How Hyde ‘Spymasters’ looked for Commies on BBC Children’s Hour

By Derek Pattison

Salford born folk singer and song- writer Ewan MacColl is remembered today more for his music than his agit-prop plays. But it was his political activities before the last war and his membership of the Communist Party that led to MI5 opening a file on him in the 1930s and why they kept him, and his friends, under close surveillance.

Secret service papers released by the national archives, now in Ashton-under-Lyne central library, offer a clue into how British intelligence (MI5) spied on working-class folk singer Ewan MacColl and his wife playwright, Joan Littlewood, who lived at Oak Cottage on Higham Lane, Hyde, Cheshire, during World War II.

MI5 opened a file on James Henry Miller (MacColl’s real name) in the early 1930s when he was living in Salford. As an active Communist Party member, he had been involved in the unemployed workers’ campaigns and in the mass trespass of Kinder Scout in Derbyshire. Before enlisting in the army in July 1940, he had written for the radio programme Children’s Hour.

In Joan Littlewood’s autobiography, she writes: “Jimmie was registered at the Labour Exchange as a motor mechanic, but he did better busking, singing Hebridean songs to cinema queues. Someone drew Archie Harding’s attention to him and from that time on he appeared in the North Region’s features (BBC) whenever a ‘proletarian’ voice was needed.”

As a BBC presenter for Children’s Hour and Communist Party member, Littlewood also came under the watch of MI5. A letter in the file, marked ‘SECRET’ (dated March 1939) and sent to W.H. Smith Esq., the Chief Constable for Hyde, tells him that Miller – known to the writer to be a Communist Party member – had taken a house in Hyde. The letter informs him that Miller works for the BBC in Manchester and that his wife, Joan Miller – another communist – broadcasts under the name ‘Joan Littlewood’ and is “said to be ‘Aunty Muriel’ of Children’s Hour.” The writer Sir Vernon Kell ended by asking the Chief Constable for Miller’s address and asked if Miller followed any other profession other than broadcasting.

Colonel Sir Vernon Kell, also known as ‘K’, was the head of MI5. An officer of the old school, Kell had served in China at the time of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 and was appointed first director of MI5 in 1909.

‘Communist looking Jews’

Writing about the spy Kim Philby, Seale & McConville say that Kell was the ‘antithesis of the terror-wielding secret police chief of public imagination’. As a public servant, he was renowned for his sense of duty, tact and discretion and ‘used his wide powers with notable restraint.’ By all accounts, MI5 in 1940 was an antiquated organisation led by middle-aged men who, while adept at keeping so-called subversives under surveillance, had little understanding of the ideas that motivated communists of Philby’s generation.

At the outbreak of World War II, it seems that under Kell’s leadership, MI5 was unable to cope with the mass of information about German agents in Britain and the ‘spy-mania’ that was a feature of British life at the time. Consequently, Kell was retired by Winston Churchill in 1941.

A letter in the file concerning Joan Littlewood is signed Major Maxwell Knight. Charles Maxwell Knight held right-wing views and after his Royal Navy service he worked for the Economic League. In 1924, he joined the British Fascisti, an organisation set up to counter the power of the Labour Party and the Trade Unions. This body put him in charge of compiling dossiers on ‘political subversives’, counter espionage, and establishing fascist cells in the trade union movement. In 1925, Kell recruited Knight to work for MI5.

A report in the file by Inspector J.E. Robinson, also marked ‘SECRET’ and dated April 1939’ tells the Chief Constable of Hyde that Miller lives with his parents and wife at Oak Cottage. Explaining that the BBC does not permanently employ Miller, the Inspector adds:

“He (Miller) does not appear to follow any fixed occupation beyond writing articles for such periodicals as may care to publish them. I understand that such publications are rare.”

He concludes by saying Miller and Littlewood seem to have no known association with communists in Hyde, but “at weekends, and more particularly when Miller’s parents are away from home, a number of young men who have the appearance of communist Jews are known to visit Oak Cottage. It is thought they come from Manchester.

In September 1939 there is more correspondence between Kell and the Chief Constables of Hyde, Ashton-under-Lyne and Cheshire. It seems Miller and other communist suspects had got work at Messrs Kenyon Ltd in Dukinfield.

Writing to the Hyde Chief Constable, Kell asks about William Redmond Morres Belcher – a worker at Kenyon’s – who, he says, has fought in Spain in the International Brigades. Admitting that he has no proof that Belcher is a Communist Party member, he adds: “his sympathies are very much to the left.” Naming three more workers at Kenyon’s: W.Sharples, R.C.Dyson and Miss B. Nash, he again admits he has no proof they are communists, but “Sharples may be identical with a man of that name who visited the USSR in August 1932.” The Chief Constable is asked to “make some inquiries…and let me know what you discover.”

The employment of Miller and his associates at Kenyon’s in Dukinfield did cause MI5 some anxiety as the firm had government contracts. It was feared the group might foment industrial unrest and in a letter dated September 1939, to Major J. Becke, Chief Constable of Cheshire, Colonel Kell wrote:

“I agree with you that the employment of these men at Messrs Kenyon’s appears to be most unusual and would be grateful if you would let me have any further information which may come to your knowledge.”

Special Branch Surveillance

Belcher, a mechanical engineer, had been employed to fit blinds to comply with government lighting restrictions. He then used his influence to get jobs for his friends without consulting the Directors. A memo dated September 1939, says:

“Messrs Kenyon’s are anxious as to whether Belcher and his associates have any connection with the IRA. I told him (Percy Kenyon), I was unable to give him any information as regards that.”

A Special Branch agent report, dated October 1939, to the Hyde Chief Constable, says that Belcher, his wife Aileen, Robert Dyson, William Sharples and Miss Beryl Nash, had all been resident at Oak Cottage while that house was under surveillance.

This report says they were all active Communist Party members and members of the ‘Theatre Union, an agitprop drama group that toured industrial areas of Britain’. This agent says:

“I have been able to listen to their conversations during the evening at Oak Cottage but I have not heard anything regarding communism or other political views.”

He informs the Chief Constable that Miller is a communist “with very extreme views and I think that special attention should be given to him.”

Apart from surveillance of this kind by Special Branch agents, the file has details of telephone taps and of intercepted letters. A memo, dated September 1943, to Colonel Allan of the GPO states: “Would you kindly let me have a return of correspondence for the next two weeks on the following address – Oak Cottage, Higham Lane, Hyde, Cheshire.”

Other memos show that bodies such as the Central National Registration Office and Passport Office were supplying information to MI5. Frequently, people who knew Miller and Littlewood, were contacted directly by the police or vice versa.

Alison Bayley, who’d been at RADA (drama school) with Littlewood, stopped Littlewood in the street one day and asked her if she’d time for a coffee. Littlewood describes this meeting in her autobiography: “I hadn’t seen her since joining ‘Theatre of Action’. ’Old times Chat?’ I asked.” Alison Bayley then told Littlewood: “I’ve denounced you to the Police. About you being a communist.” Though Littlewood assured her that the police already knew she was a Communist Party member, Bayley told her: “I felt I had to tell them, Littlewood.”

Blacklisted by the BBC

One irate middle-class father from Withington wrote to the police in May 1940, demanding that the Millers be sacked from the BBC and interned. His 18-year-old son (Graham Banks) a “fine specimen of English boyhood with good morals and ideals and a brilliant future” had, he explained, fallen into the clutches of the Millers who had induced him to leave home. Mr Banks added: “His poor mother is frantic with grief and if it should be within your province to either return him to us or else to intern him along with the others taking part in these pernicious plays, I hope you will do so.”

MI5 intervention led to the BBC blacklisting Miller and Littlewood. Littlewood had already been banned from working in Sheffield because she’d broadcast criticism of local housing conditions. Other memos reveal links between MI5 agents and BBC staff. In a memo, dated October 1939, a MI5 officer says: “I do not understand why the BBC continues to use them. Could they be warned to drop them if other people are available?”

Another memo states: “We asked the BBC to hold them (the programme) up while we obtained this file and unfortunately their (the Millers’) programme for the 11th October 1939 was about to be cancelled. Mr. Nicholls (Controller of Programmes), informed me that there was a possibility that the Manchester Guardian would publicise the matter and questions would be asked in the House of Commons. I said I would raise no objections to the broadcast of 11/10/39 but would get in touch with the BBC again.”

Though the BBC had announced in March 1941 that persons who had taken part in public agitation against the war effort would not be allowed access to the microphone, the BBC stated:“Beyond this one limit the Corporation is jealous to preserve British broadcasting as an instrument of freedom and democracy.”

