Government papers tell of abortive talk of McCusker ‘coup’
IT was a case of a trip down memory lane for Craigavon council member Colin McCusker with the release of the 30-year Government papers from Stormont.
The papers highlighted the “coup” that never happened over the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party when Colin’s father Harold McCusker was being mooted by party members unhappy with James Molyneaux.
The year was 1982, and McCusker - as MP for County Armagh (soon to be MP for Upper Bann) - had mass support among grassroots unionists.
The leadership of the party under Molyneaux (now Lord Killead) was seen by many as being far from dynamic. The party’s aspiring ‘King Maker’, Captain Austin Ardill, was in the forefront of putting forward the name of McCusker to inject a bit of life into a party that was, according to Ardill, “all over the place”.
But, according to Colin, the then “fur coat brigade” wasn’t keen on the forthright McCusker who was known to have socialist leanings. Also in 1979 Mr McCusker had tried to persuade the Ulster Unionist MPs to go into a loose coalition with James Callaghan’s Labour Government, which was to lose a vote of no confidence, initiated by Margaret Thatcher. McCusker reasoned that the then strong UUP could hold the balance of power in Westminster and achieve real benefits for Northern Ireland. But his colleague - virtually wed to Thatcher’s Conservatives - did not agree.
Said Colin, “I was at school at the time, and was called a Labour supporter! But the election results showed that Harold McCusker had solid support and had the ‘feel’ of his constituents.”
The 1979 election forced by the Callaghan demise (the last in the old County Armagh constituency) showed that McCusker polled 31,668 (48.8%) and saw off Seamus Mallon (SDLP) and David Calvert (DUP) who could only manage 8.6% of the poll. And McCusker strode home in three election in Upper Bann before his death from cancer in 1990 and David Trimble (who became party leader) replaced him, only to be trounced by David Simpson (DUP) in 2005.
According to Ardill, McCusker was the front runner to lead the UUP, and the next step is to secure Molyneaux’s resignation. Said Colin, “My most abiding memory is a cartoon by Rowel Friers in the Belfast Telegraph of my dad dressed in a toga in a ‘stabbing’ scene with Molyneaux who states, “Et Tu McCusker.” - a take on Julius Caesar and Brutus! Dad was highly amused at that cartoon.”
It will never be known whether Harold McCusker as leader could have saved the UUP from its current near-obscurity. Perhaps nobody could have stopped the juggernaut of the DUP, a party often accused of “stealing” Trimble’s clothes in the era of the Good Friday Agreement and then the St Andrews deal.
It is widely accepted that McCusker had the knack of communicating with the electorate - an attribute that Trimble is said to have lacked.
“Sadly, we’ll never know,” said Colin.
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