West, Harry (Henry William) (1917–2004), farmer and politician, was born in Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh, on 27 March 1917, eldest child and only son (he had five sisters) of William West, farmer and former secretary of Fermanagh County Council, and his wife Harriet (née Spence). West's parents were followers of the evangelist Edward Cooney (qv); although West did not remain a Cooneyite, the movement's low‑church ethos may have influenced his adherence to presbyterianism rather than the locally stronger anglican or methodist churches.
West was educated at Derrykeeghan National School, Enniskillen Model School and Portora Royal School, Enniskillen. Both at school and in later life West was an enthusiastic sportsman, with rugby as his favourite relaxation. He captained the Portora rugby, rowing and boxing teams, then played for Enniskillen RFC (captaining the team which won the Towns Cup) and later became club president. He intended to study agriculture at QUB but had to take over the family dairy and pig farm aged 17 because of his father's death. West acted as a substitute father for his sisters, remaining on close terms with them throughout his life; this had implications for his political career as two sisters married into the Coopers and Fergusons, leading families in Fermanagh unionism. For much of West's career his closest local collaborator was his brother‑in‑law Erne Cecil Ferguson (1911–68), solicitor to Fermanagh County Council, and Noreen Cooper, a relative by marriage, was his principal organiser and election agent. James Cooper, chairman of the UUP (2003–5), was a nephew, as was the prominent Fermanagh activist Raymond Ferguson.
West was an innovative farmer and possessed considerable mechanical ability. He was the first in the county to acquire a Ferguson International tractor (with pneumatic tyres) and a Ransome mechanical threshing mill, which he hired out to small farmers in the Ballinamallard area; the West household was among the first in the county to have its own electrical lighting plant. West developed a milk bottling plant and supplied householders in Enniskillen and Ballinamallard. He became a prominent activist in the expanding Ulster Farmers Union (generally seen as dominated by unionist large farmers), serving as its president (1955–6) and making contacts across the province; he was also Northern Ireland representative on the British Wool Marketing Board (1950–58).
High sheriff of Fermanagh in 1954, in the same year he became Ulster Unionist MP for Enniskillen in the Northern Ireland parliament in an uncontested by‑election following the death of his uncle and sitting MP, T. C. Nelson. West was not a member of the Orange order when elected to Stormont, though he joined later; this may have something to do with his presbyterianism. He came to be regarded as a protégé of his fellow Fermanagh man, Lord Brookeborough (qv), whose style of governance was more congenial to him than that of later prime ministers. In November 1958 West was appointed assistant parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Finance (assistant chief whip) and in December he became parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, holding the post until 1960. He served as minister of agriculture from 1960 to 1967; his background and knowledge of the sector made him extremely popular with farmers. His championing of a grant scheme for small farmers who wished to give up farming and take weekly jobs aroused accusations that he was driving small farmers off the land, but the scheme achieved a considerable take‑up; he was also proud of his success in getting the new agricultural training college sited in Enniskillen.
During the premiership of Terence O'Neill (qv), West emerged as a focus for discontent among border unionists who feared O'Neill's reforms would deliver west Ulster to nationalist control, and he was associated with intrigues aimed at making Brian Faulkner (qv) leader. O'Neill recalled in his memoirs that West's characteristic response to reform proposals was '“Fermanagh will never stand for it”…So long as Ulster was cosy and unreformed, Harry was well suited to office' (O'Neill, 92).
West was removed from office in April 1967 because of accusations that he had used privileged information to acquire at a low price land intended for redevelopment as part of St Angelo airport in Enniskillen. (In fact the land belonged to an elderly cousin, who sold to West below market value because he wished it to remain in the family; West, who lived on the site after acquiring it, resisted its compulsory purchase by the state. West had, however, ignored legal advice that he should accept the price set by the valuation commissioner and chose to appeal to the land tribunal.) O'Neill accepted that West had not been corrupt but sacked him on the grounds that it was necessary to observe British standards of ministerial conduct. O'Neill and his supporters saw West's dismissal as symbolising the new broom's technocratic determination in 'pulling the country, kicking and screaming, into the twentieth century' (O'Neill, 93) and sneered at 'grubbing in the muddy fields of Fermanagh' (Gailey, 121). West and his supporters saw the dismissal as disproportionate and stated publicly that it was merely a pretext to remove an internal party critic.
As a backbencher, West was associated with Brian Faulkner in intrigues against O'Neill. In January 1969 he was one of thirteen MPs who signed a motion of no confidence in O'Neill's leadership; in April 1969 he supported Faulkner against James Chichester‑Clark (qv), who had been his successor as minister of agriculture. West criticised Chichester‑Clark for showing 'lack of fight' and was a co‑founder of the dissident West Ulster Unionist Council (WUUC), which opposed local government reforms (including the transfer of control over housing from local councils to a central authority), the abolition of the Ulster Special Constabulary, and the attempt to create an unarmed police force. The WUUC was supported by most western unionist constituency associations and some in Belfast and east Ulster; it claimed to represent a grassroots majority and was attacked by liberal unionists as consisting of 'political dinosaurs' resisting the government's reform mandate bestowed by the electorate (McIvor, 64–5). In March 1970 West and four other MPs were expelled from the Unionist parliamentary party for voting against police reform.
When Brian Faulkner became prime minister in March 1971 he appointed West as minister of agriculture in order to divide his hardline critics and balance his appointment of David Bleakley, the NILP member, as minister of community relations. This encouraged the fragmentation and disintegration of the WUUC (though it also caused one liberal unionist MP to resign the party whip). In cabinet West opposed Faulkner's March 1972 decision to resign over the withdrawal of security powers from Stormont, arguing that the British government should be given 'everything they want' in order to keep Stormont in existence and predicting that it would be politically impossible to abolish a democratically elected parliament so long as it continued to provide a government. West opposed Faulkner's acceptance of the British government's white paper (1973), which proposed a power‑sharing devolved government in Northern Ireland; he fought the 1973 assembly elections as the leading 'unpledged unionist' (i.e. UUP members opposed to Faulkner), eleven of whom were returned. Faulkner, by now chief executive of the power‑sharing administration, resigned as party leader on 4 January 1974 after the Ulster Unionist Council had rejected the Sunningdale agreement's acceptance of the council of Ireland, and on 22 January West was elected party leader. He then aligned the UUP with both Ian Paisley's (qv) DUP and Vanguard in the United Ulster Unionist Coalition (UUUC) and was a member of the Ulster Workers' Council which organised the May 1974 strike which brought about the collapse of the power‑sharing executive.
In the February 1974 Westminster general election West was elected as UUUC MP for Fermanagh–South Tyrone because of a split nationalist vote; however, he was defeated by Frank Maguire in the October 1974 general election. Thereafter West operated a 'dual leadership' with James Molyneaux, leader of the party at Westminster. (In 1975–6 he represented Fermanagh–South Tyrone in the abortive constitutional convention established by the secretary of state Merlyn Rees (1920–2006).)
West was fatally handicapped by his lack of a secure electoral base, the growing influence of Enoch Powell (1912–98) and the policy of integrationism on the UUP in general and on Molyneaux in particular, and his own low public profile. In 1976–7 West clashed publicly with Molyneaux and Powell over Molyneaux's advocacy of purely administrative devolution (with a body resembling Strathclyde council implementing laws made at Westminster). West continued to maintain that devolved institutions were needed to safeguard the Ulster unionist position, and that the British establishment could not be relied upon as allies; he periodically held discussions with the new secretary of state, Roy Mason, about reintroducing devolved institutions, but this broke down over West's self‑deluding belief that devolution could be obtained without power sharing. West was also differentiated from Powell and his acolytes by a relatively favourable attitude towards British membership of the European Economic Community because of its financial benefits for Ulster farmers.
At the same time, West increasingly distanced himself from Ian Paisley; he maintained that the UUP had the advantage of being a 'broad church' which could attract support not available to the more aggressively sectarian DUP, and declared that his opposition to power‑sharing did not mean he would not work with catholics per se but only applied to advocates of a united Ireland. Despite his generally hardline views, West had seen himself as working for the economic interests of catholics and protestants alike; he had been on friendly terms with Cahir Healy (qv), the veteran Fermanagh nationalist and sometime MP, and in February 1970 was threatened with sanctions by the Orange order after he attended Healy's requiem mass. This reflected a widespread pattern in rural areas, where everyday courtesy between members of the two communities masked deeper fears and distrusts; West, like similar unionists, quite failed to grasp the extent of nationalist alienation. In March 1972 he publicly claimed that 'thousands of decent Roman catholics' regarded the SDLP as too extreme (Patterson and Kaufmann, 138). He refused to support in May 1977 the United Unionist Action Council (UUAC) strike (with Paisley as its main mover) which tried unsuccessfully to force a return to devolution and a tougher security policy. West's stance marked the virtual demise of the UUUC.
After DUP gains in both the 1977 local elections and the May 1979 Westminster general election were followed by a humiliating personal defeat for West in the 1979 European elections (Paisley won a landslide victory and West was outpolled by the other UUP candidate, John Taylor, for the second unionist seat), West resigned as party leader in July 1979 and was succeeded by Molyneaux. In 1981 he contested the Westminster by‑election caused by Frank Maguire's death but was defeated by the hunger‑striker Bobby Sands (qv). The willingness of the vast majority of Fermanagh catholics to support an IRA‑linked candidate caused consternation to West, as it did to many of his supporters, and showed up the divergent perceptions of the two communities. (Arguably the result was also influenced by catholic perception of West as a hard‑liner and by Paisleyite abstentions.)
West's last political intervention was in 1987, when he co‑founded the Charter Group, a short‑lived UUP body which criticised Molyneaux for his lack of interest in devolution and which was prepared to meet the secretary of state for Northern Ireland at a time when most unionists boycotted all official functions. West remained a devolutionist, lamenting in 1991: 'it was very foolish…[to allow] Ted Heath to take away our democratic institutions' (Irish Times, 7 February 2004). West supported the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
He was a founder member of Enniskillen Round Table and served as its president. He was also a member (and president) of Enniskillen Rotary Club, Probus and the 41 Club. On 22 August 1956 he married Maureen Elizabeth Hall, a schoolteacher; they had four sons and three daughters.
West died in Enniskillen on 5 February 2004. His combination of genuine abilities in farming and patronage politics with limited horizons, and his lacklustre performance as leader, when the traditional governing classes had left the field, reflected the plight of Ulster unionism after the demise of Stormont.