The real reason for the ban on Miller and Littlewood is made clear in a memo dated April 1941 from Mr. Coatman, North Regional Director for the BBC. He points out that Mrs. Miller (Littlewood) and her husband were not only well known communists but were active communists. Mr. Coatman says:

“It must be remembered that Miss Littlewood and her husband were concerned chiefly with programmes in which they were brought into continuous and intimate contact with large numbers of working class people all over the North Region. Clearly I could not allow people like this to have use of the microphone or be prominently identified with the BBC. I therefore urge that the ban on Miss Littlewood as a broadcaster be allowed to stand.”

In her autobiography, Joan Littlewood says that following the BBC ban, Miller and herself wrote to L.C. Knight of the National Council of Civil Liberties who promised to investigate but never contacted them again. She writes: “We offered our story to the newspapers they didn’t publish it, not even the Daily Worker.”

After being called up in July 1940, Private James H. Miller was placed on the ‘Special Observation List’ “to see whether he is trying to carry on propaganda.” He was declared a deserter on 18th December 1940 and remained AWOL for the rest of the war. In this period he changed his name to Ewan MacColl. Military reports suggest he was popular with his fellow soldiers and exerted influence over them owing to his greater intelligence. He was a member of the Regimental Concert Party and produced ‘several songs and skits’. One of his songs was a particular favourite with the men:

“The medical inspection boy’s is just a bleedin’ farce. He gropes around your penis and noses up your arse. For even a Private’s privates, enjoy no privacy, you sacrifice all that to save democracy. Oh, I was browned off, browned off, as could be.”

While the song was popular with the ordinary soldiers it seems the military top brass had their suspicions. A note in the file says the song was of the normal barrack room type and didn’t appear to his CO to be subversive but “he is now inclined to think that it was rather subtle propaganda, the theme being generally disparaging to life as a private soldier and enlarging upon the fact that the discipline and alleged discomforts, to which he is subjected, although nominally in the cause of democracy, were really for the benefit of some supposedly superior class.”

MI5 and Censorship

After the war, Miller was arrested for desertion. He spent the first night of his captivity in Middlesbrough police station and was then taken to an army detention barracks at Northallerton. Later he was transferred to the Northfield Military Hospital in Birmingham where he was diagnosed as suffering from epilepsy. A psychiatrist diagnosed him to have a ‘paranoid personality with strong oedipal tendencies.’ The result of his psychiatric report led to the cancellation of his court martial on medical grounds and he was discharged from the army.

In her autobiography ‘Joan’s Book’, Littlewood speaks openly about being blacklisted by the BBC and about MacColl’s (Miller’s) desertion. She says he changed his name to MacColl ‘as a precaution’ while on the run as a deserter. However, none of this is mentioned in MacColl’s autobiography (Journeyman), which contains many gaps and omissions about his life.

Both Littlewood and MacColl played a cat and mouse game with the authorities. They were certainly aware the police were reading their letters: “Jimmie wrote to me every day, mostly jokes and nostalgia. So were mine to him. It must have been disappointing for the police who were opening them all.” They knew the police were keeping tabs on them, because so many of their friends and acquaintances were approached by the police.

Nothing can be found in the MI5 file to suggest Littlewood and MacColl were in the pay of Moscow (Nazi Germany and the USSR were allies from 1939 to June 1941). Yet a memo, dated April 1942, shows Littlewood had contact with Emile Burns, who was boss of propaganda at the Communist Party Headquarters in London.

Clearly, MI5 monitored their theatrical work and activities because they feared that as proselytising communists, their work could influence and politicise the working-classes. One of their plays, ‘Last Edition’, performed by the Theatre Union, was described as ‘thinly veiled’ communist propaganda’ and MI5 boss Colonel Kell used his influence to urge local councils to refuse them performance licenses in the same way as MI5 prevented them working for the BBC.

Joan Littlewood died in September 2002, aged 87. She has been described as a ‘subversive genius’ who broke the mould of British drama. She was best known for her work ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ and for establishing, with others, the Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal in East London. Ewan MacColl died in 1989 aged 74. He is now remembered more as a songwriter than an agit-prop playwright. His songs include ‘Dirty Old Town’, the ‘Manchester Rambler’ and ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ made famous by the singer Roberta Flack in the 1970s.

This article was originally published in Northern Voices issue 7, 2007

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Manchester Irish in Britain Representation Group, part 2

This is the second section of a two-part history of the Manchester branch of the Irish in Britain Representation Group. For the first part, see here.

The axing of the “Irish Line” radio programme

“Irish Line” was a weekly programme started in 1983 and broadcast by BBC Radio Manchester in collaboration with IBRG. All the work done by IBRG presenters was unpaid. It was a mix of music, sport and “What’s On” which also covered some political issues. “Irish Line” was abruptly axed by the BBC in the summer of 1985 without consultation or discussion

Four of the presenters wrote to the Irish Post newspaper, outlining changes which had been imposed after the arrest of a number of IBRG members under the Prevention of Terrorism Act early in 1985. Those detained included Dr Maire O’Shea, a consultant psychiatrist who was acquitted of all charges at her trial in Manchester in 1986. The presenters said that a poster advertising “Irish Line as presented by BBC and IBRG” was scrapped before it was issued and replaced by one deleting all reference to IBRG. It had been usual to introduce each programme as “being presented by the IBRG from the Irish community in Greater Manchester” but the BBC cut out all mention of IBRG. They had recorded an interview with a member of Bolton IBRG who had been on the International Women’s Day delegation to Armagh prison in March 1985, but this had been excised by the BBC from the broadcast programme. The letter ended by stating that “Irish Line” had been given a “summer break” by the BBC and that none of them had been contacted by the BBC as to the future, and concluded with: “We do hope that Irish Line does not become yet another casualty of the British media’s reluctance to deal in any depth with any Irish issue.” This was an accurate prophecy. The BBC brought the programme back in the autumn, renaming it “Come Into The Parlour” and with new presenters. All political issues were dropped.

Relations with Manchester City Council

In October 1984 Manchester IBRG submitted a detailed report to Manchester City Council on the needs of the Irish, entitled “A New Deal for the Irish Community in Manchester”. They wrote that hoped that it would be the start of a “cordial and productive dialogue between the Irish community in Manchester and the City Council”. The report examined the causes and effects of anti-Irish racism, the lack of recognition of the Irish in the school system, the lack of Irish culture in libraries and other cultural spaces, discrimination in housing and welfare, the lack of recognition given to the experiences of Irish women and finally the effects of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. It made a series of recommendations aimed at raising the profile of the Irish and recognising some of the welfare, social and legal problems affecting the community.

In September 1990 IBRG wrote to Terry Day, head of the Equal Opportunities Unit, expressing their dismay at the lack of action by the council on the 1984 report or indeed any other issue concerning the Irish in Manchester. In her response, Ms Day pointed out that the numbers of Irish people employed by the City Council had risen from 3.1% to 3.8% and stated that “the fact that this increase has occurred proves, I think, that discrimination against Irish people had been occurring in the past, and that the measures we have adopted to eliminate discrimination have been at least partially successful in stopping discrimination against Irish people applying for Council jobs.”

Manchester Irish Week 1988

As part of its policy on Ireland, Manchester City Council had pledged itself to organise an Irish week in Manchester. Even from the start there were problems of democracy, accountability, and inclusion in the planning process, which prompted IBRG and other groups to contact the City Council asking that all Irish groups should be included. Eventually these issues resolved themselves (or so it was thought at the time) and meetings to plan a programme of events took place regularly at the Irish Centre in Cheetham with two delegates from each Irish organisation in Manchester (including IBRG).

The committee set up working parties to plan particular events such as history, games, community care and women’s events. The Irish Women’s Group decided on a programme of events including discussion of the issue of strip-searching in Northern Ireland using a video, employment, a play and a women-only social. When this programme was put before the main planning meeting it was treated with what the women involved considered was derision and condescension and voted down, at which point the IBRG delegates withdrew in protest. IBRG protested in the strongest possible terms to the Chair of the Race Sub Committee, Councillor Graham Balance, whilst women members of IBRG and a number of other Irish women attended a meeting with him to express their anger. The Council agreed that all events, no matter which Irish group had organised them, would be included in the official programme.

Tom McAndrew, a leading member of the Council of Irish Associations, then attacked IBRG in the Manchester Evening News, accusing the organisation of “tainting” the festival by including an event on the Birmingham 6. IBRG responded vigorously, arguing that in a week when the Birmigham Six case was being highlighted in St Patrick parades throughout the world, “we see no reason why it should not be raised during the Manchester Festival week, nor do we believe it would ‘taint’ the festival. The majority of Manchester Irish people support the campaign to have these innocent men released.”

