European Parliament election, 1979 - Northern Ireland

The European Parliament election in Northern Ireland was only a part of the wider election across the United Kingdom. Of the 81 seats the UK possessed in the European Parliament, only three would represent Northern Ireland. Unlike most of the other seats, however, rather than being contests between the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberals, the Northern Irish seats would be contested by Northern Irish parties - most prominantly the Ulster Unionist Party, the Democratic Unionist Party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party - each of which won a seat.

Curiously, the elections in Northern Ireland were conducted by Proportional Representation by Single Transferable Vote, the only constituency of the UK to do so. This meant its electoral system was identical to that which was being used in the Republic.

Democratic Unionist Party

(1 seat, 29.8% of vote)

Almost ten years after it had first emerged on the Northern Irish political scene and begun to overtake the long-established Ulster Unionist Party, the Democratic Unionist Party secured the largest share of the vote in the 1979 election. The party's sole candidate was its leader, Dr. Ian Paisley. In his 25 year career in the European Parliament, Paisley would be no stranger to controversy. In 1986 he interrupted a speech to the European Parliament by Margaret Thatcher to protest her signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of the previous year, while in 1988 he protested at a speech given by Pope John Paul II, denouncing him as the antichrist.

Social Democratic & Labour Party

(1 seat, 25.5% of vote)

Although the most votes went to Unionist parties, John Hume's nationalist SDLP party secured the second highest vote for any candidate in the Northern Irish election. Like Paisley with the DUP, Hume as party leader ran himself for the European Parliament. The two men would establish a working relationship of sorts from their time there. Hume's election allowed him to bring the issues surrounding Northern Ireland to a wider audience.

Ulster Unionist Party

(1 seat, 21.9% of vote)

Under threat from both the SDLP and the DUP, the once dominant Ulster Unionist Party ran two candidates in the 1979 election, John Taylor and Harry West. Both men had been part of the former UUP governments which had ceased to exist in 1972. Of the two men, only Taylor was elected. He served for ten years before stepping down in the 1989 elections.

Other Parties 

Although all subsequent European elections in Northern Ireland would see a number of parties run candidates besides those mentioned above, 1979 in particular saw a large number of minor and independent groups, nationalist, unionist or otherwise, attempt to gain a seat.

On the Nationalist side, the most prominent candidate besides John Hume was independent republican Bernadette McAliskey, who came sixth overall with 5.9% of the first preference votes. Other nationalist votes went to candidates for Workers' Party of Ireland, though as in the Republic, their performance in this election was negligable. 

While the DUP and UUP dominated unionist politics, moderate unionists found themselves the option of voting for the Alliance Party, which nominated its leader Oliver Napier. Alliance came fourth overall. As the party developed, it moved away from even moderate unionism and became a cross-community party. Other unionist candidates at the time were the independent James Kilfedder, a former member of the UUP. He polled higher than McAliskey by just over 4,000 votes. Finally, minor unionist groups such as the Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, established by the later former Prime Minister Brian Faulkner, and the Ulster Liberal Party, each polled under 1%.

The candidates who fit in neither category were the independent candidates Paddy Devlin and David Bleakley, who each campaigned on organising a Labour force within Northern Ireland, rather than on behalf of either side of the community.

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