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Communist to intellectual... how Bert Ward gave unionists a voice at last within Labour

Tribute to English idealist who helped steer the party from its default pro-united Ireland stance

By Ruth Dudley Edwards

Published 22/08/2016

Mo Mowlam
Mo Mowlam

Bert Ward, an idealistic English communist who played a key role in persuading the Labour Party to listen to unionists, died last week. His interest in Northern Ireland came in the early 1970s.

His son Dave, a young man with vague Irish nationalist sympathies, hitched a lift in the Highlands from an ex-Army lorry driver who shook him with the horrifying story of the three Scottish soldiers, respectively 17, 18 and 23, who in 1971 were drinking in a Belfast bar in civilian clothes when they were lured to their deaths by Provo women.  

Over dinner Dave asked his dad what the Communist Party’s stance was on Northern Ireland, discovered he didn’t know, and pointed out that its newspaper “was always full of how many tractors the Russians were producing while we had a civil war going on in our country they were saying nothing about”.

Trotskyite groups, he added, were enthusiastically pro-IRA and were selling their newspapers at every university campus in Britain.

Born in 1922, Bert had left school at 15, served as a gunner in the Navy during the war, and then had gruelling jobs like slag shifting, bar dragging and fire-stoking in a foundry.

He had joined the Communist Party because he thought Labour too middle-class, and in his wry recollections he wrote of his first branch meeting: “I remember thinking that this resembled hostile caricatures of communists; a group of people huddled conspiratorially in a dank basement, plotting.

“The only thing that seemed to be missing was the bomb on the table with its fuse dangling.”

But the party got Bert reading seriously and encouraged him in his 30s to expand his intellectual horizons at Ruskin College, Oxford, which provided university-level education to working-class men.

Highly intelligent, he became formidably well-read, and, after a course at the London School of Economics, became a college lecturer in London.

Galvanised by Dave, Bert got permission from party bosses to go to Northern Ireland on a “fact-finding mission”, where he listened to a wide variety of people and produced a report questioning received Left-wing views about the British presence being imperialistic.

By the time I met Bert in Middlesbrough in the mid-1980s at a family funeral (he was related to my husband), he still believe in the essence of communism, but had defected to the Labour Party and was exceptionally knowledgeable about Northern Ireland.

His formidable intellect was by now focused on trying to persuade Irish republicans and their British allies and sympathisers that Northern Irish Protestants were not an enemy to be bombed into a united Ireland.

We became allies and good friends. 

He got me involved in New Consensus (later New Dialogue), the cross-party peace group of which — along with Baroness Ewart-Biggs (widow of the ambassador murdered in Dublin in 1976), some MPs and the Labour researcher Gary Kent — he was a founder member. 

Bert provided the intellectual thrust in his trenchant writings and monthly digest of important articles and speeches from all sides of the debate, which helped the group to educate politicians, foreign diplomats and the Press about the complex realities of Northern Ireland. 

There was nothing he relished more than confronting in oral and written debate the ignorance and bigotry of the pro-republican Left.

New Dialogue specialised in airing unpopular views: it provided a platform for David Trimble at a fringe meeting at the Labour Party Conference, just after his election as party leader.

Opposed to State and paramilitary violence, it held vigils for London victims of the IRA, and had a group standing by the side of the road at the annual Bloody Sunday march in Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency, with placards reading ‘No more Bloody Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays’. 

Its unceasingly badgering of MPs and political activists had a profound effect on the Labour: it moved under Tony Blair from IRA-supporting Troops-Outery beloved by Corbyn and John MacDonnell and the constitutional Irish republicanism of Shadow Secretary of State Kevin McNamara.

It was Bert who, on seaside walks with Redcar MP Mo Mowlam, McNamara’s successor, persuaded her to adopt an agnostic stance on a united Ireland. 

He was a fine man.

Unionist parties should send a wreath.

Online Editors

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