1923 winter poll saw MacNaghten walk-over with no need for a pact

A Derry shirt factory in the 1920s. Stanley Baldwin called a December 1923 election because he wanted to introduce tariffs on imports he felt were contributing to unemployment.
A Derry shirt factory in the 1920s. Stanley Baldwin called a December 1923 election because he wanted to introduce tariffs on imports he felt were contributing to unemployment.

Last time there was a December general election in Derry there were no pacts or unity candidates.

In fact there was no contest. The incumbent unionist Malcolm MacNaghten enjoyed a walk-over and was elected unopposed on December 6, 1923.

“It is unlikely that there will be a contest in the constituency of Derry City and County,” reported the ‘Journal’ after a snap election was called by British Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.

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

“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.

MacNaghten had won the seat in November 1922 by defeating his cousin, the Dublin-based Independent Nationalist, Captain Edmund Loftus MacNaghten.

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

He had secured 30,743 votes (75.7 per cent) to Captain MacNaghten’s 9,861 (24.3 per cent).

But the latter’s candidature had not been assisted by a statement issued by Sinn Féin’s local Comhairle Ceanntair on the eve of the poll.

“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,” the party had stated.

A year later Sinn Féin’s position hadn’t 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 poll in the North.

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.

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 grievious 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.”

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 1923 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.