In the last 30 years, many names have been heard of politicians in Ireland, notorious, famous, intransigent, belligerent, devious or ineffectual. But not many on this side of the water will know of the diligent, hard-working, non-sectarian man of East Belfast who firmly anchored the Northern Ireland Labour Party , on the British model, to the Labour and Trade Union Movement.
Born in April 1903, the second of nine children, he completed seventh standard at Ravenscroft School in Bloomfield, left before he was thirteen but had to return until his thirteenth birthday in 1916.
His first job was in the Sheriff’s Office on Mountpottinger Road at 3s-6d per week, with a rise to 5 shillings by January 1917. This failed to materialise, so he got on the telephone demanding to speak to the Sheriff, and although only 13 years old, gave him ‘a piece of his mind’. That officer visited his home to complain, only to find his mother solidly behind his stance.
Next, he was employed as a gatehouse messenger at Harland & Wolff’s shipyard, as a prelude to starting his Patternmaking Apprenticeship in April, 1919, about two weeks before I, the eighth in the family, was born.
When aged seventeen, he assisted in the Sunday School attached to the 1st Ballymacarrett Presbyterian Church, held in Bills School on the Beersbridge Road. One of his duties was checking attendance and the possible illness of absentees, so he visited their homes on Saturday nights.
On one such visit a moment of truth arrived: he came face to face with a family in dire poverty and destitution, which he had never dreamed existed. He handed the meagre pocket money he possessed to the little girl in the house before he left, determined to devote himself to the eradication of the poverty he had witnessed.
In the early twenties he was active in the Patternmakers’ Union, and instrumental in its affiliation to the Northern Ireland Labour Party, in which he held many offices, including Chairman, over many years.
Depression hit the Shipyard in 1925, so he was in and out of employment in the next few years – single men were the first to be laid off when work was scarce. When the Relief Workers’ Strike occurred in 1932 he played a prominent part in forcing the government to improve their benefit payments but he was not himself one of the beneficiaries.
I recall in my last year at school, when he stood unsuccessfully in Victoria Ward for election to the Belfast Board of Guardians. We were living in Strandtown then where our father, a retired timekeeper, rented a two acre Market Garden which included a house.
In order to qualify Tom for inclusion on the Electoral Register our small parlour had to become his bed sitting room and although then classified as a lodger this didn’t prevent his transitional unemployment benefit being stopped. This left him without income, dependent on the income of other family members, as and when they were themselves in work, for his sustenance.
During this campaign I remember carrying a kitchen chair up to Hastings Pub at Gelston’s Corner from which he and his fellow candidate, of a different religious affiliation, addressed a sparse audience.
He started back to work in the Summer of 1934, whilst I was off sick from my first job, a patient in Purdysburn Fever Hospital with suspected Diphtheria, eventually diagnosed as severe Tonsilitis.
The Spanish Civil War, 1936 - 39, saw him participating in campaigns to support the Government side and he also actively opposed the Munich Agreement. When Clement Attlee visited Belfast in 1938 he was on the platform and met other prominent Labour figures like Sir Stafford Cripps when they spoke at meetings in Northern Ireland.
His first Parliamentary election as a candidate for a Stormont seat was in 1938 against Sir Dawson Bates who, as Minister for Home Affairs, was notorious for ordering the Police attacks on the Relief Workers demonstrations in 1932. The Arch Unionist held the seat.
With elections suspended during World War II it was in the General Election of 1945 that Tom once more was a N. Ireland Labour Candidate, this time for the East Belfast seat. the Unionist Party had a severe jolt when their previous majority of 20,000 was reduced to around 4,000. He tried several more times, in 1950 - 51 and in 1955, for this seat without success.
Pottinger Ward for the Stormont Parliament became vacant in 1953, but in the contest the Unionist Party narrowly beat Tom by 356 votes. However, in the N.Ireland General Election of March 1958 Tom won the seat by a majority of 1,333 over the incumbent Dr. Rodgers. In this election, three other N.I.L.P. MPs were elected, for Victoria, Woodvale and Oldpark.
