MLAs Ulster Unionist Party

External links[edit]