Monday, May 20, 2013

The Northern Ireland Labour Party: Labour And Loyalty In Ulster



One of the most pressing matters regarding political equilibrium in Northern Ireland off the back of the Belfast flag protests at the start of this year has been the future electoral viability of the Alliance Party - an organisation  whose existence and relative electoral success since 1970 has been one of the few determiners of normality in the province during the Troubles and afterwards.

Prior to the outbreak of violence in 1969 another group in the history of Ulster who briefly represented a bi-confessional and an albeit highly qualified political alternative to ethnic-orientated party politics was the Northern Ireland Labour Party.

Ten elections took place between 1921 and 1969 in the half century life of the Northern Ireland parliament - in 1921, 1925, 1929, 1933, 1938, 1945, 1949, 1953, 1958, 1962, 1965 and 1969. The story of the political face of Labour in Ulster in this period is one of political survival against schism, vilification and even physical danger.

Although the subject was analysed some years ago in a genuinely comprehensive and accessible study, it was alas published through a British academic print and thus priced way beyond the means of the decent and kindly post-Orgreave working man. The electoral fortunes of Labour in Ulster however are well worth reflecting upon again here, alike a recent post on the Ulster Vanguard movement in Northern Ireland, and especially since it likewise involved both representation in Belfast and at Westminster.

Following the partition of Ireland, and during the 1920 local government elections in the North,  the use of a proportional representation system had increased non-unionist representation in Northern Ireland. Abolition of PR by Stormont strengthened the unionist position while also placing restrictions upon matters of economic concern ever taking priority over the national question by way of local electoral consolidation for Independent Labour Party candidates.

In the first election for the 52-seat Northern Ireland parliament in  May 1921 all three anti-partitionist Labour candidates were Protestants - Councillor James Baird, John Hanna and Harry Midgeley. The first two had been expelled from the Belfast shipyards during the Troubles of the period and their campaigning took place under both intimidation and threat from loyalists. Compared to the 1920 local elections they fared disastrously and only mustered a joint total of 1,877 votes. Conversely three members of the Ulster Unionist Labour Association -  umbilically linked to the main Unionist Party and often the source of extreme political invective and rhetoric in itself - did win seats. These were taken by Sam McGuffin, Thompson Donald and William Grant while three Westminister Ulster Unionist seats were also given over to UULA members in the 1918 General Election.

In 1924 the Labour Party was formed and attempted to maintain a neutral stance on the border issue. The 1925 election in Ulster - strategically used to strengthen Premier James Craig's hand against the the Boundary Commission considering changes to the Irish border at this point - saw the governing Unionist Party lose five seats to independent unionists and a tenants’ candidate. Labour in turn won three seats - Jack Beattie in East Belfast, leader Sam Kyle in North Belfast and William McMullen in West Belfast. All three again were Protestants and Labour became the official opposition at Stormont as nationalists slowly returned.

The Unionist Party itself viewed the independent unionist victories in particular as a divisive development which could fundamentally undermine the Protestant working class support base and was a direct factor in the abolition of proportional representation for Stormont elections in 1929 - Labour and the nationalists uniting unsuccessfully against the proposal.

With the Protestant electorate now facing the realisation that a split vote could potentially hand victory to an anti-partition candidate, the status of the Union was underscored as the central political factor for consideration in the unionist-nationalist battleground. The 1929 Stormont election would thus see the Unionist Party winning six more seats than four years previously. The Labour threat had been turned back with Jack Beattie alone retaining his seat in Belfast Pottinger though Kyle lost only narrowly in Oldpark and the cumulative Labour total was still a respectable 20,516.

Large scale civil unrest in Belfast - and indeed across the religious divide - accompanied both the Outdoor Relief and railway strikes of 1932. During an emergency Stormont sitting in September to discuss unemployment the then Labour leader Beattie had memorably thrown the mace  at the Speaker with the stirring admonition "I absolutely refuse to sit in this House and indulge in hypocrisy while the people are starving outside."

Labour representation doubled in the 1933 election with Harry Midgely winning in the Catholic Dock ward -  the partnership between the two MPs would not last long however with Beattie being expelled from the party for refusing to move the writ on the Belfast Central election following the death of Nationalist leader Joe Devlin. This in light of his earlier close work with the Nationalists and in respect of his small majority in Pottinger ward which included the Catholic Short Strand. Beattie was readmitted to the party in 1942.

During the last election before the Second World War in 1938, the millionaire WJ Stewart and his Progressive Unionists played a populist card with stress on the unemployment issue and the need for agricultural reform and a housebuilding programme. Predictably all 12 candidates – branded as “wreckers” by the Unionist Party leadership and unrepresentative as mainly liberal-minded businessmen and professionals - were to fail. In this election Midgely lost his seat in Dock as directly linked to public conflict in the constituency over his support for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War as opposed to Catholic clerical support for Franco. Midgely would certainly not forget the especial circumstances of his exit. Beattie on the other hand was relected as an independent Labour candidate while sometime future NILP leader Paddy Agnew became the first Catholic official Labour MP winning the nationalist-boycotted South Armagh seat.

During the course of the Second World War itself in 1943 the Northern Ireland Prime Minister Basil Brooke brought the labour figures Harry Midgley and William Grant into the cabinet as Minister of Public Security and Minister of Labour respectively.  Former NILP leader Midgley had left the party in December 1942 over the vexed partition issue to form his own pro-Unionist Commonwealth Labour Party. He had returned to Stormont as an MP again following a by-election win in December 1941 in the Protestant Willowfield ward of East Belfast though tensions with Beattie in the three-man parliamentary team had arisen again.

Overall twice leader Jack Beattie himself won the West Belfast seat at Westminister in February 1943 providing the Labour Party with its highest profile success in a period where it would stand to the left of even the Communist Party in refusing to press for an emergency wartime coalition government during the political crisis within unionism that saw Brooke take over the premiership from J M Andrews. Instead they called for a general election which would certainly have seen the Ulster Unionist Party lose several seats to Labour. Beattie was to be expelled from the Labour Party yet again in 1944 and for similar reasons to his earlier expulsion - he refused to press for a Senate by-election when a nationalist senator died. He thus held the West Belfast seat on two occasions - 1943-50 and 1951-55.

Harry Midgley meanwhile – certainly the most long recalled labour figure in Northern Ireland history and a genuinely vociferous critic of the unionist leadership as Labour MP for the religiously-mixed Dock ward during the 1930s – formally joined the Unionist Party in 1947. Midgley the "Unionist Evangelist" served as Minister of Labour and Minister of Education from 1949 and would in the latter part of his life join the Orange Order and become a director of Linfield Football Club. The Commonwealth Labour Party expired with his departure.

The June 1945 Stormont election saw the Unionist Party campaign on a broadly anti-socialist platform of opposition to Labour’s plans for nationalisation and planning while at the same time promising to introduce any social reforms passed at Westminster into Northern Ireland. In this election Robert Getgood and then party leader Hugh Downey won seats at Stormont for Labour in the Belfast constituencies of Oldpark and Dock though Agnew lost his in South Armagh. The following year official Labour Party representation at Stormont rose to three again with the election of Frank Hanna in a Belfast Central by-election. At this stage the Labour Party had still failed to win in a fully Protestant electoral ward. Former Labour Party members Midgely and Beattie retained their seats in Willowfield and Pottinger - the pair had come to blows in Stormont in 1945 leading to the former's suspension.

With the south formally declaring full republic status in late 1948 another election was called in Northern Ireland the following year in an atmosphere of extreme tension. The “Chapel Gates” election, so called because of the Mansion House conference decision in Dublin to collect voluntary donations outside southern churches for anti-partition candidates in the north, solidified the unionist bloc. Campaigning took place against a background of fierce intimidation towards the labour candidates not dissimilar to 1921. Getgood and Downey lost their seats while Hanna retained his but only as an independent labour candidate.

The party organisation then splintered over the partition issue with a now firmly pro-Union Northern Ireland Labour Party emerging and as opposed to an anti-partitionist Irish Labour Party which still included a substantial Protestant membership including Beattie who had lost his Pottinger seat. The opposition in Stormont now became fully Catholic and the British government reaffirmed Northern Ireland’s constitutional status in the 1949 Ireland Act.

In the 1953 Stormont election no less than five variations of Labour stood for election - the Irish Labour Party won a seat in Dock alongside a Socialist Republican in Falls though the party itself would have faded away by the late Fifties.

A major period of sustained Republican violence took place between December 1956 and February 1962 in Northern Ireland with eight IRA volunteers, six members of the RUC and two B Specials being killed. During the Border campaign in 1958 the NILP made a major electoral breakthrough by winning four Stormont seats in Belfast – leader Tom Boyd in Pottinger, Vivien Simpson in Oldpark and Billy Boyd and David Bleakley in the staunchly Protestant Woodvale and Victoria .  The latter two victories, as won by ex-shipyard workers and lay preachers, were with small majorities. Being unequivocally pro-partition since 1949 - and constantly firm on law and order issues - they would focus on the recession problems affecting agriculture, shipbuilding and the textiles industry. The NILP became the official opposition and in the 1962 election in Northern Ireland they doubled their Belfast vote to over 76,000 votes and held onto their four seats with increased majorities. This however would prove the limit of their electoral viability as a protest vote.

The NILP had theoretically represented a new Protestant and Catholic working class alliance to tackle socio-economic problems within the Stormont system. However in reality its gathering support since the late 1940s was mainly founded on Protestant working class voters who viewed its unionist credentials as essentially sound. Its gathering Catholic support over the unemployment issue from the late Fifties onwards had in turn attracted liberal Protestants of all classes in terms of its non-sectarian appeal. It is certainly important to underscore the fealty of all the NILP MPs at this time to the Northern Ireland state, the Union and stern security measures to defend both as opposed to any full frontal assault on sectarianism, discrimination or partition.

