The 1970 Westminster Elections in Northern Ireland

The Elections

Seeking an unprecedented third consecutive term for a Labour government, Prime Minister Harold Wilson called a general election for 18 June 1970. The government had suffered a number of setbacks during its four years in office. A series of economic crises had plagued the administration, including the devaluation of sterling in 1967, rising unemployment and inflation, and declining industrial relations. There were also some foreign policy missteps including the humiliation of EEC membership rejection and the backing of the American war in Vietnam. During their second term, the Labour government had also suffered 15 by-election defeats. In spite of these challenges, by the summer of 1970 Labour’s fortunes appeared to be turning as opinion polls indicated a clear margin over their Conservatives rivals. However, in a surprise result the Conservatives under Edward Heath won the day, gaining some 46.4% of the vote and a 31 seat majority. In what was the lowest turnout since 1935, Labour only managed to capture 43% of the vote, down from 48% less than two years earlier.

By 1970 Northern Ireland was in a state of crisis and a major political realignment was underway. The reform minded O’Neill had resigned in May the previous year and was succeeded by his cousin Major James Chichester-Clark; the fifth Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. Protestant discontent at O’Neill’s moderation towards the Catholic minority had continued to grow throughout his term in office. This resentment was effectively channeled by Ian Paisley with his “O’Neill Must Go” campaign, and he and his supporters hounded O’Neill at all public functions.

Despite the initial Catholic support that O’Neill had won through a number of ground-breaking gestures, this soon turned to disappointment at the lack of meaningful reform. Catholic frustration found an outlet in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. This umbrella organization was formally inaugurated in 1967 and its aims were to demand a number of liberal reforms, including the removal of discrimination in the allocation of housing and jobs, the removal of permanent emergency legislation and an end to local government electoral abuses.

Modeled on the American civil rights movement, NICRA’s tactics included street protests, marches, sit-ins and the effective use of the media to publicise grievances. These protests frequently led to loyalist counter demonstrations and ultimately to conflict with the forces of the state. As more militant elements came to the fore, the Stormont government was unable to handle the growing civil disorder, and in 1969 the British government sent in troops to restore order. Although initially welcomed by the Catholic population, the intervention soon proved to be a trigger for the revival of the republican movement and the establishment of the Provisional IRA.

When the votes were counted it revealed the Unionists' worst ever result in a Westminster election, capturing only 54% of the vote and winning eight of the twelve available seats. Unity candidates were successful in Mid-Ulster and Fermanagh & South Tyrone, and Gerry Fitt successfully defended his West Belfast seat with an increased majority. These seats with their large Catholic populations were considered to be marginal, however the victory of Protestant Unionist candidate, Ian Paisley, in North Antrim was a major blow to the establishment.

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This map by Conal Kelly shows the winner in each constituency in 1970.

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 422,041 54.2% 8 MPs (Armagh , East Belfast, Londonderry, North Belfast, North Down, South Antrim, South Belfast and South Down)
Unity 140,930 18.1% 2 MPs (Fermanagh & South Tyrone and Mid Ulster)
NILP 98,194 12.6%
Protestant Unionist 35,303 4.5% 1 MP (North Antrim)
Republican Labour 30,649 3.9% 1 MP (West Belfast)
Independent Unionist 17,787 2.3%
Liberal 10,929 1.4%
NDP 10,349 1.3%
Independent Labour 7,565 1.0%
Independent 4,290 0.6%

Previous Contests

This graph contrasts the 1970 election result with the Westminster elections of 1966, 1964, 1959, 1955, 1951 and 1950. It is important to note that the Unionist Party was unopposed in two constituencies in 1951 and four in 1950. The Unionist's share of the poll was therefore significantly less than it would have been if all seats were contested.



Ian Paisley the successful Protestant Unionist candidate for North Antrim had been elected to Stormont two months earlier in a by-election caused by O’Neill's elevation to the House of Lords.
James Molyneaux the successful Unionist candidate for South Antrim would later lead the Unionist parliamentary party beginning in 1974 and assume the overall party leadership in 1979. He would later represent the Lagan Valley constituency from 1983-1997.
James Kilfedder the successful Unionist candidate for North Down had previously represented the West Belfast constituency from 1964-66. He would represent North Down until his death in 1995, first as an Ulster Unionist and later as leader of the Ulster Popular Unionist Party.
Bernadette Devlin the successful Unity candidate for Mid Ulster had previously been elected in a by-election in 1969 becoming the youngest female MP ever elected to the House of Commons.
Alasdair McDonnell the unsuccessful NDP candidate for North Antrim would later be elected to Westminster in 2005 representing the constituency of South Belfast.
The universal franchise was extended to 18 year olds for the first time in this election.

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