MacNaghten v MacNaghten: When united Irelander Edmund went head to head with his loyalist cousin Malcolm

A hundred and one years ago one of the most unusual election battles in history took place in Derry when cousins - one a united Irelander and confidante of Michael Collins, the other a King’s Counsel and Knight Commander of the British Empire, went head to head in the city.
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The election caused a bit of a stir at the time due to the eleventh hour candidature of Sir Malcolm Naghten’s cousin, Captain Edmund Loftus MacNaghten, a Dublin-based Nationalist, who that summer had travelled around the six counties at the behest of Michael Collins trying to gauge anti-partition feeling amongst unionists.

It was the first ever election to the new constituency of ‘Londonderry’ which covered both the city and county of Derry.

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Less than a month before his assassination by the IRA at Béal na Bláth on August 22, 1922, the Chairman of the Free State Government had asked the WWI veteran to get “the maximum value from the anti-partition feeling which undoubtedly exists among certain elements in the north east which are, for the moment, not in agreement with us politically.”

Malcolm McNaghtenMalcolm McNaghten
Malcolm McNaghten

Four months later and Captain MacNaghten turns up in Derry as a surprise challenger to his London-based lawyer cousin, Sir Malcolm.

An editorial in the Londonderry Sentinel on Tuesday, November 7, 1922, - a week before polling day - summed up the bemusement.

“There is something very mysterious about the circumstances under, which at the last moment Captain E. L. MacNaghten has been brought forward as a Protestant Home ruler against Sir Malcolm MacNaghten, the Loyalist candidate.”

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The editorial pointed out that on Thursday, November 2, at a meeting in St. Columb’s Hall of the ‘Catholic people’ of Derry, presided over by Rev. Laurence Hegarty, it had been decided that a candidate was not to be put forward.

At a meeting in St. Columb’s Hall of the ‘Catholic people’ of Derry, presided over by Rev. Laurence Hegarty, it had been decided that a candidate was not to be put forward. Nonetheless Edmund MacNaghten entered the fray.At a meeting in St. Columb’s Hall of the ‘Catholic people’ of Derry, presided over by Rev. Laurence Hegarty, it had been decided that a candidate was not to be put forward. Nonetheless Edmund MacNaghten entered the fray.
At a meeting in St. Columb’s Hall of the ‘Catholic people’ of Derry, presided over by Rev. Laurence Hegarty, it had been decided that a candidate was not to be put forward. Nonetheless Edmund MacNaghten entered the fray.
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1923 winter poll saw MacNaghten walk-over with no need for a pact

Yet on Saturday, November 4: “A gentleman from Malahide was put into nomination. What can be the explanation? Is Captain MacNaghten standing in defiance of Rev. Laurence Hegarty and other representative Roman Catholics in attendance?”

The editorial expressed disbelief that the ‘mystery’ candidate had “rushed into the fray ‘spontaneously’ and without thinking - and against his cousin too!”

Two days later (November 9) the ‘Sentinel’ reported on a ‘Rousing Unionist Meeting’ in the Guildhall during, which Sir Malcolm, declared that he wouldn’t say anything about his opponent unless forced to and that the election would be fought on principle alone.

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“My opponent stands for the subjection of our people to a Dublin parliament. That is a subjection to which we will never submit (Cheers),” the report reads.

The loyalist candidate referred to the fact that Captain MacNaghten wasn’t produced until 15 minutes before the close of nominations and suggested those supporting him were hoping to capitalise on polling booth confusion on account of both candidates having the same name.

Although Sir Malcolm refused to get involved in an unseemly slanging match with his cousin other speakers were scathing.

The Unionist candidate for Antrim, Captain Charles Craig, questioned Captain MacNaghten’s use of the self-designation, ‘Anti-Partitionist.’

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“When a candidate comes up as an Anti-Partitionist at this time of day, he was trying to draw a red herring across the trail,” said Captain Craig.

“The fact was he was a Sinn Féiner, a Home Ruler, pure and simple.”

Captain Craig said he hoped no Derry loyalist would be ‘humbugged’ by the move.

He also said that whilst his unionist audience had been Anti-Partitionists until quite recently, that had all changed.

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He said: “It was quite true that only a short time ago they were all Anti-Partitionists” but “the time came when that was no longer possible.”

The East Belfast candidate, Captain Herbert Dixon, asked of Captain MacNaghten: “Is he a Protestant?

“Has he ever been known to fulfil the first obligation of a Protestant and stand up for his own people?”

The same edition also carried an address to the electors from Captain MacNaghten.

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In it, he referred to the upcoming Boundary Commission and said it was essential the electors of Derry vote for the ‘Unity of Ireland.’

“As an Ulsterman I offer myself therefore as an Anti-Partition, Independent, Protestant Candidate; and call upon all those who abhor the idea of the dismemberment of Erin to give me a straight vote to a straight question.”

He said he was appealing to all Anti-Partitionists from “’die-hard’ Republicans; supporters of the Irish Free State; whether they are Catholic or Protestant; Orangemen of Hibernian.”

An editorial on the same day (November 9) referred to reports that a Captain MacNaghten had “charged British officers of throwing Irish people into flames and suspending them with hooks” whilst making a speech in Seattle in December 1920. The paper challenged him to explain himself.

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The same edition referred to Sir Malcolm as “a descendant in the direct male line of one who was within the Walls during the Siege.”

