Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Ulster Unionist Party
From The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

The largest political party in Northern Ireland. Right-of-centre in orientation, its aim is equality for Northern Ireland within the UK, and it opposes union with the Republic of Ireland. Until 2007, when it was eclipsed by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the party had the broadest support of any Ulster party, and consistently won a large proportion of parliamentary and local seats. Its central organization, dating from 1905, is formally called the Ulster Unionist Council. Its leader from 1995 to 2005 was David Trimble. It secured 28 of the 108 seats in the new Northern Ireland Assembly, elected in June 1998, and Trimble was elected Northern Ireland's first minister at the Assembly's first meeting on 1 July. He resigned in June 2001, but agreed to stand for re-election in October 2001 and remained as first minister until direct rule from London was reimposed in October 2002.

Policies The party advocates equal local-government rights for the people of Ulster compared with the rest of the UK. The need for tough law-and-order measures is also a strong party theme, with many of its leaders in favour of reintroducing capital punishment. The party has been generally hostile to the terms of the UK's membership of the European Union (EU), and believes that it has a negative impact on Ulster. However, it supported remaining in the EU in the UK's June 2016 Brexit referendum. Within Westminster the Ulster Unionist members of Parliament have generally voted with the Conservative Party.

History The party is the main successor of the once dominant Unionist Party, which governed the province 1921–72. The first Ulster Unionist Council was set up to support continued union with Britain, and to oppose any measure of Home Rule. Its first prominent leader was Edward Carson. After Ireland was partitioned in 1921 and Home Rule was introduced in Northern Ireland, the Unionists took control of the new institutions that had been established in the province. There were six successive Unionist prime ministers 1921–72. The Unionist Party enjoyed wide support among the Protestant population and the mainstream Protestant churches, and with the powerful Orange Order. The Unionists' abolition of proportional representation helped to prevent the rise of rival pro-union groups.

Unionist Party split Divisions within the Unionist Party intensified during the late 1960s and the early 1970s as a result of the agitation of the Catholic minority for civil rights, and there was a revival of support for hard-line Protestant groups. Following the suspension of Home Rule 1972, the party split, and by 1973 there were three main Unionist groups: a pro-British White Paper Unionist group led by the former prime minister Brian Faulkner, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Ian Paisley, and a hard-line Vanguard Party led by William Craig (1931–2011). The 1973 Sunningdale Agreement and the introduction of a Protestant–Catholic power-sharing executive in early 1974 led to further divisions. Anti-executive Unionists led by Harry West (1917–2004), Vanguard, and the DUP joined to form the United Ulster Unionist Coalition (UUUC), but in 1977 the UUUC was dissolved, and Harry West's Official Ulster Unionist Party and Paisley's DUP were the only major Unionist contenders. The party has benefited from the agreement reached in 1986 and 1987 with the OUP and DUP whereby none of the parties would challenge the other in the seats that they already held. It still has close links with the Orange Order.

Influence in the UK Parliament In the UK Parliament 1974–79, the Unionist MPs held an important bargaining position, and the Conservatives could no longer rely on their support – in 1979 two Unionists supported the Labour government in a vote of confidence.

The Ulster Unionist Party totally rejected the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, and joined forces with DUP to campaign against it. All its MPs resigned their seats in order to demonstrate the degree of Unionist hostility to the agreement.

In February 1995 the Ulster Unionists rejected the British and Irish governments' published proposals on the future of Northern Ireland and threatened to withdraw their support of the government. Under Trimble's leadership, from 1995, the UUP became more accommodating in the peace negotiations and accepted the 1998 Good Friday Agreement on power-sharing. Trimble resigned as first minister in July 2001, following the IRA's failure to decommission as promised in the Agreement, but agreed to stand for re-election in October after it was confirmed that the IRA had put some arms beyond use. He continued as first minister until October 2002, when direct rule was reimposed following concerns at alleged IRA spying at the Northern Ireland Office.

The Ulster Unionists polled very poorly at the 2005 general election as a result of a failure to resolve the issue of IRA arms decommissioning. Trimble lost his seat in the UK parliament, and the party had only one MP, being eclipsed by the DUP led by the hardline Ian Paisley, which had nine seats. Trimble resigned as party leader and was replaced by Reg Empey, who led the UUP until 2010. A succession of leaders then followed: Tom Elliott 2010–12, Mike Nesbitt 2012–17, and Robin Swann from 2017.

The Ulster Unionists were eclipsed by the DUP also in the March 2007 elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, after which the DUP's Ian Paisley became first minister. At the May 2010 UK general election, the Ulster Unionists failed to win any seats. It won two seats at the May 2015 general election and 10 seats (out of 90) in the Northern Ireland Assembly election of March 2017.


Northern Ireland


Ulster Unionist Party

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

Related Articles

Full text Article Ulster Unionist Party
Brewer's Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable

Northern Ireland's largest political party, founded in 1905 to resist the threat of all-Ireland Home Rule , is right-of-centre in orientation...

Full text Article Northern Ireland peace process
The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Process leading to peace, the establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the decommissioning of paramilitary arms in Northern Ireland, gener

Full text Article Trimble, David
The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Northern Ireland politician, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP, or Official Unionist Party, OUP) 1995–2005 and Northern Ireland's first minist

See more from Credo