A spot of SDLP infighting and a #GE1992 victory in West Belfast overshadowed by voter fraud and an election petition that threatened to unseat Joe Hendron #20yearrule

Election nerds may be fascinated by some of the analysis in one of the government files released today in the Public Record Office (PRONI) under the 30/20 year rule. You can read some of the papers in CENT/1/24/24A in the attached PDF.

A briefing was prepared to answer Secretary of State Sir Patrick Mayhew’s questions about the April 1992 General Election result in West Belfast. SDLP candidate Joe Hendron won the seat with a boost of 2,774 votes over his June 1987 performance, while incumbent Gerry Adams (Sinn Féin) lost a mere 36 votes and the Westminster seat.

The analysis speculated about the level of and reason for cross-community voting which resulted in UUP candidate Fred Cobain’s support falling by 2,800 votes from Frank Millar’s performance at the previous election.

Dr Hendron secured Protestant votes for two main reasons. First, and most important, because Gerry Adams’ continuation as MP brought disrepute upon the whole constituency. The Protestants voting for Hendron did so not because of any sympathy with SDLP policies … but because they were anxious to remove Adams … Secondly, Hendron made gestures in the direction of the Protestant community conducting a token canvass in the Protestant Highfield area and leafletting the whole constituency. Additionally, a small number of influential figures on the Shankill were prepared to encourage people to vote for Hendron this time to get Adams. The most notable (some would say notorious) was Alderman Elizabeth Seawright.

The decision of Protestant voters to come out in such numbers for Dr Hendron surprised many people … Some within both unionist parties would have been happier to see Adams, as an abstentionist MP and physical embodiment of the support for the ‘unacceptable face of Nationalism’ within the Catholic community, elected rather than a fourth MP for the SDLP who might gain increased credibility as a consequence.

The Ulster Democratic Party (UDP) – described as “a tiny Unionist party with close UDA links” – advocated that Loyalists should vote for Hendron, apparently triggering “Sinn Féin leaflets arguing Hendron was the UDA candidate”.

With a General Election strongly predicted for later in 2019, there may be an important lesson for parties aiming to dislodge incumbents in constituencies like Upper Bann, Belfast South and Foyle.

Ironically, the decision of the Unionist parties to stand a candidate may have made it easier for Protestants to vote for Hendron as they could go to the polls with everyone assuming they would vote UUP, and in private make their own decision.

The analysis reckoned that to gain “continued support from the Protestant community” Hendron would need to copy Gerry Fitt and “demonstrate a willingness to work hard on constituency matters while avoiding statements, for example about the security situation, that might alienate that community.”

But the civil service narrative was not the only analyse being chewed over in Stormont.

An alternative opinion was circulated, this time from a “young and articulate” management consultant Tom Kelly who had acted as Joe Hendron’s election agent. He argued that not taking unionist tactical voting for granted but being willing to canvass and opening a new constituency office in Northumberland Street (which was “easily accessible both from Shankill and Falls areas”) had contributed to the SDLP’s success.

The official noted that Kelly had “nothing but condemnation for the failure of the Chief Electoral Officer and his staff to prevent” the “armies of [Sinn Féin] supporters […] bussed from polling station to polling station” in what he estimated to be around 2,000 instances of personation.

Kelly also suggested that “Sinn Féin had been complacent in their approach to the election” and “despite their substantial efforts in terms of personation, he believed they had miscalculated, reckoning the emigration of middle-class SDLP voters to South Belfast combined with their vote stealing would ensure the SDLP could not win”.

– – –

We interrupt this blog post to bring you a very typical incident of green-on-green sniping that is common to the papers released twice a year. Every time I head down to the Public Record Office to preview the next batch of papers, I can expect to find memos detailing SDLP figures complaining about their party colleagues.

The 1990 papers documenting rounds of weekend calls from the top of the SDLP to NIO officials were exhausting to read back in December 2016.

Amid the commentary on the 1992 General Election success for Joe Hendron, the official noted that:

Kelly, who used to work for Seamus Mallon, commented that Mallon himself never offered any positive views, nor contributed to party policy. He was critical of Mallon and his attitude generally, which he characterised as maintaining maximum independence for the Newry and Armagh area so that he could act without constraints. He acknowledged that both Hume and Mallon were not party men, unlike McGrady …

Now back to the election post-mortem …

– – –

The official concluded that while Tom Kelly was “able and respected for his organisational ability”, his estimate of personation does “conveniently allow him to claim the SDLP would defeat Sinn Féin in a straight fair fight”. The briefing concludes “this may be rather over-optimistic”.

No one disagreed that voter fraud was rife in West Belfast.

In the weeks that followed, there was much correspondence and discussion about how to replace the use of “weak” cardboard medical cards used as ID by many voters given the level of forgery and the difficulty in training polling station staff to quickly detect counterfeit identification in the few seconds they had in polling stations to examine them.

