Westminster Elections in the future Northern Ireland, 1885-1910

by Nicholas Whyte

This page is intended to provide some of the historical context for the elections described elsewhere in this site: here is a brief history of Westminster elections in Northern Ireland since partition, and here is the front page with links to detailed descriptions of all elections since 1996 in Northern Ireland. This is not an attempt to "prove" that Partition and the creation of Northern Ireland were justified or inevitable. However I think it will be clear from the information below that the distinctive political situation in the future Northern Ireland was sufficiently apparent in the last part of the nineteenth century that Nationalists should have taken a much more realistic attitude to the Ulster Question. See also an eyewitness account of the 1914 negotiations around partition.


There were eight general elections to the Westminster Parliament in the 1885-1910 period. Ireland as a whole was divided into 101 constituencies, returning 103 MPs (Cork City and Dublin University were two-member constituencies), and these boundaries were not changed during the time in question. While an analysis of each election across the whole of Ireland (and indeed the whole of the United Kingdom) would be very interesting, here I have decided to focus on the more manageable topic of the election results in the six counties of Ulster which became Northern Ireland in 1920.


The dominant political force in the future Northern Ireland throughout this period was the Unionist Party, which basically absorbed the Tories in early 1886 and has continued to be the main force in the region's politics (the present Ulster Unionist Party, rather than Sinn Féin, has the most substantial claim to be the oldest political party in Ireland). Elsewhere in Ireland the Unionists consistently won only the double seat representing the graduates of the University of Dublin (ie Trinity College Dublin), though a couple of the Dublin seats (and once, bizarrely, Galway City) would occasionally fall to them. (In the three other counties of Ulster, the Unionists never even came close to winning in Monaghan North, their strongest constituency of the eight in question, and never even contested Donegal West.)

The next strongest faction, but a very long way behind, were the Nationalist Party. At the start of our period, 1885, this was a newly invigorated group led by Charles Stuart Parnell. The Nationalist movement as a whole split following his involvement in the O'Shea divorce case, but those in Northern Ireland opted overwhelmingly for the anti-Parnellite majority. Over the next few decades as William O'Brien and T.M. Healy split off from the main party to form dissident factions, there was little impact on Northern Ireland politics (though one of Healy's supporters did get elected, in 1900). The movement as a whole suffered disastrous defeat in 1918, winning only six seats in the whole of Ireland; but five of these were in Ulster, and four in the future Northern Ireland.

The Liberal Unionists, representing those in the Liberal Party who defected with Joseph Chamberlain to oppose Home Rule in 1886, were stronger in Ulster than anywhere else in Ireland (indeed they won nowhere else except in Dublin, and that only rarely). Originally a group with a clear political identity, they gradually became indistinguishable from the mainstream Unionists (on the one occasion when they stood in the same seat, Belfast West in 1906, it was lost to the Nationalists) and by 1910 they had merged completely.

The mainstream Liberals were completely demolished in Ireland by the Chamberlain split. However, they did continue to put up the occasional candidate in safe Unionist seats, and were sometimes put up as the anti-Unionist candidate in seats where the Nationalists had decided not to stand. In the absence of a Nationalist candidate they held Tyrone North from 1900 until 1918.

T.W. Russell, an unjustly neglected figure in Irish history, began his career as a Liberal Unionist in Tyrone South in 1886, and finally broke with the Liberal Unionist party over the issue of land reform in 1902-3. Candidates backed by him won two by- elections and he and one other were returned on a Russellite ticket in the 1906 election. However, politically there was nowhere to go but to merge with the mainstream Liberal Party; Russell himself accepted the job of running the Irish Department of Agriculture, and both "Russellite" seats were won by Unionists in January 1910 (he himself won a 1911 by-election as a Liberal).

T.M. Healy was a brilliant barrister and journalist, a member of Parnell's party who turned viciously against his former leader over the O'Shea divorce, and spent the next few decades fighting with everyone else in the Nationalist movement, before ending up as the first Governor-General of the Irish Free State. He very much reminds one of Bob McCartney, the present MP for North Down, except that Healy was much wittier. He was MP for many places including (1885-6) Londonderry South. In 1900 a number of constituencies returned Healy sympathisers, and one of these was in the future Northern Ireland.