IBRG worked in cooperation with the history group, the Irish Women’s group (Mna na hEireann) and other organisations to put together an imaginative programme, putting out their own independent leaflet for the Irish Week in March 1988.

On Saturday 12th March Mna na hEireann held a Irish Women’s Day at English Martyrs Parish Centre, Alexandra Road South in Whalley Range, which was advertised as “A day for Irish women to get together and discuss the issues that affect their lives eg emigration, class and education”. There were workshops on creative writing and discussion on issues of education and identity. The speakers were Moy McCrory, Oonagh ni Cleirig, Maude Casey and May Byrne.

On Tuesday 15th March the meeting on “The British Media and the Birmingham 6 Case” took place at the Green Room, organised by the North West Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom and co-ordinated by Granville Williams. The speakers were Charles Tremayne ( a researcher on the World in Action Birmingham 6 programmes) and Bob Woofinden (author of Miscarriage of Justice). The speakers explored the role of the media in both convicting innocent people and uncovering miscarriages of justice. There were also the events at the Green Room with Sean O’Neill & Company and The Jacket Potatoes.

The notion of an Irish Week was revived by the City Council in 1996 (although the 1988 events were accidentally or deliberately forgotten and the event was billed incorrectly as the first such week in Manchester). As their contribution to the Irish Festival in March 1996, Manchester IBRG organised the Irish Heartbeats conference. Thereafter IBRG decided to play no further part in the subsequent Irish Festivals, having concluded that the event was designed to annexe the Irish into the burgeoning heritage, leisure and entertainment industry in Manchester.

Prevention of Terrorism Act

Among the cases taken up by IBRG was that of Kate Magee, a young Irish woman charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act with withholding information. In November 1993 IBRG leafleted a Christy Moore concert at the Manchester Opera House with a leaflet on Kate’s case and subsequently provided support and publicity for her during the long legal process leading up to her trial. IBRG Members attended her trial every day and were relieved when the jury found her Not Guilty.

On 25th October 1990 the branch organised a Repeal the PTA Meeting at St Brendan’s Centre in Old Trafford, one of three meetings held in the North West to support the campaign against the PTA. The speakers at the Manchester meeting were Father Bobby Gilmore from the Irish Chaplaincy in London and Kevin Hayes from the West Midlands PTA Research Association.

Prisoners

In September 1987 the branch wrote to Tony Lloyd MP raising the issue of the repatriation of Irish prisoners to the north and south of Ireland. In his reply he enclosed a response from the Earl of Caithness at the Home Office, adding that he had always supported the case of repatriation as a general principle “and tried to pursue this matter without any great success when the Home Affairs Select Committee looked at prisons in England and Wales.” He outlined some of the current problems on the issue and promised to “continue to support attempts to achieve a more acceptable solution in the circumstances both for the prisoners themselves and for their families”.

In May 1994 IBRG organised a meeting for Hugh Callaghan, one of the Birmingham Six, to talk about his book Cruel Fate at Frontline Books. Sally Mulready, who had been active in the London Campaign for the Six, accompanied Hugh and spoke about the effects of the imprisonment on the men’s wives and families and how very bravely they had taken the first steps in campaigning to get them out.

The War in Ireland

The continuing war in Ireland throughout the 1980s and most of the 1990s formed the backdrop against which Manchester IBRG operated and was something they consistently drew attention to in many of their activities. This distinguished them from other Irish community groups who were ready to promote culture, history and Irish Studies but extremely wary of any activities relating to the conflict. IBRG’s view was that it was impossible to talk about Irish history, Irish culture and Irish identity without at the same time talking about what was happening in the North of Ireland.

In October 1988 Tory Home Secretary Douglas Hurd introduced a broadcasting ban on Republican and Loyalist representatives being heard on TV and radio. The justification was that this denied “apologists for terrorism” a platform to propagate their views. In reality it was another in a long line of propaganda moves by British governments (Tory and Labour) to close down discussion on events in Northern Ireland and win acceptance for their analysis ie that it was all the fault of “the terrorists”. The government did not ban Republicans completely from the airwaves, just their voices, resulting in the surreal situation where their actual voices could not be broadcast but what they had said some hours earlier was voiced over instead by an actor. In time, and with practice by the actors, it become almost impossible to distinguish the “false” from the “real”.

On 25th January 1989 Bernadette Hyland from IBRG spoke at a meeting at which a video of a Channel 4 programme, Mother Ireland, was shown to a packed audience of over 150 at the Manchester Mechanics Institute. The film interlaced music, images and historical film with interviews with a number of women including Pat Murphy, Nell McCafferty, Bernadette McAliskey and Republican Mairead Farrell, who was shot dead by the SAS shortly afterwards in Gibraltar.

Mother Ireland was the first programme to fall foul of the Broadcasting Ban. In response the North West Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom organised a public meeting to allow an audience to make their own mind up. The meeting was chaired by the North West organiser of CPBF, Granville Williams. In her speech Bernadette outlined IBRG’s opposition to the ban: “It denies British people the right to the facts behind the conflict in the Six Counties, it denies Irish people the right to learn their own history”. IBRG joined a picket outside the BBC on Oxford Road on the 5th anniversary of the ban.

Throughout the course of the war in Ireland IBRG always defended the right of Sinn Fein elected representatives to visit Britain and put their case. In the autumn of 1986, during an official visit by two Sinn Fein local councilors to Manchester City Council, IBRG organized a meeting for Irish people to meet the councillors and listen to what they had to say.

In January 1995 the annual Bloody Sunday March was held in Manchester, the first time that the march had been held in the city . Local IBRG members joined the march, whilst IBRG National Chair Pat Reynolds addressed the rally in Albert Square alongside Martin McGuinness from Sinn Fein. The Daily Express attacked Manchester City Council for allowing the rally to take place in Albert Square. IBRG responded in the local Irish newspaper Irish Echo, defending the right to march.

Conclusion

Looking back, Bernadette Hyland, secretary of Manchester IBRG and also IBRG national chairperson for a number of years, reflected that “IBRG really was a community organisation. At its heart were people who had a strong sense of their own identity, a love of their own history and its people and a strong will to ensure that the inequality and marginalization of the community would not continue. For me personally, IBRG meant in the broadest terms a movement reflective of a socialist ideology, encompassing a better world not just for Irish people on these two islands but a better world for all people.”

Article by Michael Herbert

Manchester Irish in Britain Representation Group

The Irish in Britain Representation group was an Irish community group which campaigned nationally across the UK and had an active branch in Manchester in the 1980s and 1990s. The organisation campaigned on a wide range of issues including anti-Irish racism, education , culture, rights of women, history, language, civil rights, miscarriages of justice and the war in the North of Ireland. Membership included both those born in Ireland and those born in Britain.

This is the first of two articles collecting memories of those involved in the Manchester branch of the IBRG.

Anti-Irish “Humour”

The Manchester branch took up a number of examples of anti-Irish “humour”, believing that such “jokes” were racist and attacked the self-confidence of the community. In July 1985 the branch wrote a letter of protest to Granada TV about the programme The Comedians, which routinely featured Irish “jokes”. Writing in response to the complaint John Hamp, Head of Light Entertainment, said that no offence had been intended:

“The Comedians reflects the sort of humour to be heard currently in summer shows, theatres and clubs around the country. No joke is intended to be interpreted seriously, and none are delivered in a malicious manner by the comedians. In fact, it’s usually the impossible or unlikely aspect of a joke which gives it humour, whatever the subject. The series employs several Irish comedians as well as comics from other parts of Great Britain. and they tell gags about themselves, their environment and each other – in a friendly and good humoured atmosphere. We feel The Comedians keeps within the accepted limits of humour and know it is enjoyed by a large audience, but regret that you feel cause to complain, and have taken note of your comments”.

In August 1986 IBRG wrote a letter of protest to the Equal Opportunities Commission over an EOC booklet entitled Do Girls Give Themselves a Fair Chance? It included a cartoon in which a young woman bricklayer on a building site is shown as being smarter and more hardworking than two male operatives who are, of course, Irish and are shown speaking in “Oirish”. In reply, the EOC’s Ann Godwin said that she very much regretted it had caused offence and that it would be revised in a new edition.

