McElroy, Albert Horatio (1915–75), politician and clergyman, was born 14 February 1915 in Glasgow, Scotland, second of three sons of Ulster-born parents; the family regularly holidayed with relatives in Banbridge, Co. Down. McElroy retained a lifelong love of things Scottish. The family were orthodox presbyterians and labour supporters, and in 1930 moved to Toomebridge, Co. Antrim, where McElroy's father became sub-postmaster. Albert was educated at Jordanhill College School, Glasgow; Rainey Endowed School, Magherafelt, Co. Londonderry; and TCD, where he graduated BA with honours in English and French in 1937, and MA in 1940.
At Trinity College, McElroy was a founding member and secretary of the university's Fabian Society (with Conor Cruise O'Brien (1917–2008)), and joined the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP), serving as party secretary (1937–8). He became a member of Magherafelt rural district council (1938–9) after his unionist opponent inadvertently failed to lodge nomination papers. His stay in Dublin also brought him under the influence of the renowned preacher Ernest Savell Hicks, minister of the Unitarian church in St Stephen's Green. The Dublin Unitarian Church being in communion with the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland, Hicks's influence began McElroy's attachment to that denomination; Hicks also influenced McElroy's drift away from the socialist principles of class conflict and state socialism to liberal belief in cooperation and the primacy of the individual, which Hicks (and after him McElroy) saw as embodied in the Ulster United Irishmen of the 1790s.
McElroy returned to TCD to study medicine (1938–9), but on the outbreak of war in September 1939 he returned to Belfast and enlisted in the Royal Artillery. On 9 October 1943 he married Jan McDougall, a primary school teacher then serving as a lieutenant in the anti-aircraft forces; the marriage was childless. McElroy spent most of the war as a sergeant in the Royal Army Education Corps, stationed in England; in 1944–5 he served in France, Belgium and Germany as an interpreter, and his wartime experiences informed his later support for an united Europe and for the state of Israel. His younger brother served in the Royal Navy and died in action. During his war service McElroy was impressed by a Liberal Party activist in Crewe who ran his business on the basis of profit sharing with employees and by contact with European liberal politicians.
In 1943 the NILP split over the extent of its support for the war and partition; McElroy sided with the pro-partition Commonwealth Labour Party led by Harry Midgley (qv). McElroy contested the June 1945 Stormont election for the Ards division of Co. Down, polling over 40 per cent of votes cast. In 1947 Commonwealth Labour disintegrated after Midgley joined the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP); McElroy returned to the NILP and remained a member until 1953. He taught at Ballymoney technical school (1946–9), and was secretary of the Portstewart branch of the British Legion (1947–9) and treasurer of Ballymoney Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Congregation from 1948. At the end of 1949 he resigned his teaching position to return to north Co. Down, and contested the 1950 and 1951 Westminster general elections in the Down North constituency on behalf of the NILP (though his 1950 election address laments that Northern Ireland's fundamental problem was the near-total absence of a liberal tradition). He explained his eventual resignation from the NILP as due to its 'doctrinaire socialism' and inability fully to appreciate individual rights.
After the 1951 Westminster election McElroy briefly returned to Glasgow, where he had inherited a newsagency from an uncle. His wife ran the newsagency while he studied theology at Manchester College, Oxford (1952–4). In June 1954 he was ordained as minister of the non-subscribing First Presbyterian Church in Newtownards, Co. Down; as the congregation was not large enough to support a full-time minister, he bought a large house (later functioning as an unofficial Liberal Party 'conference centre') with the proceeds of the sale of the Glasgow newsagency, and supplemented his stipend by teaching in Newtownards technical college (until 1968). He was treasurer (1964–75) of the presbytery of Antrim (an older body affiliated to the non-subscribing church), and moderator of the presbytery in 1967. He deployed his administrative skills as secretary of the Old People's Benevolent Fund of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church (1960–75), and was moderator of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church (June 1967–June 1969) (though not all church members agreed with his political views). He also ministered in the church's Belfast Domestic Mission. In the late 1950s he contributed a weekly column, 'Passing thoughts on present topics', to the Newtownards Spectator.
In 1956 McElroy was one of some twenty to thirty respondents to an appeal by English Liberal Party activists for the establishment of a Liberal movement in Northern Ireland. (After reaching its nadir in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the British Liberal Party was reviving under Jo Grimond.) As the most politically experienced member, McElroy became leader of the Ulster Liberal Association, first as chairman (1956–60) then president (1960–75). He displayed many features of late Victorian and Edwardian popular liberalism, such as a tendency to equate politics and religion as high vocations, emphasise statements of principle over policy detail, and see politics in educational terms. Both in religion and politics, he valued debate over synthesis. ('No one, he said, will be stopped at the gates of Heaven and asked to sit an examination in theology' (Ir. Times, 19 March 1975).) His frequent electoral contests were undertaken as much to get his message across as to win power (though he never quite lost hope of a breakthrough), and he was a regular speaker at student debating societies. As with earlier Liberals, McElroy was often accused of condescension, and courageous outspokenness sometimes shaded into advocating tolerance in a most intolerant manner.
