Northern Ireland: We too are Irish

Unlike some of those who attended the February Day School to commemorate the Famine (Day School at the Caerleon Campus, University of Wales, Newport, on Saturday 8 February, 1997 – Ed.), none of my forebears came to Wales, although two of my mother’s brothers emigrated to the States, and in the late twenties my eldest sister and her husband and three children followed and my younger brother went there in 1947.

I came to Wales in 1963 via England where I had arrived for a second time in 1947.

Born and raised in Belfast I came with a family and personal background in the industrial and political movements in the Six Counties, so looking to the past for me is not to the Famine, but the events of the past 78 years (I was born in 1919, before Partition was enacted).

The links with most of those of Irish descent in Wales lie with the Republic and generally of the same religious affinity. My own origins were in the Presbyterian community, but having seen through the myths and legends of religion, I have, for over sixty years, been content as an unbeliever, in effect a Rationalist.

My experience growing up in Northern ireland includes campaigning for the Spanish republicans during the Civil war, when Labour supporters were attacked physically on one side by Catholic Action and simultaneously on the other by Protestant Leaguers, requiring the protection of the R.U.C., as we left our open-air public meetings.

While my handcart on a Saturday afternoon was loaded with tins of food in East Belfast, in Nationalist areas it was dangerous to try such a collection, and denunciations from priests an additional hazard.

On the other hand, during the ‘Relief Workers’ Strike’ in 1932, both communities, so far as the unemployed were concerned, were united, and the barricades were erected in common. Their condemnation of the baton charge by the Police on a peaceful protest (including women and children) in Templemore Avenue in East Belfast during this strike was also joint.

The dispute was resolved, and many benefits were trebled, following a deputation by William McMullen of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union and my elder brother Tom (who later became the Leader of the Northern Ireland Labour Party M.P.s in Stormont 1958 ‑ 1969).

In 1946, when contesting a City Council mixed community constituency in East Belfast along with Tom, my wife and my colleague, David Purdy, I was struck by bricks and sods from Protestant activists, forerunners of the Paisleyites of today.

In my view it would be a mistake for the Irish diaspora in Wales, because of religious affinities, to accept the Nationalist perception of history in its entirety, bearing in mind population movements between the two islands well before the Famine, which for a variety of reasons, continues to the present day.

It would also be an error to dwell on the distresses and cruelties of the past, and fail to acknowledge the context and conditions of the times in which they occurred.

There is however, an urgent need for all those with Irish connections in Wales (and elsewhere) to play a part in advancing towards a just settlement of the present difficulties in Northern Ireland and ending a quarter century of conflict.

In my own submission to the Opsahl Commission in 1992 (An independent Commission funded by the Rowntree Trust and chaired by Norwegian civil rights lawyer, Mr. Opsahl. Its Report was published in June, 1993) and to the British Labour Party Leadership in 1986/7/8 and on subsequent occasions, I put forward proposals which I believe would be fair to both communities.

Briefly, these were:-

1. A Ten Year periodic Referendum, on an All Ireland basis, on specific Unification proposals, but assessed separately in both jurisdictions and requiring a specific weighted majority in both simultaneously before any implementation could take place.

For convenience and to keep down costs such a Referendum could run concurrently with Euro Parliamentary Elections.

2. A Northern Ireland Devolved Assembly, with forward rolling responsibilities, elected on the basis of a single constituency using a full Proportional Representation electoral system.

It is my contention that before there is any possible settlement these two proposals should be submitted to the people in Ireland, again assessed separately as a referendum to decide the machinery by which a settlement could be advanced, so that future generations could have an alternative means of coming peacefully to a resolution, and clear the bomb and the gun from the political conflict.

For the immediate and for the foreseeable future neither the Orange nor the Green, neither the Loyalist nor the Nationalist / Republican, can be allowed a free reign, untrammelled Power or to demand a final solution on their own terms.

However they perceive themselves, Unionists, Nationalists, or Republicans, they (including myself) are all of Ireland, but most of all, human beings whose essential needs are the same.

The Irish in Wales can, perhaps, stand back from the argument, objectively examine the issues, and assist the detachment of the protagonists from the hooks of history, upon which they have impaled themselves.

©: Samuel H. Boyd. Now living in Wales (Cwmbran) with his English wife whom he met, also in Wales, in 1942, he has been an active trade unionist (A.E.E.U), in Northern Ireland, England and Wales since he was sixteen and has served on the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish T.U.C. He has contested local elections in N.I. and in England. In 1980, at the age of 61, he gained an Upper Second Honours Degree, mainly in Social Science, with the Open University.

Published in The Green Dragon No 2, Spring 1997.

Samuel H. Boyd