Travellers

Just before Christmas 1987 eighty DHSS investigators, accompanied by police with dogs, swamped a travellers’ camp in Salford, demanding to see children’s birth certificates. The “visit” occurred in the wake of a local press campaign which alleged that “tinkers” were flooding into the area and defrauding the benefits system. When they read of the case in the press IBRG members visited the site and offered support and practical help to the travellers as well as writing to DHSS and issuing a press release. IBRG said that it was:

“diabolical that people can be treated in this way. Whole families can be left without money at a time when most people are spending too much and eating too much. It is indicative of the way that in which people who are Irish and travellers can be hounded without any criticism of the methods or motives of organisations such as DHSS”.

Conferences

The branch thought it important to bring together Irish people to consider and discuss the issues affecting their lives, believing that it broke down the isolation many Irish people often felt when it comes to talking about issues of identity, injustice, racism and much else.

The branch’s first major conference took place on Saturday 14th November 1987 at Manchester Town Hall and was entitled “Hearts and Minds – The Irish in Britain Today”. Over 140 delegates attended, both as individuals and also representing organisations such as local authorities and North West Arts. The conference was formally opened by the Chair of Manchester City Council, Councillor Eileen Kelly. She was followed by Desmond Greaves, the noted historian and leading member of the Connolly Association, who illuminated the role that emigration has played in the lives of the Irish. This theme came up constantly during the day in the seminars.

Mary Lennon, author of a book on Irish women in Britain, looked at the pattern of Irish women’s emigration to Britain, highlighting the fact that more women than men have emigrated from Ireland and contradicting the stereotype of the Irish emigrant to Britain as being a male building worker. Moy McCrory used her book of short stories The Water’s Edge to comment on the experience of growing up in an Irish working class background in Liverpool. In her seminar on Irish Dimensions in British Education, Mary Hickman underlined the importance of having Irish studies on the curriculum of all British schools and colleges. Micheal ORiabhaigh also focused on Liverpool and commented on some of the profound obstacles that it faced in realising and expressing an Irish identity.

Pat Reynolds took up the theme of identity and anti-Irish racism. He traced the roots of this racism back to the connected history of Britain and Ireland and in this colonial relationship found the basis of present day anti-Irish racism.

IBRG judged the conference to be a great success with many important discussions in the seminars – and outside in the corridors over cigarettes and tea. It gave the Irish from all over the North West an opportunity to meet and discuss common issues. IBRG ensured that half the speakers were women and provided a creche, which was well-used

IBRG’s next conference was held to coincide with twentieth anniversary of British troops going onto the streets of the six counties and was entitled “Justice for Irish People; 20 Years On” and rook place on Saturday 10th June 1989 at Manchester Town Hall.

Another conference entitled “We Are A River Flowing…..”. took place on Saturday 3rd July 1993 at St Brendan’s Irish Centre. It encompassed a day of discussion and debate on the history of the Irish community. The final speaker Mary Nellis (a Sinn Fein councillor from Derry) spoke on Women in the Six Counties: the Struggle Goes On and On, throwing away her prepared speech after a few minutes and speaking off the cuff about her experiences in Derry in a lengthy contribution that gripped and moved the audience.

The future development of the Irish community was the subject of the next conference which was called “Irish Heartbeats” and took place on 16th March 1996 at the Friends Meeting House.

Culture

IBRG members collaborated with Adrian Mealing at Green Room to put on The Hairy Marys on 13th November 1987. The Hairy Marys were a group of talented Irish dancers from London who had tired of some of the traditions that had encrusted Irish traditional dance and used comedy and cabaret in their performance. The programme described them thus: “The HMs are a madcap gang of Irish dancers. These four raucous women dance reels to ragtime and jigs to jazz. For the past five years they have been entertaining audiences up and down the country with their irreverent mixture of traditional Irish dance, music and comedy. They are Maire Clerkin, Hester Goodman, Carmel McAree and Susan Swanton”. On the evening they went down a storm.

IBRG worked with the Green Room again to present Sean O’Neill and Company in a performance entitled Kavanagh of Inniskeen as part of the Irish week on Friday 18th March 1988. The following evening there was live music from The Jacket Potatoes, an Irish trio from London, who played both traditional tunes and a number of political songs about the situation in the North of Ireland.

The next co-promotion with the Green Room was on 16th June 1988 when Trouble & Strife Theatre Company from London performed “Now And At The Hour Of Our Death”, a play written by Sonja Lyndon. The programme notes read as follows: “It is the year 2000 and life has changed dramatically for the people of Northern Ireland. Four Irish women look back twenty years to a time when they each had a dream. Between them there is an unshakeable bond forged from the shared horror of the No Wash protest in Armagh prison in 1980. The vivid performances explore the complex relationship between women and violence and produce a magnificent piece of theatre which will shock, amuse and move.” The play lived up to the pre-publicity, according to those who saw it. Incidentally, the young women performers in the theatre company arrived a day early due to a mix-up and were all accommodated at an IBRG member’s house.

On 16th September 1988 IBRG put on Toss the Feathers at St Brendan’s Irish Centre This was at the height of the TTF mania and hundreds of people turned up. Members recall that the beerstained proceeds from the evening were carried home stuffed into pockets and helped to fund branch activities for many months afterwards.

The Hairy Marys returned to the Green Room on Sunday 19th March 1989 as part of a St Patrick’s Day Celebration, one of the “Family Fundays” being run by the Green Room at this period, running a dance workshop for children who then performed later in the afternoon.

Manchester IBRG initiated the first Irish Film Festival in Manchester in collaboration with the Cornerhouse in 1988. In all there were six seasons at the Cornerhouse between 1988 and 1993. The aim was to celebrate and showcase past and present Irish efforts in this art-form, but also to use it as a way of exploring contemporary social and political issues through the use of associated day-schools and speakers.

IBRG also organised events during the Manchester Festival in 1991 and 1992 under the title Mise Eire. These included history walks, evenings with writers Moy McCrory, Moya Roddy, Clairr O’Connor and Berlie Doherty, music from Banshee, Rattle and Reel, Red Ciel and The Jacket Potatoes, dance by The Hairy Marys, and storytelling.

History

The branch organised a number of events in April 1991 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, an anniversary which was virtually ignored by the Irish government, part of the so-called “revisionist” attack on celebrations of past Irish struggle which were supposedly giving aid and sustenance to the armed struggle in the north.

The first event was on Thursday 18th April, an evening entitled Poetry and Songs of the Rising held at St Brendan’s Irish centre. Actor Sean O’Neill, a good friend of Manchester IBRG, read poems by WB Yeats, Patrick Pearse, Thomas McDonough and others, followed by music from local musicians.

On that Friday evening there was a chance to Rock To The Rising at Chorlton Irish Centre. Music was provided by Tradition, one of West Yorkshire’s most popular Irish groups, who brought a coachload of young and enthusiastic supporters over with them and a good time was apparently had by all. Those who had not indulged too heavily the night before joined a history walk at lunchtime around Manchester City Centre.

The final event was on Sunday 21st April at St Brendan’s Irish Centre at which there were videos, music, bookstall, an Irish history quiz and a talk from Kevin Collins, author of The Cultural Conquest of Ireland. To accompany these events Ruth and Edmund Frow of the Working Class Movement Library in Salford put on an Easter Rising exhibition at the library.

There were many celebrations and conferences in 1998 to commemorate the bicentenary of the 1798 Rising. Manchester IBRG organised its own conference which put the Rising squarely in the context of community history and development. This took place on Saturday 20th June 1998 at the Friends Meeting House

Gaelic Language

On Wednesday 5th June 1991 the branch organised a meeting at St Brendan’s Irish Centre to discuss the attack by the Northern Ireland office on Glor na nGael. The meeting was part of a speaking tour of Manchester and London set up by IBRG to highlight the discrimination being exercised by the Northern Ireland Office against the Irish language. Glor na nGael was started in 1982 in response to the growing demand for Irish language nursery schools in the Belfast area to co-ordinate the schools and train their teachers. Patricia Campbell from Glor na nGael spoke at the Manchester meeting, which was followed by a discussion with a number of Irish speakers.

Article by Michael Herbert

Rioting between the Orange Order and the Irish in Manchester

In the early 19th century Manchester was a major stronghold of the Orange order. There were occasional riots between the Catholic Irish and the Orange order in the first half of the century.

In the first decades of the nineteenth century Manchester was the principal centre for Orangeism in Great Britain. The colour Orange had been adopted by Irish Protestant patriots in memory and honour of the Protestant William of Orange, who seized the throne from Catholic James II in 1688 and defeated him in a series of battles in Ireland, most notably at the Boyne and Aughrim.

Inconveniently for subsequent Protestant Loyalist mythology William was actually backed by the Pope for complicated reasons of European diplomacy and his final victory celebrated with a Te Deum in Rome. It is the myths of history, however, that often turn out to be more potent and long-lasting than the prosaic facts and so it has proved with the Williamite victories which are still commemorated every 12th July in the North of Ireland by Protestants.