But it appeared feathers had been ruffled by his opponent’s late arrival for in ‘A Clarion Call to Loyalist Voters’ the paper instructed voters to mark an X only next to the second MacNaghten on the ballot paper, which was their candidate.

It even stated: “Illiterate electors should say they want to vote for Malcolm MacNaghten.” Who this was addressed to is unclear.

The paper also suggested the purpose of Captain MacNaghten’s arrival was to demonstrate that the loyalist majority in Derry was not too large in order to try to push for the secession of the city to the Free State as part of the Boundary Commission negotiations.

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Despite unionist alarm, Captain MacNaghten didn’t have a chance.

On Saturday, November 11, the ‘Sentinel’ reported how Sinn Féin had repudiated his candidature. Following a meeting of Sinn Féin’s local Comhairle Ceanntair, on Wednesday (November 8), the party stated: “We repudiate the authority of a foreign country to make laws binding upon us, and consequently, we refuse to participate in any election brought about by the foreigner to have our country represented in an alien Parliament.”

Sinn Féin also declared that MacNaghten had arrived “unsought and uninvited.” They claimed that the ‘Unionist Press’ were suggesting the contest would be a local referendum on partition.

But, Sinn Féin said, the May 1921 elections to the new ‘Six County Parliament’ was the true barometer of anti-partition sentiment.

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Sinn Féin had polled 15,886 and Nationalists had polled 7,772 in that abstentionist election: 45 per cent of the poll in Londonderry.

As for the Westminster election at hand, Sinn Féin felt “Captain MacNaghten is going to be defeated by a large majority.”

The same edition carried a reply from Captain MacNaghten to the accusation that he had accused British Officers of abuses.

He wrote that the speech at Seattle concerned the Black and Tans rather than the Army.

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The same edition also carried a report from the Northern Whig stating Captain MacNaghten - “who is opposing his cousin” - had also made separatist speeches in Boston.

Although on Sunday, November 12, Captain MacNaghten defended his “national record” in St Columb’s Hall, refuted allegations that he was a “stranger” by saying that his uncle had been Rector in Christ Church, and hit back at the local Sinn Féin organisation for its repudiation, he was doomed to defeat.

According to a report of polling in the ‘Sentinel’ on November 16, he accepted it was a “wash out for him.”

“He complained, however, that he had been deserted by men upon whom as an Anti-Partitionist, he might have counted on.”

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Sir Malcolm hammered his cousin, securing 30,743 votes (75.7 per cent) to Captain MacNaghten’s 9,861 (24.3 per cent).

Just over a year later Malcolm enjoyed a walk-over and was elected unopposed on December 6, 1923, after a snap election was called by British Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.

“It is unlikely that there will be a contest in the constituency of Derry City and County,” reported the ‘Journal’ at the time.

“Sir Malcolm MacNaghten, K.C., will probably be again the Unionist nominee, and he will be returned unopposed.

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“Owing to an announcement recently made it was believed that Mr. James Brown, solicitor, Magherafelt, would contest the seat, but it is now learned that he does not seek to enter the Imperial Parliament. He will go forward for the Northern Parliament,” this paper reported.

In 1923 the position of Sinn Féin, which has repudiated Edmund’s candidature a year later, had not changed.

The country was struggling to come to terms with the implications of partition and divisions were deep from the Civil War that had ended in May.

Thousands of republicans were in prison throughout the country and IRA Volunteers Denny Barry and Andrew O’Sullivan died on hunger-strike in Free State jails, on November 20 and November 23 respectively, within weeks of the 1923 poll in the North.

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The Derry Sinn Féin organisation’s views on Baldwin’s early election was not featured in the ‘Journal’ but a report on an Executive meeting in Dublin gives a flavour of the difficulties facing the party at the time.

At the meeting, which was chaired by the Sinn Féin vice-president, Mary MacSwiney, the ‘organisation in the north’ was on the agenda.

“The report of Mr. P. O’Hare, director of the organisation, stated...that owing to various causes the organisation of the North Eastern Counties, as would be noted from the clubs affiliated, was very weak.

“Travelling organisers could do very little under present conditions. In a schedule attached to the report the clubs in the North were stated to be - Antrim 1; Armagh 2; Donegal 22; Down 2; Derry 1; Louth 11; Monaghan 5; Sligo 18; Fermanagh and Tyrone 9,” the ‘Journal’ reported, noting the difficult environment facing republicans in late 1923.

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MacNaghten faced no such difficulties, of course, and was unanimously selected in Coleraine on November 22. He agreed with Baldwin’s protectionist policy of introducing tariffs on free-trade imports that he blamed for high unemployment levels and which was the Prime Minister’s principal reason for calling the election.

So here was a Unionist MP supporting a Conservative Prime Minister on an anti-free trade ticket!

“Sir Malcolm declared himself to be whole-heartedly in favour of Mr. Baldwin’s fiscal policy as the solution of the grievous unemployment problem, which, he said, is now eating like a cancer into the vitals of the country.”

MacNaghten said that should a contest be forced upon him "he hoped that they would return him by a majority such as that which they gave him last year.”

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There was no contest. MacNaghten won. But the Government lost. Ramsay McDonald, in January 1924, became the first ever British Labour Prime Minister.

His administration was short-lived, however, and there was soon another election. In November 1924 MacNaghten did face opposition from Charles McWhinney, a former acting O.C. of the Derry City Battalion of the IRA, who stood for Sinn Féin, and from the independent unionist William Galt.

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