Belfast Telegraph

How Foot's about-face left Gerry fit to be tied

Michael Foot infuriated the SDLP and Irish government by horse-trading with unionists in a bid to keep Labour in power, says David McKittrick

Michael Foot, who died yesterday aged 96, will, in British terms, be remembered as one of the great parliamentarians of the last century, even though his passion and flights of oratory never carried him to the office of prime minister.

In the narrower focus of the history of Northern Ireland, however, he will be remembered as first a romantic and later a pragmatist who only intermittently devoted attention to affairs on this side of the Irish Sea.

In relation to Ireland, the great irony of his career came in the late 1970s when his instinctive anti-unionism collided with the wider interests of the Labour party, in a quintessentially parliamentary matter.

On that occasion, Foot put Labour first, acting in the party interest at the expense of his personal beliefs in a manner which delighted Ulster Unionist MPs, but infuriated the SDLP and the Irish government.

This was an attempt to keep James Callaghan's enfeebled administration in power by enlisting the goodwill of Ulster Unionist MPs, led then by James Molyneaux and Enoch Powell.

With Labour badly in need of support in Commons votes, Callaghan and Foot opened talks with the unionists, inquiring what concessions might ensure their support.

Although these contacts were at first held in secret, former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald recalled being tipped off by a senior British official that they were underway. FitzGerald regarded them as "a hazard" which might sabotage tentative attempts to achieve devolution.

Nationalists complained that the arrangement dealt a blow to the idea that British governments should be neutral as between unionism and nationalism.

Powell pressed for, and got, a commitment to additional Commons seats which eventually led to an increase from 12 Northern Ireland constituencies to 17.

This was very much in line with the Powell-Molyneaux philosophy of binding Northern Ireland more closely with the rest of the UK.

The Government also promised to consider further unionist requests for concessions such as an upper tier of regional government.

Foot was intimately concerned with these machinations in his role as leader of the House of Commons, but he made no secret of his personal reservations.

The late Ulster Unionist MP Harold McCusker recalled Foot "harrumphing" and tossing back his mane of white hair as he explained that he was very much going against his own inclinations in arranging this informal pact.

The five extra seats were eventually delivered (an 18th was added in later years, for non party-political reasons), but the pact did not save Labour, which in 1979 was ignominiously swept from office.

In fact, the Labour-unionist arrangement in the end helped to bring down Labour, since it particularly alienated the late Gerry Fitt MP, then leader of the SDLP.

After years of loyally supporting Labour, he dramatically broke with the party, abstaining in the no-confidence vote which brought about Labour's collapse and brought Margaret Thatcher to power.

Explaining his motives, Fitt told the Commons it was "the unhappiest speech I have ever made in this House".

He accused Labour of making a shabby deal with unionists, "disregarding the [Catholic minority] and appeasing the blackmailers of the unionist majority".

A year later, an observer watched as a senior SDLP figure delivered to Foot what can only be regarded as a studied insult at a lunch.

According to this source: "This SDLP guy refused to break bread with him - he sat through lunch as one plate after another was taken away. Foot was angry and embarrassed." Foot may have taken particular offence because in his much earlier days he had regarded himself as a critic of unionism and a supporter of nationalist rights.

Back in 1953 he had written an article accusing unionists of discrimination.

He declared: "Imagine what would happen if the same discrimination were applied in Liverpool or Glasgow.

"Perhaps it is time we began to ask some questions about this forgotten island where Britain still retains a foothold and a load of responsibility.

"We should not wait for the bomb outrages to shake us from our sloth."

At another point he described Jonathan Swift and Charles Stewart Parnell as the two greatest Irishmen of modern times.

An irony lies in his admiration for the latter, since Parnell utilised House of Commons procedure for political purposes, in his case in the nationalist cause.

His admiration for Swift led Foot to write an elegant book, The Pen and the Sword.

This was highlighted in yesterday's tribute to Foot from Michael D Higgins, president of the Irish Labour Party.

He said: "He had a long-standing interest in Ireland, not just in its constitutional issues, but also in its culture and particularly in its writers.

"He was of the finest critics of the work of Jonathan Swift."

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