Belfast Telegraph

Paul Corthorn: How Enoch Powell was working behind the scenes to change Ulster Unionist thinking

Paul Corthorn reveals how the South Down MP wanted the party to abandon devolution in favour of closer integration with the UK

Enoch Powell had different views from unionists on how to preserve the Union
Enoch Powell had different views from unionists on how to preserve the Union

By Paul Corthorn

The Conservative, and then Ulster Unionist politician, Enoch Powell (1912-1998) was one of the most controversial figures in recent British history.

He is best known for his outspoken opposition to immigration which dramatically shattered a tacit agreement between the political parties not to inflame popular opinion on the issue. Speaking in 1968, Powell, a classical scholar, alluded to the poet Virgil to make a prediction of racial violence: "Like the Roman, I seem to see 'the River Tiber foaming with much blood'". Powell also adopted distinctive positions on other prominent issues - including advocacy of free-market economics long before Margaret Thatcher; resistance to UK membership of the European Community on the basis that it threatened British sovereignty; and, amid the Troubles, opposition to devolution and a call for the closer integration of Northern Ireland with Great Britain.

As a historian of 20th-century Britain, I had long been fascinated by Powell as a widely-read intellectual figure who was also a populist politician. Yet it was not until after I moved to Belfast, to take up a lectureship at Queen's University, that I began to research Powell myself. I knew that far less had been written about Powell as an Ulster Unionist MP between 1974 and 1987 than about his involvement in British politics and, as I familiarised myself with local archives, I began to find plenty of under-explored material. I initially planned to write a single article about Powell but, after looking at his private papers (held mainly at the Churchill Archives Centre), decided to write a book as well. Powell's correspondence, together with copies of his speeches, would allow me - I hoped - to understand the development of Powell's ideas and how he chose to deploy them in particular political contexts.

There were challenges ahead. I was diving into heavily contested - and politicised - territory which had been dominated by both Powell's critics and his admirers. I wanted to discuss Powell's political interests as a whole but was aware that it would be difficult to move the debate on from race and immigration. I wanted to write about Powell in as detached a manner as possible but was grappling with issues that have present-day resonance - sometimes in ways that I did not anticipate. While I began researching the book well before the EU referendum was planned, I finished it in the long aftermath of the outcome.

Powell's decision to stand as an Ulster Unionist parliamentary candidate (for South Down) was an unusual one for an English politician. Powell had taken an interest in Northern Ireland since 1968. Defining the British nation in terms of the geographical boundaries of the UK, Powell interpreted Ulster Unionism, at a time when Scottish and Welsh nationalism was also on the rise, as 'the claim to be part of a whole…the British nation'. Powell had once been a strong imperialist, defining the Empire as the nation. But, after coming to see the break-up of the Empire as inevitable, Powell emphasised the centrality of parliamentary sovereignty to the English nation, before talking more consistently about the British nation from the mid-1960s.

Powell first outlined his policy of integration in the early 1970s, making it clear that he viewed Stormont as "a threat to the British link because it is an assertion of separateness". With support for devolution entrenched among unionist opinion since the creation of Northern Ireland, Powell's position was similar to that of late 19th and early 20th-century unionists who had considered that Home Rule would undermine parliamentary sovereignty - and, hence, the Union.

After Stormont's suspension in 1972, and the introduction of Direct Rule, integration was more widely mooted in unionist circles, particularly by Ian Paisley and his recently formed DUP. But, while Paisley's interest was fleeting, for Powell integration was not only central to his overall perspective but also, he thought, shrewd politics, offering unionists an overarching theme around which to set out their stall. Of course, it did not work out like that.

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Powell became close to Jim Molyneaux, the MP for South Antrim, in the early 1970s - at the same time as his relations with the Conservative leadership, under prime minister Edward Heath, worsened. Opposed to Conservative support for membership of the European Community, Powell decided not to contest his seat in Wolverhampton South West in the February 1974 General Election, asking his supporters instead to vote for the Labour Party that was committed to a referendum on the European issue. And just days after making this decision, Powell spoke to Molyneaux about the possibility of contesting a Northern Ireland seat.

By this stage, the prospects of securing unionist support for integration appeared slim. The anti-Sunningdale coalition, the United Ulster Unionist Council (UUUC), including the UUP and the DUP, was committed to devolution within a future federal UK (Scottish and Welsh devolution was currently being debated). As a result, Powell had to broach the subject of integration carefully, obscuring the clarity of his position. Indeed, at the October 1974 election, Powell disingenuously claimed to be 'entirely in accord' with UUUC policy.

Once elected, Powell worked closely with Molyneaux to try to push the UUP in an integrationist direction. Meanwhile, Powell's critical statements about devolution, especially in Scotland and Wales, generated concerns from UUP leader Harry West and parts of Powell's South Down Constituency Association. The fact that Powell was critical of government subsidies to the Belfast shipyard - on the basis that free-market competition was desirable across the UK - did not help matters.

For a time, integration seemed to be gaining ground. Powell was close to Airey Neave, the Conservative Shadow Secretary for Northern Ireland who appeared willing to move along integrationist lines.

But Neave was murdered by the INLA before the 1979 general election and, in the 1980s, Thatcher's government sought to establish some kind of power-sharing devolution.

Powell now came very close to endorsing the integration of Northern Ireland into the British party system.

This was arguably a core component of the overall policy but, despite privately favouring the idea, Powell held back from explicitly advocating it in public.

Powell was in an awkward position: he remained estranged from the Conservative Party and, despite his support for Labour over Europe in 1974, he was still critical of its 'socialist' inclinations. In the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Powell actually led resistance to the demands of Robert McCartney and the Campaign for Equal Citizenship for British political party organisation in Northern Ireland.

Integration was the central thrust of Powell's policy as an Ulster Unionist but his own political position, and the wider context, affected the way in which he could advance it.

Paul Corthorn is Reader in Modern British History at Queen's University Belfast and author of Enoch Powell: Politics and Ideas in Modern Britain (Oxford University Press)

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