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Bill Craig, 1924-2011

The former Unionist politician, Bill Craig, has died at the age of 86; see standard and surprisingly brief obituaries, no doubt written twenty years ago, by the BBC (with bonus video), the News Letter, the Belfast Telegraph, and the Guardian. Craig last won an election in 1975, wound up his political party in 1978 and fought his last election in 1982, and from the brevity of the obituaries so far (we may get more from the right-wing London papers) has clearly been written out of the standard summary of Northern Irish history.

But he was, for good or ill (let's be clear - mostly for ill), a more important figure than that. We remember the DUP as having been historically the junior of the two Unionist parties until they overtook the UUP a few years ago; but from the mid-1970s perspective, the DUP were level pegging not with the UUP but with Craig's Vanguard movement/party. In the 1973 Assembly election, Craig won seven seats to Paisley's eight; in both of the 1974 Westminster elections, he won his own seat in East Belfat, Robert Bradford's in South Belfast and John Dunlop's in Mid Ulster, three to Paisley's one; and in the Convention election of 1975, though Vanguard polled slightly less than the DUP, they won 14 seats to the DUP's 12. Perhaps significantly, it's difficult to rate the party's performance at the 1973 local council elections, as many councillors elected as 'Loyalists' or 'Unionists' seem to have drifted in and out of Vanguard; other parties were more disciplined about who was in and who was out.

Craig was, however, clearly better at the tactics than the strategy. Having played a key role in provoking confrontation with Nationalists in the 1960s and in rousing the Loyalist masses to bring down both the original Stormont in 1972 and the power-sharing executive in 1974, he allowed himself to be trapped by Paisley as an apparent compromiser at the Convention in 1976, and Vanguard split, Craig carrying a minority with him (his deputy leader being one David Trimble) while the more hardline majority group, naming itself (with no apparent irony) the United Ulster Unionist Party, was led by the former Vanguard deputy leader Ernest Baird (with Reg Empey as its own deputy leader). Neither faction did well in the 1977 council elections, the UUUP winning a mere 12 seats out of 526 and Vanguard only 5; Craig and Trimble wound up Vanguard and rejoined the UUP at that point, while the UUUP staggered on until 1984. Both Trimble and Empey went on to lead the UUP; Baird died back in 2003, and Craig last weekend. 

For all its rather unpleasantly uniformed thuggish glamour, Vanguard was in some ways a broad church, and Craig himself was a bit of an internationalist. His wife was German, and taught her native language to adults at QUB (her students including both my father and James O'Fee, whose mother had served as a Vanguard councillor). Craig campaigned in favour of the UK staying in the European Economic Community (as it then was) in the 1975 referendum, and was nominated as one of the UK delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe from 1977 until he lost his East Belfast seat (to Peter Robinson, by 64 votes) in the 1979 election. Back in the 1970s, neither Ulster Unionists nor Westminster Tories had yet become hypnotised by the sterile nationalism and Euro-phobia that both are obsessed with today, and there was a Unionist worldview that quite sincerely saw no inconsistency between fighting off Rome Rule at home and collaboration with European allies abroad. In fairness, Irish nationalism was a very different thing back then as well.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 27th, 2011 12:06 pm (UTC)
Nicholas, regarding the 1973 council elections, it is as you say hard to put an exact figure on the number of Vanguard councillors, however a total of 24 councillors elected in 1973 stood for Vanguard/UUUP either then or at the 1975 Convention election or the 1977 council election.

It's hard to say how well it would have done at the 1977 council elections were it not for the split. VUPP, like the DUP, effectively ducked the 1973 council elections as they were a new party with little infrastructure and focused their energies on the 1973 Assembly election. The strongest branches were those in Bangor, Larne and Portadown/Craigavon, the latter of which largely went over to the UUUP. The split in 1975 led to a lot of activists throwing in their lot with the DUP or UUP, leaving the UUUP as an early equivalent of the NIUP.
Apr. 27th, 2011 12:54 pm (UTC)
Has to be said that Vanguard was more successful than UKUP, just as the UUUP was more successful than the NIUP!
Apr. 27th, 2011 11:33 pm (UTC)
Very true. However if Craig had hung around post 82 a UKUP/NIUP style future is the best he could have hoped for with his career thereafter. His options weren't exactly rosy. He'd already quit the UUP not just once but twice and had burnt his bridges there.

Highly unlikely that he'd have thrown in his lot with the DUP. I'd hazard a guess that there must have been a bit of bad blood between him and Paisley over the way the latter shafted him during the 1975 convention.

That only left him with the option of going it alone, but where? He'd last represented his original base in Larne a decade before. East Belfast had firmly rejected him in 1982. That only left North Down. Even in the unlikely event that he'd beaten Kilfedder there in 1983, he'd have been reduced to being no more than a bit player. The leader and solitary MP of a North Down centred micro party a la Kilfedder or McCartney. It's not really surprising that he chose to throw in the towel.
Apr. 28th, 2011 12:42 am (UTC)
I am sure all of that is true; I wonder also if he had become aware of his own limitations - a difficulty with strategy rather than tactics, and clearly not a great team-builder or team player. The effort of building anew at a point when the security situation had reached a grim stability and the five-party system was established was surely offputting.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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