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Lisburn Historical Society

Volume 10 • 2005 - 2006



The Setting

Inter-war politics in Ireland (1919-1939) is one of the most interesting topics in the island's history. The Anglo-Irish War and the Civil War in the South split the Nationalists and the IRA, and this took place against the background of the Versailles Settlement which had led to the creation of many new independent states in Europe. In Northern Ireland, Unionists reluctantly accepted the Government of Ireland Act and set about governing their new state of six counties. The world-wide effects of the 1929 Crash and the ensuing Depression cannot be underestimated in both parts of Ireland. There was the distinct possibility that, amongst the deprivation and poverty, an effective Labour or Socialist opposition might emerge in both parts of the island.

Title page of the pamphlet written and published by Harry Midgley in September 1936 advocating support for the Spanish government against the Fascist reactionaries.

With the emergence of Fascism and Nazism, European politics came to be seen by many, somewhat simplistically, in terms of a struggle between fascist beliefs and democracy, with communism an outside threat. It is against this background of international politics that Harry Midgley, the Northern Ireland Labour Party leader, launched his defence of the Spanish Government in 1936. In doing so, he illustrated a depth of knowledge and foresight that many of his compatriots in Northern Ireland lacked. He recognised the political risk he was taking, yet his principles drove him on. Gradually, some would say, inevitably, he became disenchanted, not only with the NILP but also with his Catholic supporters in his constituency of Dock who were antagonised by his vituperative attacks on the Spanish Roman Catholic Church. Ultimately, Midgley left the NILP and eventually joined the Unionist Party in 1947. It is my contention that the Spanish Civil War played a major role in this remarkable turn of events.

Many look on the Spanish Civil War, between 1936 and 1939, as a kind of dress rehearsal for World War Two; the deployment of new advanced weaponry is one example. It also brought communism and fascism into open collision for the first time, with democracy taking a side seat. But the significance of the Spanish Civil War was that it became, for many, a seminal opportunity to declare against the growth of fascism. Men and women from all over the world answered the moral call to defend democracy. Many in Ireland felt this call; others responded to the call of the Roman Catholic Church which regarded the threat of communism as greater, and which demanded a Spanish crusade against the latter.

So Ireland, divided in 1921, already riven by political, religious and sectarian divisions, was deeply affected by events in Spain. Ireland's unique past had made the growth of a Labour or socialist movement extremely difficult, especially in the North. In Unionist-dominated Northern Ireland, the emerging working class consciousness was as much a threat to the Unionist power-base as it was to the R.C. Church. The Spanish Civil War provided both alike with the weapons to destroy this emerging consciousness and forced the Labour leaders who survived to reassess the power of sectarian politics.

The Irish Free State in the 1930s, led by de Valera, was struggling, like the rest of Europe, in the Depression, but de Valera was determined to sever the umbilical cord tying its economy to Britain and its constitution to the British Crown. In Northern Ireland Craig's primary motivation was the strengthening and maintenance of that link. De Valera's policy of non-intervention pleased some Southerners but for others it was not sufficiently active or supportive enough of the R.C. Church in Spain. The Army Comrades

Association was formed in 1932 by Cuman na nGaedheal leaders as a self defence response to a violent IRA campaign calling for `No Free Speech for Traitors'. Under the energetic leadership of Dr T.F. O'Higgins, the ACA soon became a major political force and claimed a membership of 30,000 men. Although de Valera had sacked the right-wing member General E. O'Duffy as leader of the Civic Guard in February 1933, it was apparent by April of that year that the ICA was becoming increasingly influenced by Fascist-like beliefs - the first appearance of a `Blueshire' was reported in Kilkenny. In July, O'Duffy was elected as the leader of the `Blueshirts', as the ACA was now commonly called, and the movement was officially renamed the `National Guard'. Patrick Belton, a rich Catholic MP, formed the Catholic Action Committee to drum up help and sympathy for Franco's Nationalist side in Spain. Ultimately Belton's Christian Front provided the necessary funds for O'Duffy to lead approximately 600 Irishmen (or `Blueshirts') to fight alongside the Nationalists.

By this stage, de Valera had decided to impose his own version of republicanism on Ireland and he cracked down on opposition of all kinds. He banned the National Guard in August 1933 and also suppressed O'Duffy's proposed 'March on Dublin' which many believed would result in a Mussolini-style coup d'etat. Instead of this, however, August saw the birth of a new political party as Fine Gael emerged out of a union between Cuman na nGaedheal, the National Guard and the Irish Centre.