In the early 1790s there were clashes in Ulster between Catholics organised in groups known the Defenders and the Ribbonmen and Protestants organised in groups such as the Peep O’Day Boys, who had taken to raiding Catholic homes and farms for arms. In 1793 James Wilson, a Presbyterian farmer in County Tyrone, established the Orange Boys, whose members swore oaths to defend Protestantism and the constitution. On 21st September 1795 there was clash between Catholics and Protestants near Loughgall in County Armagh, in which several dozen Catholic Defenders were killed in an attack on Dan Winter’s Inn and which subsequently became known as the Battle of the Diamond. This led directly to the establishment of the Orange Order, which followed the example of the Freemasons by admitting members after the taking of oaths and organising itself through lodges. The order received the tacit support of Protestant magistrates and gentry and the first Orange parades were held on 12th July 1796. By the following year, faced with the threat from the United Irishmen, the British government was happy and willing to use the Orange Order as a useful ally in its struggle to reimpose its authority across Ireland.

British regiments and militias from Lancashire were sent to in Ireland at this time and a number of soldiers took the oath whilst serving, bringing back Orange warrants to England. In November 1799 Colonel Stanley’s regiment, the First Lancashire Militia, returned to Manchester with warrant number 320. The Manchester & Salford Rifle Volunteers (raised and financed by Colonel Taylor of Moston and commanded by Colonel Sylvester) returned with warrant number 1128. Discharged soldiers seem to have started civilian lodges which spread from Manchester to neighbouring towns such as Oldham, where Orange lodges held a 12th July march as early as 1803.

The first Orange riot in Manchester occurred on 13th July 1807 when Orangemen, carrying banners and marching to Orange tunes, joined a number of English friendly societies in a parade to the Collegiate Church. On leaving the church there was a confrontation with Catholics in Church Street and High Street. The location is significant, being very close to the Catholic meeting place in Roman Entry. The Deputy Chief Constable Nadin had to call for troops to restore order. The Manchester Gazette afterwards claimed that “No Popery” signs had been chalked on walls before the march and that local regiments had been playing Orange tunes when recruiting in the town. It seems that tensions were high even before the Orange march took place.

Local Orangemen Ralph Nixon later claimed that Irish Catholics had attacked the march. In a letter to the British Volunteer newspaper on 25th July he stated that “Orange principles are imperfectly known in England and those who attacked them were misled by an erroneous opinion that our views are hostile and directed against papists. Orangemen are zealously attached to the king and admire our matchless constitution”. Nixon’s letter points to the motivation of the English Orangemen as veering more towards maintenance of the political status quo in Britain than a direct association with the politics of Ireland, although the two were connected. Like the Church and King Clubs of the 1790s the Orange Order was a useful organisation for local magistrates and gentry (often the same people) to deploy against their enemies, the radicals and reformers.

Nixon wrote to Ireland for authority to found a Grand Lodge in Britain and approached Colonel Taylor and Colonel Fletcher of Bolton to act as Grand Masters. Fletcher was particularly assiduous in opposing any hint of radicalism in his home town and had routinely employed spies to infiltrate radical organisations. In May 1808 a meeting at the Star Hotel on Deansgate, where lodges had already been accustomed to meet, established the English Grand Lodge with Taylor as Grand Master, Fletcher as Deputy Grand Master and Nixon as Grand Secretary. The original Irish warrants were now cancelled and henceforth the English lodges obtained their credentials from the new Grand Lodge. By 1811 there were some 68 lodges in the Manchester region – according to The Orange Miscellany and Orange Man’s Guide published in 1815 – and 77 in Lancashire in 1830. Ralph Nixon made an abrupt and permanent exit from the organisation in 1821 when he was sentenced to seven years transportation after being charged with burglary.

There was further trouble in Manchester in 1830. A group of Irishmen, apparently employed at Parker’s factory, attacked a number of public houses where the Orange lodges were meeting to celebrate the 12th July and had hung banners out of the windows. At the Boars Head on Withy Grove they stormed upstairs, seized the flag, tore it to pieces and trampled it in the street. There were similar scenes at the Queen Anne on Long Millgate and at the Union Tavern on Garratt Street. Town constables finally arrived and seized some of the stragglers as the Irishmen were returning home along Bank Top and lodged them in the Market House. When the rest of the party realised what had happened they promptly returned and released the prisoners by smashing open the gates. (These same Irish weavers were involved in a strike at Parker’s in March 1831 when they demanded an increase in the price they received for weaving shirtings and calicos).

In 1834 Manchester Orange lodges celebrated in the usual manner with banquets on the 12th July . On the following day, which was a Sunday, several hundred Orangemen assembled in St Ann’s Square and marched to St George’s Church, Hulme to attend divine service. On the way back they were attacked in Cateaton Street by several hundred Catholics armed with sticks and stones. The fighting was finally stopped by the 5th Dragoons, summoned by the town authorities. There was more trouble later that evening outside the Windmill public house on St George’s Road, which was a meeting place for an Orange lodge. Police arrived and forestalled an attack on the pub. There was further disturbance the following day near the Briton’s Protection public house on Oldham Road when the whole police force had to turn out to stop the sexton of St George’s Church on St George’s Road from being killed. Daniel Hearne subsequently confiscated weapons and appeared in court to speak on behalf of the rioters.

In 1835 the Orangemen assembled in Jackson’s Row and paraded to St James Church. The procession itself passed off with only minor incidents and two arrests, one of them an Orangemen named Solomon Johnson Mackintosh, who claimed in court that he always carried a loaded revolver for self-defence. The Manchester lodge dined the following evening at the Hare and Hounds, Water Street without disturbance. There was trouble the next night, however, when a crowd gathered in the brickfields on St George’s Road and smashed the windows of a house which had recently put up a figure of William of Orange above the door.

That same year the Orange Order in England was investigated by a Commons Select Committee after rumours that its Grand Master, the Duke of Cumberland (a reactionary even by the standards of his own class), intended to use the order to stage a coup and replace the king on the throne. The report condemned the order for provoking trouble between Protestants and Catholics and in response the Cumberland formally dissolved the organisation. It soon reappeared, however, in two forms – the Orange Institution and the Orange Association – which eventually united in 1874. In the wake of the Irish Famine and the huge Irish emigration into Lancashire the heartland of the movement moved to Liverpool, although there continued to be branches in Manchester and nearby towns.

The last riot in Manchester in connection with an Orange procession occurred in 1888. On Sunday 8th July members of Orange lodges gathered at Portland Street and proceeded across Great Ancoats Street and down the Irish area of Canal Street , heading for St Mark’s Church on Holland Street. The Orange marchers claimed that in Canal Street they were subject to a premeditated attack by a hundred youths brandishing hatchets and knives during which two men – Joseph Walmsley and Daniel Ritchie – received serious head wounds and 40 police officers who had been summoned by telephone took a half hour to suppress. A letter in the Manchester Guardian a few days later (whose author gave only the initials J.P.) disputed this version of events and claimed that it had began after a boy had thrown a stone at the march and been followed by a prominent member of the Orange procession. “No-one will sympathise with persons who insult any body of men passing peacefully along the street, but I maintain that …..the organisers of such processions, whether of Orangemen or any other party, are often morally blameable in marching their forces through the midst of a population entirely antagonistic to them.”

Article by Michael Herbert

Paul Rose and the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster

Paul Rose, MP for Manchester Blackley, helped to set up the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster in 1965. The campaign attempted to raise the question of discrimination and civil rights abuses in northern Ireland, largely unsuccessfully.

Paul Rose was born in 1935 in Manchester and educated at Bury Grammar School and the University of Manchester. He was chair of the Manchester Federation of Young Socialists. He trained as a lawyer and in 1958 was called to the bar. Rose had no personal Irish connections, but apparently became interested in 1962 after addressing a meeting in Manchester on civil liberties and being been told about the situation in Northern Ireland. In the general election of October 1964 he was elected to the House of Commons for Blackley, Manchester. The Labour Party defeated the Tory party after 13 years with a majority of just 4 seats.

The Campaign for Democracy in Ulster was established in early 1965 at a meeting in a public house in Streatham by a group of Irish trade unionists and Labour Party members. The Vice-President was Paddy Byrne, who had been active thirty years before in Ireland in the Republican Congress. The first secretary of the organisation was Bill O’Shaughnessy. When O’Shaughnessy moved to Manchester in the late 1960s Byrne took over the post. The CDU’s aims were to achieve a reform of election laws in Northern Ireland; to secure a Royal Commission into running of the Stormont government and investigate allegations of discrimination; and to have the Race Relations Bill amended to include religion and then extended to Northern Ireland.

