Gerry Fitt’s Maiden Speech At Westminster On 25 April 1966

Mr. Gerard Fitt (Belfast, West) : On rising to my feet to address the House this evening, I would, first, ask the House to consider that I, as the new Member for West Belfast, had to overcome many obstacles before I had the opportunity of addressing this House. I take some consolatioh from the fact that in thetelevision and Press analysis immediately after the result of the election, you, Mr. Speaker, and I were categorised as the fourth largest party represented in this House: ” Others, Two “. I cannot refrain from saying that if that is correct it will be a most influential fourth party in this House. I am not sure whether that was an attempt to depict me as an impartial independent, which I most decidedly am not, or whether it makes you, Mr. Speaker, an added member of the Republican Labour Party, in which case I take this opportunity to welcome you into the party as there are, as you will be well aware, all too few of us.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I hesitate to interrupt a maiden speaker, but I can assure the hon. Member that I am not applying.


Mr. Fitt: I did not really think that You were, Mr. Speaker.

Since the election I have read in sections of the British Press that I have been classified as an Irish Republican. I should take this opportunity to classify my political allegiance. To classify me as an Irish Republican is not strictly correct. The Irish Republican Party in Ireland does not recognise the authority of this House in any part of Ireland and its members would, indeed, refuse to take their seats in this House.

I have not yet given up hope, and I have not yet determined to follow the line of the Irish Republican Party, because I believe that during my term as the representative of West Belfast in this House I will be able to appeal to every reasonable Member in this Chamber, and, through them, to every reasonable member of the British public. I feel certain that at the end of this Parliament dramatic changes will have taken place in the North of Ireland, of which I am a constituency Member.

Having arrived at this House at the latter end of last week and having listened to the speeches made by hon. Members, from both sides, I marvel at the normality which exists in British politics. Serious questions are discussed. It has become apparent to me this afternoon that education will be an issue of great importance .’during the lifetime of this Parliament. All hon. Members can apply their intellect and wisdom to achieving an education solution: , This atmosphere does not exist iii the constituency which I represent.

I In Northern Ireland, at every succeeding election there re no economic issues involved. In this island of Britain, the recent election was fought on the different policies and philosophies of the Conservative Party, the Liberal Party and the Labour Party, and the Labour Party were victorious. In Northern Ireland, no such issues entered the contest.

I should like to ask you, Mr. Speaker, whether in your position as a member of a political party at any election prior to your elevation to the Chair of this House, you have ever had your telephone constantly tapped during the course of the contest. This happened to me during the recent election. Did you, Mr. Speaker, or any other hon. Member, have to have police protection to protect you from a bigoted sectarian mob when you were declared the victor in the contest? I did, not 50 or 100 years ago, but within the past month, and this is not a unique experience.

At every election at which I have been declared the victor, the bigoted mobs have attempted physically to assault me. Three weeks or a month ago, my agents were threatened that if they attempted to enter into my opponent’s areas-areas of West Belfast are designated as Unionist and anti-Unionist-they would be physically assaulted if they attempted to stand by the ballot box to prevent my opponents from personating votes.

This is something which people in Britain cannot understand and it is something on which intend to educate the British people. It is something in which I hope to elicit support, not only from this side of the House, but from both sides of the House, because I am convinced that there are on all sides in this Chamber honourable men who have acted in their political life with the utmost rectitude, political honesty and sense of fairness. I make an appeal to each and every one of those Members in this House to ensure that we in Northern Ireland are afforded the same opportunity to fight elections on the economic issues involved and that we will be free from all threats of physical violence.

I realise that in the course of a maiden speech it is the tradition of this House to be uncontroversial, but I cannot make this speech without being controversial. It is not my ,intention in any way to be controversial in this speech, because I am, spealdrng with all the honesty and sincerity at my command.

In the 1954 election for this Parliament, certain incidents took place in Smethwick and, rightly, many hon. Members, on both sides of this House, condemaed the atmosphere in which that election was held. That is the atmosphere in which elections have been fought in Ireland since 1920, and that is the atmosphere which will oprevail in northern Ireland until this Government take cogent action.

I realise – and here I ask for the indulgence of the House – that there will he very few opportunities for me to get on my feet and to take in the whole of the Queen’s Speech, because by tradition certain Acts of Parliament and certain actions are the reserve services of the Northern Ireland Government. I do, however, ask the Labour Government whether they have ever considered, because they cannot say that they were unaware of the question, an amendment to the Government of Ireland Act, 1920. No Act is sacrosanct. The changing social conditions over the past 50 years make the Government of Ireland Act completely unworkable. When we realise how every concept of British democracy is being flouted in Northern Ireland we conclude that now, immediately is the time to amend that Act.