However, the SDLP and government officials had greater concerns in the immediate aftermath of Joe Hendron’s unseating of Gerry Adams when a constituent, Maura McCrory, lodged an election petition challenging the result.

Robert McCartney QC (representing Joe Hendron) uncovered the “very worrying” fact that “undeclared expenditure of around £1,000 in excess of the statutory limit” had been uncovered, but McCartney was “reasonably confident that [the argument that it was inadvertent] will carry the day”, based on his belief that “the judges are ‘good men who will do the right thing by me’ rather than his counsel’s objective assessment”.

Hendron was aware that the SDLP’s “sloppy administration” was a “propaganda gift … to Sinn Féin” and “his legal costs will be a significant drain on the SDLP’s chronically hard-pressed financial resources”.

Ahead of a judicial decision, NIO officials privately war-gamed the possible outcomes, noting that if the election was declared void, there could be no appeal, while the consequences of the election petition finding against Hendron (who had signed his election expenses instead of his agent Tom Kelly) could bar him from standing for further election (and upset Kelly’s plans for a council seat in Newry).

A young Jonathan Stephens (now permanent secretary at the NIO), drew up a “line to take” if the NIO were pressed for comment on the imminent judgement: “All election candidates have to abide by the law” and the decision was “entirely a matter for the election court”.

Despite this apparent neutral tone, the intense civil service interest in the case in the papers reveals there was definitely a preferred result, albeit with no way or attempt to influence the court.

While the file doesn’t contain the result of the election petition or the NIO reaction, Wikipedia helpfully summarises the court’s finding:

The election court reported Hendron personally guilty of the illegal practice of failing to deliver a declaration verifying the return of his election expenses, and guilty through his election agent of failing to deliver a verified return of election expenses within 35 days, exceeding the maximum spending by £782.02, and failing to pay all the expenses within 28 days. Hendron’s agent was also reported personally guilty of distributing election material without the name and address of the printer and publisher.

Not sounding good, but maybe Robert McCartney’s confidence wasn’t misplaced.

The Judges granted both Hendron and his agent relief from their findings, on the grounds that the law had been broken through inadvertence; they therefore certified that Hendron had been duly elected.

– – –

If you’re still reading, the thick orange CENT/1/24/24A file contains a few more papers of interest.

Chief Electoral Office Pat Bradley was the man for whom Tom Kelly had “nothing but condemnation”.

A memo stated that “views about [Bradley’s] independence from Government are legendary”. A note was circulated widely within the NIO in January 1994 explaining that the election supremo – whose “impartiality is beyond question” – had been “approached by black South African representatives through the European Union to act as an electoral adviser”. Bradley had previously contributed advice to Malawi, “but the South African invitation is a major coup”.

This “extra curricular work” would be carried out “during annual leave and there will be no financial consequences for the Department” … only kudos!

… the fact that he has been given such an important invitation … is surely an excellent advertisement for the quality and standing of the independent election process in Northern Ireland.

– – –

Finally, a briefing note for officials about the proposal to increase European Parliamentary election candidate spending limits included background on the STV system which “has been used for at least some types of election in Northern Ireland since the 1920s”.

The briefing, dated 25 February 1994, went on to explain that “the electorate tends to vote along strict sectarian lines” and “under the simple majority system the minority nationalist community would be denied adequate representation at local level (or in the European Parliament).”

The writer commented that:

“The Unionists have long objected to PR/STV on a number of grounds and might use the opportunity [of the draft instruments on spending being debated in the House of Commons] to deploy any of the arguments set out above [complexity and need to group areas together to increase the number of candidates being elected in the one race], although they are not relevant to the instruments themselves. The use of PR/STV in Northern Ireland is difficult to justify purely on the grounds of principle since some of the arguments in its favour would apply equally well in some parts of Great Britain.”

However, the bigger elephant in the room was the NIO’s intention not to formally consult Sinn Féin about the proposals. Minister of State Michael Ancram “expressed the view that this was not the moment to take a fresh step in the direction of recognising Sinn Féin’s status as a normal constitutional political party”.

An official noted:

· Sinn Féin is a legitimate political party which fields candidates at all elections …
· other Northern Ireland parties smaller than Sinn Féin (Conservatives/Alliance) … will be consulted on this occasion;
· Sinn Féin already receive documents and publications on a regular basis from HMG for information and there are contacts with officials over constituency business;
· Government lifts the broadcasting restrictions on Sinn Féin during elections.

The same official also noted that Sinn Féin could potentially object that Her Majesty’s Government “is hampering Sinn Féin at elections by withholding information or by giving the opportunity to comment”.

Legal advice on the possibility of an application for judicial review around the exclusion was sought and concluded that the different treatment of Sinn Féin on the basis of “their condoning of terrorist violence” was “still justified”.

The defrosting of official government relations with Sinn Féin was a very slow thaw in the mid 1990s.

Check out Slugger’s further coverage of the official papers released today.

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