The CDU was publicly launched in June 1965 at a meeting in the House of Commons at which Patricia McCluskey was one of the guest speakers. They attracted interest from a number of MPs. Paul Rose agreed to become President of the CDU. As an organisation the CDU was in practice confined to London with only Manchester forming a branch for a while. In the Commons it attracted support from 60 to 80 MPs, principally Labour with a few Liberals

It soon became obvious that the Wilson government intended to follow exactly the line taken by its predecessors for nearly fifty years and claim that it was unable to interfere in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland. CDU members made a number of attempts to raise issues in the Commons but were rebuffed each time. Eventually Harold Wilson himself stated in May 1966 that he was “not aware of any issue on which an inquiry is needed”. Attempts to amend the Race Relations bill to include religious discrimination failed, as did an attempt to have the remit of the Ombudsman extended to Northern Ireland. Some new impetus was given to the CDU in parliament by the election of Gerry Fitt as Republican Labour for West Belfast in March 1966 , who then worked closely with the campaign in their efforts to get Wilson to act on Northern Ireland.

Events in the summer of 1966 momentarily thrust the six counties into the headlines and provoked some British newspapers into taking a hard look at what was happening there. On 7th May an elderly Protestant woman, Mrs Gould, was killed in a petrol bomb attack on a Catholic pub next door to her home. Three weeks later a Catholic man named John Scullion was shot in Clonard Street off the Falls Road and later died of his wounds (the intended victim had been well known Republican Leo Martin). On 26th June Loyalist gunmen shot three Catholic barman from the International Hotel as they left a public house in Malvern Street, killing a young man named Peter Ward. The three killings had been carried out by a group formed by Gusty Spence (a former soldier and shipyard worker) which had taken the historic name of the Ulster Volunteer Force. Nearly thirty years later on 13th October 1994 Spence announced the Loyalist ceasefire in response to the IRA ceasefire announced several months earlier.

On 3rd July, to coincide with a royal visit to Northern Ireland, the Sunday Times published a hard-hitting article compiled by its Insight team of investigative journalists, entitled John Bull’s Political Slum. “When the flags and bunting are hauled down after the Royal visit,” it began, “Mr Wilson’s government will still be confronted with a sharp alternative; whether to use reserve powers to bring elementary social justice to Ulster or simply allow Britain’s most isolated province to work out its own bizarre destiny. During the 45 years since partition the latter has often been negligently adopted with what looks like disastrous results.” The article went on to document political gerrymandering and high levels of Catholic unemployment and emigration and noted that the new Ulster town of Craigavon was going to be built in a Protestant area between Portadown and Lurgan, while the new University was going to the Protestant town of Coleraine and not Derry, the second city and natural choice.

In October Spence and another two other man were sentenced to life imprisonment for the murders. Press interest in Northern Ireland, momentarily aroused, swiftly waned.

As papers released from Stormont under the thirty years rule now reveal that behind the scenes Wilson and Home Secretary Roy Jenkins were putting some pressure on Terence O’Neill to introduce one person one vote and to abolish the business vote. At a meeting at Downing Street in January 1967 with O’Neill, Craig and Faulkner, Wilson referred to the increasing unwillingness of Labour backbenchers to accept the convention that matters transferred to Stormont could not be raised or discussed in the House of Commons, while Roy Jenkins emphasised that gerrymandering in places like Derry and the local government vote would soon come under fire from Labour MPs. They also referred to the deputations on Northern Ireland that Jenkins had received. It seems that as a result of the CDU campaign the Labour government was becoming exercised about matters in the Six Counties but was not prepared to publicly pressurise the Unionists to reform.

By June 1968 the central committee of the CDU were forced to conclude that the campaign had run out of steam. Only four members of the central committee attended meetings regularly and only three constituency Labour parties remained affiliated. They had not succeeded in getting a resolution on Northern Ireland to the party conference whilst a public meeting in Kilburn in April had only attracted 20 people, despite a large amount of flyposting. Paddy Byrne presented a bleak assessment of how things stood. “In short no mass movement has developed and there is no indication that one will”, for in his view the British left were “far too concerned to save socialism from extinction than to bother about Ulster, about which the mass of British people know little, care less.

Paul Rose, who acted as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Castle between 1966 and 1968, later claimed that after his visit to the six counties in 1967, she asked why a young man like him was concerned about Northern Ireland, “’What about Vietnam? What about Rhodesia?’ I just looked at her with incomprehension and said ‘You’ll see when they start shooting one another’. She was totally oblivious to this. I think their priorities were focused on other things to the extent that they were totally blinded as to what was going on in their own backyard”. Perhaps it was not so surprising that two years later, on 14th August 1969, Barbara Castle wrote in her diary that she “was astonished to learn from the news that British troops have moved into Derry”.

Speaking in a debate on Northern Ireland in the House of commons on 22 April 1969 (just before Bernadette Devlin made her maiden speech) Paul Rose said:

“The events in Northern Ireland this weekend are a classic illustration of unheeded warnings from my hon. Friends on this side of the House. An almost uncontrollable situation has developed because too little has been done too late.
“In the debate on Northern Ireland on 22nd February, 1965, before this situation had developed, I then advocated the setting up of a Royal Commission to investigate the grievances in Northern Ireland.
“Alas, the time for Royal Commissions is past. And the fault lies largely with hon. Gentlemen opposite from Northern Ireland, who on that occasion flatly refused to acknowledge that there was any cause for concern or anxiety at all about civil rights and discrimination in Northern Ireland. They were rightly concerned with the potato subsidy. The hon. and gallant Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) informed the House that 36% of the nation’s pigs come from Northern Ireland. But not a word about discrimination or civil rights. We also faced the convention of non-interference, a convention which in that debate prompted my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr Delargy) to ask you, Mr. Speaker, what, apart from Short Brothers and Harland and Wolff, we could mention in a debate on Northern Ireland.
That convention is dead. It was killed when my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr Fitt) was seen by millions of television viewers, his head streaming with blood after a vicious batoning while surrounded by a group of members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.”

In 1970 Rose wrote a book called The Manchester Martyrs: a Fenian Tragedy, which was published by Lawrence & Wishart. He acknowledged the help given to him by Tom Redmond and Jimmy McGill (both members of the Connolly Association in Manchester). It was well written and readable account of the episode aimed at a general audience. Interestingly there was no mention of his involvement in Irish affairs in the introduction.

Rose left the Commons in 1979 and returned to the law, eventually becoming a Coroner and Deputy Circuit Judge.

Article by Michael Herbert

The Irish in Manchester and the Civil Rights Movement in the North of Ireland, 1963-1974

The emergence of the Civil Rights movement in the North of Ireland led to solidarity organisations being established in Britain, seeking through meetings, marches and strikes to highlight what was happening. The government used the prevention of Terrorism Act, passed in November 1974, to clamp down hard on campaigners.

The Emergence of the Civil Rights Movement in the North of Ireland

In May 1963 local Catholics in Dungannon established the Homeless Citizens’ League to campaign for better housing conditions. One of its leading members was Patricia McCluskey, wife of local doctor Conn McCluskey. In August 1963 thirty families squatted in condemned buildings and eventually embarrassed the Stormont government, after Doctor McCluskey had personally lobbied it, into announcing that some 64 new houses would be built in the town.

News of this victory quickly spread beyond Dungannon and the McCluskeys received letters from families across Northern Ireland, asking for advice on how to win similar concessions for their own towns from Stormont. This convinced them of the need for a more permanent pressure group and led them to establish the Campaign for Social Justice on 17th January 1964 “for the purpose of bringing the light of publicity to bear on the discrimination which exists in our community”. The CSJ sent out regular newsletters and produced five pamphlets which detailed the injustices happening in Northern Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) was formally established at a meeting of 100 delegates in the International Hotel, Belfast on 29th January 1967. On 5th October 1968 a Civil Rights march in Derry was brutally attacked by the RUC and sparked a wave of anger, leading to the formation by students of a radical group, People’s Democracy.

