Bridget Teresa McCrory
Harry Diamond (1908 - 1996):
Henry Diamond, Harry as he was known, was an active figure in nationalist and labour politics for four decades. These two categories worked often in tandem, in the context of a small polity whose very existence was challenged by a sizeable minority of its population, but were never completely co-terminus; moreover, each tended to splinter. Diamond's career demonstrated the fractious nature of these relations.
Diamond came from the Springfield Road in what could be described as the heart of nationalist west Belfast but which was also significantly, and especially for Diamond, central to working-class west Belfast. He attended St Paul's National School then went into his father's business. He came to the attention of Joseph Devlin, the Belfast nationalist leader, and was elected as a Belfast Poor Law Guardian in 1929. The Boards of Guardians were responsible for the administration and distribution of such welfare payments to the poorest as then existed (principally outdoor relief, that is, outside the doors of the workhouse), and were not notorious for their munificence. The 1920s had been a time of economic decline in Northern Ireland, with unemployment fairly consistently at 20 per cent; after 1929 and the worldwide economic slump, the situation deteriorated precipitously. In 1932 the official unemployment rate was 28 per cent or 72,000 people. That was of those registered as out of work - it has been estimated that there were up to 30,000 unregistered who had no work.
It was against this background that a group of workers, the Unemployed Workers' Committee, spearheaded by "task" workers (those who were made to work repairing roads in order to receive outdoor relief) put into operation protest activities, demanding amongst other things, relief to be paid in cash. On 3 October 1932, several hundred task workers went on strike, and that evening a mass meeting was convened in central Belfast. Amongst speakers who addressed this meeting were Northern Ireland MP Jack Beattie, who the previous Friday had caused a disturbance in Parliament, when he threw the Parliamentary Mace on the floor in front of the Speaker; the latter had refused Beattie's motion calling for a debate on the plight of the unemployed in Northern Ireland, in favour of a motion thanking the Belfast City Council for use of the City Hall pending the construction of Parliament Buildings. Diamond also addressed the meeting, one of only two Poor Law Guardians to do so (they were described by a later labour activist, politician and historian as "the two sympathetic Poor Law guardians" - that is, sympathetic to the putative beneficiaries of the Poor Law, not its administrators). The event has become something of a legend, as the estimated 60,000 attending were drawn from both Protestant and Catholic areas, and their bands, generally used to less partial melodies, instead all played the then internationally popular song, "Yes, we have no bananas". While this has been indicated as the only (it was certainly one) tune both sides knew, the black humour of this song in the circumstances can scarcely be ignored.
At a meeting of the Board of Guardians in May 1933, Diamond went one better than had Beattie the previous year. His motion for a debate on the abolition of the means test for Outdoor Relief having been (incorrectly) ruled out of order from the chair by Mrs Lily Coleman. Diamond threw a doormat directly at her, resulting in his being removed from the meeting by the police. This gesture was only a microcosm: it was only serious rioting including fatalities which prompted governmental demands of the Guardians that they improve relief rates.
In parallel, Diamond was active in more purely Irish nationalist politics. Nationalist leader Joseph Devlin died in January 1934, and Diamond contested the Belfast Central by-election to the Northern Ireland Parliament on an "Anti-Partition" ticket; he came third with 15 per cent of the vote; then became involved in several anti-partition groups advocating abstentionism. But in 1937 he moved to England, where he remained until 1943. In 1945 he stood for the Northern Ireland Parliament representing the Socialist Republican Party (a small party he had recently helped form), and won the seat of Belfast Falls with 43 per cent of the vote (he retained it unopposed in 1949). In 1950, though, the party was wound up, prompted by the decision of the Northern Ireland Labour Party to accept formally the union with Britain, a position obviously unacceptable to anti-partitionists, within and without that party, such as Diamond, who sought to form themselves into a regional council of the Irish Labour Party. This was achieved in January 1950, with Diamond one of two Northern members of the Irish Labour Party's National Executive.
This was a period of uncertainty for Northern Irish nationalist politicians: even before the war, they had been excluded when the Irish government was negotiating the 1938 Anglo-Irish Agreement with London, and during the war, membership of the Irish Army was closed to Northerners. Meanwhile, the British, not least the now governing Labour party, were not sympathetic to the Irish Free State's neutrality during the war, and those in Britain who would have been sympathetic to, for example, the post-war Anti-Partition League, were more concerned that the interests of the working classes be protected from within Northern Ireland. Moreover, the 1945 British government was engaged on the major project of building a welfare state, as designed by Sir William Beveridge, which would have the effect of raising living standards across the entire United Kingdom. Diamond reflected a fear that this development would weaken northern nationalist sentiment when he declared that nationalists would not be persuaded away from their principles by what he called "Beveridge bribes".
Diamond remained Northern Ireland MP for Belfast Falls, winning elections in 1953, 1958 and 1962, now standing for Republican Labour. He was elected unopposed in 1965. His appearances in Parliament were forcefully anti-government, constantly attacking discrimination in employment and housing, the system of setting constituency boundaries ("gerrymandering"), and even on occasion the Royal Family. The ferocity of his criticism was often rivalled by his language and he was frequently expelled from the House. He took a sympathetic attitude to Republican prisoners, often intervening on their behalf, though distanced himself somewhat from violent political action.
In October 1964, Diamond stood for the Westminster seat of West Belfast as the Republican Labour candidate. The outgoing MP was Unionist Patricia McLaughlin; she was succeeded by the sole Unionist candidate, James Kilfedder, who beat the three nationalist candidates after a campaign which became notorious when Ian Paisley demanded that the police remove an illegally displayed, though generally tolerated, Irish tricolour from the election office window of one of the other candidates. Many, including both Diamond and Kilfedder themselves, thought that this intervention had helped Kilfedder win the seat. In 1966, Diamond declined to stand and the seat was won by Gerry Fitt, with whom Diamond had previously worked, as the sole nationalist candidate. Diamond finally lost his Belfast Falls seat to Paddy Devlin at the 1969 elections. Devlin it was who described Diamond as one of the "sympathetic" Poor Law Guardians. Diamond then retired from politics and settled in north County Antrim.
He was a founder in 1927 of Cardineal Ui Donmail CLG (Cardinal O'Donnell's GAA Club) Belfast, named after the recently deceased Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, and served for several years on the Antrim Board of the GAA.
|Born:||10 May 1908|
|Died:||7 May 1996|
Dictionary of Irish Biography (entry by Patrick Maume); J Bardon: A History of Ulster; P Devlin: Yes, We Have no Bananas; E Staunton: The Nationalists of Northern Ireland; Boyce/Bryson: The Prison Diaries of Eamonn Boyce
© 2018 Ulster History Circle