Feeney on the NILP

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, General, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2009), Letters, Volume 17

Sir,

 

73_small_1252682012—Although delighted to see my book A history of the Northern Ireland Labour Party: democratic socialism and sectarianism reviewed in the last issue (HI 17.4, July/August 2009), permit me to address some of the points raised by Dr Brian Feeney in his highly selective critique.
Dr Feeney claims that ‘the NILP could never advance beyond a fixed point precisely because of that fundamental division’ in its membership over the ‘national question’. He is suggesting that the NILP failed to make any headway because Catholics were ‘nationalists’ and Protestants were ‘unionists’. My book refutes this simplistic view of identity as fixed and one-dimensional. It articulates the view that Catholics and Protestants could and did cooperate politically.
On his criticism that ‘Once it nailed its colours to the mast it was never going to command a significant proportion of the North’s nationalist population’, the NILP certainly lost many supporters when it declared in favour of partition, but its 1949 statement also emphasised that it would ‘seek the closest possible means of co-operation with the British Labour Party’. The NILP rebuilt its cross-sectarian support base following the collapse of the Irish Labour Party in the 1950s and saw many Catholic-born members return to its ranks; the best known was of course Paddy Devlin.
Dr Feeney would do well to observe the anomaly that no nationalist politician held a seat in Belfast between 1945 and the late 1960s, having been dispatched by a Catholic working class concerned primarily with socio-economic reformism. ‘Nationalist Belfast’ was represented by a mix of Irish Labourist and Republican Labour politicians, such as Gerry Fitt, Harry Diamond and Paddy Devlin; in 1969 the latter campaigned for ‘British Rights for British Citizens’—hardly a ‘Nationalist Belfast’ rallying call!
Feeney’s opinion that ‘There was never any loyalty to the party among nationalists because it repeatedly let them down on critical identity issues’ is simply incorrect. My book does explain why the NILP made electoral headway, despite being suspect on the ‘Sunday swings’ issue. Moreover, I do not shirk from dealing with the ‘swings’ issue in my book (pp 93–7).
On Feeney’s criticism that ‘we are never provided with a true analysis of the size and composition of the NILP’, I must direct him to my table on the Falls Labour Party, which attracted 200 members in the 1960s (p. 168). A more systematic analysis was impossible in large part because detailed membership records have been lost, like the party itself, to history. Notwithstanding such limitations, my book does explore the party in various local constituencies. The Derry Labour Party, for instance, commanded a strong following and the majority of its members were Catholic-born. On an inter-related matter, the Falls and Derry Labour Parties’ energetic campaigning on civil rights (which is covered in my book but ignored by Feeney) was a significant NILP contribution to the historical record and is endorsed in my book by none other than Eamonn McCann (p. 138)!
Feeney charges that ‘Edwards magnifies the NILP’s role in northern politics, occasionally preposterously’. While I suggest that the NILP played a role as a ‘third-party arbitrator’—a go-between for loyalist and republican prisoners and the NIO—nowhere do I claim that it was a peacebroker that facilitated the IRA ceasefire in 1972. Admittedly, the efforts of Vivian Simpson (MP for Oldpark) should not be overstated, but equally they must not be airbrushed from history.
On Feeney’s point about Darlington, what I suggested here was that the NILP was ‘among the Northern Ireland delegation’ (p. 196), although I may have allowed another (footnoted) text to guide me towards over-stating its importance (p. 228). My intention here was simply to counter the view that the party had disappeared in 1972–3. By this stage, as Feeney rightly infers, the NILP ‘was dead in the water after dithering about internment in 1971’. As I point out in my book, internment delivered a ‘body blow’ to the party and drove a wedge between its cross-sectarian membership (p. 182).
If I am guilty of being ‘often uncritical’ in parts, it is principally because my aim was to reinsert the NILP back into the historical record, from where it has been unhelpfully airbrushed out by more tribal accounts.—Yours etc.,
AARON EDWARDS
Camberley
Sir,

—Brian Feeney suggests that Aaron Edwards in his History of the Northern Ireland Labour Party lost an opportunity to examine ‘the powerful and disproportionate role of sanctimonious evangelicals’ throughout the NILP’s history. He, as a former prominent member of the SDLP, did not lose the opportunity to grind his nationalist axe and suggests that a sabbatarian controversy involving Alderman Billy Boyd in 1964 led to the decline of the NILP after 1970. Seemingly it had nothing at all to do with civil war and the Provos bombing the heart out of Belfast.
As a Belfast City councillor, 1973–77, I worked closely with Billy and he later served as chairman of a housing association that we set up to promote low-cost homeownership. I remember him as a modest man of ecumenical views. I was a member of Queen’s University Labour Group at the time of the so-called ‘Sunday swings’ controversy and I well remember Michael Farrell condemning the expulsion of Billy Boyd because it did seem to be the result of an internal conflict between the executive of the party and the parliamentary party. Incidentally, it was not a controversy about opening public parks. It was an issue over the opening of the play centres located in the streets of the densely populated terraces of poor-quality ‘kitchen houses’. Some local residents complained that they wanted peace on Sundays. Boyd thought the problem could be solved by ‘local option’, giving a vote to the residents in the immediate area. This is how it was resolved in 1968, although one lady councillor described the decision as ‘surrender to communists, republicanism and black popery’.
If Billy Boyd’s vote in 1964 made the NILP unacceptable to Irish nationalists, it took a long time to show. The two Belfast seats we held in the election of 1965 depended on substantial Catholic electorates in Oldpark and Pottinger. The two seats lost were overwhelmingly Protestant, Woodvale and Victoria. In the 1969 election the party held Oldpark (very narrowly), lost Pottinger with the retirement of the leader of the party, Tom Boyd, and won Falls with Paddy Devlin campaigning on the slogan ‘Full British rights, full British citizenship’. The NILP fought the Falls and the Shankill on the same policies. There was no ‘pandering’ to intense loyalist sectarianism as suggested by Brian Feeney.
The NILP was a very broad church politically. It offered democratic socialists who had long-term aspirations of a united Ireland the chance to work with colleagues who favoured the link with Britain. There was no test of political constitutional faith; it was the party of Christian socialists like Billy Boyd and David Bleakley, and the party of secular socialists like Michael Farrell, Eamon McCann, Cyril Toman, Paul Arthur, John McGuffin, Ivan Cooper, Paddy Wilson and Paddy Devlin. It was a party that was directly funded by the British Labour Party, had the local affiliation of most trade unions in the North and the support of the Northern Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. It fought elections province-wide and achieved a vote in excess of 100,000. It was hardly the insignificant Belfast-based party described by Brian Feeney.

—Yours etc.,
ERSKINE HOLMES
Belfast

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