Ulster’s Ramsay MacDonald? Harry Midgley (1892–1957)

  • Paul Ward


The Unionist Party believed that its coalition of support could be fractured if working-class identity provided a focus of loyalty that was irreconcilable with the Union. Elsewhere in the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland was seen as ‘a place apart’ because it was divided by the fundamental political dispute between Irish nationalism and Unionism. The conceptualization of class as the primary identity of individuals in modern society meant that the existence of labour parties was seen as natural and inevitable. The Unionist Party sought to obstruct the ‘forward march of labour’ in Northern Ireland and their success suggested to the British Labour movement that the (Northern) Irish were deviating from the normative politics of the rest of the United Kingdom. Given their debt to late nineteenth-century Liberalism, which under Gladstone and Asquith was being forced to confront the pluralist nature of the British Isles, many early labour activists had an intense sympathy for Irish nationalism.1 The presumption was that Unionist-labour in the north of Ireland was a departure from the true interests of the working class.2 These presumptions have followed through into the historiography of the labour movement in Northern Ireland. As Henry Patterson has remarked, ‘The problem with such histories is their tendency to treat the main ideological currents among Protestant workers simply as obstacles to be overcome. From the outset they are defined as “problems.”’3


Labour Movement Labour Party Unionist Government Irish People Religious Liberty 
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  1. 1.
    There was also a Conservative inheritance within the Labour Party, which had less sympathy for Irish nationalism. See Martin Pugh, ‘The Rise of Labour and the Political Culture of Conservatism, 1890–1945’, History, 87 (2002), pp. 514–37.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    Michael Farrell, Northern Ireland: The Orange State (London: Pluto, 1976) is an influential narrative of working-class Unionism as the product of the manipulation of capitalist and landowning interests.Google Scholar
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  4. 3.
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    Graham Walker, ‘The Commonwealth Labour Party in Northern Ireland, 1942–7’, Irish Historical Studies, 24 (1984), pp. 69–90, provides a very full account of Midgley’s estrangement from the NILP. See also Walker, The Politics of Frustration, chapter 7.Google Scholar
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© Paul Ward 2005

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  • Paul Ward

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