Bernadette Devlin rapidly emerged as one of its leading figures and in April 1969 was elected to the House of Commons on a Civil Rights ticket. She made her first appearance in the Commons two days later, rushing over to take part in a debate on Northern Ireland and looking like “anybody’s classless undergraduate daughter” as the Daily Mirror put it. She attacked Unionism and the Wilson government for forgetting what Socialism was and rejected attempts to label the Civil Rights movement as a narrow Catholic uprising, saying “We are not sectarian. We fight for the rights of both Catholics and Protestants”. She spoke at countless meetings in Britain and the Irish Civil Rights Solidarity Campaign was set up, including for a while a group in Manchester based in Gee Cross, Hyde. This organised a meeting under the title The Real Struggle in Northern Ireland at Chorlton Town Hall on 9th November 1969 at which Michael Farrell from People’s Democracy was the principal speaker

Solidarity in Britain with the Civil Rights Movement

Events in Northern Ireland were now being keenly followed by many in the Irish community in Britain. The day after the attack on the Civil Rights march in Derry The Observer carried a full and graphic report of the RUC’s violence, written by Mary Holland under the headline “Ulster Police Club Marchers”. She also wrote a long feature, carefully researched, entitled “John Bull’s White Ghettos”, which exposed the political gerrymandering in Derry. Her articles were very influential.

According to the Irish Democrat the Manchester branch of the Connolly Association was now meeting every 3rd Wednesday at The Crown & Anchor public house in Hilton Street and becoming active again under the direction of Joe McCrudden, a Belfast man. There was a Civil Rights meeting in Manchester at Chorlton Town Hall on 9th March 1969, at which the speakers were Desmond Greaves and Betty Sinclair, a trade unionist and Communist from Belfast.

College students in Manchester also set up a Civil Rights Committee. The most active members of this seem to have been those attending the Catholic De La Salle teacher training college, who held a mass meeting on 16th January 1969 and leafleted city centre pubs and clubs on events in Ireland, as a prelude to an all night vigil in support of the demand for Civil Rights in Albert Square. The weather was not on their side – there was fog and rain and only 30 students stayed the course. They were pictured next day in the Manchester Evening News, walking around the Albert Memorial and carrying banners which demanded (unironically) “One Man One Vote”. The chair of the Committee was 20 year-old Conal Harvey from Belfast who told the press, “We want to draw the unfair situation in Northern Ireland to the attention of the people in Manchester. We are planning more protests.”

The British Army goes in

In August 1969 there was a three day battle in Derry between the people of the Bogside and the RUC. Rioting then broke out in Belfast in which whole streets were burn out and people were killed. Finally James Callaghan, the Home Secretary, sent in the army.

Frank Gogarty, a leading member of NICRA in London, was reported in the press as saying that the Association proposed to call all Irish people in Britain out on a one-day strike as an expression of horror and indignation at the police brutality in Derry. The Guardian reported that on 14th August there had been sympathy strikes in Birmingham, Coventry and London with more than 500 people staying away from work and further strike action planned in the Midlands to bring out all Irish labour. This was followed on 20th August by a further strike by Irish workers in Birmingham whose co-ordinator Tom McDowell claimed that some 7,000 people in the area had answered the call with support from corporation bus workers, factories and building sites.

St Brendan’s Centre in Manchester was named in the press as a recruitment centre for volunteers wishing to go over to the north. Local organiser John Madden said that he hoped to get the first volunteers across to Ireland almost immediately and was planning to organise a demonstration in Albert Square and a walkout by Irish workers. The following day St Brendan’s publicly denied that it was being used as centre for volunteers as this would be against its constitution.

On 25th August 1969 there was a march in Manchester. Supporters of the Civil Rights movement gathered in Platt Fields and marched to Ardwick Green . A photograph of this march in The Guardian showed one marcher holding a placard which stated “Get The Troops Out.”

In October Manchester City Council (then Tory controlled) refused to allow the local branch of the Campaign for Social Justice to hire council-owned halls to hold public meetings on the situation in the North of Ireland and a planned meeting had to be called off. On 6th November the CSJ organised a torchlit procession in the city centre in protest. John Madden, who was originally from Dungannon and had lived in Manchester for 15 years, claimed that 99% of the Irish population were sympathetic to their cause. He told the Irish Democrat it was “the sort of thing I used to experience when I was a councillor in the worst place in Northern Ireland for discrimination. I did not expect to find it in Manchester.” There was a protest march to the Town Hall against the ban after the annual Manchester Martyrs procession.

The Manchester CSJ stepped up its activities by taking part in the national petition for a Bill of Rights and holding a meeting in Houldsworth Hall on 22nd March 1970 at which the speakers were Ivan Cooper MP, Betty Sinclair, Mark Carlisle MP and Stan Orme MP. On 4th April they held a folk concert in the Lesser Free Trade Hall featuring the Grehan Sisters.

In July 1970 the British army imposed a curfew and ransacked the Falls Road in Belfast, looking for weapons. Four people were killed. In February 1971 the IRA shot dead a British soldier. Daily gun battles were soon taking place as well as a bombing campaign. At 4.30am on 9th August 1971 the Stormont government re-introduced internment, leading to more gun battles and extensive rioting. Nationalist areas virtually seceded from the Northern Ireland state.

Bloody Sunday, January 1972

A NICRA march was held in Derry on Sunday 30th January 1972. British troops from the paratroop regiment prevented it getting out of the Bogside and the usual small riot developed involving local youth. Most of the marchers were listening to the speakers, who included Bernadette Devlin and veteran Labour MP Fenner Brockway, when the paratroopers charged into the Bogside shooting thirteen men dead. Another man died later of his wounds.

A hurricane of anger swept Ireland, North and South. There were strikes and marches as tens of thousands of Irish workers protested in Dundalk, Cork, Galway, Limerick and Dublin. Airport workers at Dublin and Shannon refused to handle British aircraft, grounding planes in Manchester and other British airports. Jack Lynch declared 2nd February, the day of the funerals, as a national day of mourning. The British Embassy in Dublin was burned down when a crowd estimated at 30,000 gathered outside it and threw petrol bombs. In the North rioting went for days in almost every Nationalist area. Bernadette Devlin told the Daily Mirror, “It was mass murder by the army . This was our Sharpeville and we shall never forget it. The troops shot up a peaceful meeting”. By contrast Brian Faulkner blamed the organisers of the march and the IRA for the killings.

In Britain Bloody Sunday provoked the most intense response by the Irish during whole the thirty years of the Troubles. In Manchester over 100 students from De La Salle College, Middleton held an emergency protest meeting at midnight followed by a mass meeting in the afternoon which voted to boycott lectures and hold three days of mourning. A number of the students then went to the statue of Queen Victoria in Piccadilly and, amidst a snowstorm, began a vigil and fast, setting up a makeshift black flag and a wooden cross bearing the words “Will they rest in peace – how many more?” Some bus-drivers and office and shop workers jeered and shouted abuse as they passed (postal workers at the South Manchester sorting office threatened to boycott all mail to Ireland except Forces Mail on the grounds that the soldiers were not getting a fair deal). Members of the James Steele branch of Provisional Sinn Fein in Manchester mounted a protest at the army recruiting office on Fountain Street with placards that read “Derry Bloody Sunday, 13 massacred by British army”. Their spokesperson Seamas O’Morain gave his name in Irish and told reporters that they were protesting peacefully against the British army’s campaign of murder in Ireland.

On Thursday the De La Salle students led a march of 2,000 from the Cathedral through Manchester city centre, passing the Army Recruitment Office which was heavily guarded by police, and finishing with a rally at the Mancunian Way. There was a further march in Manchester on Saturday organised by the Manchester Connolly Association attended by 1,500, which was addressed by Lennie Draper, Desmond Greaves and Ann Doherty from the Manchester Civil Rights Association. A meeting attended by 1,500 students at Manchester University banned all military recruiting on campus and denied union facilities to the British army Officer Training Corps. An attempt to close the University Student Union failed when Tory students obtained a court injunction preventing this.

The Irish Democrat produced a special four page supplement on Bloody Sunday to go with their usual February issue. Desmond Greaves called for the resignation of Maudling, suspension of the Commander in Chief of British forces in Northern Ireland, immediate withdrawal of all paratroops from Northern Ireland, withdrawal of all troops from streets where they had become a provocation, an immediate end of internment and negotiations to lead to a united Irish Republic. The Manchester Connolly Association sent a telegram to Edward Heath (signed by John Tocher, divisional organiser of the engineering union and others), condemning the massacre of civil rights demonstrators and calling for troops to be confined to barracks and for a Bill of Rights to be brought forward.

Irish Civil Rights Association

In the general election held in October 1974 six candidates stood in the British general election under the banner of the Irish Civil Rights Association, the first time that candidates had stood on a specifically Irish platform since the Anti-Partition League in 1951. Margaret O’Brien, secretary of ICRA in Britain, said that they called for higher pensions and lower mortgages. “We should achieve this by a commitment to a United Ireland instead of propping up a rotten little statelet that costs £700 million in year and makes her name the derision of the world”.

