Westminster by-elections, 23 January 1986

The Anglo-Irish Agreement, signed by Margaret Thatcher and Garret Fitzgerald at Hillsborough Castle on 15 November 1985, gave the Irish government a formal consultative role in the running of Northern Ireland. For Unionists, this was the worst political blow since the destruction of the Stormont regime in 1972. Devolved government in 1974 had foundered on the rocks of the "Irish dimension"; now they had the Irish dimension but no devolved government to sweeten the pill. Massive demonstrations were called and all fifteen Unionist MPs resigned their seats to enable their electorate to express their disapproval of the Agreement.

Under these circumstances, the non-Unionist parties were not enthusiastic to add credibility to what were dubbed the "bogus by-elections". Although Alliance advised its local associations to fight each seat, many declined to select a candidate. The SDLP and Sinn Fein stood only in the four Unionist-held constituencies with Nationalist majorities. The Workers Party filled in a couple of gaps, but in four constituencies where nobody could be bothered to stand against a safe Unionist MP, a paper candidate had to be found in order for a vote to take place. A Mr Wesley Robert Williamson made his contribution to electoral history by changing his name to Peter Barry (the name of the Irish Foreign Minister) and standing on the label "For the Anglo-Irish Agreement". Despite not campaigning at all, he saved his deposit in three of the four seats.

I myself was lodging with a prominent Unionist family in Armagh at the time, while working at the Observatory there. I was on the electoral register in Upper Bann, a few miles away, but faced with the unexciting choice of the UUP or the Workers Party decided not to disrupt my work schedule, such as it was, for the sake of exercising my vote. Oddly enough the Newry and Armagh constituency provided the one interesting result of the election as the SDLP's Seamus Mallon unseated UUP man Jim Nicholson. There and elsewhere the SDLP made substantial gains against Sinn Fein which were not really reversed until 2001.

Election results, 1986 (15 of the 17 seats were in question)

UUP 302,198 votes 51.7% 10 MPs (North Belfast, South Belfast, East Antrim, South Antrim, South Down, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Lagan Valley, East Londonderry, Strangford, and Upper Bann)
DUP 85,239 votes 14.6% 3 MPs (East Belfast, North Antrim, and Mid Ulster)
SDLP 70,917 votes 12.1% 1 MP (Newry and Armagh; at this time the SDLP also held Foyle, where there was no by-election)
SF 38,821 votes 6.6% (At this time Sinn Fein also held West Belfast, where there was no by-election)
Alliance 32,095 votes 5.5%
UPUP 30,793 votes 5.2% 1 MP (North Down)
Workers Party 18,148 votes 3.1%
"Peter Barry" (For the Anglo-Irish Agreement) 6,777 votes 1.2%

See also:

Results from 1983 to 1992 for each seat: East Belfast | North Belfast | South Belfast | West Belfast | East Antrim | North Antrim | South Antrim | North Down | South Down | Fermanagh and South Tyrone | Foyle | Lagan Valley | East Londonderry | Mid Ulster | Newry and Armagh | Strangford | Upper Bann

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.

Nicholas Whyte, 4 November 2001; last updated 13 May 2003 by Tineke Vaes.

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