Anti-Irishism in the British Labour Movement
W. J. Haire
James Callaghan, British Labour prime minister from 1976–1979, once said he was an English Callaghan, not completing the assertion that he wasn’t an Irish Callaghan. Being Irish I felt he was saying he was one step above me. The Labour Party was the party most voted for by the Irish in Britain. Why he had to make this public statement is a mystery. He could have sabotaged the Irish vote in Britain. All the stranger when he was the son of an Irish Catholic father who had come to England as the result of one of the Irish famines that had occurred in 1879. His father was also James Callaghan. His mother was Charlotte Cundy. She being Jewish the Catholic Church at the time wouldn’t marry non-Catholics to Catholics so they both abandoned their faiths and married in a Baptist chapel.
Michael O’Halloran, from Wexford, came to England as a 15 year old to work on the railways and in the building trade. Later in life he became a Labour councillor (1968-1971) in the borough of Islington, and then a Labour MP (1969-1981) for Islington North. The left of Labour then began their attack on him when he rejected the idea of legislation to make abortion legal. At one point his office was raided by mostly women. He was punched and knocked to the floor and trampled on. A labour party member was expelled for saying he was dominated by Catholic Church influences. That member was later reinstated. I remember the scenes on TV and the remarks made about him by leftist members of the Labour Party. Some of which was just anti-Irishism disguised as anti-Catholicism. Catholicism was, and still is an easy target for critics, (try doing the same to Judaism or the Muslim faith). He had worked for J. Murphy & Sons, the building contractors, as a building and construction works manager before becoming an MP. Critics of him also added US-type Tammany Hall corruption to the list.
I had been working around the Islington area in building construction when he was MP and heard the opinions of the Irish on the building sites. Apparently he was doing a good job for the Irish in Islington, like finding them council flats and fighting cases of anti-Irish bias in the borough. The black community, to take one example, feel they are underrepresented in UK politics. The Irish in Britain at one time totalled one million, but in London only had O’Halloran as an MP. Yet this was one too many for the left. O’Halloran switched to the Social Democratic Party (SDP) run by dissident Labour members. In the redrawing of the boundaries he lost his seat by not being chosen by the SDP. Next he stood as Independent Labour but lost out to the official Labour candidate Jeremy Corbyn in the 1983 general election.
Though at the time I considered myself to the left, and felt women should have the right to choose abortion despite what any religious authorities might think, I was totally against the dirty campaign against O’Halloran. I recognised the anti-Irish rhetoric in all its disguises. Labour was saying at the time that they represented all people. What I got from that was they would represent the Irish and that the Irish shouldn’t need an Irish representative.
Generally the labour movement hasn’t been kind to the Irish in Britain in the past. A Labour government passed the 1948 Ireland Act which gave comfort to the continuing one-party reign of the Unionists at Stormont. The plight of Northern Ireland Catholics seemed to be of no concern to them. Geoffrey Bing, a Labour MP, thought differently and came to Northern Ireland (NI) to campaign for full human and civil rights for the Catholic population. So Labour knew what was going on. Sydney Silverman was another Labour MP who, although he didn’t visit NI, gave advice on what to do if in political trouble with the RUC. Though NI didn’t have the same British democracy as Scotland, England and Wales, Silverman’s name was enough to help stop RUC threats against some members of the Young Worker’s league. (the youth organisation of the Communist Party of Northern Ireland (CPNI)). But as he wasn’t particularly interested in the Catholic side of things in NI the RUC had a field day.
The British labour Movement at that time had this prejudice against Catholics, especially Irish Catholics as being backward and verging on fascism. Any attack on the Irish State was legitimate, and even better if written by an Irish person. It wouldn’t be the total fault of the English of course. Brian Behan, a construction site militant trade unionist, a magnificent orator, who sacrificed so much of his personal comfort and family well-being for the sake of others, was a member of the Executive Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). But he loathed the country he came from and made sure all around him in London heard him.
He had met with some injustices in the Dublin of his day and his anger was never to end. He made himself the exception to the Irish in Britain for his political thinking and those who didn’t think like him were Culchies, whose eyes shone in the dark. He would reiterate his experience of working on the Isle of Grain where an oil terminal was being built. The builders were mostly Irish and as a result an open-air Mass was held on the site every morning before work began. He failed to connect on the fact that these Catholics were also trade unionists. He would scoff at the idea of you reading Graham Greene because he was a convert Catholic. I still respected him for the magnificent militant trade unionist that he was. MI5 took a special interest in him which he said was better than being given an OBE.
The atmosphere of 1950s Britain was almost terminally anti-Irish. You were called Paddy or Pads and the women Brigid. The Met police called you Paddy if they stopped you and heard your accent. It was a continual fight to correct these people and uphold your true identity. Gerry Healy, Irish leader of the Trotskyite movement in England, also helped to deep-freeze anti-Irishism in Britain. The anti-Ireland prejudice infesting many Irish leftists made me visualise a new Imperialism in which a communist/socialist England would invade the priest-ridden Republic of Ireland, given time.
