Belfast Telegraph

'David Bleakley was frugal - an example that politicians today could learn from'

Former Northern Ireland Labour Party MP David Bleakley, who died last month aged 92, represented a tradition of public service now all but lost, writes Connal Parr

Officials at the Stormont parliament where he served as an MP admired David Bleakley for having been in a "proper job" - working as an electrician at Harland & Wolff shipyard - and he was inspired to enter politics, like so many, by the sweeping changes enacted by the post-war Labour government of 1945 to 1951: still the most Left-wing of all British governments.

Not so well understood is that Bleakley was an Anglican who blended the Methodist roots of British Labour with the Moral Re-Armament movement, which had originated in Oxford in the 1930s and compelled people to become involved in society along progressive political lines.

He personified a strain of Christian socialism long departed: economically socialist and socially-conservative, though this combination is still present in today's politics in a different form.

Initially part of a new intake of Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) politicians, including Sam Napier and Charlie Brett, Bleakley eventually became the party's deputy leader (though many within saw him as their leader).

He won the East Belfast Victoria seat at the third time of trying in 1958 - one of four MPs the NILP gained at Stormont that year, when it was also made the official Opposition.

In the following 1962 election, all NILP representatives increased their majorities and the party received 26% of the entire vote, almost outpolling the Official Unionist Party in Belfast.

However, Bleakley lost Victoria in the 1965 election when Unionist Prime Minister Terence O'Neill set out to halt the Labour advance.

O'Neill lifted the NILP's clothes through a modernisation programme and urged unionist maverick Roy Bradford to contest East Belfast specifically to damage the Labour vote.

O'Neill was unconvinced that Bradford could win, but he did and Bleakley never forgot, writing during the height of the Troubles that the 1965 election had "stopped the momentum of change and released most unfortunate forces in our community which have so far not been contained".

By this time, Bleakley's formidable persona combined a cultured intellect with the tough snap of Belfast street politics.

He recovered to gain the NILP's only seat of Belfast East in the 1973 Assembly and the 1975 Constitutional Convention.

He opposed the Ulster Workers' Council strike of May 1974, bravely joining a much-derided "back-to-work" march organised by the Trades Union Congress's Len Murray, and he pointed out that power-sharing was still widely-supported and could work if Sunningdale dropped its Council of Ireland pledge.

The latter gave the Irish government a consultative role in northern affairs and sealed unionist and loyalist rejection of the whole Sunningdale accord. His counsel fell on deaf ears and the power-sharing Executive collapsed.

It was telling, that during January 1974, as nationalists and unionists fought tooth and nail over the constitutional particulars of Sunningdale, that Bleakley could be found spearheading a motion in the new Assembly criticising the low level of student grants, calling on the British Government to guarantee a regular cost of living review to help undergraduates.

The impoverished conditions many students lived under, Bleakley believed, jeopardised "the national need for a highly-trained labour force".

Like the NILP generally, Bleakley's focus was always on bread-and-butter issues: education, health, transport and employment.

This was at a time when unionist politicians like William Fitzsimmons cheerfully denied "that it is the duty of the Government to provide jobs. We differ from socialists on that point": an attitude Bleakley and the NILP battled at all stages.

All four NILP MPs - Bleakley, Billy Boyd, Tom Boyd and Vivian Simpson - were prominent in the "Save Shorts" campaign and it was largely thanks to the same representatives that Harland & Wolff secured the Belfast dry dock area, which enabled ships to be repaired.

It was one of the five largest in the world and a check on rising levels of unemployment.

In later interviews, Bleakley correctly pointed out that the NILP had pushed for civil rights reforms before the advent of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in 1967.

At the time, however, he was mindful of his Protestant working-class constituents and so was far more cautious on the demands.

Nonetheless, he was made Minister of Community Relations by Prime Minister Brian Faulkner in 1971, the first time a non-unionist had held a cabinet post, before resigning in part over the introduction of internment without trial.

Bleakley left the NILP in the late-1970s, polling over 9,000 votes as a United Community candidate in the 1979 European election, and he would later join the Alliance Party and advise them during all-party talks from 1996-98.

He would be unimpressed by Alliance's current economic and social liberalism: the reverse of his own position on both fronts.

The other side of Bleakley, what some call a politician's "hinterland", was his cultural and literary interests.

Following his time at Harland & Wolff, he studied politics and economics at Ruskin College, Oxford, where he struck up a personal friendship with another east Belfast native, C S Lewis (both grew up in Strandtown).

Bleakley wrote prolifically throughout his life, everything from pamphlets to biographies of figures including Lewis, legendary peace activist Saidie Patterson and Brian Faulkner.

He was remembered with affection from his days as a teacher at Methodist College and believed in the regenerative power of education and culture.

This was connected to his campaigns to improve public spaces and buildings, lifting citizens with civic plans and urban greenery.

One final detail.

An assistant clerk of the old Stormont parliament once told the present author that Bleakley won the respect of all the workers at Parliament Buildings on "the Hill" for his complete frugality.

The accounts of all MPs went through this official and the man noted that, despite the poor salaries of Northern Ireland MPs in the 1950s and 1960s, Bleakley and the other NILP representatives were limited and humble in their financial expenses.

This is an example today's politicians, who refuse to come to agreement while taking enormous salaries, would do well to consider.

But, then, things were different: in those days, politicians like Bleakley focused on combating unemployment, and Labour looked as if it might take Belfast.

Dr Connal Parr is a Research Fellow in the Humanities at Northumbria University. His first book, on Ulster Protestant politics and culture, is published by Oxford University Press next month.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph