Baird, Ernest Austin (1930–2003), unionist politician and businessman, was born 13 June 1930 in Ballycrampsie, on the Malin peninsula in Co. Donegal, son of Samuel Baird, a farmer, and his wife Rachel (née Fulton); he had two sisters. In 1953 the family moved to Belfast. Although Baird would later state that they had not been physically driven from their home, he felt that Donegal society had been marked by an unspoken but unremitting 'kid-glove pressure' to conform to the dominant catholic and nationalist ethos (he recalled having to listen to republican songs). 'From the age of about nine, I felt I belonged to Northern Ireland. I felt British even then' (Belfast Telegraph, 3 February 1976). He frequently stated that he had not really seen himself as free in the Irish Free State and Republic, and only felt 'free as a bird' when his family moved to Northern Ireland. In 1977, when criticising Bishop William Philbin (qv) for refusing to confirm catholic children who attended state schools in NI, Baird complained that the European Commission of Human Rights 'always seemed to be involved in complaints about the wrong people in the wrong part of Ireland. The real discrimination is practised by the minority in the North and the government of the Republic' (Belfast Telegraph, 29 March 1977).
Baird's first memories of his new life in Belfast were of queuing for temporary ration books, and of experiencing a discernable though rarely explicit suspicion that the family were outsiders from the Republic, who did not really belong in the North. Some observers have suggested that this double experience of being an outsider underlay the fierce desire for material success, and the unremitting advocacy of political and religious purism, which governed Baird's life.
Most of Baird's adult life was spent in Dundonald, Co. Down – a formerly distinct village that became during his lifetime a suburb of east Belfast – where he worked as a pharmacist. At the age of 29, he became a presbyterian church elder, and throughout his life he regularly took services as a lay preacher, and taught Sunday school classes (spending some time as a Sunday school superintendent). Firmly on the church's conservative wing, he staunchly supported the campaign for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland to disaffiliate from the World Council of Churches on doctrinal and political grounds. 'If you believe in hell how can you believe this sob stuff about God loving “everyone”? God lays down standards…Christ had tremendous love, but having laid down his life, if there is no response, there is the other side of the coin' (Belfast Telegraph, 3 February 1976). He was a generous and lifelong contributor to church charities; one of his last acts before his death was to give a large sum in response to an appeal to provide textbooks for African children.
By 1968 Baird was the owner of three pharmacies. He was propelled into politics by the 'Ulster at the crossroads' television address of Terence O'Neill (qv), denouncing unionist hardliners who wished to resist British pressure for reform (19 October 1968). Baird saw this as surrender to subversive forces; he joined the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) in 1969, and aligned himself with the hardliner William Craig (1924–2011). When Craig created the Ulster Vanguard movement (1972), Baird became its founding chairman, and when Craig's core supporters broke away from the UUP in March 1973 to form the Vanguard Unionist Progressive Party (VUPP), Baird was chosen as deputy leader. He rapidly acquired a reputation both as honest to the point of naïveté, and as a recklessly apocalyptic speaker: 'if you read the Old Testament there were some terrible things that God told his people to do, things even the SAS [Special Air Service] might not contemplate in south Armagh' (Belfast Telegraph, 3 February 1976).
Baird was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly (28 June 1973) as a Vanguard candidate for Fermanagh–South Tyrone, receiving 8,456 first-preference votes, and outpolling the established UUP politicians John Taylor and Harry West (qv). Despite his Belfast residence, Baird claimed a strong affinity to the rural west of Ulster (perhaps reflecting his Donegal origins), and frequently revisited it to 'recharge his batteries'. During the 1974 loyalist strike that brought down the Sunningdale executive, he took a very prominent role as a spokesman for the Ulster Workers' Council, which led the strike. In 1975 civil servants in Dublin described Baird as 'untrustworthy, intransigent, volatile and sinister', while the SDLP described him and Ian Paisley (qv) as 'religious bigots first and politicians second' (Irish Times, 29 December 2006). Friends said that Baird was far more amiable in person than he seemed on the platform: 'Ernie may not realise the very dangerous implications of some of the things he says' (Belfast Telegraph, 3 February 1976).
With Vanguard allied in the United Ulster Unionist Council (UUUC) with Harry West's UUP and Ian Paisley's DUP, Baird was elected to the Ulster Constitutional Convention (1 May 1975) with 8,067 first preferences (but far outpolled by West in the Fermanagh–South Tyrone constituency with 12,922). When the VUPP split in 1976 over Craig's proposal that unionists should form a temporary voluntary coalition with the SDLP for the purpose of restoring stability to Northern Ireland, Baird led the anti-Craig wing. He commented: 'The concept of voluntary coalition is a dishonest way of getting control of the country and then ratting on people who helped you to get there. If I have a fault in politics I am too honest' (Belfast Telegraph, 3 February 1976). (In 1982 he would state that he opposed power-sharing because it was 'morally wrong to give in to a minority' (Irish Times, 20 April 1982).)
