Northern Ireland Labour Party
Preceded byBelfast Labour Party
Succeeded byLabour '87
Political positionCentre-left

The Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) was a political party in Northern Ireland which operated from 1924 until 1987.


The roots of the NILP can be traced back to the formation of the Belfast Labour Party in 1892. William Walker stood as the Labour candidate in the Belfast North by-election in 1905 coming a close second with 47% of the vote. The Belfast Labour Party won 12 seats and over 14% of the vote in the 1920 elections to Belfast Corporation.

After partition

After the partition of Ireland in 1921, the NILP was founded as a socialist political party by groups such as the Belfast Labour Party and found its main bed of support amongst working class voters in Belfast. Over 40 delegates attended the founding conference of the Labour Party of Northern Ireland held on 8 March 1924.[1] It initially declined to take a position on the "Border Question" and instead sought to offer itself as an alternative to both nationalism and unionism.

In the 1925 Northern Ireland general election, the party won 6% of the total vote and secured three seats in Belfast, including William McMullen elected in Belfast West, as well as Sam Kyle (Belfast North) and Jack Beattie (Belfast East); this was the last election for the Northern Ireland Parliament using the single transferable vote system.

The party had a Westminster Member of Parliament on only one occasion, when Jack Beattie won the 1943 Belfast West by-election, retained the seat in 1945, but lost it in 1950. He regained the seat as an Irish Labour Party candidate in 1951.[2][3][4]

In the 1945 election to the Stormont parliament, held in the aftermath of the second world war, the NILP polled 66,503 votes, 18.6% of the total votes cast.[5]

In 1949, following the declaration of a Republic in the south, the Northern Ireland Labour Party's conference voted in favour of the Union with Great Britain. The NILP abandoned its neutral position on the border adopting a pro-union position that the “Northern Ireland Labour Party will maintain unbroken the connection between Great Britain and Northern Ireland”.[6]

Many anti-partition Labour activists drifted out of the NILP and joined the Irish Labour Party. The result was a sharp decline in the party's already limited electoral success, as Catholic voters deserted, and the Irish Labour Party attempted to organise in Northern Ireland.

An earlier refusal to adopt a pro-union policy had split the party, with leader Harry Midgley forming his own strongly Unionist Commonwealth Labour Party in 1942.

In the 1949 elections to the Stormont Parliament, Labour’s vote fell to 26,831 votes, 7% of the total votes cast. This was a dramatic decline from the 18.5% share of the vote in the 1945 election.

Later in the 1950s, the party began to gain ground amongst unionist voters and, after the breakup of the Irish Labour Party's new attempts to organise in Northern Ireland, among some nationalists. The NILP campaign to highlight the failure of the Unionist Government to respond effectively to the growing problem of unemployment led to the NILP attracting more support form both Protestant and Catholic working class voters. In the 1953 elections to the Stormont Parliament the NILP recovered to a 12% share of the vote.

The NILP saw its greatest period of success between 1958 and 1965. In 1958 the Party won nearly 16% of the vote. Four NILP MPs were elected to Stormont for Belfast constituencies: Tom Boyd (Pottinger), Billy Boyd (Woodvale), Vivian Simpson (Oldpark), and David Bleakley (Victoria). The NILP then became the official opposition at Stormont.[7]

In the 1962 Stormont elections the NILP won 76,842 votes, over 25% of the total votes cast. In the 1964 UK General Election the NILP polled 102,759 votes - its highest ever popular vote.

Success came despite continued divisions over such matters as Sunday Observance – two NILP Belfast councillors voted to close the city's park playgrounds on Sundays (as demanded by hard line Calvinists but opposed by Catholics) and were expelled as a result.

During this period the NILP maintained its pro-union stance. Despite this, the NILP was winning support from the Catholic working class who were voting on “bread and butter” issues. Paddy Devlin, previously an Irish Labour councillor, joined the NILP in 1958: “the only party that filled my need was the NILP, which was then going from strength to strength. With active trade union backing it was climbing back into the natural position for a local Labour Party: chief challenger of Unionist Party dominance.”[8]

Civil Rights

In the early to mid 1960s, the NILP was a leading voice in the calls for civil rights and an end to discrimination. When the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) was formed in 1967, NILP members were prominent in the organisation with Paddy Devlin elected to its Executive. But, despite the involvement of many Labour members in the civil rights movement, the NILP felt more comfortable confronting the Unionists at Stormont over civil rights than taking part in the street protests that soon became violent confrontations due to the RUC's brutal enforcement of the state ban on many civil rights marches.[9]