In the early 1960s economic recovery proved elusive and indeed Brookeborough’s successor in 1963, Terence O’Neill, would utilise many of the NILP’s policies about combating unemployment and the contraction and collapse of the three core industries.

The Labour vote was still holding strong at this time with 103,000 votes but no seats at the October 1964 Westminster election. However the November 1965 Stormont election which O’Neill called to consolidate his position, which was already attracting undue negative reaction from some unionist quarters, saw the NILP vote plummet. Only Boyd and Simpson's Pottinger and Oldpark seats would be retained as the Labour vote fell by 10,000 from its 1962 performance. Bleakly lost his seat by only 423 votes.

O’Neill’s focus on economic recovery for the moribund northern economy - and especially his desire for co-operation with the trade unions and Sean Lemass’ Republic of Ireland - placed him almost to the left of the NILP. Within the party a distancing was also gradually occurring between the more left-wing members and the pro-unionist MPs David Bleakley and Billy Boyd who seemed to embody a Belfast-orientated and sabbatarian Protestant image inimical to broadening the support base.

This came to a head over the “Sunday swings” controversy of late 1964 where Woodvale NILP representatives were expelled and then readmitted to the party. Divisions also took place within the NILP over the election of former IRA member Paddy Devlin to the party executive, the decision to contest seats in majority nationalist areas and a NILP proposed private members bill in Stormont in 1964 to outlaw religious discrimination.

Hence even before the slide to civil unrest and terrorism began in 1968, the fall in unemployment in Northern Ireland and the appeal of O'Neill's qualified rapprochment with the nationalist community undercut support for the NILP from both working class "extreme" unionism and middle class "liberal" unionism alike. The leftward swing within the NILP towards civil rights  issues would continue to gain pace in the latter half of the 1960s. In the final Stormont election in  February 1969 then leader Vivien Simpson once again held Oldpark though the Pottinger seat in East Belfast was lost to the Unionist Party. Former IRA member Paddy Devlin also won a seat for the NILP in the Catholic Falls constituency.

With the arrival of alternative political choices such as the Social Democratic and Labour Party, Alliance and the Democratic Unionist Party at the start of the 1970s the political voice of Labour in Ulster would thus gradually fade into history. There would however be one worthy electoral postcript in the June 1970 Westminister election when - even with Republican violence mounting and communal cleavage widening - the NILP won no less than 98,194 votes or 12.6% of the vote. In the final Northern Ireland government headed by Brian Faulkner a Minister of Community Relations role was created and given to David Bleakley. Bleakley would also be elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in June 1973 - where Paddy Devlin served as SDLP Minister of Health and Social Services in the power-sharing Executive - and to the Constitutional Convention in May 1975. These were both for  the East Belfast constituency and with 4,425 and 3,998 first preference votes respectively.

Today the NILP are rarely mentioned beyond some spurious politcal analogies with the Ulster Volunteer Force-linked Progressive Unionist Party. Although the highpoint of their political imprint in Northern Ireland in 1925 and 1958 was based on only three and four MPs respectively in Stormont, their performance at Westminister elections during the span of the Forties, Fifties and Sixties was also impressive. This in light of the first-past-the-post electoral system and aside from Beattie's election victories in West Belfast. Strong returns could be noted throughout these years in the North and East Belfast constituencies with around 35-40% of the vote and a peak at the 1945 and 1966 elections. In 1945 Tom Boyd won 43% in East Belfast and the NILP 44% in North Belfast - in 1966 when the first political assassinations took place in Belfast the Labour vote in East Belfast for the General Election was 45% and 42% in North Belfast.

The politicians who represented Labour and the Northern Ireland Labour Party in the late Stormont parliament are mostly long deceased. Harry Midgely died in 1957, Paddy Agnew in 1958, Jack Beattie in 1960, Sam Kyle in 1962, Robert Getgood in 1964, Vivien Simpson in 1977, William McMullen in 1982, Frank Hanna in 1987, Tom Boyd in 1991 and Paddy Devlin in 1999. David Bleakly and Billy Boyd are still alive to my knowledge thought I am unable to confirm biographical details for Hugh Downey who was an uncle of Provisional Sinn Fein leader Danny Morrison.

The NILP folded as a political organisation in 1987 while in the entire history of the Northern Ireland state, and indeed thereafter, the British Labour Party refused to organise or stand for elections in this part of the United Kingdom.

The Northern Ireland Labour Party thus remaining a sobering memory of a genuine class-based political alternative for a country fractured upon religion, ethnicity and nationality. Likewise another melancholy reflection of a period of British social history when concern for the well-being of labour and the working man was a fundamental priority both for any government aspiring to societal equilibrum and for any party of labour seeking office.

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