Page last updated at 10:00 GMT, Wednesday, 30 December 2009
Northern Ireland 1979 archives

By Dr Eamon Phoenix

The British government regarded the outcome of the first direct European elections in Northern Ireland as reflecting the depth of polarisation in the region and dealing a fatal blow to hopes of consensus politics, previously confidential files show.

Ian Paisley in Ballymena
Ian Paisley topped the 1979 European poll

DUP leader Ian Paisley topped the 1979 poll, followed by SDLP deputy leader John Hume.

In an analysis of the results for the British government, dated 26 June, 1979, NIO official A E Huckle felt the results, revealed "a positive shift towards the extremes within both the unionist and non-unionist blocs".

The official speculated on how Mr Paisley might use his enhanced electoral mandate: "Always regarded as a negative politician in the past, more ready to criticise than propose, for the first time he has been forced out into the open with full electoral backing.

"To that extent he is exposed and may be vulnerable.

"There have been various schools of thought about whether Paisley wants power and whether he would be prepared to obtain it by constructive statesmanship, or whether he would merely continue to build on his reputation as the defender of the loyalist Protestant tradition ready to resist any sign of appeasement by the government."

Mr Huckle noted to pursue the latter policy Mr Paisley had merely to maintain his attack on the government's security policy.

The party would certainly resist any attempt to restore powers to district councils, as demanded by the unionists

It was possible however that he might pursue his party's commitment to the return of devolved government in Northern Ireland.

The official felt the tactics adopted by the DUP leader would be the key factor in determining the government's attitude towards him.

John Hume's success, on the other hand, meant that the SDLP remained an important factor in the political process.


According to the official, the SDLP believed "they have attained a dominant bargaining position and that they have a power of veto over any solution which is not acceptable to them".

The party would certainly resist any attempt to restore powers to district councils, as demanded by the unionists, he said.

SDLP: Austin Currie, Gerry Fitt, John Hume and Paddy Devlin
The government felt the SDLP was split between the 'greens' and 'moderates'

Moreover, they were "confident in their ability to stimulate international pressure from the USA and the Republic to prevent Her Majesty's Government (HMG) from giving in to Paisley."

Their problem was, according to Mr Huckle, that their electoral success would not (in light of Mr Paisley's achievement) assist them to achieve their political aims.

The 'moderates' like Gerry Fitt realised this difficulty since it made the SDLP's minimum demand of devolution based on power-sharing "almost unattainable".

On the other hand, "the green wing of the SDLP, epitomised by Seamus Mallon" was less concerned by the outcome of the election.

The SDLP was probably divided, Mr Huckle wrote, between the moderates who favoured a continuation of direct rule as the best defence against Mr Paisley and "the increasingly powerful green wing which would undoubtedly seek to persuade the government of the Republic and the USA to increase their diplomatic pressure on HMG. It is probable that the SDLP will go further down the green spectrum."

Meanwhile, the Official Unionist Party was in disarray in the wake of its poor showing in the elections.

A major problem was that over 55% of OUP supporters were over 50.

Print Sponsor

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific