Kevin McNamara RIP, champion of an old Labour approach to Ireland

The late prime minister Jim Callaghan was said to have described Kevin McNamara once as “the Fianna Fail member for Kingston upon Hull North”.  Kevin himself recalled how Tony Blair on being elected Labour leader summoned him and told him straight : “I don’t want you in my shadow cabinet.”  At which Kevin rose from his seat and walked out.

Both anecdotes say a lot about of Kevin’s outlook but not the whole story. He was an unapologetic and consistent supporter of a united Ireland which was after all, supposed to be the ultimate aim of Labour policy.  He attacked John Major for setting IRA decommissioning as a precondition for direct engagement with Sinn Fein, resulting in the breakdown of the 1994 ceasefire, and Tony Blair for supporting Major at the time. His inevitable removal as shadow Northern Ireland secretary and replacement by Mo Mowlam gave space to Blair to launch what proved to be the decisive initiative, beginning with the essential tilt towards unionists in the Balmoral speech within weeks of his election as prime minister.

But  this  radical departure from much he held dear did not prevent Kevin becoming a consistent supporter of the peace process. He had never been a supporter of the Benn/ Corbyn approach of warm contacts with Sinn Fein before a ceasefire.

While  Jeremy Corbyn paid tribute today to Kevin as” a lovely man” Kevin reacted angrily  when Corbyn invited Gerry Adams  to address a fringe meeting of the Labour party conference in 1989 saying: “ As far as I’m concerned there is no place for those who defend murderers at the Labour party conference.”

He retained a deep and sympathetic interest in Irish affairs, taking part only recently in 1916 commemorations in Liverpool. In retirement he had joined the Institute of Irish studies and for his PhD published a study of the controversial  McBride principles on applying anti-discrimination rules  to US firms in Northern Ireland. These  were strongly opposed by the British government as a blight on investment and  employment but were regarded by their supporters as a catalyst for  increased US involvement in what became the peace process.

In its way his policy on Northern Ireland was as static as the unionism of its day. The need for momentum required its abandonment. But at least Kevin McNamara as a politician came to Irish affairs out of lifelong commitment and knowledge rather than as a temporary duty on the way to something else.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London