Politics - the Art of the Possible

Or the Art of the Plausible?

There have3 recently been instances of political leaders in the UK reaching out to entice some of their opponents into an advisory relationship whereby their specialist knowledge or interests would be useful in formulating policies. They would thereby contribute to a wider support among the electorate for themselves and at the same time undermine the cohesion of their opponents' organisation.

Since he came into Downing Street the new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has been adept at doing this.

In the Irish Republic there are signs of Taoiseach Bertie Ahern entering into some sort of association with with the Northern Ireland based SDLP. Additionally there are suggestions that there should be provision for Northern Ireland elected politicians to be able to speak in the Dáil and, I presume, in the Senate also.

It is not quite clear whether this is a facility which might include Unionist politicians or whether these speaking opportunities are to be classified as a sort of shadow constituency or simply as a number of individuals on a proportional formula but without those voting powers which would amount to a simulated all Ireland government.

Ideas such as these have circulated before, I seem to remember, and were considered ludicrous and fiercely rejected by Unionist politicians who were dead set against anything which could pave the way to reunification. But, perhaps with areas of joint interest included in the 1998 Belfast Agreement, and the close participation they require the ground might not be so infertile as in the past.

Fianna Fáil and the SDLP, it is argued, have a lot in common so that a merger would allow them to operate in the Stormont Assembly and also to contest Northern Ireland constituencies in elections to the Westminster Parliament. In this way they might perhaps regain some of the constituencies currently held by the absent Sinn Féin MPs.

The mind boggles at such a development in that the British Labour MPs and cabinet members at Westminster refer to SDLP MPs as "My honourable friend", so it would be strange indeed if an SDLP / Fianna Fáil merger existed that, logically, they too would be included as part of the Labour Party supporters in the house.

I know that in the past one of the suggestions I put forward whilst a member of the Northern Ireland Labour Party in the 1930s was that they should contest elections to the Dáil on a set of conditions upon which some sort of co‑operation with the Southern Labour Party might be realised. But no one was interested then so I supppose that that idea is at least partly contained in the cross‑border joint arrangements in the Good Friday Agreement.

So strange things might happen if or other of the Northern Unionist parties were tempted into association with Fine Gael or Labour in the South. If it occurred that would really confuse the situation.

It seems to me that the likelihood of a Fianna Fáil and SDLP merger is remote and that a financial and policy agreement is the more likely outcome as the points I raised earlier would make a full merger a tricky situation.

As I write this my mind takes me back, as it is prone to do with many of my age, to look at my own participation in politics since 1929, in Northern Ireland, in England and now in Wales as I contemplate being active in the impending contest, if Gordon Brown should call a general election if the public opinion polls show themselves favourable.

Looking back to the age of 10, when I ran from the polling station to the tally rooms I have been involved in one way or another in every Northern Ireland general election, including at least one before the start of World War Two.

I have also been a participant in every Westminster election, also since the age of 10, covering Northern Ireland, England and Wales as different stages of my life. I have also been a city council candidate (Belfast City Council) as well as being a candidate in county council and urban district council elections in England. I suppose this tots up to 72 years of political involvement, coupled with 40 years as a lay officer of the AEU which I joined on July 8th 1935 when I started my engineering apprenticeship. That union has undergone severfal mergers since then and I am still a member of the new organisation, ‘Unite’, seventy two years in all.

However, there are two elections I single out, one while I was resident in Shropshire in 1945 and the other in 1946 when I had come back to live in Belfast where I stayed for two years.

I was working on the maintenance staff of a pressed steel engineering firm which i had joined in May 1943. Later, as the war in Europe was clearly coming to an end and there was a general announcement that there were opportunities for people to take time off work for holidays of a week’s duration, if my memory serves me right.

My memory is a bit hazy on the details of of the arrangements my wife and I made but I recall going for for a few days break in Babbacombe or Ilfracombe in Devon, going there by train. Incidentally, the two special V.E. days holiday (7 / 8 May 1945) coincided with that holiday visit.

I mention this because at the same time the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, having been accepted back into the the Conservative Party as leader, was considering calling a general election so as to cash in on his war record and have a landslide political victory on top of his military one.

