In 1970, James Chichester-Clark resigned as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, and as Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister. He was being pulled in opposite political directions by two different political forces.
The first was Harold Wilson’s Government, which was set on wrestlng control of security policy away from Stormont. The second was Iain Paisley’s new Protestant Unionist Party, which had recently won two Westminster by-elections.
Chichester-Clark was succeeded by Brian Faulkner, whose earlier resignation from Northern Ireland’s government had been a factor in forcing the resignation of Chichester-Clark’s predecessor, Terence O’Neill.
Faulkner had earlier stood against Chichester-Clark for the Ulster Unionist leadership, losing by a single vote – that cast by O’Neill for Chicester-Clark…his cousin.
Faulkner had served as Northern Ireland’s Minister of Home Affairs during the late 1950s and early 1960s, where he built his reputation as an energetic politician on the right of his party – one that his resignation from O’Neill’s government had done nothing to weaken.
Once Prime Minister, he duly found himself caught between the same pressures as his predecessor. Forced to choose between a revolting Unionist base and Edward Heath’s Government, he plumped for the latter.
The consequence was his acceptance of the Sunningdale Agreement, a forerunner of the Belfast Agreement, which brought him down – or, rather, was itself brought down by the loyalist Ulster Workers’ Council Strike.
Faulkner then lost the leadership of his party, formed the new Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, which flopped, and left active politics in 1976, becoming Baron Faulkner of Downpatrick a year later.
There are many differences between Faulkner and Edwin Poots, yesterday elected as the new leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. For a start, Poots will not lead Northern Ireland’s government, as Faulkner did when he became Ulster Unionist leader.
The Alliance Party, which sits nearer the centre of Northern Ireland’s politics, is better developed than it was in 1970, and is well positioned to pick up more middle-class Unionist votes.
And unlike Chichester-Clark, Arlene Foster hasn’t resigned: she continues as First Minister. Rather, she was ousted by her own party from its leadership.
For all that, and despite Northern Ireland’s changes over 50 years, it shouldn’t be assumed that politics in Northern Ireland must follow a pre-determined script.
Because Poots is a member of the Free Presbytarian Church of Ulster, a young earth creationist, and opposes blood donations from gay people, it is widely assumed that he will tread a very narrow path.
Certainly, he defeated Sir Jeffrey Donaldson by 19 votes to 17 partly, even largely, because the unionist base is again in revolt – over the Northern Ireland Protocol, the treatment of Bobby Storey’s funeral, and a general sense that its position is under threat.
The turbulence is not as spectacular as that of 1970, but those DUP politicians will hope that Poots’ election will help to reassure Unionist voters, and bolster their own position – as their Ulster Unionist predecessors did of Faulkner’s.
And the new DUP has begun his leadership with that task in mind. “I will be a leader in unionism who will be reaching out to other leaders in unionism. I want to see unionism working together,” he said yesterday.
More broadly, the lack of political leadership in Northern Ireland’s government, the non-sitting of the Assembly for three years, the stalling of the 2015 “Fresh Start for Northern Ireland” programme, and the problems caused by the Protocol are driving a wider destabilisation.
Elections are only a year away, and Sinn Fein could emerge as the largest party – a prospect that does nothing to calm unionists. So for all Boris Johnson’s lack of interest in Northern Ireland, don’t rule out a big political push from the Government later this year.
It would seek to bolster the Executive, take decisions that have been ducked on legacy, emblems, and the Irish language, and aim to hold Northern Ireland’s politicians to the commitments they signed up to in 2015.
These included the “fresh obligations on Northern Ireland’s elected representatives to work together on their shared objective of ridding society of all forms of paramilitary activity and groups” which the Executive then agreed to.
Poots will probably carry on where he is leaving off and, unlike Faulkner, refuse any compromises that London dangles before him. But perhaps not. With Northern Ireland, you never know.