In 1949 the British Labour Goverument – and they had the support of many progressive members of the Tory party – changed the electoral law and brought in the Representation of the People Act. That established the democratic principle of “one man, one vote “, with ,which I am in complete concurrence. It is a fair system; it is the only democratic system which should be applied in these islands. But in Northern Ireland that system operates only in respect of the 12 constituencies represented in this House. For other elections in Northern Ireland – for local government elections and elections to the Stormont Parliament – we have an anti-democratic electoral system.

This system would not be tolerated in any other freedom-loving country. In Northern Ireland the same people are elected to administer the different Acts, the one applicable in Northern Ireland and the one applicable for Imperial elections. Can we expect these same people to administer their own electoral laws, on the one hand, and then to wear a different hat and administer the 1949 Representation of the People Act? The first aim of the Northern Ireland Unionist Parry is to perpetuate its own existence there. Let there be no mistake about that.

It is generally accepted that when an area in Britain is threatened with economic depression, and where there is mass unemployment, and people feel that they are being trodden upon, it will return Labour, or even Communist, representatives. Over the past few years, however, the area to which I refer as Northern Ireland has consistently returned Tory representatives. I suggest that those Members are re’turned not on the issues involved, but by a completely unacceptable system, and that the only issues discussed during the contest concern the question whether one is a Catholic or a Protestant.

In West Belfast I fought the recent election on the political platform of Republican Labour. I am a Socialist, and I intend to speak from this side of the House. I intend to vote as a Socialist. I intend to support the Labour Government in, their initiation of all social and progressive legislation. But having done so as a Socialist, I shall ask the support of hon. Members on this side of the House to help me to initiate the same system Northern Ireland. If I believe in Socialism for England, Scotland and Wales I must be afforded the right to believe in Socialism for my own country.

I ask the Government to listen to my words this afternoon and to realise that f am speaking for many progressively minded people, not only in West Belfast but in all Northern Ireland. I intend to voice their disapproval of the present undemocratic system and the election laws which now exist in Northern Ireland. In the Queen’s Speech I read – and I admire the Government for promising this – that a system is to be devised to provide further subsidies for local authorities to help them build homes for the people who need them, and to make it easier for young married people to acquire .homes of their own. I shall support the Government in their implementation of this legislation.

l wonder, however, whether it is recognised that in Northern Ireland to own a home means fhat one also has a local govemment vote. In Britain everyone over the age of 21 has the vote, but this is not so in Northern Ireland. I insist that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom. The people there are British subjects and are entitled to the same rights and privileges as are possessed by any other persons living in these islands.

To perpetuate its own majority the Unionist Party in Northern Ireland has devised an electoral system which for local government purposes can give six votes to one person and yet deny a single vote to another. This is 1966, and if true democracy is to operate in these islands it is time that the procedure in ‘Northern Ireland was abolished. Not only does it deny a vote to a person who does not own a home; from this root stems all the other social evils. If a Person does not own a home he does not have a local government vote, and if the Party In Power considers him to be an enemy or an anti Unionist it will ensure that he will not get a home.

The town of Dungannon, in County Tyrone, is run by a Unionist-dominated council. It has a small majority of 400 or 500 on the electoral register, but this ensures that it is elected at successive elections. But there are 2,000 people looking for homes in Dungannon – 2,000 young married couples, who have no homes of their own. The Unionist council has met repeatedly. It has held meetings and adjourned meetings. It realises that the vast majority of these 2,000 people are anti-Unionist; so it says to itself, ” If we build these people homes we will also be giving them the vote, and they will vote against us. We will be out.” This is happening not only in Dungannon, but all over Northern Ireland.

I have no hesitation in predicting that now that I have the honour to represent West Belfast, within the next two or three years further council estates will be built in my constituency, and the houses will be given to Government supporters with the intention of unseating me. This is the atmosphere which I am trying to break through. I reiterate that in addressing these remarks to the House I am appealing to every Member who believes in democracy. I am not asking for preferential treatment, or making an outlandish request on behalf of my constituency ; I am asking for exactly what British constituents have.

As a Member of the Stormont Parliament I have spoken on many occasions in this vein. It was very frustrating to realise that the House there, with 52 Members, had 40 Members of the Government party. No matter what plea was made I realised that it would not get anywhere. I realised that when it came to the vote on any subject which I supported, 40 Unionists would go into the Lobby to vote against it and to deny any semblance of democracy. I hope that I shall not suffer any of that type of frustration in this House.

I did something unusual this afternoon. Normally, I do not speak from a script, but I had prepared this one. However, I feel that I do not need a script to put forward the case for democracy in Northern Ireland. One can only speak from the heart and I defy contradiction of the charges which I have levelled this afternoon.