While we were walking around our holiday location in quite good weather before the announcement of an election, we noticed that a public meeting was scheduled by the prospective Labour candidate for the Barnstable constituency of which the area was a part.

So we decided that we would attend that evening and listen to his speech. For us it was our first activity in the 1945 general election which produced a landslide of a different kind than the one anticipated by the Conservative Party.

We arrived back home in Wellington, Shropshire before the official proclamation of the election. We lived there with my wife’s parents on a bedsitting room sort of arrangement ‑ we didn’t have a home of our own or a council house until 1955.

With this being imminent the local constituency Labour Party was called together to decide on a programme of meetings etc. There was some discussion as to whether the prospective candidate – a railway clerical nominee (TSSA?) who had been adopted in 1938 – should be replaced. However, as that union had put funding into into the local organisation and had other monies available as well along with other help, the candidate had maintained contact since his adoption, time was pressing and a full selection procedure was difficult, the nomination was reaffirmed and the campaign started.

Each local branch, under the direction of a recently appointed full time agent/organiser, undertook the task of writing up and stuffing the envelopes, the distribution of leaflets, meeting arrangements and, of couse, canvassing around the town area.

A programme of public meetings was set out as well as a list of supporting speakers. These were both national and local, about three per evening, across the rural and semi urban constituency. The local speakers kept the meeting going until the candidate arriveed. Needless to say, my wife and I were among those on the list, speaking in local halls and in open public places.

I had suggested that daytime open air meetings should be tried. This had not been readily accepted by the agent. However, he said that if we felt like it, we could give it a try.

Now, for some time in Wellington Square a rather inarticulate but well‑meaning man, surname Doody, had been holding Saturday afternoon meetings, espousing his rather confused views. One of his favourite expressions was, “I propoganda the truth...”, and we thought that if he could draw a crowd, we could surely do much better.

The election then having been called and polling day set, we decided to make a start and a young Jewish lad, who was chairman of the Wellington branch, having told the man I referred to earlier of our intentions, expressed an enthusiastic desire to address a public meeting on Saturday afternoon in the town square.

However, his enthusiasm wasn't matched by his ability, and after a couple of sentences he realised he wasn’t up to the task and he urgently signalled me to take over. This I did and launched into an exposition of of the manifesto, the proposals contained the Beveridge Report, the need for a new political path, and, with all due modesty, drawing from my experience for upwards of 45 minutes. That drew a crowd who listened and applauded my comments and so the local part of our campaign was launched.

We distributed much ‘literature’ over the following weeks and a great deal of interest was generated, meetings all over the place, the constituency being comprised of a number of small towns, industrial urban areas plus a disparate group of farming villages.

The Conservative candidate, as I recall the sitting member, was part of the Colegate family, Arthur his first name, he was expecting to be returned without much difficulty. Unfortunately for him, as it turned out. The composition of the electorate was much changed during the war. It now contained personnel from the Ordnance Depot at Donnington, dispersed from the arsenal at Woolwich to avoid the London bombing’s danger.

One of the features of the election was the incidence of factory gate meetings held by the candidates. When the Conservative Colegate attended the factory where I worked and asked for questions he rather naively put the microphone into my hands. So I gave a short speech to introduce and put my question into context and contested the accuracy of his answer. I was cheered by many of the employees who were much encouraged to follow suit.

He was greatly taken aback this and I understand that he was chary, at other meetings of this sort, to make the same mistake having found out that the audiences were better informed than he had expected.

Available to us were issues of ‘Straight Left’ and ‘Let us Face the Future’, the Labour Party manifesto, containing proposals for setting up the National Health Service as well as plans for the coalmines, railway networks and social insurance, as dealt with by by Professor Beveridge in his Report. All of these gained solid support as the campaign developed.

The series of meetings in Wellington’s square which I and my Jewish colleague had started continued and ended on the evening before polling day. That meeting was addressed by myself and others until our candidate arrived when between 1000 and 1,500 crammed into the square and surrounding area, cheering and optomistic of winning.

There was one other meeting, in a hall in Newport (Shrops.) which gave me much satisfaction and allowed me to link back to my native Belfast.

