Fifty years ago on Sunday Derry elected John Hume to the old Stormont ousting Nationalist leader Eddie McAteer who had held Foyle from 1953.
Mr. Hume, a teacher from Beechwood, best known as the Derry Citizens’ Action Committee vice-chair, scored an emphatic victory in a three-way fight that also involved Labour’s Eamonn McCann.
He secured 8,920 votes, surpassing Mr. McAteer’s 1962 record of 8,720, and exceeding the Leader of the Opposition’s 5,267 votes by a majority of 3,653. Mr. McCann polled 1,933 and lost his deposit by 31 votes.
The election was called by Prime Minister Terence O’Neill on Monday, February 3, 1969, in face of dissent from within the Unionist Party over moderate reforms he had been forced to propose in the aftermath of the repression of the Derry civil rights march of October 5, 1968.
Mr. McAteer said: “For the life of me I don’t see what problems this will solve, as it seems to me that it will take considerably more than a General Election to paper over the ever-widening cracks in the Unionist Party.”
Within days four candidates had entered the fray in a constituency that had only ever featured two-way contests between a normally safe Nationalist and various hues of Independent republican, labour or nationalist challengers.
Mr. McAteer initially surprised everyone by announcing he intended to retire from politics for personal reasons but changed his mind after being urged to take pause for thought.
“I have bowed to the flattering mood of entreaty that has poured over me in the 24 hours you gave me to decide,” he told an ‘enthusiastic meeting’ of the Nationalist Party on Thursday, February 6.
Mr. Hume said he would be standing as an Independent because he “believed in the interests of the community as a whole that certain issues had to be placed before the electorate at the present time in order that they could decide the direction in which they must go”.
It was also confirmed “Mr. Eamonn McCann, Gartan Square, a prominent figure in the civil rights movement will be the Derry Labour Party’s candidate” and that “Mr. Richard Foster, Creggan Heights, a shopsteward and well-known figure in trade union circles” would represent the Derry Central Labour Party” as Independent Labour.
Mr. Foster later withdrew due to the proliferation of candidates, remarking: “In the Foyle constituency it will be a case of claims about who did what for civil rights and unfortunately the social and economic problems of the city and its people will disappear in what is a contest of personalities.”
This left three candidates over whom you could certainly have thrown a blanket geographically if not ideologically, with both Hume and McAteer living cheek-by-jowl on Beechwood Avenue at the time, and Mr. McCann a stone’s throw away at Gartan Square.
Nomination forms were duly handed in on Thursday, February 13 with Nationalist Councillor Jas Doherty acting as election agent for Mr. McAteer. Michael Canavan acted for Mr. Hume with Mr. McCann acting on his own behalf, accompanied by secretary of the local branch of the Labour Party Nell McCafferty.
At the outset Mr. Hume refuted suggestions his candidature would undermine the civil rights campaign.
“Some people have suggested that my entry into the political arena will let down the civil rights movement. This is not so. The DCAC was, is, and will continue to be, a non-political body, having among its membership people of different political persuasions,” he said.
Mr. McCann, meanwhile, vowed to fight for better housing, jobs through direct government investment, integrated education, one man, one vote, and the repeal of the Special Powers Act.
Mr. Foster’s prediction of personality clashes soon proved prophetic with the ‘Journal’ reporting on “‘Gutter campaign’ accusations’ in the run up to polling. On Tuesday, February 18, the paper reported: “Mr. McAteer hit out yesterday against what he described as the ‘sly insinuations’ being whispered about by canvassers for one of the opposing candidates, while Mr. Hume alleged that some Nationalist spokesmen were attempting ‘to drag this election into the gutter with personal attacks, and by attributing to me accusations which I never made.’
“The Labour Party accused Mr. Hume’s canvassers of ‘using the “Red” smear’ against Mr. McCann. ‘For the record,’ said a party statement, ‘we make it clear that our candidate is not and never has been associated with the Communist Party.’”
The ‘Journal’ carried an item on its front page in which Mr. McAteer stated: “Wherever I go I am still the same Nationalist Eddie McAteer. I do not change the colour of my coat from one door-step to another and I don’t want to go back to Stormont under any such false pretences.”
Polling produced a record 81.4 per cent turnout with Mr. Hume’s Rossville Street’s headquarters immediately declaring that they were “quietly confident” of victory.Elsewhere, the Nationalist Party’s High Street operation was “non-commital”. Mr. McCann’s Lone Moor Road HQ were “making no claim to any victory.” The election proved a landslide breakthrough for Mr. Hume and launched a decades long political career.
He said: “I am naturally pleased to have won, but I am conscious that it was a victory gained at a certain price in a contest against a man of the standing and integrity of Mr. Eddie McAteer.”
Mr. McAteer said: “If I have paid the penalty for moderation it is a price which I would gladly pay again.”
Mr. McCann acknowledged it would be foolish to say other than that it was a very bad result for Labour but that they would keep on fighting.
Mr. Hume said: “Politics is not a very graceful business. It is no respecter of persons. When one steps forward to serve the people one must accept the will of the people.
“Whatever my political differences with Eddie McAteer, I believe that at this time the people of the Foyle constituency should place on record their appreciation for the fact that he has served them for 22 years.”
From 1945 to 1953 Mr. McAteer had served as MP for Mid-Derry before switching to Foyle. He had racked up his 1962 record election tally in a contest against the Independent Labour candidate, Stephen McGonagle, when the rallying cry of his canvass had been ‘Vote, vote, vote for Eddie McAteer, Call in McGonagle at the door!’
The election of February 24, 1969, however, all but ended a political career. Though he contested the 1970 UK General Election for the Derry seat, which covered the whole county, he was heavily defeated by the safe Unionist incumbent Robin Chichester-Clark. Mr. McAteer also failed to win one of seven Derry seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections in 1973.
By contrast Mr. Hume, 18 months after his defeat of Mr. McAteer, founded a new political force in the SDLP. He went on to enjoy a 36 year political career during which he served at the old Stormont, at Westminster, in Europe, at the new Stormont, and in a variety of forums aimed at establishing power-sharing along the way. Mr. Hume led the SDLP from 1979, when he took over from the Republican Labour veteran Gerry Fitt, until 2001 when Mark Durkan took over.
Fifty years ago this Sunday another civil rights leader, Ivan Cooper, was also swept to victory in Mid-Derry, of course.
Mr. Cooper ran as an Independent and topped the poll with 6,056 votes, ahead of the Unionist Roy Shiels (4,438), Nationalist Paddy Gormley (2,229) and Republican Labour’s James O’Kane (729).
Claude Wilton, ran for the ‘City’ seat on a Liberal ticket, and nearly toppled former Unionist Mayor, Albert Anderson.The famous solicitor secured 5,770 votes to Mr. Anderson’s 6,480 thanks to Unofficial Unionist, Peter Campbell, who had split the unionist vote and drawn 4,181 from the 1968 ‘City’ by-election victor who would otherwise have been safe as houses.
Anderson’s majority of 5,178 in the by-election of May 16, 1968, was reduced to just 710 on February 24, 1969.