De Valera also proscribed the IRA and, in June, arrested its Chief of Staff, Michael Twomey (an irony which appears to have gone unnoticed by most Irish people). Confirmation of the support enjoyed by Fianna Fail came in the summer of 1936 when it crushed opposition hopes by easy success in two by-elections. De Valera's policy of stability combined with law and order was winning the day in the Free State. Partly in reaction to the `Blueshirts', and partly out of a deep moral commitment, other Irishmen went to Spain for what they believed to be a defence of democracy. These men, from North and South, Catholic and Protestant, formed the Connolly Column which fought as a unit of the International Brigades. Some 2000 Irishmen ultimately volunteered. With George Gilmore injured, and the belief that Peadar O'Donnell would not be a suitable military leader, the leadership of the Irish contingent fell naturally on the shoulders of Frank Ryan. He personified what Irish Republicans regarded as the best and revolutionary traditions of the nation. At the age of 18 he had fought with the IRA against the Black and Tans and later against the pro-Treaty (Free State) forces. After the Civil War he utilised his journalistic training as editor of An Phoblacht, the IRA organ, and by 1934 he was co-founder and Joint Secretary of the Irish Republican Congress.

Thus we see two Irish groups supporting the rival ideologies in Spain and therefore involving Ireland in the conflict whether she wanted it or not. In the Irish Free State, the rivalries which had erupted in the Civil War reappeared, but this time the battle was to be fought largely on Spanish, not Irish, soil. In Northern Ireland James Craig supported the British policy of non-intervention but the War did give the Ulster Left an opportunity to raise its voice, however momentarily, and indeed worry the Unionists temporarily as their position came under threat. The danger, of course, proved to be illusory.

Into this scenario then, in the 1930s, dominated by conservative border politics North and South, came a small scattering of Communists and Socialists. In Belfast, Betty Sinclair, Sam Haslett and Harry Midgley challenged the stranglehold of sectarian politics. In Ulster social issues were ignored when the powerful constitutional question came to the fore and this position was unashamedly exploited by both Nationalist and Unionist politicians. Orange and Green politics prevailed and Socialists in N.I. were faced with ingrained bigotry and sectarianism which clouded any prospect of a sensitive view of class politics. It seemed the Unionist position was totally secure. Separated from all major continental ideologies by their own insularity, they had an inbuilt majority and a convincing hold on the minds of most Northern Ireland Protestants. The spectre of an all-Ireland R.C. Republic was thought to be an infallible provocation uniting the ranks of Protestant Northerners behind their Stormont guardians, no matter how obvious the disparity in social conditions.

For some people in Ireland, the war in Spain was a kind of 'godsend'. The Right took the opportunity to revive the flagging fortunes of the 'Blueshirts', and renew their attack on the Fianna Fail government through closer co-operation with the Roman Catholic hierarchy. For the Left, it offered a chance of uniting their disparate groups under a new banner — a crusade against Fascism. For many, not only in Ireland, who were appalled at the laissez-faire attitudes of their governments towards it, the War was an opportunity to participate actively in the struggle against the rising tide of Fascism. People saw the War as the epitome of the particular conflict in which they were engaged at home. Indeed, it was for this very reason that the intellectuals and writers of the western world became so emotionally involved in Spain.

The Irish Right

O'Duffy in the uniform of the Irish Brigade (courtesy of Monaghan County Museum)
O'Duffy in the uniform of the Irish Brigade (courtesy of Monaghan County Museum)

Because Spanish Nationalists claimed to be fighting for Christianity, it was inevitable that supporters in Catholic Ireland would identify a Franco victory with their own interests. Fine Gael's paper, the Irish Independent became the Right's mouthpiece throughout the conflict. Most in Ireland viewed the Spanish troubles in absolutes of black and white. The majority responded with an intensity equal to that evoked at other times in Irish history. The attack on Mother Church, with exaggerated second-hand stories of atrocities on Catholic priests and nuns, was the paramount factor for most Irish Catholics who tended to dismiss the fact that those fighting in Spain for the Republic were also Catholic. They believed these were either misguided or had lost their faith.