As I said earlier, we had many meetings whrer, as supporting speakers, we held the fort until the candidate arrived. We were fortunate to have some car owners to give us transport to the different locations.

My wife had preceded me to this meeting and met some opposition but the worst hearing was given to an ex-railwayman, an elderly local councillor from Wellington, Jack Woollam. The assembled farmers were barracking him cruelly and barking like dogs when I arrived to give my speech.

I pushed my way through the crowded hall, signalled to the beleagured chairman and Jack wound up, red‑faced and distressed by his reception.

Then I stood up and the audience prepared to repeat their behaviour. So I said in a loud voice and in what I felt was a commanding and intimidating tone: “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I know quite well what the Tories have done for for agriculture.” Then I paused as they listened: “Yes, they grew grass in the shipyards”, and I harangued them into silence with the reports I had seen of apprentices being engaged in cleaning and weeding the empty slipways during the 1930s and of the ravages of unenployment.

I reiterated how the Conservatives had behaved when they had little opposition in Parliament and continued in that theme until our cabdidate arrived. Very patiently, in the subdued atmosphere, he explained the Labour Party programme for agriculture.

Polling day arrived in due course. I don’t remember the exact date. It was on a Thursday and we had few cars to bring voters to the stations. But the slogan, “Walk and we win!” must have had some effect for there were queues of some length at the polling stations until late evening.

Because returns had to await the votes of service personnel from the war zones, the final result was delayed for some weeks. When the news came and ‘The Wrekin’, our constituency, had been won and the landslide victory announced a number of us stood outside the Conservative party headquarters in Wellington and sang ‘The Red Flag’ in our enthusiasm.

The ‘Gestapo’ accusation against Attlee obviously had no effect and our use of Churchill’s view of the Conservative Party when he had been in the Liberal Party, which stands as a political classic, never equalled since, perhaps struck a chord with the electorate.

The other election, a year later in September 1946, was that for Belfast City Council when I had returned to the city with my English wife. For purely personal reasons we only stayed in Belfast until December 1947.

We had both been active in the Pottinger Branch of the East Belfast Westminster constituency of the Northern Ireland Labour Party. That constituency contained the Northern Ireland parliamentary constituencies of Bloomfield, Victoria, Pottinger and Dock.

At the time I was working as a fitter on the plant maintenance staff of of the Royal Naval Air Maintenance Depot (now the site of the George Best City Airport) and was serving as an AEU shop steward and deputy convener as well as being Chairman of the Union Labour Group. It met each month on a Sunday morning in the union’s city head office. Nominations for the city council elections were being considered.

At that time the composition of Belfast City Council was based on a North, South, East and West division. Each of tghese was again divided areas, four I think, and each of these was entitled to three councillors and one alderman.

It was always difficult to find those who would brave the task of fighting seats with the odds stacked against them as well as those who, if elected, could afford the loss of earnings and of family time to attend the meetings that might ensue.

My elder brother, Tom, about whom I have written previously, was selected to fight the alderman’s seat. The problem of obtaining candidates for the three other seats in Pottinger was solved when my wife, a colleague David Purdy and I agreed to stand.

So, nothing daunted, it was decided to campaign during the summer months over the whole Pottinger area using the glossy pamphlet, ‘Brighter Belfast’, as our door‑to‑door foundation. We succeeded in selling many copies at, if I rightly remember, sixpence each. ‘Brighter Belfast’ had been adopted by the Labour Party as a common policy document for all our candidates.

A portable wooden platform was constructed which the male candidates and other supporters were required to carry around. From it we expounded our views on Belfast and our own particular area’s concerns.

We were determined to go into (and out of) all sections of the constituency, the rabid Unionist as well as the Nationalist areas despite the risks involved.

On one occasion my wife had a Unionist pamphlet thrust into her hand in a sort of confrontation – she tore it in two. It had as its cover a Union Flag and on the basis of this a story circulated that she had torn up the ‘Union Jack’. On another occasion she was called a ‘Fenian bitch’.

When we went into the Short Strand Nationalist part of the ward her hand was seized by some children who commenced to shout, “Vote, vote, vote for Jessie Boyd!” in contrast an enthusiastic reception.