The ICRA candidates stood in constituencies with sizeable Irish populations. Neil Boyle stood in Moss Side, Manchester, gaining just 238 votes. According to his election leaflet he was aged 37, born in Donegal, married with four children, worked for British Rail and had been active in the Civil Rights movement since 1969. ICRA candidates called for the release of all internees and a general amnesty for all political prisoners; a commitment from Britain to the idea of a united Ireland and a phased withdrawal of all British troops from Ireland. ICRA attacked the Labour government for increasing the number of internees in Long Kesh and Armagh, for renewing the Emergency Provisions Act and for the death of Michael Gaughan on hunger strike. It was clear from the results that, whatever strong feelings that Irish people might have had about events in Ireland, most Irish people at this period continued to give their vote to the Labour Party.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act

On 21st November bombs exploded in two pubs in the centre of Birmingham, killing 21 people and wounding 162. There was widespread public outrage and fury, some of which was directed at Irish people in Britain (although a number of the victims had been Irish).

Within two days the government rushed through the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which became law on 29th November. Such was the public mood that not a single MP dared vote against. Desmond Greaves commented in later years that “the disastrous bomb outrage did the Irish movement in Britain more harm than a regiment of cavalry. The witch hunt that followed, which included anti-Irish marches, threw the Irish movement back decades.”

There were frequent police raids, arrests and exclusions from Britain. Many Irish solidarity organisations stopped meeting and it was not until the hunger strike campaign of 1981 and the emergence of new organisations such as the Irish in Britain representation Group that Irish people began to speak out again about what was happening in the North of Ireland.

Article by Michael Herbert

Bill Watson and Eccles Communist Party

Bill Watson joined the Communist Party in 1965, after a chance encounter with a Communist at a construction site in Wolverhampton. He had been working as a bricklayer for six years and after witnessing the exploitation on building sites and how his parents had suffered at work, Bill immediately joined the party. He went on to become a leading member of the Eccles branch, campaigning against Thatcher’s policy to end school milk, to save the last local cinema as well as various issues such as Northern Ireland, Unemployment and Anti-apartheid.

Bill Watson was born in Irlam in 1944 to a working-class family. His father worked as a bricklayer and his mother worked on a farm as well as in munitions factories during the Second World War. Despite the lack of active political involvement in his family, his personal experiences of work and seeing his family struggle did influence Bill’s political awakening. “My father slogged his guts out for 50 years to enrich other people and all he got out of it is bronchitis. My mother worked on a farm; the farmer drives a big car, my mother’s got rheumatoid arthritis.” Bill also remembers that since his teens, he’d always thought that socialism and communism was a great idea but believed that human selfishness would prevent its realisation. This all changed after a meeting with the Communist party when when he was 21.

“It was as if the curtains were opened and this thing about nature was a load of baloney really. Human beings are capable of being everything from terribly evil to wonderfully good, depending on the environment that they live in and how they react to it.” The meeting profoundly affected Bill, who states that he learnt to look at society in a new way and acknowledge that change was possible. “We as humans have changed so much already, we weren’t set in stone.” He moved back to Irlam and got involved with the Eccles Communist party the same year. Bill was also greatly influenced by two books he read at the time: Robert Tressell’s ‘Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ and Engels’ ‘Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State’.

School milk and the last cinema

The Communist Party in Eccles was not a particularly large branch – it only had around 80 members – yet they were very active and campaigned on various local issues. One of the memorable campaigns was against Margaret Thatcher’s policy to end school milk during her time as Education Secretary in 1971. “There was a major campaign over that in Eccles. We had hundreds of school parents outside school gates with placards.” Whilst they failed to change the policy, Bill states it was an example of the party leading a campaign without actually doing in its own name, as they wanted as many different people to get involved and to just win on the issue.

Another campaign led by the party was against the proposal to shut down a local cinema in 1974. “Eccles used to have three big cinemas and this was eventually reduced to one, which was the Broadway cinema, and the proposal was to turn this into a bingo hall. We thought it was a terrible idea.” Locals were also worried that the loss of the cinema would be detrimental to the youth, who already had very limited facilities. The campaign gathered significant support with local people, who expressed their concerns to the council and Labrokes’ company which was suggesting the bingo hall. The campaign was successful in the earlier stages but it went to tribunal and they lost the cinema in the end. Even so, the 1980s saw the rise of unemployment as a major issue in Eccles and the party would play an important role in tackling it.

Working together to tackle Unemployment

Local workers staged strikes against redundancies in local factories such as Gardener, which made diesel engines, and the Eccles communists worked hard doing things like food collections to support them. They also set up an important organisation known as ‘Eccles Community Campaign Against Unemployment’ (ECCAU), working alongside local clergymen, labour supporters and Salford’s trade council. “We would always try to work on as broad a basis as possible because that’s the way that we saw politics as developing- people working together instead of in isolation with groups fighting each other.”

ECCAU campaigned against unemployment and sought practical ways to resolve it by setting up the Salford Unemployment Centre. “We approached the council and for asked for the centre, and after a lot of campaigning and hard work (which included the Labour councillors too), we got the building and some funding.” The management team reflected the role the communists had played and it was composed entirely of ECCAU members apart from a few council personnel. “I think that they were just there to keep an eye on us and make sure that we didn’t do anything stupid, which we wouldn’t anyway!” Bill speculated. There was also a people’s march for jobs which ran the whole length of the country and came through Eccles and Salford and was supported by the Eccles Communists.

Support also came from unexpected places such as Salford’s Conservative Mayor, Tom Francis. “It was the same on issues like race- there were people in the Tory party that were good on race and there were people in the Labour party that were awful on race. There were even people in the Communist Party that were awful on race.” Watson was influenced at a young age by his father’s hod-carrier (a worker who carries bricks to the bricklayer) Billy Taylor, who was Afro-Caribbean, and he went on to campaign against Apartheid and cycled from Manchester to London to raise money for the ANC after Mandela was released in 1990.

Northern Ireland and meeting Special Branch

Bill Watson and with his wife, Sheila, were also heavily involved in the Northern Ireland issue and Sheila even visited Long Kesh internment camp for Republican prisoners on behalf of the Eccles Communists. The following was published in their branch newsletter ‘Red Rag’ on April 1974, describing her time there:

“There was barbed wire and fences and soldiers and guns everywhere. We went into another hut where we were searched. They took my driving license. Then through another door and we waited until our names were called. I visited the husband of the girl I was staying with. He had served three years of a 12 years sentence. The morale was great- they weren’t miserable or anything. He kept talking about when he was out and getting things done but I just couldn’t believe the type of place he was in. Long huts. You know, just like concentration camps in films. Grey and miserable.”

A meeting was also organised by the National Council of Civil Liberties (now Liberty) on Northern Ireland at which Edwina Stewart, of Northern Ireland’s Civil Rights Association, was invited to speak. Bill, along with Bert Cottam, went to pick her up from Manchester airport to find that she had been escorted by Special Branch, straight off her plane. “Burt and I started asking questions and we both got arrested. I managed to make a phone call that Edwina had been lifted from the plane, I think it was to David Lancaster, one of the councillors here, and then they asked for our names.” Bill initially refused to give his name, but was then threatened with a week’s jail and so he cooperated to avoid imprisonment. Edwina was also later released, although the meeting she attended was viciously attacked by the Ulster Defence Force (an extreme, right-wing protestant group with links with the BNP).

“I saw them pick up chairs and just batter old people to the floor with them,” says Bill. “They had been posted round the audience and there must have been a signal, as at some point they all stood up and started battering people. It was all over in a minute and then off they went.” The UDF had sent in coaches from Liverpool and on their way back, they were stopped by the police but no-one was arrested. Students from UMIST, who had hosted the meeting, took out a private prosecution against some of the attackers, which were successful and resulted in prison sentences.

The beginning of the end

Following the collapse of communism in Russia in the early nineties, the Communist party in Britain disintegrated into smaller parties such as the ‘Democratic Left’ and the Communist Party of Britain (as opposed to the Communist Party of Great Britain). Today, both carry very little influence in mainstream politics and many other members joined the Labour party. Eccles Communist party met a similar fate because, as Bill points out, the political culture where people sign up to a party just doesn’t exist anymore. Although many of the campaigns that Bill worked on were unsuccessfully and the party collapsed, he says he has absolutely no regrets. “I absolutely loved it. I learnt a lot during my time with the party and I really hope that it benefited people in some way.”

Article by Arwa Aburawa