The 1966 Westminster Elections in Northern Ireland

The Elections

The general election of 31 March 1966 was held only 18 months after the previous one. The Labour Government under Harold Wilson had won a wafer-thin majority of just four in 1964 which had continued to erode to a virtually unworkable majority of one. The new government had a shaky start with poor economic news, bad local election results and a resurgent Tory Party under the new leadership of Edward Heath. However, in the end the electorate demonstrated their willingness to award Labour the majority they sought to carry out their program for government. On a 3% swing, Labour managed to capture 47.9% of the popular vote compared to 41.9% for the Conservatives. The resulting majority of 96 seats meant that for the first time since 1945 a Labour government would be able to achieve a full term in office.

In Northern Ireland the Unionist government under Prime Minister Terence O誰eill continued to make economic reform a priority. Some of the key reforms included a new Economic Council under the chairmanship of the Minister for Commerce, Brian Faulkner, a new Development Ministry under William Craig, the commissioning of a Northern Ireland Economic Plan, and government recognition of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. A major taboo was also broken during this period when O誰eill invited the Irish Taoiseach Sean Lemass to visit Northern Ireland. The meeting, which held political risk for both leaders, took place on January 14, 1965 at Stormont House. O誰eill had not informed his cabinet of the Taoiseach痴 visit, summoning them only on the morning of the meeting. In the end only Harry West, the Minister of Agriculture, refused to meet Lemass.

O誰eill also garnered a certain amount of Catholic support during this time with a number of unprecedented gestures including visits to Catholic schools and hospitals, and meeting with Cardinal Conway in Armagh. Such was the impact that in 1965 the Nationalist Party agreed to become the official opposition at Stormont for the first time. However, this honeymoon period would soon give way to Catholic disillusionment at O誰eill痴 inability to deliver deeper reform in the face of growing internal opposition. Catholic frustrations also grew out of the lack of sensitivity around such issues as the naming of the new city between Lurgan and Portadown after Craigavon, and the locating of a new university in Coleraine instead of Derry.

In the Westminster election, the Unionist Party won eleven of the twelve available seats and their percentage of their popular vote dropped slightly to 61.8% compared to 63% in 1964. The Republicans also saw there vote recede to 10.5%, this time contesting only five seats and facing competition from a Unity candidate in Fermanagh & South Tyrone and a Nationalist candidate in Londonderry. The NILP saw their vote slip to 12.2%, down almost 4% on their best ever result of 1964. However, the major story of the election was the victory of the colourful Gerry Fitt in West Belfast. Fitt, under the label of Republican Labour, successfully defeated the Unionist Party incumbent, James Kilfedder.

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This map by Conal Kelly shows the winner in each constituency in 1966.

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 368,629 61.8% 11 MPs (Armagh , East Belfast, Fermanagh & South Tyrone, Londonderry, Mid Ulster, North Antrim, North Belfast, North Down,
South Antrim, South Belfast and South Down)
NILP 72,613 12.2%
Republican 62,782 10.5% (West Belfast)
Liberal 29,109 4.9%
Republican Labour 26,292 4.4% 1 MP
Nationalist 22,167 3.7%
Unity 14,645 2.5%

Previous Contests

This graph contrasts the 1966 election result with the Westminster elections of 1964, 1959, 1955, 1951, 1950 and 1945. It is important to note that the Unionist Party was unopposed in two constituencies in 1951, four in 1950 and one in 1945. The Unionist's share of the poll was therefore significantly less than it would have been if all seats were contested.



Gerry Fitt the successful Republican Labour candidate for West Belfast would continue to represent the constituency until 1983. Fitt would later become the first leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), a position he held until 1979.
James Kilfedder the defeated Unionist candidate for West Belfast would later represent North Down, first for the Ulster Unionists and later as leader of the Ulster Popular Unionist Party.
All 12 MPs elected in 1964 also ran in the 1966 election. Only Kilfedder was defeated.

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Conal Kelly, 1 June 2007.

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