The Troubles

In 1969 the situation in Northern Ireland worsened as the violent response by the RUC and loyalists to the civil rights marches led to the Battle of the Bogside in Derry and sectarian clashes in working class areas of Belfast.[10]

The growing sectarian polarisation in working class areas in the late 1960s damaged the NILP’s project of building a Labour alternative to Unionism. However, even by 1970 the NILP was still able to poll nearly 100,000 votes across Northern Ireland in the UK General Election.

Any hopes of keeping the cross-community Labour coalition together were damaged by the NILP publicly distancing itself from Paddy Devlin’s lobbying for action to protect Catholic working class communities. The NILP expelled Paddy Devlin in August 1970 for his links with civil rights politicians who would go on to form the SDLP.[11] [12] The NILP also expelled Eammon McCann, who was chairman of Derry Labour Party, for supporting Bernadette Devlin who had recently been elected as an MP.[13]

With the onset of the Troubles, new parties emerged that appealed to the party's support base, including the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland and the Democratic Unionist Party. Once again the polarisation of politics around partition deprived the party of a critical mass.


In 1971 the new Prime Minister of Northern Ireland Brian Faulkner appointed NILP former Stormont MP David Bleakley[14] to his Cabinet as Minister of Community Relations, in an attempt to bring reforms to Northern Ireland. However, the following year the Stormont Parliament was suspended when it resisted the London government request to take over responsibility for public order. In the 1973 referendum on the border, the NILP campaigned for Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom.

By 1973 the NILP was in a serious decline with the party only achieving 2.5% of the vote in the local council elections and a similar 2.6% in the Northern Ireland Assembly election. In contrast, Alliance won 13.7% of votes in the local elections and 9.2% in the Assembly elections, and the SDLP achieved its best results so far by polling more than 22% of the votes in the Assembly election. David Bleakley was the only NILP representative elected to the 1973 Assembly and 1975 Forum for East Belfast.[15]

The Northern Ireland Labour Party continued to contest elections but with a dwindling support base. Alan Carr became its leading figure from the mid-1970s until the early 1980s,[16] by which point it had only about 200 members, and just a single councillor was elected for the party in 1981. A party conference in 1983 narrowly failed to secure a necessary two-thirds majority to wind up the party, but it stood no candidates in the 1983 general election, its Chairman and Party Secretary having resigned just beforehand, and by the 1985 Northern Ireland local elections, its three candidates received no support from the central body.[17]

Labour '87

In March 1987,[18] the remains of the party merged with Labour Party of Northern Ireland (formed in 1985 by former SDLP leader Paddy Devlin), the Ulster Liberal Party and the United Labour Party to form the Labour '87 group. This group also gained the support of the Newtownabbey Labour Party. They contested local elections and Mark Langhammer contested the 1989 European Elections unsuccessfully.[19]


Leaders at Stormont


1924: Sam Kyle
1925: William McMullen
1927: Matthew Courtney
1931: Hugh Gemmell
1932: Harry Midgley
1942: Jack Beattie
1944: William Leeburn
1945: Jack Macgougan
1946: John Boyle
1947: Robert Getgood
1947: Henry Holmes
1948: James Morrow
1952: Vivian Simpson
1953: Tom Boyd
1954: Cecil Allen
1955: Saidie Patterson
1956: W. Blair
1957: David Bleakley
1958: Andrew Gibson
1959: Robert Bingham
1960: Billy Boyd
1962: Charles Brett
1963: Hugh Waring
1964: Edward Wright
1965: William Gunning
1966: Martin McBirney
1967: Paddy Devlin
1969: Robert Allen
1970: Brian Anderson
1971: Erskine Holmes
1972: Brian Garrett
1973: Archie McArdle
1973: Brian Garrett
1974: Jack Barkley
1975: George Chambers
1976: Sandy Scott
1977: Alan Carr
1980: Ciaran McAteer
1981: Bob Clarke
1983: William Gunning

