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Peter Hadden

Paddy Devlin (1925–1999)


From Socialism 2000, 2000.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.
Proofread by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL). (July 2012)

During the late 1960s Paddy Devlin was an outspoken member of the Executive Committee of the old Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP). At one point he began to suspect that the right wing of the party were not informing him about executive meetings. So he rang the Party secretary to say that he would not be available on a certain date and was assured that there would be no meeting that day.

Paddy decided to turn up anyway and sure enough he walked in on a meeting in progress. In front of the full executive he grabbed the secretary pulling him across the table and let him know, as only he could, what he thought of him.

It was incidents such as this that made Paddy Devlin one of the most colourful characters involved in politics in Northern Ireland. His recent death, after a prolonged period of ill health, robs us of a pugnacious character who – despite numerous political detours did come back to the view that any hope of a way forward rested with the labour movement.

His huge energy took him into many varied fields and on each he left a distinct mark. From an IRA volunteer and internee during the war he almost became a professional footballer, playing for Coventry City reserves (he remembered Jimmy Hill being there at the time), and was only prevented from signing full terms when family circumstances led him to return to Belfast.

His first real foray into local politics was in 1956 when, standing for the Irish Labour Party; he beat Gerry Fitt and was returned to represent the Falls seat on Belfast Council. He soon joined the NILP and was part of the radicalisation of that party which took place during the 1960s. By 1967 he was the Chairman of the NILP and two years later was elected to Stormont, beating off a Republican Labour challenge in Falls.

This was on the back of his involvement in the leadership of the Civil Rights movement. In the summer of 1969 he played a central role in the upheaval which convulsed North and West Belfast and which led to the arrival of troops. Paddy was instrumental in setting up the Central Citizens Defence Committee, which acted as the voice of the barricaded areas of West Belfast and was its first secretary.

Within a year of these momentous events he had left the NILP, which was moving to the right and to a sectarian pro-unionist position, and cast in his lot with John Hume, Gerry Fitt and others to form the SDLP.

In 1974 he became a minister in the short-lived power sharing government but soon after this he became disheartened with the sectarian nature of the party he had helped found. In the summer of 1977 he resigned his positions in the SDLP and was quickly expelled. He later concluded: “I should never have been caught up in a movement that was Catholic. A proper labour movement could have set up an organisation with a membership that was mixed and could have better instilled policies on the fair distribution of wealth and income. +”

Paddy at this time had become a full time officer for the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. In the 10 years he spent in this post he helped build the membership of the union. However his attempts to build a new Labour Party around himself during this period came to nothing.

Following his retirement in 1985 he turned his hand to writing, producing the excellent Yes We Have No Bananas which tells the story of the 1932 Outdoor Relief struggle which united Catholic and Protestant workers and unemployed in Belfast. His autobiography, Straight Left, published in 1993 won him an Irish Times literary prize.

Those who knew Paddy – and I had the privilege of both knowing him and of crossing political swords with him more than once – will remember him as an acid tongued, straight talking street politician whose heart more often than not would rule his head.

This tendency to react and indeed to over react to events led him into a series of political twists and turns and unfortunately often drew him in practice away from the ideas of socialism and class unity. His disillusionment with republicanism after his brief period in the IRA stayed with him all his life. It was understandably reinforced by the treatment he received at the hands of the Provisionals who forced him to leave his Andersonstown home in 1981.

However his opposition to republicanism took him too far in the opposite direction, into a comfortable relationship with the RUC and the state. As secretary of the CCDC in 1969 he worked to get the barricades down and get the RUC back into the Falls area – this only weeks after the August 1969 pogroms which had in part been the work of the RUC and which had left an enraged Paddy Devlin touring the South calling for guns for the people behind the barricades.

During the hunger strikes he refused to give any measure of support to the demands of the prisoners for better conditions. Through this period he developed close relations with the tops of the RUC and argued that the force had been transformed and should be brought back into the Catholic areas.

He frankly acknowledged his mistake in helping found the SDLP. However, he continued to justify the 1974 power sharing arrangement and, in particular, the role of the Unionists within it. “We learned”, he comments in his autobiography; “that our unionist opponents were basically a decent bunch of well meaning men, with a great desire to build something of value for the people of the North.”

His short term, supposedly; “pragmatic” view led him to forget that the way to win the support of the Protestant working class is not to link arms with the people at the head of the Unionist Party who misrepresent them. Paddy Devlin was a complex figure. His real political roots were in the labour movement and in working class struggle. During his life he moved far from these roots but, unlike many other lesser figures, he never completely lost sight of where his most fundamental allegiances and his hopes for the future lay.

At the end of his biography he comments: “It remains my greatest wish that some day in the future a labour movement will effectively assert itself in Northern Ireland.” It is for his contribution to the labour movement and for the struggle for civil rights and workers’ rights that he would most want to be remembered.

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Last updated: 5.7.2012