On this day 49 years ago, the United Kingdom went to the polls to choose a new government. The result was a narrow Labour win of just 4 seats making Harold Wilson the Prime Minister.
Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, the election of Wilson provoked fears among some Unionists in Northern Ireland that he would be much more interventionist in the affairs of the province than some of his predecessors. A letter he had written before the election to the Campaign for Social Justice expressing support for ending discrimination had raised some concerns among the political elites in Northern Ireland. I don’t think you need me to point out that Wilson would not act until late 1968.
Anyway, I must bring you back to the election campaign as it happened in Northern Ireland. The relatively new Unionist leader, Terence O’Neill, had begun 1964 by reaching out to Catholics in the province by visiting schools and visiting majority nationalist towns. O’Neill attempted to shift the focus of Northern politics away from constitutional issues towards ‘bread and butter’ issues. He did this largely to see off the NI Labour party who posed a serious threat to the UUP in Belfast.
The election would end up being about anything but economic issues as a flag (go figure!) in the seat of West Belfast would dominate the election campaign. This constituency was one of the party’s most marginal in the province and there were genuine fears that the Labour candidate, William Boyd, could split the Unionist vote, allowing the well known Republican Labour candidate, Harry Diamond to win the seat.
The local republican campaign office put in their main window a tricolour. Go up the Falls road today and you could not swing a cat without hitting this flag but these were very different times. When word got out that Ireland’s national flag was being openly displayed it provoked a huge backlash from loyalists. One person in particular who took exception to this was a little known preacher called Ian Paisley.
This started a chain of protests and counter-protests, with some reports estimating that around 4,000 people attended the protests, sparking rioting between Republicans and the RUC, who were asked to remove the flag. The coverage of the riots featured pictures of Ian Paisley being cheered on as a triumphant leader. Indeed, it is telling that in one event Paisley had received more extensive coverage than O’Neill had all year.
The result was all 12 Unionists being returned to the House of Commons, but it came at a heavy price. O’Neill would now have to contend with Ian Paisley and his policy of ‘bridge building’ was in tatters. A flag in a campaign office window gave Ian Paisley his first break in politics. One wonders when we look back at the last twelve months whether we will be saying the same thing about Jamie Bryson.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs