McCusker, (James) Harold (1940–90), politician, was born 7 February 1940 in William Street, Lurgan, Co. Armagh, son of James Harold McCusker and his wife Lily. His early life was overshadowed by his father's premature death (aged thirty-seven), which left the family in straitened circumstances. McCusker was educated at Lurgan model primary school, Lurgan College, and Stranmillis teacher training college in Belfast. In 1965 he married Jennifer Leslie Mills, with whom he had three sons. McCusker was a schoolteacher in Lurgan from 1961 to 1967. He then became a training officer with a construction company, McLaughlin and Harvey, and later moved to the Goodyear plant at Portadown as production manager. He was a member of the methodist church, the masonic order, and the Royal Black Preceptory, and a lifelong supporter of the Lurgan-based soccer team Glenavon. McCusker joined the Orange Order aged twelve, frequently playing the Lambeg drum at Orange celebrations. In the early 1970s he organised rallies for the unionist Vanguard party.
In February 1974 McCusker became Ulster unionist MP for Armagh at Westminster. He held the seat until it was affected by boundary changes in 1983; thereafter he represented Upper Bann until his death. McCusker was secretary and whip of the United Ulster Unionist Coalition MPs in 1974–5. He was recognised as one of the abler and more articulate unionist representatives, though he was somewhat angry and volatile. McCusker's working-class backround contrasted with the origins of most unionist MPs. He declared in his maiden speech that he had more in common with Labour than with the Conservatives. He supported the Callaghan government in the 1979 vote of confidence that led to its downfall, and socialised with Labour MPs and Irish embassy officials. He was openly hostile to Thatcherism. In 1980 he called for the Unionist Party to sever residual links with the tories.
McCusker was also more proactive than the party leadership around James Molyneaux, which acquiesced in direct rule and assumed that the Conservatives would uphold the Union; McCusker openly denounced this ‘do-nothing’ policy. He paid several visits to the USA to advocate the unionist cause, becoming the first unionist MP to meet Senator Edward Kennedy.
McCusker was deeply affected by the sufferings of victims of the IRA violence in his constituency, many of whom he knew. (He was accused of showing less solicitude for catholic victims of loyalist and state violence.) He accused the British and Irish governments of neglecting border security, and tried (with Edgar Graham (qv)) to raise the issue in the European Court of Human Rights through a case brought on behalf of victims’ widows. In 1982 McCusker became Ulster unionist deputy leader. Between 1982 and 1986 he sat in the Northern Ireland assembly under James Prior's ‘rolling devolution’ initiative.
McCusker was profoundly disturbed by the British government's acceptance of a role for the Republic of Ireland in the governance of Northern Ireland under the Anglo-Irish agreement (November 1985). During the negotiations leading to the agreement McCusker spoke of resisting Dublin involvement by force of arms, and even killing British soldiers. On 17 November 1985, during the Westminster debate on the ratification of the agreement, McCusker delivered a powerful and often-quoted speech encapsulating the unionist sense of betrayal. He spoke of standing ‘like a dog’ in the rain outside Hillsborough Castle to receive ‘the document which signed away my birthright . . . everything that I held dear turned to ashes in my mouth’.
McCusker subsequently declared that after the agreement the Union was ‘not worth fighting for, let alone dying for’, and even talked of negotiated independence for Northern Ireland. With the other unionist MPs he resigned his seat, boycotting the commons for over a year after his re-election. He encouraged collective non-payment of rates in protest against the agreement, and in November 1986 was jailed for four days for refusing to pay motor tax. After a ‘Day of Action’ on 3 March 1986 flared into violent protest, McCusker opposed further aggressive street demonstrations as dangerous and uncontrollable. Hardline loyalists nicknamed him ‘the coward of the country’ (Sunday World, 18 Feb. 1990) and accused him of betraying Portadown Orangemen by staying away from street protests when an Orange parade was re-routed from the catholic Obins Street Tunnel area in Portadown town centre.
McCusker realised that unionists could not defeat the agreement without proposing an alternative. As early as January 1986 he argued that they should involve themselves in negotiations in order to have some influence on the constitutional situation. In 1987 he served with the DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson and the Ulster unionist Frank Millar on a three-man unionist task force. Their report, An end to drift, argued that unionists should set up a commission to develop political strategy and hold ‘talks about talks’ with the British government while refusing full negotiations unless the agreement was suspended. The report was sidelined because of its implicit admission of the failure of the anti-agreement campaign and criticism of the leadership of Ian Paisley (qv) and James Molyneaux. However, An end to drift can be seen as prefiguring Ulster unionist negotiating strategy in the 1990s. McCusker did not live to see this development.
Around the time of his election in 1974 he developed throat cancer, but he experienced long periods of remission. He believed that stress suffered as a result of the Anglo-Irish agreement caused the final recurrence of his condition. ‘The Anglo-Irish Agreement killed my husband,’ wrote his widow. ‘It broke his spirit and he lost the fight.’ Harold McCusker died 12 February 1990. In a final message to his constituents he reiterated his 1985 denunciation of the Anglo-Irish agreement: ‘I shall carry to my grave with ignominy the sense of injustice that I have done to my constituents . . . when in the darkest hours, I exhorted them to put their trust in the British house of commons.’ The frustration and bitterness that dominated his career epitomise the plight of Ulster unionism under direct rule.