Election Time in 1991

In many ways, the Isle of Man in 1991 was a different world yet there is plenty to connect that year with 2021.

In November 1991, just a few months after attracting global headlines with his iconic protest in a concentration camp uniform at Tynwald Day, gay rights campaigner Alan Shea stood in the Douglas East constituency of the House of Keys.

Shea polled just 54 votes, propping up a poll in a constituency that also saw a failed attempt to reach the Keys from Brenda Cannell, who would prove more successful in later attempts, as Phil Kermode and Dominic Delaney defended their seats successfully.

But Shea’s name is marked indelibly on Manx history in a way few politicians can match, having helped shine an international spotlight on the Island and its need to change.

It is hard to overplay just how brave Shea was as the face of that campaign for change. Those who query the power – and point – of protest would do well to remember his achievement.

During the run up to the election, the BBC ran a programme about the Isle of Man’s laws that banned gay sex and the global media interest in the Manx law on homosexuality grew. 

It is hard to believe just how hateful the attitude of some – including lawmakers and law enforcers –  was towards a part of the island’s community. An era of intimidation, discrimination and persecution – that should always be remembered with shame – was slowly coming to an end.

Shockingly, although homosexual acts were decriminalised in the year that followed the 1991 election, it took until the current outgoing administration for the government to introduce an automatic pardon for any historic convictions – which would also be wiped from any criminal record.

History was made last year when Chief Minister Howard Quayle also said sorry for the harm caused all those years ago and, fittingly, Alan Shea was in the public gallery and there to hear him.

We’re still waiting for an apology from the Isle of Man Constabulary.

Attitudes have changed on a wide range of issues in the past three decades, some more amusingly than others.

Sex discrimination was on the agenda in 1991, although sometimes it cropped up in unexpected ways, such as one letter to the editor in the Isle of Man Examiner, which expressed concern that better qualified men had it tough when applying for secretarial jobs.

The correspondent warned: ‘ … the absence of an engaging smile, high heels, a 36-22-38 figure and a manicure generally rules out the male as a candidate for most secretarial posts..’

Speaking of the newspapers, a glance through the pages of 1991 publications will reveal the regular appearance of a byline for one Daphne Williams. Political connoisseurs will know that is the maiden name of Daphne Caine, who has just completed a stint as Garff MHK and is standing again next month.

Depressingly, the next closest link between the House of Keys in 1991 and the House of Keys of 2021 might be the fact that I’m still writing about the incumbents. None of the class of 1991 remain. That said, you may have noticed David Cretney’s daughter Sarah Maltby is standing in her dad’s old stomping ground of Douglas South.

Other things that give a flavour of 1991 include the fact that decrees nisi divorce rulings were still printed in the local papers, while the UK Government was flexing its muscles over income tax no longer after forcing an increase of VAT to 17.5 per cent, which all sounds a little familiar.

The ageing prison in Victoria Road, Douglas, worthy of a place in a Dickens novel, was still in use – at one point even hosting a 15-year-old girl because the juvenile justice centre couldn’t deal with her.

Education chiefs were talking about a four-term year, BCCI was making headlines and the government was accused of a cover-up over pollution incidents at the animal by-products plant.

The Trades Council – spearheaded by TGWU boss Bernard Moffatt – was campaigning for union recognition and improved workers’ rights.

At the time of the election, it was reported that the appointment of contractors to work on the Mount Murray development was imminent and the Health Department was being called on to drop plans to redevelop what is now the former Noble’s Hospital on its Westmoreland Road and instead build a brand new one somewhere else.

One very significant difference between the 1991 election and the 2021 election was the former had a different constituency make-up – and it was the last time the Single Transferable Vote was used in a general election, having only been introduced in 1986.

The whole issue of STV, its misapplication and unpopularity with many politicians, is worthy of an entire article in itself. In an insufficient nutshell, it allowed voters the ability to express preferences for other candidates beyond their first choice, which could lead to several rounds of voting as candidates were eliminated.

That it ended up with two Douglas West candidates in 1991 drawing lots for who was next to drop out, may not have helped its cause. What probably helped that cause even less was the fact that there were 15 constituencies, some with a single seat, some having two MHKs and some having three.

It did not go unnoticed, either, that all the poll toppers under STV would have also topped the poll purely on first preference votes.

In total there were 73 candidates in 1991 and 13 of the 15 constituencies were contested. Tony Brown, in Castletown, and Edgar Quine, in Ayre, were able to sit back on election night.

As ever, party politics was a back story. Three Manx Labour candidates – the aforementioned David Cretney, Bernie May and a certain Peter Karran – topped their polls, but the two Manx Green Party candidates lost their deposits. 

After the election, Miles Walker (now Sir Miles) justified his status as hot favourite to be elected chief minister, following his first stint in charge of the ministerial system from 1986-91, by being backed by Tynwald to take the helm once more.

Dr Edgar Mann, who was effectively his predecessor as chairman of the Executive Council in 1985-86, opposed him.

An interesting story about Dr Mann. After becoming the chairman of ExCo, while he was an MLC, he decided to stand down from the Legislative Council to fight for a seat in the Keys in 1986, so he would have a more democratic mandate if he were to be the next de facto government leader.

However, he was defeated in the 1986 general election. He was not out of Tynwald for too long, returning via a by-election in Garff in 1990. He also had a key role to play in the debate over party politics in coming years.

Thirty years on, we have 12 two-seat constituencies, the role of MLCs in government and parliament remains up for debate, the Manx Labour Party is still fielding candidates, Liberal Vannin are on the scene, green politics plays a much larger role and party politics across the board still hasn’t taken off.

Some things don’t change.*Offshore Island Politics: The Constitutional and Political Development of the Isle of Man in the Twentieth Century, by David Kermode, was a source for some of the background, and my thanks to staff at the Manx Museum Library for their assistance in digging out various source materials, as well as one or two old media chums for their help with a couple of foggy recollections.

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