Electoral performance

Main article: List of Northern Ireland Labour Party election results


Election Body Votes Vote % Seats Outcome
1921 1st Parliament 3,075 0.6%
0 / 52
1925 2nd Parliament 18,114 4.7%
3 / 52
1929 3rd Parliament 23,334 8.0%
1 / 52
1933 4th Parliament 14,436 8.5%
2 / 52
1938 5th Parliament 18,775 5.7%
1 / 52
1945 6th Parliament 66,053 18.5%
2 / 52
1949 7th Parliament 26,831 7.1%
0 / 52
1953 8th Parliament 31,360 12.1%
0 / 52
1958 9th Parliament 38,093 15.8%
4 / 52
1962 10th Parliament 76,842 25.4%
4 / 52
1965 11th Parliament 66,323 20.4%
2 / 52
1969 12th Parliament 45,113 8.1%
2 / 52
1973 1973 Assembly 18,675 2.6%
1 / 78
1975 Constitutional Convention 9,102 1.4%
1 / 78

Local government

Election First Preference Vote Vote % Seats
1973 17,422 2.5%
4 / 517
1977 4,960 0.8%
1 / 526
1981 3,563 0.5%
1 / 526
1985 1,285 0.2%
1 / 565


  1. ^ Edwards, Aaron (2013). A history of the Northern Ireland Labour Party democratic socialism and sectarianism. Manchester University Press. Manchester, UK. p. 14. ISBN 978-1-84779-293-8. OCLC 1164783924.
  2. ^ Bardon, Jonathan, A History of Ulster, p. 523 (The Black Staff Press, Belfast, 1992)
  3. ^ Election History of John (Jack) Beattie Archived 2018-04-11 at the Wayback Machine Elections Ireland
  4. ^ A brief history of Northern Ireland Westminster Elections by Nicholas Whyte Archived 2018-10-30 at the Wayback Machine ARK – Access Research Knowledge
  5. ^ Edwards, Aaron (2013). A history of the Northern Ireland Labour Party democratic socialism and sectarianism. Manchester University Press. Manchester, UK. p. 34. ISBN 978-1-84779-293-8. OCLC 1164783924.
  6. ^ Edwards, Aaron (2013). A history of the Northern Ireland Labour Party democratic socialism and sectarianism. Manchester University Press. Manchester, UK. p. 30. ISBN 978-1-84779-293-8. OCLC 1164783924.
  7. ^ Edwards, Aaron, A History of the Northern Ireland Labour Party: democratic socialism and sectarianism, Manchester University Press 2009
  8. ^ Devlin, Paddy (1993). Straight left : an autobiography. Belfast: Blackstaff Press. p. 78. ISBN 0-85640-514-0. OCLC 29670138.
  9. ^ Edwards, Aaron (2013). A history of the Northern Ireland Labour Party democratic socialism and sectarianism. Manchester University Press. Manchester, UK. pp. 117–157. ISBN 978-1-84779-293-8. OCLC 1164783924.
  10. ^ McKittrick, David (2012). Making sense of the troubles : a history of the Northern Ireland conflict. David McVea (Revised ed.). London. pp. 55–70. ISBN 978-0-241-96265-7. OCLC 809807489.((cite book)): CS1 maint: date and year (link)
  11. ^ Devlin, Paddy (1993). Straight left : an autobiography. Belfast: Blackstaff Press. pp. 131–139. ISBN 0-85640-514-0. OCLC 29670138.
  12. ^ Edwards, Aaron (2013). A history of the Northern Ireland Labour Party democratic socialism and sectarianism. Manchester University Press. Manchester, UK. pp. 168–9. ISBN 978-1-84779-293-8. OCLC 1164783924.
  13. ^ Edwards, Aaron (2013). A history of the Northern Ireland Labour Party democratic socialism and sectarianism. Manchester University Press. Manchester, UK. pp. 174–5. ISBN 978-1-84779-293-8. OCLC 1164783924.
  14. ^ David Bleakley Election results Archived 2011-02-21 at the Wayback Machine Elections Ireland
  15. ^ East Belfast elections 1973–1982 Archived 2018-06-23 at the Wayback Machine ARK – Access Research Knowledge
  16. ^ British and Irish Communist Organisation, "Labour in Ulster", p.17
  17. ^ Aaron Edwards, A history of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, p.223
  18. ^ Aaron Edwards, A history of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, p.2
  19. ^ Mark Langhammer, Election Results 1989 Archived 2007-12-17 at the Wayback Machine Elections Ireland