The Shankill Campaign

On the 13th June, 1961, Belfast Branch nominated Comrade W. Skelton to contest a municipal by-election in the Shankill Ward of Belfast. Shankill is a very safe Unionist (Govt.) Party seat, but we also expected candidates from the Labour Party (which organisation has put in a lot of the usual “ward-healing” work in the area and contested the seat many times) and the Ulster Protestant Action. A Labour nominee did call at the City Hall and collect Polling Registers where he learnt of our definite intention to contest the ward; the fact that on Nomination Day candidates from the Unionist Party and the W.S.P. only were nominated would seem to indicate that our presence dulled the fervour of the Labourites.
Faced with a straight fight with the Unionists we had to make doubly certain that our propaganda in the ward was as far-flung as possible in order to ensure that we did not get the usual Labour and anti-Government vote. In spite of the fact that our opponent (a certain William Christie, owner of a well-known local chain of wallpaper stores) stated that he would hold no public meetings but would conduct a campaign with the assistance of a large team of door-to-door canvassers we decided on a full programme of public meetings.
Christie did indeed use a large number of canvassers and several loud-speaker-bearing vehicles to tour the ward nightly: everywhere the message was the same: “A Communist has dared to stand in this loyal ward of Shankill—give them their answer!” Such a message in such an area created difficulties for the reception of our case but, as well, to anyone knowing Shankill and the “answer” usually forthcoming from there, it seemed a direct appeal to violence. We challenged Christie to repudiate these statements or meet us in debate before the electorate and present his evidence of our “communism” but true to the role of cowardly master of a cowardly campaign lie answered us with silence.
Night after night during the campaign eighty per cent of our membership turned up to support the meetings and, when these concluded, give out election Statements. Nearly ten thousand Statements, plus five thousand leaflets, were given out in this way and in addition to this large posters were pasted on walls in the ward. Mostly 2 or 3 a.m. was “quitting time” and towards the end a few hardy members had a couple of all-night sessions. As in our last campaign, from which we had scarce recovered, the great majority of our comrades worked splendidly.
Polling day was a dull affair for us. We were unwilling and unable to “man the polling booths” and we contented ourselves sitting convenient to a few of the larger ones suitably identified, in the hope that some people would want to discuss with us. Very few people came on foot to vote and though many did vote for us it is unlikely that they would have run the risk of publicly identifying themselves with us—in view of the considerable show of numbers the Unionists had on duty around their expensively hired caravan Tally rooms at the different polling booths. The Socialist voter living in an area like Shankill has to be very discreet indeed! Between eighty and one hundred cars were in service by the Unionists and bands of women workers plied the streets in the ward trying to keep those cars occupied. In spite of this, however, most of the cars sat for very lengthy periods and often when active it was to convey a single voter. Obviously, in their traditional stronghold, the Unionists were having difficulty in achieving what they cynically refer to as “pulling them out.”
With polling over we went to the City Hall for the count. Each candidate had a ticket to attend and a further seven tickets was available to each for the purpose of providing scrutineers. As our candidate was working that evening (at this stage the “count” does not justify loss of earnings—even if the work to that end does!) we had only seven present. The Unionists, on the other hand, must have had several hundred present—by virtue, apparently, of being “visitors” of other Aldermen and councillors, and these conformed with the usual standards of a Unionist mob—mean and vicious, very stupid, and very, very noisy.
When the Returning Officer announced the result, Christie 3,800, Skelton 454 (“the Socialist candidate forfeits his deposit”) Christie arose to the howling of the mob but contented himself with thanking the R.O. and staff and claiming that the result “speaks for itself.” The mob then began to shout “Where’s Skelton?” and it was pretty obvious that they were not bent on sympathy. This cry changed to “God save the Queen,” sung lustily, and at this we began the business of leaving with all the speedy dignity we could in the circumstances command.
Looking back at the result we are encouraged. Unlike Duncairn each voter had only one vote; the Catholics in the ward did not vote at all, the few “commies” in the area would be naturally hostile and Labourites deliberately abstained or. in some instances, adopted our method of marking their ballot paper (thus: N.l. Labour).
Certainly it is pleasing to think that our existence as a Party caused the Unionists to bring out their Party machine and spend anything from £700 to £800 (in a local government election) to keep Socialism out of a ward they could truly claim to “own.” As a result of our campaign we have become very widely known as a political party and this must augur well for the future—even if it creates precedents which necessitate the establishment of an election fund and the promise of much hard work to come!
Richard Montague.
General Secretary.

Leave a Reply