The Union Jack swept the polls in Northern Ireland’s first-ever election

Historian GORDON LUCY tells how all 40 Unionist candidates took their places at Stormont 100 years ago

By The Newsroom
Monday, 24th May 2021, 9:00 am
Sir James Craig got his wish for a strong and united unionist campaign in the 1921 election
Sir James Craig got his wish for a strong and united unionist campaign in the 1921 election

On May 4, 1921 Viscount FitzAlan of Derwent, the lord lieutenant of Ireland, summoned the new Northern Ireland Parliament to meet on June 7 with elections scheduled for May 24.

Elections were to take place to the Southern Irish Parliament on the same date but no election was required in the South because all 128 MPs (124 Sinn Feiners and four independents who were former unionists) were returned unopposed.

In Northern Ireland 77 candidates were nominated for the Parliament’s 52 seats (40 Unionists, 20 Sinn Feiners, 12 Nationalists and five Labour candidates).

The Parliament was to be elected by proportional representation, using the single-transferable vote.

The campaign was comparatively brief. Sir James Craig addressed large meetings daily. His principal aim was to demonstrate that Ulster unionism was strong and united. He urged unionists to ‘rally round me that I may shatter your enemies and their hopes of a Republic [sic] flag. The Union Jack must sweep the polls’’

Unionist discipline was impressive. James Smyth had advised Newtownards Orangemen: ‘It was their duty as loyal Orange men and women to see that the official candidates for Parliament were returned. They must vote and work for them, whether they liked them personally or not.’

Sinn Fein took the election to the Northern Parliament very seriously. The absence of an election in the South enabled the party to commit significant resources to the contest. The candidatures of De Valera (in Co Down), Michael Collins (in Co Armagh), Eoin McNeill (in Co Londonderry) and Arthur Griffith (in Fermanagh and Tyrone) underscored Sinn Fein’s seriousness.

A striking feature of the Sinn Fein elite is how few of them had any connection or familiarity with Ulster. Eoin McNeill was a conspicuous exception. Yet, despite his Ulster birth, he had no special insight into the dynamics of Ulster unionism. His upbringing in the Glens and his contact with liberal Presbyterians led him to underestimate the strength of Ulster unionist opposition to Home Rule, especially during the third Home Rule crisis. He had no comprehension of what made unionists tick.

Many Sinn Feiners’ understanding of Ulster was derived from a highly romanticised view of Ulster in the 1790s, leading them to imagine that many Ulster Protestants were closet nationalists. The party advertised widely in the local press and even published its own newspaper, The Unionist, of which copies were sent to prominent Protestants in eastern Ulster.

However, Sinn Fein’s case failed to resonate with voters. In particular, the threat of a resumption and extension of the Belfast boycott was not exactly clever politics. Eamon Donnelly, who had been born in Middletown, Co Armagh, and was Sinn Fein’s chief organiser, was almost certainly correct in thinking that all the party achieved was a higher unionist turnout.

Tension was evident during the campaign between Sinn Fein and the Nationalist Party led by Joe Devlin. In Short Strand Nationalists and Sinn Feiners clashed after rival election meetings. The News Letter noted that they rioted ‘with as much vigour as though the opposition were loyalists, and there was much sniping from revolvers’. While there was ‘bad blood’ between the two parties elsewhere, it not degenerate into the level of violence displayed in east Belfast.

The first candidate to be elected to the Northern Ireland House of Commons was Thomas Moles, a Unionist, who topped the poll in South Belfast with 17,248 first-preference votes, the equivalent of more than two quotas. Moles was a journalist who between 1924 and 1937 was the managing editor of the Belfast Telegraph. Unionists won all four seats in South Belfast, a feat replicated in both North and East Belfast and the Queen’s University constituency.

Unionist candidates topped the poll in nine out of the 10 constituencies. In Fermanagh and Tyrone Arthur Griffith achieved that accolade. Griffith and Sir James Craig proved to be the election’s most impressive poll-toppers, with Griffith polling 21,677 votes and Craig polling 29,829 votes in Down.

Future members of the Cabinet – H M Pollock (Finance), J M Andrews (Labour) Dawson Bates (Home Affairs) and Edward Archdale (Agriculture) – easily secured election.

Joe Devlin was elected in both West Belfast and Antrim.

De Valera, Michael Collins and Eoin McNeill were also elected.

Two women, Mrs Julia McMordie in South Belfast and Mrs Dehra Chichester in Londonderry, secured election as Unionists. While Mrs McMordie was a single-term MP, Mrs Chichester’s election marked the beginning of a long and distinguished political career. Mrs Chichester is more familiar to those interested in local political history as Dame Dehra Parker.

The result was clear by May 27 but counting was not completed until May 30.

Unionists had expected to win between 32 and 36 seats but the results exceeded their wildest expectations. As Lilian Spender, wife of Sir Wilfrid, the future Cabinet secretary, recorded in her diary that the election was ‘an astonishing success, every single Unionist candidate who put up, being returned’.

Five of the 40 Unionist MPs were members of the Ulster Unionist Labour Association (which had been formed by the UUC in mid-1918). They successfully blunted the appeal of the four Labour candidates who contested the four Belfast constituencies. A fifth Labour candidate contested Down. That they were not sound on the Union did not assist their cause. In Belfast three out of the four finished bottom of the poll and all four lost their deposits (including future Cabinet minister Harry Midgley).

Despite the enmity between the old Nationalist Party and Sinn Fein, de Valera and Devlin had concluded a pact to run an agreed number of candidates in each constituency and to exchange transfers. Both parties won six seats each but Sinn Fein significantly outpolled their rivals.

In summary, Unionists polled 341,622 first-preference votes (66.9% of the vote), Sinn Fein 104,716 (20.5%) the Nationalist Party 60,577 (11.8%) and Labour 4,001 (0.8%). The turnout was 89%.

Sir James Craig’s wish that the Union Jack must sweep the polls was more than realised.