O'Duffy and other conservative Irishmen believed, probably sincerely, that Ireland faced some sort of communist threat, and steps were taken at local level for councils to pressurise de Valera to break off diplomatic relations with Madrid. What became known as the Clonmel Resolution was indeed passed by an impressive number of councils. And so the call went out to help Nationalist Spain, a call founded in emotion rather than hard fact and based largely on concern for the power and stability of the Catholic Church at home and abroad. Cardinal MacCrory said that Irish Christians should even be prepared to fight in Spain and he recommended O' Duffy as a suitable leader for the Irish contingent. The Christian Front raised the astonishing amount of £43,331, largely from collections in Catholic churches.

The Irish Left

By mid 1936 the Left was in a poor condition to counter these measures from the Right. The Communist organ The Worker had only a tiny circulation. But slowly, men like Frank Ryan, George Gilmore and Peadar O'Donnell began to formulate a policy of opposition. The fears of the Right were not altogether without foundation, as conditions in Ireland in the `Hungry Thirties' would seem to have been ripe for the development of a radical mass movement. Housing standards were deplorable and there was widespread poverty; emigration channels were becoming restricted and there remained an unsatisfied land hunger in many rural areas. But many factors militated against an upsurge of socialist fervour. Apart from the obvious political partition, with deep-seated sectarian divides, the Trade Union movement was divided and insignificant. There was still an inbuilt traditional conservatism in many rural areas and the fact remained that de Valera was popular.

Thus by the 1930s it was left to the Socialist wing of the IRA to provide the vehicle for the possible emergence of a mass radical movement. In Belfast the 1932 Outdoor Relief Strike had briefly united Protestant and Catholic working classes.

The Shankill Road, Belfast, contingent which attended the Wolfe Tone Commemoration at Bodenstown in 1934. The slogan on the banner reads `Break the Connection with Capitalism'

In 1934 large numbers of Protestant Belfast workers placed a wreath on James Connolly's grave at Arbour Hill before proceeding to the Wolfe Tone commemoration at Bodenstown. Sadly, the militants in the IRA declared the parade a Republican Congress plot and the Shankill men were attacked by the Tipperary IRA — truly a uniquely ironic event in Irish history.

The decision to send an Irish socialist unit to Spain was initially taken by the small Communist Party of Ireland in response to instructions from the Comintern. Sean Murray, the CPI's leader from Cushendun, called for a united Front of Labour and Republicanism to aid the Spanish people to fight Fascism. So it was that in December 1936 Ryan led the first group of volunteers to Spain.

On the political front, the Irish Left imported a Basque priest Father Ramon La Borda to tour Ireland. His speeches were reported in the new Leftist newspaper the Irish Democrat. On 8 March 1937, La Borda and O'Donnell were banned by Queen's University from addressing a student meeting. Catholic priests orchestrated a campaign against newsagents stocking the Irish Democrat and the newspaper was forced to close.

Pat Buckland has said that the fundamental weakness lay not in the fact of partition, but in the type of government that the 1920 Act established in Ulster'.1 The Ulster Unionists were not well-equipped to assume the responsibility of government. The whole organisation and philosophy of Unionism had been geared to a single objective — the defeat of Home Rule. No constructive policies or platform had been developed over the years. But the sectarian politics they followed and the constant relevance of the border question resulted in a reliable majority based on the Protestant vote. The Outdoor Relief Strike had united the working classes briefly but the 1935 riots restored the old sectarian animosities. On 12 July 1936 Prime Minister Craig could boast that 'Orangeism, Protestantism and the Loyalist cause are more strongly entrenched than ever and equally so is the Government at Stormont'.2 These dominant and recurring themes in Unionist history — the constitutional question and anti-Catholicism — were now joined by anti-Socialism. The growth of the Northern Ireland Labour Party in the 1920s posed a new and different threat for the Government.

Henry (or Harry) Cassidy Midgley was born in 1893 and had only a primary education but he became a self-taught man. Returning to the province after service in WWI in the British Army, he became embroiled in local politics. A capable debater and fair orator, he was elected Labour Councillor for Dock from 1920 to 1929, when he became an Alderman, a title he held until 1942. In these early years he and the NILP opposed partition. Midgley supported the concept of Connolly's `Irish Workers' Republic'. He achieved a level of cross-community support that was so strong that the popular Nationalist MP Joe Devlin began to fear the NILP was eroding his Nationalist base in West Belfast. Some of the popular sting of the NILP was, however, taken out by the Government's pre-emptive reforms and the 1930s saw the familiar return to Orange and Green politics.

