The 1955 Westminster Elections in Northern Ireland

The Elections

At the age of 80 and in declining physical and mental health Sir Winston Churchill finally resigned as UK Prime Minister on 5 April 1955. He was succeeded by his long time heir apparent, the popular Sir Anthony Eden, who quickly called a general election for 26 May 1955. Eden had been an effective Foreign Secretary as the realities of the Cold War took shape and at a time when Britain was no longer the world power it had been prior to the war. In what was a very dull campaign by all accounts, Labour, under the leadership of Clement Attlee, was unable to persuade a largely content electorate to change the status quo. The Conservatives were returned to power for a second term with a majority of 60 seats and 49.7% of the vote. Labour lost 18 seats for a total of 277 and 46.4% of the vote.

In Northern Ireland the elections came at a time when constitutional nationalism was at a low ebb. The demise of the umbrella Anti-Partition League during this period was indicative of the malaise and the general sense of drift. The Stormont elections of 1953, had once again demonstrated the unassailable position of the Unionist Party led by Sir Basil Brooke. They had won over 73% of the seats and were unopposed in almost two-thirds of them. Combined with a Conservative government in Westminster, the union with Britain appeared safer than at any time since partition.

On the nationalist side, the resulting vacuum was soon filled by physical force republicanism. In Easter 1952 Saor Uladh, an IRA splinter group, seized control of Pomeroy for several hours to commemorate the 1916 Rising. Its founder, Liam Kelly was elected to Stormont the following year representing Mid-Tyrone on an abstentionist platform. Alarmed by the Saor Uladh schism, the IRA attempted to regain the initiative by preparing for a new campaign called Operation Harvest. In re-arming for this new offensive, the IRA raided Gough Barracks in Armagh in June 1954 and captured a large cache of weapons. A second major raid on Omagh Barracks in October failed and resulted in the capture of eight IRA members.

This growing militancy was reflected in the results of the election. While the Unionists managed to increase its seat count to ten (recapturing West Belfast), the big news of the election was Sinn Feinís two seats and its 23.6% of the vote. Sinn Feinís two successful candidates in Mid-Ulster and Fermanagh & South Tyrone had been imprisoned for their part in the raid on Omagh (they would be later deemed ineligible for election to the House of Commons). The big loser of the election was the NILP who saw their share of the vote drop from 13.5% in 1951 to just 5.5%. Also of note is that this was the first general election since the foundation of Northern Ireland, were all constituencies were contested.

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This map by Conal Kelly shows the winner in each constituency in 1955.

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 442,647 68.5% 10 MPs (Armagh , East Belfast, Londonderry, North Antrim, North Belfast, North Down, South Antrim, South Belfast,
South Down and West Belfast)
Sinn Fein 152,310 23.6% 2 MPs (Fermanagh & South Tyrone and Mid Ulster)
NILP 35,614 5.5%
Irish Labour 16,050 2.5%

Previous Contests

This graph contrasts the 1955 election result with the Westminster elections of 1951, 1950, 1945, 1935, 1931 and 1929. 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, seven in 1931 and two in 1929. The Unionist's share of the poll was therefore significantly less than it would have been if all seats were contested. In addition the Nationalists were unopposed in the two seat Fermanagh and Tyrone constituency in 1929.



Only 3 of 12 MPs elected in 1951 were also elected in 1955. These were Alan McKibbin (U) in East Belfast, Harford Hyde (U) in North Belfast and Capt. Laurence Orr (U) in South Down.
John Beattie (Ir Lab) elected for West Belfast in 1951 was the only out-going MP defeated at the polls.
Hon. Phelim O'Neill (U) was successfully returned for North Antrim. He had previously been elected for the constituency in an uncontested 1952 by-election caused by the death of his father, Sir Robert O'Neill, who had represented the area since 1915. In fact there had been a member of the O'Neill family representing Antrim since 1885.
Samuel Cunningham, the successful Unionist candidate for South Antrim, had unsuccessfully contested the West Belfast constituency in the 1943 by-election and again in the general election of 1945.
Philip Clarke and Thomas Mitchell were the successful Sinn Fein candidates for Fermanagh & South Tyrone and Mid Ulster respectively. However as they were serving prison sentences they were deemed ineligible to serve in the House of Commons. Interestingly in Fermanagh & South Tyrone, Col. Robert Grosvenor (U), the defeated runner-up was declared elected on 25 October 1955, however in Mid-Ulster a new writ was issued for a by-election. The by-election was held on 11 August 1955 and was once again won by Mitchell. Again declared ineligible, Charles Beattie (U), the defeated runner-up was declared elected. The saga continued when Beattie was disqualified for holding "offices of profit under the Crown" and another by-election called. The second by-election was held on 8 May 1956 and was once again contested by Mitchell. This time however the entry of a Nationalist Party candidate into the field caused a split in the nationalist vote and George Forrest (Ind U) was the winner.

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

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Conal Kelly, 1 June 2007.

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