After a majority of the Vanguard rank-and-file membership backed Craig at a party convention, Baird and his followers (including the MP for Mid-Ulster, John Dunlop (1910–96), and the future UUP leader Reg Empey) formed the United Ulster Unionist Movement (UUUM), which initially tried to avoid forming a separate party, calling instead for all unionists to unite in an umbrella movement. When this met with no response, the UUUM became the United Ulster Unionist Party (UUUP), while remaining part of the UUUC. Baird continued to make intransigent speeches, calling for a 'final conflict' if the British government failed to implement the Constitutional Convention's call for a return to unionist majority rule, and questioning the 'honesty, integrity and ability' of British troops because of their continuing failure to bring the security situation under control (for which he was denounced as 'contemptible' by NI Secretary Merlyn Rees (1920–2006), and 'despicable' by Alliance politician Basil Glass (qv)).
The UUUP allied with Ian Paisley in supporting the unsuccessful United Unionist Action Council strike, demanding tougher security measures and a return to majority rule (1977). Although Baird spoke of himself as possessing 'a sense of mission', making valiant attempts to project political charisma, and some of his hopeful supporters thought that given time he might emerge as 'a very fine leader', he was utterly overshadowed by Paisley as leader of the unionist right wing. The UUUP never established itself as a significant political force, winning only 3.2 per cent of votes and twelve council seats in the 1977 local elections (and some of these subsequently defected). In the 1979 Westminster election, Dunlop only retained his seat because other unionist parties stood aside to avoid splitting the unionist vote in his nationalist-majority constituency. Baird contested Fermanagh–South Tyrone on behalf of the UUUP; in a five-way split (amongst Baird, sitting independent republican MP Frank Maguire (qv) (who held the seat), UUP candidate Raymond Ferguson, Austin Currie running as 'independent SDLP', and Peter Acheson of Alliance), Baird came fourth with 10,607 votes (17 per cent).
The UUUP was considered too minor to be invited by NI Secretary Humphrey Atkins (qv) to the constitutional talks of 1980. The 1981 local elections saw further UUUP losses (winning only five seats with 0.7 per cent of votes), and its doom was finally sealed at the Northern Ireland Assembly elections of 20 October 1982, when its twelve candidates won only 1.8 per cent of votes and no seats, Baird receiving 3.4 per cent of the vote in Fermanagh–South Tyrone. Dunlop retired from mid-Ulster at the 1983 Westminster election, and no other UUUP candidates were nominated. In May 1984 Baird announced the dissolution of the party.
Thereafter Baird's primary focus was on his business interests (he built Bairds Chemists into one of the largest chains of chemist shops in Ireland), on religious activities, and on the wider networks of protestant associational culture. On 26 January 1973 he joined Cross of St Patrick LOL 688, founded in 1968 by Orangemen who wished to reclaim the heritage of St Patrick for protestantism. He served as the lodge's worshipful master (1981–7; the longest period in office of any WM in the lodge's history up to 2003); he was also the lodge's chaplain for many years, and for a short period served as lodge secretary. He spent some time as an officer of 43rd Boys' Brigade, and remained chairman of its Old Boys' association until his death; he was also vice-president of Symington Memorial Silver Band. He served as chaplain and master of Royal Black Preceptory 146 (Royal Black Knights of St Patrick), and chaired Logos Ministries, an evangelical group. Politically, he rejoined the UUP in 1997, spent some time as a member of the Ulster Unionist Council, and opposed the 1998 Belfast agreement, making significant financial contributions to the anti-agreement campaign in the ensuing referendum (which approved the agreement), and allowing 'No' campaigners to use his shops as bases for telephone canvassing. At his death Baird was a member of East Belfast Ulster Unionist Association.
Despite his general intransigence, Baird engaged in some cross-community discussions with figures such as the Donegal Fine Gael TD Paddy Harte, and presented the Orange position to peace groups in the Republic (telling the Meath Peace Group in 1998 that the solution to the Northern problem lay in establishing closer personal relations with Jesus Christ).
Baird and his wife Deirdre had three daughters and a son. Baird died 30 September 2003 at his home in Dundonald after a long illness, which had confined him to a wheelchair for some years before his death. He saw himself in terms of the traditional image of the 'honest Ulsterman': practical-minded, shrewd, and unflinching in political and religious principles. In his entrepreneurial abilities and in his personal generosity, underpinned by religious faith, he embodied some of the better features of this image, and was beloved by family and friends; but he also embodied the tendency for forthrightness to become naïveté, steadfastness to become inflexibility, and expression of one's own grievances to co-exist with inability to see how opponents might legitimately consider themselves aggrieved. In politics, therefore, Baird was never more than one of the more ephemeral meteors created by the breakup of the Stormont administration.