A history of the Northern Ireland Labour Party: democratic socialism and sectarianism

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2009), Reviews, Volume 17

1A history of the Northern Ireland Labour Party: democratic socialism and sectarianism
Aaron Edwards
(Manchester University Press, £60)
ISBN 9780719078743This book is one of a series of Critical Labour Movement Studies, of which ten have already been published. Although there is a nod in the direction of mainland Europe with a book on Swedish social democracy and a look at the politics of German miners, the series otherwise deals exclusively with aspects of British Labour politics. In that respect this volume is out on a limb, for, despite a lot of wishful thinking, the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) was never part of British Labour politics. To a large extent this vein of wishful thinking runs through the book. The author tends to see politics through the eyes of leading members of the NILP who would have liked the party to have been something that it was not.
The blurb describes the book as ‘the first definitive history’ of the NILP, a curious qualification implying that there can be several definitive histories. Edwards has scoured the sources and archives, interviewed all of the surviving main figures in the NILP and come up with documents that have not been used before. If not the definitive history, this book is certainly the most comprehensive account of the party’s history available.
But while the account is comprehensive it is often uncritical, and the analysis of the evidence is weak in places. Edwards at times even appears to contradict his own evidence. For example, while he accepts the conventional description by political scientists like O’Leary and McGarry and others that the north of Ireland’s divisions are ‘ethno-political’, Edwards repeatedly tries to fit the North’s politics into a conventional British arrangement, playing down the ethno-political constant. He acknowledges that by-election victories in the 1930s and 1940s only sharpened the divide in the party on the ‘national question’ but fails to draw the obvious conclusion that the NILP could never advance beyond a fixed point precisely because of that fundamental division.
Once the party had nailed its colours (literally) to the mast at a special conference in 1949 confirming its commitment to partition in the wake of the declaration of the Irish Republic, it was never going to command the allegiance of a significant proportion of the North’s nationalist population. Indeed, when the Irish Labour Party entered northern politics in council elections in the early 1950s it swept the board in nationalist districts. After the withdrawal of Irish Labour the NILP became the refuge of nationalists in elections when nationalist parties were weak and the NILP was the only way of registering a vote to weaken the Unionist monolith. There was never any loyalty to the party among nationalists because it repeatedly let them down on critical identity issues.
One such issue was sabbatarianism. In 1964 there was a split in the party on the question of opening parks on Sundays, the so-called ‘Sunday swings’ controversy. The NILP’s most prominent Belfast councillor, Billy Boyd, and two others voted to keep the parks closed. Edwards treats this dispute as an internal NILP matter (Boyd and the others were expelled), ignoring the disastrous effect it had on the party’s support in nationalist Belfast. Here was an opportunity to examine the powerful and disproportionate role of sanctimonious evangelicals throughout the NILP’s history, which Edwards ignores.
Like a biographer in thrall to his subject, Edwards magnifies the NILP’s role in northern politics, occasionally preposterously. For example, he claims that the party acted as a ‘third arbitrator’ in May 1972 in talks that led to the IRA truce of July that year. In fact, it is public knowledge that Gerry Adams and Daithí Ó Conaill were in talks with MI6 in Donegal, and the record of the meeting is on the internet. Worse, Edwards refers to one of the IRA prisoners to whom the NILP talked as ‘Frank Kard’, in reality Frankie Card or Proinsias Mac Airt. Edwards claims that the NILP ‘took a lead role at Darlington’ (a 1972 conference), which is nonsense. One of Edwards’s interviewees, the NILP stalwart Brian Garrett, told him that the NILP at Darlington acted ‘almost as spectators rather than participants’.
We are never provided with a true analysis of the size and composition of the NILP. It was really a Belfast party, dominated by members in a couple of wards, Woodvale and Victoria, with outliers in Newtownabbey. It had no organisation in rural districts. Both Woodvale and Victoria are districts notable for intense loyalist sectarianism, to which the NILP pandered when faced with any crisis. The membership of the NILP was microscopic, around 300 concentrated in about four wards in the 1950s, crashing to a handful after its eclipse by the Civil Rights movement in the late 1960s.
Although the party did not wind up officially until 1987, it was dead in the water after dithering about internment in 1971. All prominent nationalists had left in 1970 after the Falls Road curfew and the formation of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which had stronger links with British Labour through Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin than the NILP ever had. There was no role left for the NILP. HI

Brian Feeney is Head of History, St Mary’s University College, Belfast.

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