Northern Ireland Labour Party

This article is about the party active from 1924 to 1987. For other uses, see Labour Party (Northern Ireland).
Northern Ireland Labour Party
Founded 1924
Dissolved 1987
Preceded by Belfast Labour Party
Succeeded by Labour '87
Ideology Social democracy
Ulster unionism
Political position Centre-left
Colours Red

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

In 1913 the British Labour Party resolved to give the recently formed Irish Labour Party exclusive organising rights in Ireland (the 1907 conference of the British party had been held in Belfast). This decision was not popular with the trade unions in Belfast, where skilled and organised workers tended to be Protestant and broadly Unionist (or at least anti-Nationalist) in outlook.

After Partition

After partition the NILP was founded as a socialist political party by groups including the Belfast Labour Party and found its main bed of support amongst working class voters in Belfast. 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. It maintained relations with the British Labour Party who did not allow membership or organisation in Northern Ireland until 2004.

In the 1925 Northern Ireland General Election the party secured 3 seats in Belfast including William McMullen elected in West Belfast as well as Sam Kyle (Belfast North) and Jack Beattie (Belfast East), this was the last election for the Northern Ireland Parliament using Proportional Representation.

The party had a Westminster Member of Parliament on only one occasion, when Jack Beattie won the Belfast West by-election, 1943, retained the seat in 1945, but lost it in 1950. He regained the seat as an Irish Labour Party candidate in 1951.[1][2][3]

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 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 this policy had split the party, with leader Harry Midgley forming his own strongly Unionist Commonwealth Labour Party.

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, it saw its greatest period of success between 1958 and 1965. Four NILP MPs were elected to Stormont in 1958 for Belfast constituencies: Tom Boyd (Cromac), Billy Boyd (Woodvale), Vivian Simpson (Oldpark), and David Bleakley (Victoria). The NILP then became the official opposition at Stormont.[4]

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.

The Troubles

However, 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[5] 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. David Bleakley was elected to the 1973 Assembly and 1975 Forum for East Belfast.[6]

The Northern Ireland Labour Party continued to contest elections but with a dwindling support base. It broadly supported the Ulster Workers Council strike in 1974, and shortly afterwards adopted a policy of unionism. Alan Carr became its leading figure from the mid-1970s until the early 1980s,[7] 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 Northern Ireland local elections, 1985, its three candidates received no support from the central body.[8]

Labour '87

In March 1987,[9] 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.[10]

Leaders of the Northern Ireland Labour Party at Stormont

See also


  1. Bardon, Jonathan, A History of Ulster, p 523 (The Black Staff Press, Belfast, 1992)
  2. Election History of John (Jack) Beattie Elections Ireland
  3. A brief history of Northern Ireland Westminster Elections by Nicholas Whyte ARK - Access Research Knowledge
  4. Edwards, Aaron, A History of the Northern Ireland Labour Party: democratic socialism and sectarianism, Manchester University Press 2009
  5. David Bleakley Election results Elections Ireland
  6. East Belfast elections 1973-1982 ARK - Access Research Knowledge
  7. British and Irish Communist Organisation, "Labour in Ulster", p.17
  8. Aaron Edwards, A history of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, p.223
  9. Aaron Edwards, A history of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, p.2
  10. Mark Langhammer, Election Results 1989 Elections Ireland
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