Belfast Telegraph

Why, electorally, we in Northern Ireland have always been a political place apart

The poll that established the new Northern Ireland parliament in 1921 created the template for a century of discord, writes Alan F Parkinson

We are gradually approaching the centenary of the birth of Northern Ireland. This was the outcome of Lloyd George's perceived Irish "compromise", the Government of Ireland Bill, which became law shortly before Christmas 1920.

An election to decide the composition of the newly created Belfast parliament - to be conducted under a new voting system of proportional representation - was arranged for May 1921, the month before the formal opening of the parliament by King George V.

Dubbed the "partition election" by its nationalist critics (especially United Irish League leader Joe Devlin) this contest took place against the backdrop of fierce sectarian warfare, particularly in the greater Belfast area.

Although this would, in terms of its severity, not peak until the first half of the following year, its tone had been set in the months preceding the election, when thousands of Catholics were intimidated from both workplaces and homes, with many others falling victim to sectarian killers.

In addition, the IRA was active on Belfast's streets, killing both members of the security forces and Protestant workers aboard trams on crowded city streets.

Contrasting attitudes to the proposed establishment of a new parliament in Belfast were apparent in Catholic and Protestant communities.

In the former, the Irish News sadly reflected on Christmas Eve 1920 that "a more ghastly Christmas gift" had "never been thrust on our nation". But in the predominantly loyalist section of the proposed new state, the mood was sharply different.

The Belfast Telegraph, a staunchly pro-Unionist Party organ at this time, described the forthcoming contest as one between "loyalty" and "disloyalty" between, on the one hand, espousal of the British Empire and, on the other, "an Irish republic".

Marshalled by their new leader, Sir James Craig, unionists were buoyed by their superior numbers but remained concerned about potential electoral apathy, or loyalist division.

Independent loyalist candidates were deterred from standing in the contest and Labour candidates were forced to call off an election meeting in Belfast's Ulster Hall.

The Belfast Telegraph gave unconditional support to the Ulster Unionist leader on the eve of the election. Predicting "a good working majority" for Craig, the paper praised the "magnificent solidarity" of Ulster's loyalists, pointing out that the "real issue" facing voters was "the British connection - to be or not to be".

On the other hand, the Irish News warned that there was "no thoughtful man ... who does not realise in his inner consciousness that the setting up of a legislative divorce between the Six Counties and the 26 is fraught with evil alike to the north-eastern corner and to the rest of the country".

Devlin's group hastily forged an electoral pact with Sinn Fein, which nominated leading IRA figures, including Michael Collins, Eamon de Valera and Frank Aiken.

Election fever gripped the region on the Day of Decision, May 24, 1921. Over 90% of electors turned out to vote in many constituencies (particularly in Belfast and in border areas) and there were "long queues of voters" outside many polling stations.

While widespread violence was avoided - chiefly because of a heavy security presence - several cases of intimidation and violence did occur both on the day of voting and during the election campaign itself (two lives were lost during a loyalist parade led by James Craig at the Oval football ground in east Belfast).

The results of this first election to Northern Ireland's parliament produced an even more emphatic victory for James Craig's Unionist Party than even his supporters had anticipated, with all 40 of their candidates being returned and, despite the personal success of Joe Devlin, relatively modest returns for the United Irish League and Sinn Fein were recorded (they each won six seats).

The parliament, initially sitting at Belfast's City Hall, was opened by the King on June 21, when he appealed to "all Irishmen to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and forget, and to join in making for the land they love a new era of peace, contentment and goodwill".

Within days, the IRA responded by blowing up a military train near Bessbrook, killing six people as well as over 80 horses.

This election for the first Northern Ireland parliament is just one of many fascinating contests in the north's political history.

I focus in more detail on this 1921 election and several others - including the "Chapel Gate" Stormont election (1949), the "Crossroads" Stormont election (1969), the election of hunger striker Bobby Sands in a Westminster by-election (1981) and the electoral breakthrough achieved by both the DUP and Sinn Fein at the 2003 Assembly election - in my recently published book, Election Fever.

A central theme of this book is that, despite experiencing the same extensions of the franchise and participating in the same Westminster elections as the rest of the United Kingdom, the region's political culture is starkly different to that elsewhere in the country.

Although a clearly politicised society which, until recently, at least, has experienced high electoral turnouts, Northern Ireland is different from the rest of the country for several reasons.

These include the types of parties which electors can vote for and their consequent lack of involvement in the return of the national government and prime minister, as well as the nature of issues debated during these campaigns.

For decades, elections in Northern Ireland were dominated by parties' respective positions on the region's constitutional position and, more recently, political divisions have focused on approaches to British initiatives in the north.

Consequently, relatively scant attention has been paid during election campaigns to key economic, social, or moral, issues.

Other differences from the rest of Britain include the region's vulnerability to bouts of violence during election campaigns, the dearth of genuine floating voters, due to entrenched religious and political positions, and, with the obvious exception of Westminster contests, a distinctly different voting system.

Despite the predictability of many election outcomes, the contests described in my book bear testimony to the fascinating personalities who have graced the political scene for over a century (to mention but a few, Cahir Healy, Tommy Henderson, Harry Midgley, Jack Beattie, Gerry Fitt, Brian Faulkner, John Hume and Ian Paisley) and newspaper accounts of tense, heated electioneering belie any suggestion of boring political in-fighting.

A political place apart perhaps, but a uniquely intriguing one as well.

Election Fever: Groundbreaking Electoral Contests in Northern Ireland by Alan F Parkinson is published by Blackstaff Press, priced £14.99

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