The Catholic Church condemned Socialism as being incompatible with Catholicism and the Protestant religion of most of the candidates in the NILP made this claim more credible to Catholic voters. Midgley developed twin ideals of social justice at home and international co-operation. In the latter, he was departing from the traditional insularity of Irish politics generally and his motives are still the subject of debate today. In his 1936 NILP Presidential Address Midgley stated unequivocally `...we proclaim our faith in Socialism as the only policy whereby the social evils which afflict humanity can be eliminated'.3 Yet the fact remains that the years between 1936 and 1939 were critical ones for the test of this belief, and it was, I believe, the events occasioned by the Spanish Civil War that were, above all else, responsible for his ultimate defection from the NILP in 1942.

Harry Midgley and Spain

Harry Midgely
Harry Midgely, radical socialist who later served in Brooke's wartime Unionist cabinet. Reproduced courtesy of PRONI, D/4089/6/25/50.

After the Spanish Civil War flared up in July 1936 Midgley took it upon himself to defend the Spanish Government's cause in the local Northern Ireland press. He was scarcely out of print in the next few months, with letters and articles, particularly in the Irish News. His most controversial pamphlet, published at his own expense, came out in September entitled `The Press, the Pulpit and the Truth'. In this he castigated in particular the editor of the Irish News for deluding Catholics into believing they were upholding their Catholic and Christian faith in seeking to overthrow Democratic Government in Spain. Graham Walker has commented that the pamphlet `was a propaganda feat as skilful and effective as any he had achieved before'.4 Midgley criticised the paper for printing blatantly contradictory stories such as the deaths of the Spanish goalkeeper Zamorra, and a Spanish Cardinal, both of whom turned up a few days later alive and well. Midgley realised he was going out on a limb, that he would lose many friends, but he believed his ideals forced him to speak out. He said `In my opinion the principles of communism worked out to their logical conclusion must inevitably lead to good.... real communism simply means the application of the Gospel of Jesus to human society.' (Irish News 18 August 1936). This example of Midgley's Christian socialism cut no ice with the Catholic readers of the Irish News who saw him increasingly as the champion of godlessness.

Midgley was putting his head on Ulster's sectarian chopping block simply by attacking the history and record of the Spanish Church and he was risking his own political future because most of the electors in the Dock constituency were Catholics. Increasingly, Midgley came under attack from both Catholic and Protestant presses, the latter for his alleged Republican sympathies. Indeed it was widely believed by many in Ulster that he was a Catholic. In October 1937 he addressed the British Labour Party Conference and called for closer co-operation between it and the NILP. He hoped that this would present a `safer' image regarding the constitution to the majority of Northern Ireland's electorate. In November he took another step away from Irish nationalism when he wrote that he would prefer to live under a British socialist state than an Irish capitalist one. His critics argued that Midgley's claim to be an internationalist and yet at the same time a supporter of the British connection was hypocritical. Like many others at this time, Midgley identified nationalism with fascism. His politics developed to the point where he saw the British Commonwealth as `a bulwark in defence of democracy'5.

The crucial test came in the 1938 General Election, called by Craigavon in the hope of eliciting a strong Unionist response to de Valera's new Free State Constitution which gave a special place to the R.C. Church in the state, and also claimed jurisdiction over the territory of the Six Counties. Some historians such as Michael Farrell believe that Midgley had been moving steadily towards Unionism throughout the 1930s. The Unionist historian, J. F. Harbinson, on the other hand, denies this, and Midgley's family and close friends insisted that he never embraced any Unionist policies or principles apart from the constitutional issue. The difficulty in accepting this argument is that Harry Midgley not only joined the UUP, but the Orange Order, the Apprentice Boys and the Board of Lin field Football Club.

The result of the election justified totally Craigavon's decision. Entrenchment was consolidated and any threat of the emergence of a two-party system in Northern Ireland was effectively removed. Midgley came bottom of the poll in Dock and with this defeat both Harry Midgley and the NILP seemed virtually doomed. By 1939 the `Left' in the NILP opposed Midgley's growing sympathy with Unionism; the 'nationalists' or anti-partitionists likewise; others complained the NILP was too `Midgley-orientated', or that it was too 'Belfast-centred'. As the criticism mounted, Midgley became increasingly impatient and defensive. He hankered after high or executive office, but the split in his party meant there was no chance of a coalition with the Unionists similar to the coalition in England between the Tories and Labour. The attacks on Midgley decreased after the Nazi assault on Russia, and the Irish Leh swung its support round to the British connection. In December 1941, Midgley won an outstanding by-election victory in Willowfield and returned to Stormont where he continued his assault on the Unionist Government and its lack of war-preparedness. A year later in December 1942, his rival Jack Beattie was elected leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party and Midgley abandoned the party to which he had contributed so much in the 1920s and early 1930s. The NILP never truly revived. Midgley set up the Commonwealth Labour Party which his critics regarded as merely a bridge to the Unionist Party.

