1959 Westminster Elections

The 1959 Westminster Elections in Northern Ireland

The Elections

Seeking an historic third consecutive term, Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan called a general election for 8 October 1959. Macmillan had succeeded Sir Anthony Eden as prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party in January 1957. Eden had resigned following the ill-conceived and ill-fated Suez debacle which also took its toll on his health. Macmillan had presided over a period economic expansion and a marked improvement in living standards. The sound-byte of the election was Macmillan�s famous line that most Britons �never had it so good�. In the end the electorate agreed and the Conservatives were returned to power for a third term and with a dominant 100 seat majority. Labour, under their new leader Hugh Gaitskell, saw their vote drop to 43.8% compared to the Conservatives (and Unionists) 49.4%.

In Northern Ireland, the 1959 general election came during a period of renewed republican violence. Operation Harvest was launched by the IRA on 11 December 1956. The campaign focused largely on the border areas, with Belfast being intentionally excluded to avoid sectarian reprisal. Many of the attacks were executed by IRA flying columns made up of members from all over the Republic. Brookeborough made full use of the security forces and powers available to him but he also effectively restrained elements that called for retaliatory actions against the Catholic community. Although the campaign never really gained widespread support among the Catholic population of Northern Ireland, funerals of IRA casualties attracted enormous crowds in the Republic.

In the 1957 Dail elections, four Sinn Fein candidates were elected on an abstentionist ticket but more significantly, the election also saw the return to power of Fianna Fail under the leadership of Eamon de Valera. The new government quickly took steps to reintroduce internment without trial, which was already in effect in Northern Ireland. By the autumn of 1958, as the campaign began to wane, there were close to 400 internees, North and South, and many other republican activists in gaol or dead.

The result of the election in Northern Ireland clearly reflected the divisive nature of the IRA campaign on the Catholic population. It appears a large percentage of Catholics avoided the polls altogether. Turnout fell to 65.9% compared to 74.1% in 1955. Support for Sinn Fein also plummeted to 11% compared to 23.6% in 1955. The Unionists achieved their best result since 1924, winning 77.2% of the vote and all 12 seats for the first time since 1929. The NILP managed a slight increase on their 1955 result, winning 7.7% of the vote.

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This map by Conal Kelly shows the winner in each constituency in 1959.

The Results

The details of each seat are on the relevant constituency page; the totals for the whole of Northern Ireland were as follows:
Party Votes % Share Seats Won
Unionist 445,013 77.2% 12 MPs (Armagh , East Belfast, Fermanagh & South Tyrone, Londonderry, Mid Ulster, North Antrim, North Belfast, North Down,
South Antrim, South Belfast, South Down and West Belfast)
Sinn Fein 63,415 11.0%
NILP 44,370 7.7%
Independent Labour 20,062 3.5%
Liberals 3,253 0.6%

Previous Contests

This graph contrasts the 1959 election result with the Westminster elections of 1955, 1951, 1950, 1945, 1935 and 1931. It is important to note that the Unionist Party was unopposed in two constituencies in 1951, four in 1950, one in 1945, six in 1935 and seven in 1931. The Unionist's share of the poll was therefore significantly less than it would have been if all seats were contested.



Robin Chichester-Clark the successful Unionist candidate for Londonderry was the brother of the future Northern Ireland Prime Minister Maj. James Chichester-Clark.
Only six out of the 12 MPs elected in 1955 were also elected in 1959.
Thomas Mitchell the successful Sinn Fein candidate for Mid-Ulster in 1955 also ran in 1959 but was defeated at the polls by George Forrest. Although Mitchell won the 1955 election he was disqualified as he was serving a prison sentence at the time. Forrest was subsequently elected in a resulting by-election.

Other sites based at ARK: ORB (Online Research Bank) | CAIN (Conflict Archive on the INternet) | Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey

Your comments, please! Send an email to me at nicholas.whyte@gmail.com.

Conal Kelly, 1 June 2007.

Disclaimer:© Nicholas Whyte 2005 Last Updated on Saturday, May 07, 2005 09:42:49