Northern Ireland

Loyalist Victory Will Be Hollow One – On This Day in 1974

Ian Paisley (left) and Vanguard leader William Craig (right) pictured with MP Lawrence Orr on the steps of Stormont
DUP leader Ian Paisley (left), Vanguard leader William Craig (right) and Ulster Unionist Lawrence Orr all won seats in the February 1974 general election (PA/PA)
March 2 1974

The success of loyalist unionists in winning 11 of the 12 Six County seats at Westminster is certain to arouse misgivings about the future, for they are already claiming the victories as a manifest popular vote against power-sharing and Sunningdale. They conveniently overlook that there was also a massive vote in favour.

Nevertheless, the winning of all but Gerry Fitt’s seat in West Belfast has only been brought about by the decision of voters to give their allegiance to candidates who chose quite unequivocally to make their appeal on a complete rejection of the new initiatives.

Their after-the-count speeches indicated their intention not to adapt to change, to look backward instead of forward, to seek the abandonment, by whatever means, of all that has so agonisingly been created to bring about peace and stability and provide opportunities for participation in government by both sides of the community.

An examination of the voting in all 11 constituencies (West Belfast is a separate case) shows clearly that the warmth of reconciliation, so honestly stressed and worked for by parties to the power-sharing executive, has cooled. Tribal instinct overcame honest judgement on Thursday; and it comes as no surprise to find that thousands of voters have not lessened in fervour of their attachment to the particular intransigence of those who abhor sharing power, Sunningdale (about which they know so little) and a Council of Ireland which, until it is established and its powers and functions defined, has now replaced the border as a Protestant-loyalist bogey.

The electors’ choice was whether to give reasonable politics a chance, or vote for those who really think they can return to the old ascendancy which one-party rule at Stormont embodied.

More clearly than at any other Westminster election, the big issues were deliberately fudged by loyalist candidates who were determined to turn the voting into a referendum on what has been established, and calling for a massive rejection through the ballot box. It did not quite work out that way in voting terms; but they won the seats.

Mr Gerry Fitt managed to defeat the forces arrayed against him in West Belfast and his return to Westminster is generally acclaimed. For his party, things never looked better before election day, but they have not managed to win other seats although, like the Liberals, polling extraordinarily well, notably in Derry, Armagh, Mid-Ulster, North Belfast and South Down.

Bernadette Devlin with Gerry Fitt in the early 1970s
Bernadette McAliskey, who lost her Mid Ulster seat in the February 1974 election, pictured with Gerry Fitt (left), who was victorious in West Belfast

The party must accept that even though it has done a real renovation job, a modernising job on opposition politics, those who reject their policies, be they moderate unionists or Alliance members, are evidently not prepared to concede them support, in the absence of candidates of their own. In East Belfast, for instance, there should have been more anti-unionist votes coming Mr [Des] Gillespie’s way. There is claimed to be a vigorous Alliance Party in the area – where did their votes go?

In contrast to the loyalist campaign, the SDLP pitched it low, making it clear to the electorate that to vote SDLP was self-evidently sane. It did not quite win the support expected.

Whatever the opinion about both candidates, Westminster has lost two independent and articulate MPs in Bernadette McAliskey and Frank McManus, both replaced by hard-line unionists.

Although the loyalists have recorded victories at the polls, their success can have no real meaning for the present. With agreement between all parties at Westminster on the Six Counties, there will be no time for the irrelevant prejudices which mark the thinking of these 11 anti-MPs. Whoever assumes power, the 11 will not be allowed to bluster and bully on a sectarian basis or circumvent agreed plans for establishing peace and reconciliation here.

Irish News editorial reflecting on the 1974 Westminster election result that was a hammer blow to the Sunningdale Agreement, with anti-agreement unionists winning 11 of the 12 seats in the north.