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William Sheldon (1907 - 1999):
Politician


Willie Sheldon, as he was known, was a long-standing member of the Oireachtas, the Irish Parliament, first in the Dáil, the lower house, and later the Seanad. Sitting as an Independent, he was able to play a pivotal rôle in certain significant votes, and as an Ulster Protestant (a Northerner) in the Republic of Ireland (the South), he occupied what might be called a median position between Ulster Protestants of Northern Ireland, almost exclusively Unionist, and the State which, at least rhetorically, wished to absorb them and in whose legislature he served.

William Alexander Watson Sheldon was born in Derry, in Northern Ireland, attended Foyle College in that city, and then Queen's University, Belfast where he studied science and mathematics and was elected President of the SRCSU (the student union). He moved to Raphoe in Donegal, across the border in the Irish Free State but very much in the hinterland of Derry city, to take over a family farm. In 1943, he stood in the Dáil election in the four-member constituency of Donegal East, for Clann na Talmhan, a party representing farmers' interests and was elected on the eighth count. The following year he was returned, though this time standing as an Independent, and again in 1948.

For some years, general elections had been won by Fianna Fail, which was the largest party in the Irish Free State. However, the 1948 election saw the participation of a new party, Clann na Poblachta, which won 10 seats, effectively enough to win a place in a new coalition government led by Fine Gael. This party was generally seen by Ulster Unionists as less hostile to them than Fianna Fail, though the Northern Ireland Prime Minister, Sir Basil Brooke, said that this made no real difference as his government and electorate were not remotely interested in contemplating Irish unity. At first, Sheldon was sympathetic to the new government's apparently softer line on the issue of dealing with the Ulster Unionists, but then the Taoiseach, John A Costello, announced that he intended to withdraw the Free State from the British Commonwealth, membership of which was seen by many as retained in order to attract Ulster Unionists into a united Ireland - or at least repel them less from one - and to declare a Republic, that is, total formal legal independence from Britain and ipso facto from the Commonwealth.

Costello announced this intention in Canada, where, according to his Health Minister, who later clashed seriously with him effectively losing him his office, he had been annoyed by a serious of what he regarded as provocations, including having placed in front of him at an official dinner a model of a famous cannon, used by Ulster Protestants defending Derry city from Catholic forces centuries before, though the influence of Clann na Poblachta, led by Seán MacBride, was far more significant, as well as a desire to outflank Fianna Fáil on the "national question", in other words, to appear and to be more Republican than "The Republican Party". The Republic was duly declared on 18th April, 1949 and Ireland, as the state was called, became totally independent.

Sheldon, an Ulster Protestant in a constituency with a large Protestant population, backed away from Costello because of this, and publicly declared that henceforth he would not necessarily be voting with the government. Given the political arithmetic in the Dáil, this in itself was no significant threat to Costello. However, a general election was called in 1951, because of a highly controversial public health plan which was opposed by Costello who refused to back his own Health Minister, in large part because of the opposition of the Catholic Church. The parliamentary arithmetic of the result was such that Fianna Fáil was six seats short of a majority. Sheldon had again been returned as an Independent in Donegal East, with a numerically larger vote, and declined to support Costello for Taoiseach, helping to allow de Valera to return to power, though with a slender majority.

Henceforth, Sheldon's support in the Dáil was very important for the government, and they occasionally got it - for example, on the vote in favour of majority voting as against proportional representation, which surprised some who would have thought that an avowedly Protestant candidate would have voted the other way. One possible reason for Sheldon's backing of Fianna Fáil was suggested by The Irish Times, that he had never forgiven Fine Gael for the declaration of the Republic. In a profile article, the paper described him as a charming and humorous individual, whose way of operating reflected his love of trout fishing, as he had patience, skill and tenacity. Otherwise, Sheldon was a very active member of the Dáil as chairman of the influential Public Affairs Committee. From 1945-1955 he also served on Donegal County Council.

Sheldon declined to stand at the general election of 1961. The electoral boundaries in Donegal (and elsewhere) had been re-drawn, reducing his chances of re-election. However, he was nominated to the Seanad (twice re-nominated, 1965 and 1969) where he sat as an Independent and became Chairman of the Statutory Instruments Committee, finally retiring from politics in 1973.

Sheldon, who although he stood as an Independent in so many elections, made clear he was a Protestant, was very much involved in the Church of Ireland, holding several positions both in his local parish and diocese, and the General Synod of the Church. And as noted above, he was indeed a keen fisherman and a member of his local anglers' association, at Rosses in north-west Donegal. He and his wife Margaret lived near Letterkenny and he died in the General Hospital there.



Born: 18 January 1907
Died: 1 November 1999
Richard Froggatt
Acknowledgements:

Wesley McCann

Bibliography:
Irish Times 12.3.2011, “An Irishman’s Diary”, Brian Mercer Walker; Dictionary of Irish Biography; Cornelius O’Leary Irish Elections; John Bowman De Valera and the Ulster Question