Our open air meetings drew crowds of hundreds in some areas as we continued our efforts to create interest and support. On a prominent site near the bridge on the Albert Bridge Road (or perhaps near the Queen's Bridge) we had a large poster displayed about which my wife was a little embarrassed. It said:

“For Health and Homes and Children Sturdy
Vote for the Boyds and David Purdy!”

Our microphone and amplification was excellent and we had reports of our voices being heard loud and clear, well into the heart of neighbouring constituencies.

Contesting the seats, in addition to ourselves (and Unionists) there were two Communist Party members We seldom came into contact with them except on the eve of poll meetings when we toured over the length and breadth of the area.

For the eve of poll we acquired a small flat‑backed van (30 cwt.), erected an illuminated sign on the cab top, set up a plank with supports and a few kitchen chairs upon which we sat as we slowly toured around, stopping frequently to make short speeches urging them to vote for a “Better Brighter Belfast”. The two Communist Party candidates passed us at some points, on a donkey cart.

At our final stopping place on the Newtownards Road, a bomb site not fully cleared from bombing by the Luftwaffe, we drew a sympathetic crowd to hear us make our finishing speeches.

However, there came among the crowd a hostile group, attached to an extreme Protestant organisation (forerunners of Paisleyites) and led by a Scotsman. They started throwing bricks, stones and other missiles, easily available on the site.

My wife, who was sitting on the plank at the back of the cab, would have been hit on the head with a half brick had I not been standing in front of her – it hit me quite hard on my left shoulder blade.

On this occasion my brother Tom, who was quite a peaceful man, had to be restrained from climbing down from the van to engage the culprits. The police, who were quite close, made no effort to intervene, but the rest of the crowd turned on the stonethrowers and drove them off.

We spent polling day in the usual way, encouraging people to come out to cast their vote.

In Northern Ireland elections then, parties were allowed to have members inside polling stations to discourage those who might try to impersonate other voters, or vote on behalf of those who had died since the compilation of the register, or to pinch the votes of those known to be opposing parties' voters. These ‘personation’ persons were not allowed to bring any political material into the polling stations.

On a visit to one polling station, our representative drew my attention to the fact that the Unionist agents were displaying ‘Vote Unionist’ badges on their coat lapels. I decided to register a protest with the Presiding Officer, asking him to have these badges removed.

Very angrily he asked me who I was to be making such a protest. I told him that I was one of the candidates in the election, whereupon he angrily exploded, “You have no right to be here.” When I asserted otherwise, he called on two policemen to escort me off the premises. As they were well over six foot, and burly with it, in addition to being armed with revolvers and batons, I, being just over 5’ 5”, concurred.

On returning to our committee rooms, my brother Tom contacted City Hall officials and the badges were removed.

The count took place the following day in the City Hall, and I had permission to absent myself for a few hours to attend its final stages.

My brother Tom (in later years the leader of the four Labour MPs in Stormont) polled just a few short of 4000 votes in the alderman's seat, the Unionist being re‑elected by almost six and a half thousand.

In my case, where there were eight candidates vying for three seats, I polled 3,119, my wife around 2,900 and David Purdy around 2,700. The Communist candidates managed to save their deposits by having about 1,000 votes each.

However, we were beaten by the Unionists, who polled well over six and a half thousand votes, by almost 2 to 1.

We had fought well, and were much heartened in that we had perhaps made possible at least some future successes which came to fruition in 1958, years after my wife and I returned to England, when four Labour MPs were elected to Stormont. Later they were to be overwhelmed by the turbulence of the failure of the civil rights campaigns of the 1960s.

Now, with the decision not to have a snap general election, I shall have to await its occurence to see if I am alive and well enough to wind up my political involvement at ninety years of age.

Recently I have been involved in the selection of the prospective Labour Party candidate in the Monmouth constituency, so I suppose, in a way, the campaign has already begun.

Finally, I hope to be able to scratch my memory to recall other aspects of pre‑World War Two events as my views and reactions were shaped by the arguments about the many concerns of the time.

©: Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran, 10 October 2007.

Samuel H. Boyd