History repeating as the Union itself stands at the ‘crossroads’

Fifty years ago saw the end of unionist-only government; now, there’s a lot more at stake

Northern Ireland’s prime minister Terence O’Neill and independent unionist candidate Maj RL Hall-Thompson during the 1969 election. Photograph: Tommy Collins/The Irish Times

Fifty years ago, on February 24th, 1969, was Northern Ireland’s “crossroads” election. Northern Ireland prime minister Terence O’Neill hadn’t wanted one, fearing, as he put it, “that those who would sow the wind by having a bitter election now would surely reap the whirlwind”. O’N eill was also the first senior unionist to realise that repeating the “we are the majority”’ mantra was not going to be enough anymore. But his hand was forced by increasing pressure from his own Stormont backbenchers about what they described as his continuing weakness in the face of civil rights demonstrations across Northern Ireland and reformist pressure from Harold Wilson’s Labour government in London.

Between December 9th, 1968 (when he made his “Ulster at the crossroads” speech) and early February, he was forced to sack a cabinet minister; another one – along with two junior ministers – resigned. A third of his parliamentary party called for his resignation. An election seemed his only option; so, buoyed up by the 150,000 letters of support which had followed his “crossroads” speech, he chose to ignore his personal “reap the whirlwind” opinion and appeal to a supposed “groundswell” of moderate support for his policies.

The Unionist Party endorsed and fielded official candidates who were both pro- and anti-O'Neill

It was to be a fatal miscalculation, yet fairly typical of an otherwise decent, thoughtful, reform-minded man who never really had his finger on the pulse of traditional grassroots unionism. As Brian Faulkner noted: “I do not think he ever felt really at home in Ulster politics. His personal remoteness made it difficult for him to lead his party along new and difficult paths at a very crucial period in the province’s history.”

Internal critics

And it was that remoteness, along with a reluctance to listen to well-disposed internal critics, which led to his comprehensive inability to appreciate the sheer scale of the opposition to him. My father, who knew him reasonably well, told me: “Just because Terence was looking at you and nodding politely didn’t mean he was seeing or listening to you.”


What followed was farce on an epic scale. The Unionist Party endorsed and fielded official candidates who were both pro- and anti-O’Neill. A group of pro-O’Neill supporters formed the New Ulster Movement three weeks before the election, backing pro-O’Neill candidates within the Unionist Party, as well as 17 “unofficial” Unionist candidates who were opposing the anti-O’Neill candidates from the Unionist Party. O’Neill, as tin-eared as ever, didn’t seem to have a problem canvassing for “unofficial” candidates who were running against candidates selected by his own party.

The result was a disaster for him. Of the 39 unionists who won, 27 were supporters (although some much more so than others). The comfortable majority he had banked on winning from the “groundswell” of moderate opinion didn’t materialise, leaving him with a paper-thin 27-25 overall majority in Parliament. Just one defector would cripple him. He was hobbled; deprived of the authority he needed to negotiate with Westminster and permanently at the mercy of his internal opponents. Ironically, both Brian Faulkner (in January-May 1974, after he had signed the Sunningdale Agreement) and David Trimble (after the 1998 Assembly election) found themselves in a similar position: lacking authority and flexibility because they didn’t have a solid unionist majority behind them, even though that same groundswell of moderate opinion was supposedly supporting them.

Eased out

Within two months O’Neill had been eased out of the leadership. But by that stage it was too late to avoid the impending implosion. Under his successors (James Chichester-Clark, who defeated Brian Faulkner by just 17-16, and then Faulkner, who replaced him in March 1971), the unionist government found itself forced into one concession after another. And with each new concession came another division. Between 1970 and early 1972 a number of new political/electoral vehicles emerged to eat into the Unionist Party vote: Vanguard, formed by Bill Craig, who addressed huge rallies and once spoke of the need to “liquidate” the enemy ; the DUP; and even Alliance, which started life as a home for moderate unionists uncomfortable with the direction of the Unionist Party. Along with that there were a number of new offshoots and independent mavericks operating on the fringes. It was the beginning of the end of the Ulster Unionist monolith.

O'Neill was undone by events beyond his control and the control of the Unionist Party

The biggest change over the past 50 years has been in the election figures. On February 24th, 1969, unionist parties and independent candidates accounted for 67 per cent of the votes cast; while the Northern Ireland Labour Party, which was pro-Union, won 8 per cent; meaning that almost three-quarters of the vote was unionist of one kind or another. On March 2nd, 2017, at the last Assembly election, the combined unionist vote was 45 per cent.

Unionist majority

It was 1969 that marked the end of unionist-only government. 2017 marked the end of an overall unionist majority in a local parliament or assembly. The unionist and pro-union vote is not always the same thing, of course, because there are people who do not vote for unionist parties but who might, nevertheless and for all sorts of reasons, choose to support the Union in a border poll. But the shift in electoral figures since the 1969 “crossroads” election suggests that unionists need to face the fact that it is maybe the Union itself that now stands at the crossroads. This time, though, it is the leader of the DUP monolith who will have to make the crucial decisions on behalf of unionist interests.

Irrespective of the fact that the DUP recorded its largest-ever vote in the 2017 general election, that it is presently a key player at a crucial moment in Westminster, and that Arlene Foster has no rival hovering in the wings with a dagger, her position is not much more comfortable than was O’Neill’s 50 years ago. She is not the mistress of her fate. O’Neill was undone by events beyond his control and the control of the Unionist Party. She, too, is at the mercy of events beyond her personal control or the control of her party.

Alex Kane is a commentator based in Belfast. He was formerly director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party