The Nationalists were not prepared to become Official Opposition so Tom, as Leader of the Labour Members, was the Official Leader of the Opposition recognised by the Speaker.
Under his leadership the four of them were a well organised team, and a very effective force in the Parliament. He introduced a system of Shadow Ministers and the Unionists referred to them as the “Four Horsemen”, whilst the Nationalists called them “Kremlin Agents”, clearly a misnomer, considering their backgrounds.
Tom attended the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill (30/1/65) as Official Opposition Leader, but found on his return that the Nationalists had decided to claim the position, and having nine members as against Labour’s four, succeeded. By so doing, Tom argued, in contrast to their past position, they were accepting N.Ireland’s constitutional status within the U.K.
Pottinger Ward, his constituency, included the Short Strand, which was predominantly Catholic and Nationalistically orientated. The strength of Tom’s support resided in the fact that, free of sectarian undertones, he could cross this divide, be fully accepted, and was accessible to all without reservation.
The Presbyterian Church in Ireland, through its General Assembly, established a Social Services Committee on which Tom served for many years, nine of them as Co-Convenor. During the worst of the communal conflicts Tom, in this capacity, went into the affected areas, well beyond his own local area, to assist and advise those whose lives had been disrupted. Although he stood down as Co-Convenor in 1978 he continued to serve on the scheme for many years afterwards.
At the 1978 General Assembly a resolution proposed by the Moderator was passed, expressing thanks to him for his years of work, his deep concern for social justice and his frank outspoken comments when this was absent.
In 1969, aged 66, he decided to stand down from election to Parliament but in his last speech in Stormont on January 29th, 1969, he roundly castigated the O’Neill government for their failures over the years. He particularly attacked them for the Democratic Deficit and their inaction to curb Ian Paisley, whose intemperate, disgraceful political stance had resulted, as he said, in “murder on the streets”.
In this speech he also exposed the inadequacies of Brian Faulkner, who eventually became the last Prime Minister of N. Ireland.
The Labour Leader’s principal theme was that if the Unionists wanted to remain part of the Union they would need to adopt the same standards of democracy and equality that in law applied in the rest of the U.K.
With regard to Partition, Tom’s consistent view throughout his long political career and in discussions I have had with him was that the Border would remain, just so long as it suited a majority of the people in the Six Counties. However, every citizen was entitled to equal rights, including the right to put constructive arguments, thorough democratic channels, for change. He considered the benefits of remaining within the U.K. were very strong and, until the constitutional position was changed democratically, all responsible politicians had a duty to ensure the welfare and economic prosperity of all citizens regardless of colour, race or religion.
In Northern Ireland Justices of the Peace have not been on the bench trying cases for many years, but carry out all other public responsibilities of the Office. Tom Boyd was made a J.P. in 1948 and carried out his duties meticulously, of course.
Even after standing down as a Member of Parliament he busied himself as usual in many areas of concern for the welfare of N. Ireland’s citizens. One of his abiding interests was as Life President of the East Belfast Historical Society, having lived all his life there he had an immense knowledge and a bank of stories to tell about its past.
In 1975 Tom was appointed as a Deputy Lieutenant for Belfast in recognition of his public services.
As the efforts to achieve a just political settlement following the second IRA Ceasefire continue it is salutary to reflect that had Tom Boyd’s warnings to Prime Ministers O’Neill and Wilson been acted upon citizens of N. Ireland and mainland Britain might have been spared the reign of and of the last three decades.
Thomas William Boyd J.P. died on 6th December 1991 having given over seventy of his eighty eight years in the service of the people of the Six Counties. One of his favourite quotations was by Thomas Carlyle:
“History is a mighty drama enacted upon the theatre of time, with suns for lamps and eternity for a background. Within this drama each individual is at one and the same time an actor and a member of the audience contributing to the unfolding process of life.”
I am sure Tom would have agreed with Professor J. J. Lee (University College Cork) in his Ireland 1912 - 1985, Politics and Society:
“There can be no permanent civilised solution to the Ulster Question, within the terms of reference of either triumphalist Unionism or triumphalist Nationalism.”
Those taking part in negotiations should take note of the life and work of Tom Boyd together with Professor Lee’s analysis.