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.

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  • ted hagan

    Fine, well-written piece on McNamara, Brian, though should read
    “to Blair to launch what proved”
    rather than “to Blair to launch was proved”.
    Sorry for pointing this out.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    That’s not a correction, Ted. What Brian wrote makes perfect sense where ‘what’ takes the meaning of ‘that which’. It’s what’s known as a fused relative construction.

  • ted hagan

    It has been corrected. For the original see above.

  • The worm!

    If more people in power had had the nerve to distinguish and draw clear lines between the concept of a united Ireland, and the concept of trying to justify violence to achieve it, as Mr McNamara did, then the former would almost certainly be much more “doable” than it currently is.

    Sadly for many of us the two pretty much go hand in hand.

    Another from the era when there was a place in politics for decent people.


  • SDLP supporter

    A very fair appraisal, Brian. For Jim Callaghan to put the ‘Fianna Fail’ label was unfair. He was determinedly Old Labour who believed in the legitimacy of aspiring to a United Ireland but only by democratic consent.

    He was replaced by Mo Mowlam who had as much depth as a puddle. She spent time trying to get the Party of European Socialist/Socialist International and replaced by the ‘Catholic’ Sinn Fein and the ‘Protestant’ PUP.

  • Brian Walker

    Not at all Ted thanks. Just proves the enduring value of subs..

  • Granni Trixie

    Normally I don’t think its right to bring up someones health but In mitigation, didn’t MM have a serious brain condition which with hindsight helps explains many instances of odd behaviour?

  • Granni Trixie

    In the 50s and until 1965 Labour (and Wilson as Leader from 64) are as guilty as other mainland parties of adhering to the convention of not discussing NI issues in Westminster. The convention and a culture of silence over Ni stifled response by MPs to claims of discrimination in NI in housing allocation by their immigrant Irish/NI constituents. People (Desmond Greaves most notably) who saw that in the face of lack of reform in NI there was power to do so in Westminster (not Ireland) had to set about awareness raising in Britain prior to 1964 and CRM.
    This is the context suggesting that Kevin McNamara was faced with an uphill struggle even within Labour and it ought not to be overlooked that he had the courage to do so.
    (Pity he was fixated on McBride Primciples).

  • Dan2

    No friend of any Unionist

  • Fraser Holmes

    Indeed, Andrew Marr in his very readable “A History of Modern Britain’ after mentioning Wilson’s limited contact with Terrence O’Neill in1964 comments on post war policy re NI :- “Mostly, though, this was a time of dozy neglect which turned out from 1969 to have been a a terrible failure of imagination – malign neglect, whose effects would haunt Britain for the next thirty years”

  • Granni Trixie

    So glad he noticed and thanks for this reference.
    When it comes to ‘blame’ for the troubles I think the convention to leave Ni to Stormont ought to be up there with the usual suspects.

  • The worm!

    The concept of a united Ireland is a perfectly acceptable political objective Dan.

    It’s not one I would like to see coming to fruition, but nonetheless there is no reason to have any umbrage with anyone for holding it.

    What does matter is how it would be achieved and how anyone with that aspiration reacts to, and deals with, the reality of what we have now (both criteria where Sinn Fein fall far short in the eyes of the majority in Northern Ireland).

    Plainly Mr McNamara was well aware of that distinction.

  • 05OCT68

    Ireland & Labour had another friend in “The Daily Mirror” a paper that supported the Troops Out Movement untill Piers Morgan removed any gravitas it had.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    He didn’t treat us fairly

  • MainlandUlsterman

    There wasn’t any net discrimination in housing though! Poor example 🙂

  • Granni Trixie

    I beg to differ – or do you mean to be provocative?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    not provocative just factual – Henry Patterson and others put that one to bed years ago. But seems like old myths die hard.

  • Granni Trixie

    it doesn’t help your case to strike an insulting tone, I think for myself. I have read extensively around the 50s and 6Os and conclude that whilst there was not discriminatory practices uniformly as regards allocation of housing there were in some Council areas. True, after the war there was shortage of housing everywhere. I very much respect the research of Henry Patterson but I doubt very much if he actually claims there was no basis for it. For every academic you quote to support your view I could bring up another (you could say Grahame Gudgeon,I say John Whyte)
    I’m sure we’ll return to this.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Sorry, I was trying to be nice about it!

  • Granni Trixie

    Youre a laf.

  • Patrick Jones

    Why then was she a Minister?

  • Granni Trixie

    I seem to remember that a fuller picture of her condition only emerged either from her autobiography (after she was SOS) or after her death. Only then did the public and even her colleagues know the potential risks her brain condition placed on her at a crucial time in history of Ni.

    One has to be careful though – one must not assume because someone has a medical condition or disability that they cannot do their job. Just that in this particular case I think that with hindsight the wrong person was in the wrong place.