The party preferred to contest long-uncontested unionist-held seats, drawing tactical support from 'stranded' nationalist minorities, and more committed support from middle-class moderates exasperated with the perceived intellectual bankruptcy of the official unionist and nationalist parties. In the 1958 Stormont general election McElroy contested the four-seat Queen's University constituency, where proportional representation and a middle-class electorate assisted Liberal prospects. McElroy won 13 per cent of first preferences but was defeated. In November 1961, however, Sheelagh Murnaghan (qv) – who had contested Belfast South in the 1959 Westminster election – won a by-election in Queen's University, and remained the sole Liberal at Stormont until the university constituency was abolished in 1969; the fact that Murnaghan, a catholic, represented a party led by a protestant cleric aroused public interest, especially as McElroy repeatedly declared that he favoured Irish unity in principle, admired the rebels of 1798, regretted the defeat of Gladstonian home rule, and advocated cross-border cooperation. He attracted considerable personal sympathy and respect among nationalist politicians north and south.
In the 1962 Stormont election he won almost 30 per cent of the vote in Ards; in Down North a Liberal won nearly a third of the vote, and Murnaghan was re-elected in Queen's. (With disarming frankness, McElroy remarked beforehand that it would be a miracle if the Liberals won any seats.) In May 1964 he polled strongly in the Victoria Ward of Newtownards borough council but failed to win election, and in October 1964 he stood in the Westminster constituency of Down North but secured only 6.2 per cent of the vote. The campaign was enlivened by McElroy's comments on the attempts by Terence O'Neill (qv) to deny the existence of systematic anti-catholic discrimination, his complaint that the Divis Street riots (occasioned by the forcible removal of a tricolour illegally displayed in Sinn Féin election offices in Belfast West) showed that Sinn Féin was the best recruiting agent for 'Ulster tories', and his comparison of Northern Ireland to the one-party dictatorships of eastern Europe and unionist electioneering tactics to those of racists in Britain and the USA. At the same time, when addressing nationalist audiences McElroy stated that Irish unity could only come through mutual consent and that the Republic should focus on improving its economy. Although McElroy was dubious about the 'permissive society', he held that an united Ireland could only come about if the Republic discarded the influence of the catholic church on censorship, contraception, divorce, and similar issues. In 1967–9 he encouraged a short-lived Liberal Party in the Republic.
For a period in the mid 1960s, hopes were entertained in some quarters that a loose alliance of opposition parties (within which the Liberals might serve as mediators) might emerge as a serious political alternative to the UUP government. These hopes were dispelled by the 1965 Stormont elections, when McElroy contested Enniskillen. He received support from nationalists (including Austin Currie, Fr Denis Faul (qv) and Gerry Fitt (qv)) but encountered hostility from unionists exceeding anything he experienced in the less polarised east of the province; several meetings were abandoned because of mob violence. The high point of McElroy's electoral career came in November 1966 in a Queen's by-election when he secured the highest ever opposition vote for the constituency; he was nonetheless defeated by a high UUP turn-out. Thereafter McElroy stepped back from contesting elections because of increased church responsibilities, though he still campaigned for Liberal candidates and addressed public meetings.
McElroy publicly criticised bans on peaceful republican demonstrations for such events as the anniversary of the 1916 rising, regularly spoke from nationalist platforms, and received death threats from loyalists for his denunciations of Paisleyism. Despite his general support for the civil rights movement, he opposed its resort to protest marches from 1968; he recalled the violence accompanying marches by political extremists in 1930s Britain and warned it might be easier to get people onto the streets than to get them off again; law and order must be respected even if it was bad law, and there was a real risk of reviving the sectarian violence of the 1920s and 1930s. Instead, he argued, O'Neill – whom McElroy now believed represented the best hope for peaceful reform – should be supported against hardline party opponents. Youthful activists such as Eamonn McCann referred to McElroy as a silly cleric oblivious of the transformative potential of class politics, but he was later seen as prescient.
From 1969 McElroy advocated direct rule from Westminster, saying that the people of Northern Ireland had shown themselves incapable of maintaining a democratic society; only political reform and proportional representation in elections would pull the province back from 'the ante-chamber of hell'. As the Troubles began, the Liberal Party lost most of its membership to the New Ulster Movement (later the Alliance Party) and the SDLP; although a few Liberals continued to contest local elections, they won negligible votes. McElroy finished fourteenth of fifteen candidates in the Newtownards ward of Ards district council in the May 1973 local elections.
On 13 March 1975 McElroy suffered a fatal heart attack at his home in Newtownards. He was a long-term diabetic and a heavy smoker, but friends believed that grief and exasperation at the Troubles contributed to his death. At his funeral in Dunmurry non-subscribing presbyterian cemetery, Co. Antrim, the officiating minister preached from Isaiah, chapter 32: 'But the liberal deviseth liberal things; and by liberal things shall he stand', declaring that McElroy never sought cheap grace but knew and paid the cost of discipleship. An Irish Times editorial (probably by Douglas Gageby (qv)) paid tribute to 'a voice of reason and a champion of justice a hearty soul and a cheerful character'. Others spoke of him as the last of the United Irishmen. An Albert McElroy Memorial Fund was raised to buy books for the Linenhall Library, Belfast, in his memory. A collection of his papers is held at PRONI.