Harry West

1970s Ulster Unionist Party leader

Henry William West, politician: born Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh 27 March 1917; MP (Unionist) for Enniskillen, Northern Ireland Parliament 1954-72; President, Ulster Farmers' Union 1955-56; Parliamentary Secretary to Minister of Agriculture, 1958; Minister of Agriculture 1960-67, 1971-72; PC (Northern Ireland) 1960; Member (Unionist) for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Northern Ireland Assembly 1973-75; MP (United Ulster Unionist Coalition) for Fermanagh and South Tyrone 1974; Leader, Ulster Unionist Party 1974-79; Member (United Ulster Unionist Coalition) for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention 1975-76; married 1956 Maureen Hall (four sons, three daughters); died Enniskillen 5 February 2004.

Harry West was a one-time leader of the Ulster Unionist Party who in the 1960s and 1970s tried in vain to staunch the rise of, first, the civil-rights movement and, latterly, militant republicanism.

A big bluff farmer from Northern Ireland's rural west, he was throughout his life associated with the old system of majority rule, when his party ruled in the Belfast Stormont parliament for half a century. His efforts to maintain that system came to nothing as the unrest of the 1960s led on to the violence and terrorism of the 1970s.

History may record that his most significant moment came in 1981 when, in an attempted political comeback, he stood in the most momentous by-election ever held in Northern Ireland. His opponent, the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, defeated him in Fermanagh and South Tyrone by 30,492 votes to 29,046, on an 87 per cent turnout. The result is regarded as a turning-point and helped set Sinn Fein on a political track.

Harry West was Stormont Minister of Agriculture in the 1960s before he was sacked by the Prime Minister Terence O'Neill over a Fermanagh land deal. Disgruntled, he became a vociferous opponent of O'Neill's attempts at political reform. He later rejoined the Unionist fold under Brian Faulkner as leader, but his instincts were implacably against attempts to introduce any element of power-sharing with Catholics and nationalists.

When Faulkner fell in 1974 West took over as party leader, lasting five years in the job. He led the party into alliance with the Rev Ian Paisley and other hardliners, pressing for a return to majority Protestant rule.

He was by no means a nasty man, but although he always had a respectable image he was implacably opposed to compromise and wanted Stormont back. Unionists got nowhere on this tack, and in 1979 he resigned after being trounced by Paisley in a European election.

This was assumed to be the end of his political career, and it was something of a surprise when he emerged to stand against Sands at a time of high political tension.

West's identification with majority rule is believed to have had an influence in the election, since local nationalists feared a West victory would encourage attempts to turn the clock back.

Harry West was summed up by the Belfast historian Eamon Phoenix:

He was unsettled by O'Neill's attempts to introduce reform. He was suspicious of nationalism, he was suspicious of London and he was opposed to change. He took his cue from his ancestral voices.

David McKittrick

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