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Ulster nationalism is a school of thought in Northern Irish politics that seeks the independence of Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom without joining the Republic of Ireland, thereby becoming an independent sovereign state separate from both.
Independence has been supported by groups such as Ulster Third Way and some factions of the Ulster Defence Association. However, it is a fringe view in Northern Ireland. It is neither supported by any of the political parties represented in the Northern Ireland Assembly nor by the government of the United Kingdom or the government of the Republic of Ireland.
Although the term Ulster refers strictly to one of the four traditional provinces of Ireland which contains Northern Ireland as well as parts of the Republic of Ireland, the term is often used within unionism and Ulster loyalism (from which Ulster nationalism originated) to refer to Northern Ireland.
W. F. McCoy and Dominion status
Ulster nationalism has its origins[disputed ] in 1946 when W. F. McCoy, a former cabinet minister in the Government of Northern Ireland, advocated this option. He wanted Northern Ireland to become a dominion with a political system similar to Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the then Union of South Africa, or the Irish Free State prior to 1937. McCoy, a lifelong member of the Ulster Unionist Party, felt that the uncertain constitutional status of Northern Ireland made the Union vulnerable and so saw his own form of limited Ulster nationalism as a way to safeguard Northern Ireland's relationship with the United Kingdom.
Some members of the Ulster Vanguard movement, led by William Craig, in the early 1970s published similar arguments, most notably Professor Kennedy Lindsay. In the early 1970s, in the face of the British government prorogation of the government of Northern Ireland, Craig, Lindsay and others argued in favour of a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) from Great Britain similar to that declared in Rhodesia a few years previously. Lindsay later founded the British Ulster Dominion Party to this end but it faded into obscurity around 1979.
Loyalism and Ulster nationalism
Whilst early versions of Ulster nationalism had been designed to safeguard the status of Northern Ireland, the move saw something of a rebirth in the 1970s, particularly following the 1972 suspension of the Parliament of Northern Ireland and the resulting political uncertainty in the province. Glenn Barr, a Vanguard Assemblyman and a UDA leader, described himself in 1973 as 'an Ulster nationalist'. The successful Ulster Workers Council Strike in 1974, (which was directed by Barr), was later described by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Merlyn Rees as an 'outbreak of Ulster nationalism'.
After the strike loyalism began to embrace Ulster nationalist ideas, with the UDA in particular advocating this position. Firm proposals for an independent Ulster were produced in 1976 by the Ulster Loyalist Central Co-ordinating Committee and in 1977 by the UDA's New Ulster Political Research Group. The NUPRG document, Beyond the Religious Divide has been recently republished with a new introduction. John McMichael, as candidate for the UDA-linked Ulster Loyalist Democratic Party, campaigned for the 1982 South Belfast by-election on the basis of negotiations towards independence. However McMichael's poor showing of 576 saw the plans largely abandoned by the UDA soon after, although the policy was still considered by the Ulster Democratic Party under Ray Smallwoods. A short-lived Ulster Independence Party also operated, although the assassination of its leader John McKeague in 1982 saw it largely disappear.
The National Front
While Ulster nationalism went into something of a decline following the South Belfast by-election in loyalist circles, the issue became a matter of policy for the Official National Front, as the Political Soldier wing of the British National Front was known. During the 1980s the group produced a document entitled Alternative Ulster – Facing Up to the Future which laid out plans for how independence could be achieved and how the independent state would function. Arguing that Ulster represented a nation distinct from Ireland and Britain, they called for an independent state to be run by a series of Community Councils, with an economy based on distributism. Despite the plans, the NF never had more than minor support in the province and the plans failed to reach a wider audience.
The idea enjoyed something of a renaissance in the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, with the Ulster Clubs amongst those to consider the notion. After a series of public meetings leading Ulster Clubs member Rev Hugh Ross set up the Ulster Independence Committee in 1988, which soon re-emerged as the Ulster Independence Movement. After a reasonable showing in the Upper Bann by-election, 1990, the group stepped up its campaigning in the aftermath of the Downing Street Declaration and enjoyed a period of increased support immediately after the Belfast Agreement (also absorbing the Ulster Movement for Self-Determination, which desired a historical Ulster as the basis for independence, along the way). No tangible electoral success was gained however, and the group was further damaged by allegations against Ross in a Channel 4 documentary on collusion, The Committee, leading to the group reconstituting as a ginger group in 2000.
With the UIM now defunct, Ulster nationalism is represented by the Ulster Third Way, which is involved in the publication of the Ulster Nation, a journal of radical Ulster nationalism. Ulster Third Way, which registered as a political party in February 2001, is the Northern Ireland branch of the UK-wide Third Way, albeit with much stronger emphasis on the Northern Ireland question. Ulster Third Way contested the West Belfast parliamentary seat in the 2001 general election, although candidate and party leader David Kerr failed to attract much support.
Relationship to Unionism and Loyalism
Ulster nationalism represents a reaction from within Unionism and Loyalism to the uncertain position afforded to the Union by the British government. Its leadership and members have largely all come from within Unionism and have tended to react to what they viewed as crises surrounding the status of Northern Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom, such as the moves towards power sharing in the 1970s or the Belfast Agreement of 1998 which briefly saw the UIM become a minor force. In such instances it has been considered preferable by the supporters of this ideological movement to remove the British dimension either partially (Dominion status) or fully (independence) to avoid all-Ireland rule.
However whilst support for Ulster nationalism has tended to be reactive to political change, the theory also underlines the importance of Ulster cultural nationalism and the separate identity of the people of Ulster. As such Ulster nationalist movements have been at the forefront of supporting the Orange Order and upholding the 12 July marches as important parts of this cultural heritage, as well as encouraging the growth of the Ulster Scots language.
Outside the Unionist movement, a non-sectarian independent Northern Ireland has sometimes been advocated as a solution to the conflict. Two notable examples of this are the Scottish Marxist Tom Nairn and the Irish nationalist Liam de Paor.
- W. F. McCoy
- Ian S. Wood, Crimes of Loyalty:A History of the UDA, pg. 50.
- Wood,pg. 86.
- See The Break-Up of Britain,(2nd edition),Verso, 1981.
- See his book Unfinished Business, Radius,1990. Pgs.158-9 "...It is possible to reconcile these conflicting aspirations [Unionist and Nationalist] through a compromise that would involve a new constitution for Northern Ireland: a devolution that would create a self-governing state..."