The CPGB was also riddled with anti-Irishism. Being a member meant you weren’t one-of-them. They could then safely push their prejudice about Irish Catholicism in your face. I saw this as just anti-Irish racism in a different form. During one election campaign I was duped into taking up the microphone in a loudspeaker van touring the very Irish Camden Town at the time. They thought the Irish would listen to me with my accent. I broadcasted the electoral policy of the CPGB and then we went on to Kilburn, a mostly Irish area and did the same job. It didn’t go too well as I began to hear shouting like: `Shut up for the love of fuck!’ A stone hit the van’s windscreen. In the end a police car escorted us out of Kilburn. My two companions were laughing and saying things like: `Paddy doesn’t like to be educated.’ .
It was late evening and back through Camden Town, where someone in a drunken rage had kicked in half a dozen shop windows. One of my companions turned to me and said. `One of your fellows?’ He seemed sure an Irishman had caused the damage though he hadn’t been told who the person was. In fact it had been caused by a drunken Irishman. I felt like kicking in a few myself to reinforce my identity to these two. It was quite a sport back then among some Irish. It has a peculiar sound like a bass drum being struck followed by the tinkle of a rain of glass. It could be set to music.
I was too involved with the CPGB to be pushed out by anti-Irishisms. it was everywhere anyway, including the socialist Unity Theatre which I joined. Despite some of the problems I found the communist movement at the time good for building self-esteem, whether it was in the CPNI or the CPGB. You were motivated to self-educate. You learnt how to speak at indoor meetings and you were introduced to literature you never knew existed, and good films. You learnt to mount a platform in public and give a speech. At indoor meetings you also learnt how to conduct one according to the party booklet `Mr Chairman.’ There were no class barriers if you decided you wanted to write something for the various magazines that existed to do with communism. At Unity Theatre you didn’t need an agent if you wanted to become an actor. You walked off the street on to the stage if you were passed as able to play a part in a play. Some of the well-known names in theatre had started there.
At Unity theatre the CP members had their own meeting away from the broader Executive Committee. Some group within the theatre were meeting with the aim of taking it over and making it into a commercial venture – a try-out theatre for the West-End. Their organisation had to be infiltrated and names recorded. The task fell to me. Spying is a nasty business with plenty of lying and having people take you into their confidence. You meet their wives and children and you feel rotten at what you’re up to but the Party wins out in the end. You were called to CPGB headquarters in King Street, Covent Garden, to meet with people who told you the best way of infiltrating and how to pose as one of the enemy. At one meeting someone said something that startled me and made me feel worse: `The Irish don’t usually inform so you won’t be suspected.’ And as I was leaving: `Well, not many anyway.’
In the end I got them what they wanted which resulted in a number being expelled from Unity Theatre. But things leaked out. Later I had a play accepted by the University of Sussex, Brighton. The director was Belgian and had come over to rehearse it. But a former Unity Theatre actor attached to the theatre there told me his agent was so-and-so and she had been part of the group trying to take over Unity Theatre for commercial reasons. She knew who had infiltrated her group and now she was working on the Belgian director to drop the play. He dropped it.
My next assignment was a Young Communist League branch in Finchley. It had gone Zionist. Zionism had become a problem in the CPGB and was headed by a physiotherapist who had fled South Africa before being arrested for his communist activities. He was of the opinion that we non-Jews were born as anti-Semites; it was part of an inherited psychic. Unfortunately the Irish with their deeply-rooted Catholicism were the worst of the anti-Semites. It seems we blamed the Jews for the death of Christ, even though such a person didn’t exist, in his opinion. He gave his opinions discreetly, taking people quietly aside after CP meetings or other activities. He was very quick to deny his views if challenged by a CP official.
I got proof of what he was up through reading various Jewish publications. In one he had written an article on Zionism under an assumed name. There was a group photograph and I recognised him in it. The next time I met him I put it to him that he was writing this type stuff as a communist and could that be right. I was then asked who I thought I was in reading such publications. To him I was: `A fucking Irish navvy.’ I had to correct him to say I was just a ‘fucking Irish carpenter’.
Then on to Finchley Young Communist League. It had been arranged I should give a short talk on trade union organisation as a cover for finding out what was happening in this branch. But these young middle-class kids weren’t interested. The boys and girls were holding hands and looking into one another’s’ eyes until called to order by the secretary. There was to be a leafleting of the Irish in Camden Town. As Catholics they were fascist. Obviously they wanted rid of me. I decided to stick it out while they discussed nothing but Israel and Christian anti-Semites, That branch of the YCL was closed down soon after. I found out later this former YCL branch recreated itself intact as a branch of Habonim Dror, a socialist Zionist movement.
At that time with the large Irish population in the UK, Catholicism was akin to Nazism. Many Jews were under the illusion that Hitler, though a lapsed Catholic, had been active with the Vatican in the elimination of the Jews. Overall, anti-Irishism was top of the list in leftist circles, not anti-Semitism during the latter half of the 20th Century.