BELFAST -- Harry West, a Protestant hard-liner who led the Ulster Unionist Party in the 1970s and lost an election to IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands in 1981, has died, the party said yesterday. He was 86.
Mr. West became leader of Northern Ireland's major pro-British party after opposing the 1973 Sunningdale peace agreement, the first modern comprehensive attempt to resolve the conflict over this British territory.
It proposed forging a Catholic-Protestant government for Northern Ireland that, in turn, was supposed to cooperate formally with the Republic of Ireland in a bid to address Catholic demands for Irish unity.
Mr. West backed a violent Protestant general strike in May 1974 that toppled the power-sharing government and the Ulster Unionist leader at its helm, Brian Faulkner.
Mr. West insisted he that wasn't anti-Catholic but opposed the Sunningdale formula because it sought to promote all-Ireland cooperation.
Mr. West then led his fractured party into a temporary alliance with Ian Paisley's extreme Democratic Unionist Party, running jointly agreed candidates. Mr. West ended cooperation with Paisley in 1977 when the Democratic Unionist chief backed a second violent Protestant strike.
Mr. West resigned as Ulster Unionist leader in 1979, shortly after Paisley badly beat him in a Northern Ireland-wide vote for a seat in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.
On April 9, 1981, Mr. West lost one of the most bitterly fought and divisive elections in Northern Ireland history to Sands, leader of Irish Republican Army prisoners waging a prison hunger strike.
In a by-election for the British parliamentary seat in Mr. West's native County Fermanagh, he received 29,046 votes to Sands's 30,492 on a colossal 87 percent turnout. Sands starved to death less than a month later, the first of 10 Irish republican prisoners to die.
Mr. West remained active in the background of Ulster Unionist politics until the mid-1990s. He was critical of his successor James Molyneaux, who opposed sharing any form of local government for Northern Ireland. Mr. West, by contrast, eventually backed a power-sharing coalition with moderate Catholics.
The current Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, praised Mr. West for leading the party "at the time of its greatest crisis. . . . He made a tremendous contribution to [pro-British] unionism and to life in Northern Ireland."