Westminster Elections in Northern Ireland
The general election of 1964 was held on October 15, some five years and six days since the previous election. The Conservatives, having been in power for 13 years and seeking a fourth term, once again entered the election with a new leader. Sir Alec Douglas-Home had succeeded Harold Macmillan as prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party in October 1963. Macmillan’s government had been badly rocked by the sensational political sex scandal involving the Secretary of State for War John Profumo. Soon after Macmillan was diagnosed with prostate cancer and resigned on October 19 1963. Home attempted to delay the election as long as possible to give the Conservative’s flagging fortunes time to recover. However a strident Labour opposition under the capable new leadership of Harold Wilson proved difficult to out-maneuver. In the end the result was extremely close but a swing of 3% saw Labour returned to power for the first time since 1951. Labour managed to capture 44.1% of the popular vote compared to 43.4% for the Conservatives. However with a slender majority of just four seats, there was little belief that the new Labour government would survive the full term.
Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, under continuing pressure North and South and with many leading activists interned or gaoled, the IRA called off its Operation Harvest campaign on 26 February 1962. Ruairi O’Bradaigh read official statement announcing withdrawal of “all full-time active service volunteers” while also pledging “eternal hostility to the British forces of occupation in Ireland”. The IRA campaign had failed to garner widespread Catholic support and having successfully weathered the storm, many believed there existed a unique opportunity for the government of Northern Ireland to encourage greater Catholic participation in the institutions of the state. However, many in the government, including Brookeborough himself, continued to regard all Catholics as potential traitors who could not compromise their traditional views and embrace the state.
Although electorally unassailable the Unionist Party began to face some internal dissent. In a slowing economy and with unemployment on the rise, some viewed the Brookeborough government as stagnating, more interested in celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Ulster Covenant than tackling the economic challenges of the day. Under mounting political pressure and with failing health, Brookeborough resigned as Prime Minister after 20 years in office on March 26 1963. He was replaced by Captain Terence O’Neill who represented a new liberal Unionist generation. The new Prime Minister stated that the aim of his government was to increase prosperity through rejuvenation of the economy and to build bridges between the two traditions.
The result of the 1964 general election in Northern Ireland was once again a clean sweep for the Unionists who won all 12 seats; a feat that has not since been repeated. However, on an increased turnout of 71.7%, the Unionists saw their vote drop to just under 63% compared with 77.2% in 1959. Sinn Fein was now a proscribed organization so its members contested the election under the label ‘Republican’ and captured 15.9% of the poll. Meanwhile the NILP recorded their best ever result in a Westminster election, capturing 16.1% of the popular vote.
This map by Conal Kelly shows
the winner in each constituency in 1964.
The details of each seat are
on the relevant constituency page; the totals for the whole of Northern Ireland were as follows:
This graph contrasts the 1964 election result
with the Westminster elections of
1950, 1945 and 1935.
It is important to note that the Unionist Party was unopposed in two constituencies in 1951,
four in 1950, one in 1945 and six in 1935. The Unionist's
share of the poll was therefore significantly less than it would have been if all seats were
The most interesting incidents of the election involved the marginal constituency of West Belfast. An aspiring political activist by the name of Ian Paisley threatened to lead his supporters to remove a tricolour on display at Republican headquarters on Divis Street, if the authorities failed to act first. The RUC moved in and removed the flag and clashed with local residents. Several days later when the flag was replaced, the RUC once again returned to remove it, this time however their actions triggered some of the most intense rioting the city had seen since 1935 and gained widespread media attention. The contest was ultimately won by the Unionist Party candidate James Kilfedder who gave much credit to the Rev Paisley, without whom, he said, his victory would not have been possible. James Kilfedder the successful 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.
Nine of the twelve MPs elected in 1959 were also returned in 1964. No existing MP was defeat at the polls.
The Unionists and Republicans fielded candidates in all 12 constituencies. The NILP contested 10 out of twelve seats, opting out of North Antrim and Londonderry.