Finally, the Labour movement gave the Unionists an unexpectedly close run in Belfast North in a by-election in 1905 and again at the general election in 1906. The Unionist MP did not long survive his own victory, but the party increased its majority at the subsequent by-election and again in 1910. Wade Shen has written an interesting essay on Sectarian Divisions of Ulster Labor Politics 1885-1906.

The seats (summary)

The future Northern Ireland was divided into twenty-five constituencies: Antrim East, Mid, North, and South; Armagh Mid, North, and South; Belfast East, North, South, and West; Down East, North, South and West; Fermanagh North and South; Londonderry City, (County) North and (County) South; Newry; and Tyrone East, Mid, North and South.

These seats can be grouped as follows:

The elections


This was the first election held using these constituencies, with a reformed franchise, and the last in which the old three-party system of Tories, Liberals and Nationalists was relevant. In the future Northern Ireland, the only impact made by the Liberals was to split the pro-Union vote in Londonderry South letting in the Nationalists. 14 seats were won by the Tories, and another two in Belfast by dissident Tories. The other nine went to the Nationalists - their best tally, in an election that gave them their best ever result across Ireland (85 seats of 103).
Close results were: Londonderry City, Tory majority of 32 over Nationalist; Belfast West, Tory majority of 37 over Nationalist; Tyrone South, Nationalist majority of 53 over Tory.


The party system had now undergone a seismic shift with the defection of Chamberlain's Liberal Unionists to make common cause with the Tories after Gladstone's adoption of Home Rule, and a pact between Gladstone's Liberals and the Parnellites. The election was a triumph for the Unionists across the UK generally; the only seats to change hands in Ireland were the two Belfast seats which reverted to the mainstream Unionists, Tyrone South and Londonderry South, which were narrowly captured from the Nationalists by Liberal Unionists, and Belfast West where the Nationalists squeaked ahead of the Unionists.
Close results were: Londonderry City, Unionist majority of 3 over Nationalist; Tyrone South, Lib Un majority of 99 over Nationalist; Belfast West, Nationalist majority of 103 over Unionist; Londonderry South, Lib Un majority of 108 over Nationalist.


The disgrace and death of Parnell left his movement deeply split in the rest of Ireland, but not in the North; supporters of the lost leader managed a total of a mere 278 votes in the four Ulster seats they contested, and had no effect on the result - although the anti-Parnell Nationalists lost two more seats in the future Northern Ireland, Fermanagh North to a Unionist and Belfast West to a Liberal Unionist, it was a straight fight in both cases.
Close results were Londonderry City, Unionist majority of 26 over Nationalist; Tyrone North, Unionist majority of 49 over Liberal.


The Liberals, who had never quite given up, finally captured Tyrone North (with no Nationalist candidate standing) from the Unionists. The Unionists also lost Londonderry City to the Nationalists, but were ceded Tyrone South by their coalition partners the Liberal Unionists, and generally won the election in England, Scotland and Wales. No Parnellite candidates stood in Ulster, though elsewhere they had a better election than previously.
Close results were: Londonderry City, Nationalist majority of 39 over Unionist; Tyrone North, Liberal majority of 91 over Unionist; Tyrone East, Nationalist majority of 152 over Unionist; Tyrone South, Unionist majority of 193 over independent Nationalist.


This election came in the middle of the Boer War, whose popularity at first wrong-footed the reunited Nationalist party which opposed it. The Nationalists did win three seats unopposed, but only two out of five actual contests, their worst result in this period; the rock-solid Armagh South seat was lost to a follower of the dissident T.M. Healy, Londonderry City slipped back into Unionist hands, and finally, in Tyrone South a Liberal candidate got 303 votes, easily enough to have beaten the Liberal Unionist if the two pro-Home Rule parties had run a single candidate. The depth of Nationalist disarray is shown by the fact that Belfast West, Derry South and Fermanagh North were not even contested by them.
Close results were: Tyrone North, Liberal majority of 55 over Unionist; Londonderry City, Unionist majority of 67 over Nationalist; Tyrone East, Nationalist majority of 76 over Unionist; Tyrone South, Liberal Unionist majority of 90 over Nationalist.