It has been demonstrated that Ireland emerged in 1939 from the political struggles provoked by the Spanish War with its Labour Movement in shreds and the extreme Right divided and discredited. J.R. Bell has commented 'in retrospect, the Spanish War acted as a scalpel, laying bare the Irish body politic. The relative strength, potential and efficiency of all Irish parties was exposed by the Spanish problem'.6 The Right stood revealed as a body of devout but limited men, incapable of transforming their questionable ideals into reality. And, despite the dedicated and courageous efforts of men like Ryan, O'Donnell and Midgley, the Left could not bridge the historical actuality of the Border in the minds of the working classes.

For the majority of Catholics in the Irish Free State the fate of the R.C. Church in Spain was paramount. But they positively rejected O' Duffy's attempts to take Ireland along the road to Fascism and also rejected Belton's Christian Front's call for a new militant Catholic revival. The collapse of O' Duffy's Irish Brigade and their ignominious return to Ireland proved beyond doubt that any cause, however just, needed more than piety to succeed. The instinctive desire for stability and order was a strong factor in uniting the voters behind de Valera and Fianna Fail. The latter's popular policy of non-intervention in 1936 was repeated in 1939 and was equally acceptable to the Irish people.

For the Irish Left the deaths of Ryan, Conway and others in Spain robbed the Left of potential leaders. Despite their bravery the Socialist Republicans who died in Spain were no more successful than O' Duffy in disrupting the equilibrium of Irish politics. The temporary success of the NILP was largely due to the extraordinary abilities of its leader, Harry Midgley, whose support for the Republican Government in Spain tragically and ironically brought about the downfall of the party he had been instrumental in building. Midgley had opposed Fascism and Nazism; more clearly than most, he saw the implications of victory for the latter. He fought hard to clear his country's parochial myopia, but his own Protestant background and upbringing eventually overcame his expressed socialist ideals. Walker has asked the controversial question as to whether Midgley suffered from a latent streak of anti-catholicism in his make-up; at the very least he was insensitive about the religion of the people who mostly elected him in his Dock constituency. Either way, the events of the 1930s vindicated Midgley's stance and he felt disheartened. Perhaps influenced by his desire and ambition for high office, he joined the Unionist Party in 1947; he was returned for Willowfield in the 1949 General Election and thus, uniquely, represented his constituency under three separate party labels, Labour, Commonwealth labour and Unionist. He eventually attained his ambition by becoming a Minister.

The Spanish Civil War then left Ireland in the grip of conservative politics. For a brief span of time it illuminated ideals of equality, courage and men of high potential but

`That is all long over now.
It was only for a short while;
We have forgotten if it lasted years or months
But sometimes
A name slips back to mind

Or maybe an elderly man in a crowd
Catches your eye, flashes a grin
And clenches his fist shoulder high,
He fought in Spain and imagines
We remember it.'

(Camarades y Companeiros' The Collected Poems of John Hewitt (Ed, F. Ormsby, Belfast, 1991).

1 P. Buckland, The Factory of Grievances: Devolved Government in Northern Ireland 1921-1939, (Dublin, 1979) p. 4.
2 Belfast Newsletter 12 July 1936.
3  Irish News 13 December 1936.
4 G. Walker, The Politics of Frustration: Harry Midgley and the Failure of Labour in Northern Ireland, (Manchester, 1985) p. 95.
5 Ibid, p.102.
6 J.B. Bell 'Ireland and the Spanish Civil War 1936.39', Studia Hibernica, no. 9 (1969) p. 61.
Photographs: Pamplet and Shankill Rd. parade, author's collection.

Further Reading :

S.Cronin, Frank Ryan — the Search for the Republic (1980). R.A.Stradling, The Irish and the Spanish Civil War 1936-39. crusades in conflict (Manchester, 1999).