WILLIAM ALEXANDER WATSON SHELDON (1907-1999) was an Irish politician who earned the respect and admiration of both sides of the country’s great political and religious divide.
Despite being an Ulster Protestant involved in Republican politics, he was nevertheless able to exert a calming hand during a time of great political and social turmoil on both sides of the border
He served in the Dublin parliament for 30 years, having been first elected in 1943 on the eighth count with barely ten per cent of the vote. Four seats were up for grabs in the Donegal East constituency and Sheldon, representing a small farmers’ party, Clann na Talmhúain, polled just enough votes to secure the fourth seat.
Twelve months later, when the then Irish Prime Minister Eamon de Valera called a snap general election, Willie Sheldon, as he was always known, was re-elected for a second term with an increased share of the vote, nearly 12 per cent.
In subsequent elections, when standing as an independent, he increased his share of the vote each time, taking nearly 20 per cent of the poll in the 1957 general election, the last he contested.
He relinquished his seat at the 1961 election but that didn’t signify the end of his political career, for he was appointed to the Irish upper house, the Seanad, or Senate, one of 11 nominations at the discretion of the Taoiseach, the Irish Prime Minister.
Willie was by profession a farmer, though he was born in the city of Derry in Northern Ireland, attending the city’s Foyle College and then Queen’s University, Belfast, where he studied science and mathematics.
He had his first taste of politics during his university days when he was elected president of the students union.
In the 1930s he moved across the border into what was then part of the Irish Free State, but still very much connected to the city of Derry, to take over the running of his late uncle’s farm at Raphoe.
Though he died back in 1999, Willie Sheldon is still fondly remembered by those who knew him. As recently as March 2011, his influence as a well-respected independent member of the Irish parliament was highlighted by The Irish Times newspaper.
An article by Brian Mercer Walker recalled how in 1953 the The Irish Times had run an item on Sheldon, describing him as one of the most popular deputies in Dáil Éireann, with “that rare quality, a sense of humour”.
It went on to say: “He has the Gary Cooper technique – the charming smile beneath which the countryman cloaks his innate cuteness.” It described him as no orator but “the perfect committee man” and stated that “his one hobby is trout fishing, and here, perhaps, the general line emerges – patience, skill and tenacity”.
Brian Walker, writing in 2011, went on to relate: “Following the 1948 general election, however, Fine Gael entered into an inter-party government under John A Costello. In September 1949, Costello announced the intention of the government to withdraw from the British Commonwealth and to declare a republic.
“Eventually, most opponents accept the change. This was not the case with Willie Sheldon.
Willie became an influential figure in both the Dáil and the Seanad
In a public letter to Costello on December 2nd, 1950, he declared that he had decided to disassociate himself from general support for the government. His reasons included the decision to withdraw from the Commonwealth, compulsory use of the Irish language and the government’s anti-partition policy.
At this point, Sheldon’s position can have caused little concern to the government.”
But all that changed in the wake of the 1951 general election when, despite Fine Gael winning more seats, their overall majority went down because their partners in coalition lost seats.
Subsequently in a Dáil vote to appoint a new taoiseach, Costello was defeated 74-72. Three independents, including Sheldon, who had previously supported Costello, abstained and de Valera was chosen as Prime Minister instead, winning a 74-69 vote.
Walker concludes that from then on: “How Sheldon voted in the Dáil was of great importance to de Valera. On most votes he abstained but on a number of important occasions, when this minority Fianna Fáil government faced possible defeat, he gave it his support.
“As a result of his new-found influence, Sheldon assumed a much higher Dáil presence. On July 11th, 1951, he was elected chairman of the influential Public Affairs Committee, and later he was nominated as one of the vice-chairmen of Dáil Éireann.”
Walker points to another significant role played by Sheldon, this time in the late 1940s, when Irish political leaders were becoming “increasingly worked up about the North”.
He wrote: “In September 1948 Costello stated that he considered himself prime minister of all Ireland, ‘No matter what the Irish in the North say’.
“At an anti-partition rally in Scotland in October 1948, de Valera warned unionists that they would have to choose to be Irish or British, and, if their choice was not the former, he urged: ‘In God’s name will you go to the country that your affections lie in’.”
This was inflammatory language, however when de Valera was returned to power in 1951 it was noted that there was a distinctive toning down of government anti-partition rhetoric.
Walker says this was “probably due to Sheldon’s influence”.
He adds: “Just as Costello was influenced to go for a republic, because he was dependent on the support of Seán Mac Bride, so de Valera would have been conscious of the need not to offend Sheldon over Northern Ireland.”
Sheldon’s decision not to stand in the 1961 election was heavily influenced by the redrawing of constituency boundaries by his new found “friends” in Fianna Fáil, leading to accusations of religious and political gerrymandering in some quarters.
Whatever the truth in the accusations, it is certainly true that the redrawn boundaries made it almost impossible for a protestant candidate to secure a Donegal seat in the Dáil.
However, not long after the election the list of nominees for the Senate proposed by the new taoiseach, Sean Lemass, included William Sheldon (Independent).
Walker summises that although Fianna Fáil had knifed their old ally in the back with the gerrymandering of the Donegal constituencies, they must have appreciated that they owed him for his support in earlier matters.
“Besides, as the columnist in The Irish Times on October 14th, 1961 noted; ‘he had the respect of all the parties’.”
Sheldon was always an active member of the Dáil, serving as chairman of the influential Public Affairs Committee. He also served on Donegal County Council for ten years, after being first elected in 1945.
Willie Sheldon served further terms in the Senate, in 1965 and 1969.
In all his political dealings, he always made clear that he was a Protestant. He 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. He and his wife Margaret lived near Letterkenny and he died in the General Hospital there.
Little is known of Willie’s family background, but is probably descended from Alexander Sheldon, born in the 1820s, who had at least three sons, William, Andrew and Robert Alexander.
William married Jane Lowry in Raphoe on 19 January 1854 and they sons Samuel James, born 21 May 1866, and Andrew (24 June 1868).
Andrew married Mary Lowry on 2 October 1850 but no records of any offspring have yet come to light.
Robert Alexander married Francis (Fanny) Shaw of Coolaghey, the widowed daughter of John McBeth, at the parish church of Clonleigh on 8th February 1866. They subsequently had at least three children, Esther (7 February 1867), John Alexander, (7 November 1871), and Robert McBeth, (7 September 1875).
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