The Liberal landslide was mildly echoed even in Ireland, where the Unionists had their worst result of this sequence, winning only thirteen seats. Normally loyal Antrim North fell to a supporter of T.W. Russell, the MP for South Tyrone who had broken with the Unionists over land reform. Sloan retained Belfast South. Nationalists retook Belfast West from the Liberal Unionist who had been unchallenged at the previous two elections, and also regained Armagh South. Promising great things (which have so far never happened) the Labour candidate put up a strong showing in Belfast North, but lost.
Close results (plenty of them) were: Tyrone North, Liberal majority of 9 over Unionist; Belfast West, Nationalist majority of 16 over Unionist (Liberal Unionist got 153 votes); Tyrone East, Nationalist majority of 31 over Unionist; Newry, Nationalist majority of 66 over independent Nationalist; Londonderry South, Liberal Unionist majority of 71 over Russellite; Tyrone South, Russell majority of 283 over Unionist; Belfast North, Unionist majority of 291 over Labour.

January 1910

The Unionists, now united under a single party banner, had their best election as a single bloc, absorbing the Liberal Unionist seat in Londonderry South, regaining the dissident seats of Belfast South, Antrim North, and Tyrone South, and uniquely taking Tyrone Mid on a split Nationalist vote, for a total of 18 seats. The Liberals held Tyrone North and the Nationalists won everywhere else.
Close results were: Londonderry City, Unionist majority of 57 over Nationalist; Tyrone North, Liberal majority of 102 over Unionist; Tyrone East, Nationalist majority of 112 over Unionist; Tyrone South, Unionist majority of 284 over Liberal (Russell).

December 1910

The standard comment on this election in the history books is that it was practically a carbon copy of the previous one, and that was true in Northern Ireland as well. However the Nationalists did make one gain, from the Unionists in Tyrone Mid where they settled their differences.
Close results again were: Londonderry City, Unionist majority of 105 over Nationalist; Tyrone North, Liberal majority of 132 over Unionist; Tyrone East, Nationalist majority of 140 over Unionist.

Snapshots of individual seats

Afterword: 1918

You can find full details of the 1918 election elsewhere on this site. Here I will note that it was fought on a much wider franchise, and revised parliamentary boundaries. Antrim retained four seats; Armagh retained three; Belfast increased from four seats to nine; Down remained at five (counting the old Newry seat); Fermanagh stayed at two; Londonderry was unchanged at three; Tyrone was cut from four seats to three; and the Queen's University of Belfast was also granted a seat, for a total of thirty seats rather than twenty-five. The Unionists won twenty of these, and three "Labour Unionists" also won in Belfast St Anne's, Belfast Shankill and Belfast Victoria. The old Nationalist party managed to hang onto four seats, Armagh South, Belfast Falls, Down South and Tyrone North-East; and Sinn Féin won three seats, Fermanagh South, Londonderry City, and Tyrone North-West. Had there been an agreed anti-Unionist candidate in Down East, the Unionists would probably have lost but as it was they won with 6007 votes to the Nationalists' 4362 and Sinn Féin's 3876. There was a partial pact between the Nationalists and Sinn Féin which covered the marginal Ulster seats (except Down East).

See also: Westminster elections 1885-1910 | The 1918 election | Dáil elections since 1918 | Westminster elections since 1920 | Senate of Southern Ireland 1921 | Irish Senate elections in 1925 | Northern Ireland House of Commons | Northern Ireland Senate

Surveys of each recent election: 2004 European | 2003 Assembly | 2001 Westminster | 2001 local govt | 2000 S Antrim | 1999 European | 1998 Assembly | 1997 local govt | 1997 Westminster | 1996 Forum | 1995 N Down | 1994 European | 1993 local govt | 1992 Westminster | 1989 European | 1989 local govt | 1987 Westminster | 1986 by-elections | 1985 local govt | 1984 European | 1983 Westminster | 1982 Assembly | 1981 local govt | 1979 European | 1979 Westminster | 1977 local govt | 1975 Convention | Oct 1974 Westminster | Feb 1974 Westminster | 1973 Assembly | 1973 local govt | Summary of all Northern Ireland elections since 1973 | Brief summary of election results 1997-2003

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

Front page | Site Map | Notes and Queries | Updates Mailing List | About this site

Your comments, please! Send an email to me at nicholas.whyte@gmail.com.

Nicholas Whyte, 15 August 1999, last modified 17 February 2002

The Author | What's New | Your Comments

Disclaimer:© Nicholas Whyte 1998-2004 Last Updated on Wednesday, 12-Jan-2005 12:12