Northern Ireland was an unexpected, overwhelming triumph for the Ulster Unionists, who have ruled the province continuously for over 40 years and for the Prime Minister, Captain Terence O'Neill.
The Northern Ireland Labour Party lost two of its four seats to the Unionists, and all the other opposition groups together stand exactly where they were in terms of seats.
As big a success for the Unionists as their gains from Labour in Belfast was the return of the Attorney-General, Mr. E. W. Jones, in Derry City.
Mr. Jones, who was unopposed at the last Northern Ireland general election in 1962, faced a strong Liberal challenge this time from a wellknown Derry lawyer, Mr. Claude Wilton, campaigning against Unionist neglect of Londonderry.
In the event, Mr. Wilton pulled out the entire Nationalist (Catholic) vote, as well as drawing 2,000 voters away from the Government candidate----and lost by only 1,000 votes in an 82 per cent poll.
The election was one of the most exciting for years in Northern Ireland. Five Unionist Ministers, who have previously enjoyed unopposed returns, faced contests, and for many voters it was their first chance for decades to vote in a Stormont election.
There are indications that the election was "cleaner" than in the past, although there have been allegations of attempted impersonation of voters by Unionist supporters in Armagh, and organised mobs were used to break up opposition meetings in the Enniskillen constituency.
The Labour Party clearly over-reached itself in fighting 17 seats—a third of the total. They would have been shrewder to follow the lead of the anti partitionist Nationalists, who decided from the outset to concentrate on the nine seats they already had and held all of them, five unopposed.
The Labour Party, on the other hand, read too much into the progress they had made at the 1964 (Westminster) general election, and on polling day the swing sgainst them was over six per cent.
During the last seven years, the Labour bloc at Stormont has achieved some success in
swinging Parliamentary debate away from the perennial confrontation between "Orange Tories" '(Unionists) and "Green Tories" (Nationalists), and towards a mature consideration of the problems of unemployment and housing which plague the province.
In overall political terms, their approach was making progress. The election was the first in which even the Nationalists allowed the Border to take second place to bread-andbutter issues in their campaign.
But Labour's tactics did not commend themselves to the electorate, and there were abstentions among former Labour supporters. As a result, the robuster wing of the Unionist party has increased its representation at Stormont.
This wing has links with the Rev. Ian Paisley, a fanatical anti-Catholic Orange lobbyist, who achieved considerable publicity during the 1964 elections.
A new party has now a'ppeared on the electoral scene —the National Democrats, a liberal-minded group who have broken away from the traditional, Border-dominated thinking of the Nationalists and are showing a refreshingly modern attitude for Ulster's problems.
For example, the National Democratic candidate in Antrim, Cite Sean McGivern, who polled strongly against the sitting Unionists, made the sensible proposal that both Irish governments should jointly develop such natural regions as Derry and Donegal, or Fermanagh, Leitrim and Cavan.
The new party has a foothold in Stormont as a result of the unopposed return of their candidate in Belfast Central. The seat was formerly Independent Labour.
There are two lessons to be learnt from last week's results: one for the Government and one for the Opposition. Paradoxically, perhaps, hopes for an easing of discrimination against the Catholic minority, and for a more liberal future for Northern Ireland, could be brighter as a result of. the Unionist triumph.
Had the Government lost two Belfast seats to Labour, instead of gaining two from them, extremists within the Unionist Party would have been able to argue that Captain O'Neill's mfwes towards a rapprochement between 'Catholics and Protestants, and between North and South, few and faltering as they have been, had damaged the party. There might then have been a move to depose O'Neill and to replace him with a more intransigent Unionist. As it is, however, the first Northern Irish Prime Minister to have met his opposite number in the Irish Republic, and to have honoured Catholic schools with formal visits, has put his actions to the best of the ballot and has seen them upheld.
There will still be extremists within the Unionist ranks at Stormont, and there will still be discrimination against Catholics, in jobs, in the allocation of Council houses, and in electoral representation of a kind which no other Western European nation would tolerate. The important point, however, is that O'Neill remains in firm control of his party, and he has already persuaded it to lift its back an inch or two away from the wall.
Fortified by last Thursday's mandate, he should now have the courage to resume his discussions with Mr. Lemass, and to begin the long and painful process of removing discrimination in the North and of bringing together Catholics and
Protestants in the united country which he has said he wants.
As for the Opposition, there are signs of encouragement for the two parties which campaigned on a "middle-of-theroad" platform—the National Democrats and the Liberals. Both polled well in the carefully selected seats they fought.
Will they do better next time? They may do, given one essential pre-condition — that the present informal understanding among the Opposition parties continues.
There was only one threecornered fight in the whole of Ulster—and that was due to an insignificant Communist intervention. For the rest, the opposition parties sensibly decided that it was pointless to split each other's votes—the normal result being that even more Unionists than usual are let in.
No seats were won as a result of this unofficial arrangement, but things could be different in future. One of the most explicit statements in favour of such an understanding came from the Ulster Liberal leader, the Rev. Albert McElroy, during his campaign in Enniskillen.
Mr. McElroy, who is a Presbyterian Minister, said that his party would not fight the Nationalists, or other Opposition groups, as long as the Unionist Government remained the main bastion of reaction in Northern Ireland.
Mr. McElroy was rewarded for his frankness with the votes of veteran Sinn Feiners, who trooped into his headquarters hotel in Enniskillen to wish "his reverence" well.
There is thus at least the possibility of an eventual broad-based Opposition, which would draw votes from both Catholics and Protestants tired of the eternal Green-Orange wrangle.
There could be considerable potential support for such an alliance among liberally minded Protestants and among Catholics who are becoming more concerned about the jobs and houses to which they are entitled as British citizens than about the events of 40 years ago.
It will take years before Ulster politics become normal, with parties of the left, right and centre which anyone is free to join, hut however tittle this electien actually furthered this process. there seems to be little real danger that the clock will go back.