By Aaron Edwards
The launch of A History of the Northern Ireland Labour Party: Democratic Socialism and Sectarianism took place at Queen’s Bookshop in Belfast on Thursday 26th March to a packed audience of 80-100 people from across the divide in Northern Ireland. Apart from five prominent members of the NILP – Brian Garrett, Douglas McIldoon, Erskine Holmes, George Chambers and Sidney McDowell – several politicians from three present-day parties were also in attendance. The leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, Dawn Purvis MLA, was there, as was Brian Wilson, a former NILP member now Green Party MLA, and Conor Maskey, Sinn Fein Councillor for Belfast Oldpark. All three expressed their interest in the book’s attempt to rehabilitate and re-examine the historical record of the NILP and to challenge the orthodox narrative of the party’s political fortunes throughout the Twentieth Century.
Attendees from the unionist, loyalist, nationalist and republican communities, as well as many more from the leftist and socialist centre-ground, made it a special occasion indeed. Academics, journalists, and even the family of the towering NILP (and later SDLP) politician Paddy Devlin made an appearance, including his daughter, the critically-acclaimed Irish writer Anne Devlin, who turned up to show her support for the book.
Acknowledging the support of a host of people who helped out at critical junctures with the book, I moved on to say something about my study of the NILP. Researching a political party that, in the words of one former member, “died almost without a gasp” was a huge undertaking. Some of those I interviewed turned up on the night: sadly, others had since passed on. But the story of the NILP – their story – has universal relevance. It is a book about toil and struggle, political success and defeat, which, above all, records the contribution of those socialists and labourists who stood tall in working class areas as chaos and anarchy threatened the very fabric of their communities. As I made clear to those gathered on a blustery Belfast evening it was my personal and professional view that, had it not been for the NILP’s restraining influence, the conflict would have been much worse.
Last September I had cause to ponder the case of the NILP when I found myself in another, albeit very different, conflict zone. Gazing out at the city of Basra with the dry heat of the arid desert wafting off my face and the warm glow of controlled oil well flames reflecting off the night’s sky I pondered how ordinary people in this part of the world have themselves sought to restrain the excesses of ethnic conflict and political violence. The struggle of socially conscious and peace-loving people amidst the turmoil and upheaval of armed conflict is what continues to fascinate me in my own academic work.
Concluding my remarks I echoed a point pressed home by my guest speaker on the night, Professor Graham Walker, author of A History of the Ulster Unionist Party: Protest, Pragmatism, Pessimism (MUP, 2004), who said that the NILP was a truly working class party made up of men and women who struggled to mobilise political support across the ethnic divide. For the first time, in one volume, it is explained how and why the NILP ultimately failed in its bid to transform the political culture of Northern Ireland along left-right lines vis-à-vis the more familiar party system that took hold since the outbreak of ‘the troubles’.
Pertinently, the unanimous mood of all of those former members in attendance for the launch seemed to be that this book would make a valid contribution to moving the trials and tribulations of the NILP from the margins to the mainstream of the historical record where they rightfully belong.