I realise that I may have infuriated some hon. Members on the other side of the House. I do not see many of those hon. Members who are entitled to be infuriated. There is only one of them there. If these hon. Members feel that way, the cap must certainly fit. I would ask that one hon. Member, the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Chichester-Clark), if he believes in the policies which have been pursued in Northern Ireland and disagrees with my charges, to prove it by supporting me in asking the Government for an inquiry into the Government of Ireland Act. I am willing to stand or fall by that decision. I would ask, I would insist, that the members of the tribunal which would hold this inquiry be taken from both sides of the House, not from this side alone. I would accept any hon. Member from any side of the House and I am sure that that inquiry would find that what is happening in Northern Ireland today can no longer be tolerated.

There are references in the Queen’s Speech to Vietnam and Rhodesia. As a Socialist, I intend to support the Government’s action on those areas. In Rhodesia, there is an exact parallel to what happened in Ireland in 1912, since when a minority has tried to subjugate a majority. In 1912, a tragic mistake was made by the then British Government. Now, 54 years later, I have to come to this House to level charges at the ascendancy group which was then installed in that country.

I ask the House to consider the tragic mistake made then and to ensure that they continue on the lines they have taken in regard to Rhodesia. If they surrender to blackmail, the world will not readily forgive them. How ridiculous this Parliament must look on the stage of world affairs when one views the Parliament and this country expending their energy and their treasure on trying to bring about in Rhodesia a state of affairs which would ensure the political and human rights of the black Rhodesians, when, at the same time – either through ignorance or through sheer cowardice – we are not prepared to ensure the rights of our own British subjects in Northern Ireland. The problem at home must be settled before we seek to settle problems abroad.

I have always taken the view that an elected constituency Member’s first and last allegiance should be to the peoph who voted for him and elected him to this House, that their problems should at all times remain paramount. That is why I say to the Government this afternoon that before we take any action on human or political rights in any other part of the world we should ensure that those rights are installed in Northern lreland,

In the earlier part of the debate, a great deal of time was spent by Members on education. As one who did not have the benefit of a university education, I am only too well aware how necessary

education can be in 1964. A new university was mooted for Northern Ireland and the money for that university was to have come from the pockets of the British taxpayers. The Lancashire lassie and the Yorkshire yokel were paying to subsidise that university.

In Londonderry – poor, sad, tragic, gerrymandered Londonderry -there is mass unemployment. It has become known as a city where the women work in the shirt factories and the men stay at home. In Londonderry, Catholics and Protestants banded together to have the university. sited there. They realised that it would be an injection of lifeblood into Londonderry, that, in the first place, it would do away with the unemployment and that people would be employed.

They realised that, as building pro.gressed and students began to attend, it would bring life into Londonderry, which is slowly dying of decay. But this consideration was never accepted by the powers that be in Northern Ireland, even though the money was being found by the British taxpayer. The only consideration which activated the minds of the Unionist powers in Northern Ireland was that two-thirds of the population of Londonderry were Catholics. They would not put the university in Londonderry, because there were too many Catholics there.They sited the university in the heart of Coleraine, which, again, is a Unionist-dominated area, inhabited by Government supporters.

On the attraction of new industry to Northern Ireland, I speak as a Socialist. I do not want to see anyone unemployed in Northern Ireland, be he Protestant, Catholic or Dissenter. When industry is attracted to Northern Ireland it is conveniently sited in the Unionist areas. The areas where there are no Government supporters are continuously ignored. The Government of Northern Ireland take the view that if they give one of their supporters a job they will have his vote for all time and so perpetuate their own reign in Northern Ireland. I oppose Unionism in Northern Ireland and I will do so until my dying day.

West Belfast has been a break-through. Since winning this election, I have received 468 telegrams, 700 letters and 1,000 telephone calls – not from people of my own religion – but from those who would be opposed to me in religion, who saw the result of the election as a break-through for political wisdom in Northern Ireland, who saw the result in West Belfast as a day of reckoning for the Unionist Party.

Hon. Members should understand that the Unionist representatives in the House have been coming here for so often that ,they believe now that they rule by divine right. One of the Unionist Members of this House actually opened his election address with the words

“I am sorry that this election, has been forced on me at great expense by the intervention of a Liberal candidate.” Disgraceful! How “disgraceful” that anyone should dare to oppose him.

That is why there is such a serious inquest going on now in Northern Ireland. They cannot believe that 3,00*0 Protestants voted for me. However, there is no more proud representative in this House today than I. I realise that Protestants and Catholics have supported me and that it is with their voice that I speak.

I make one final appeal to the Government. The situation in Northern Ireland is serious. Discrimination is an everyday occurrence. People are denied jobs because of their religion. Only two days ago, the Cardinal Primate of All Ireland, Dr. Conway, issued a statement calling on the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland to do something to erase this cancer of discrimination from our midst. The Cardinal Primate of All Ireland is a reasonable man, a man who has done everything durtng his life so far to bring about better and more harmonious community relations. If he felt that he had to make that call to the Northern Ireland Prime Minister, how much more important is it that this Government should support him in bringing about a more normal political situation in Ireland?

I am a Socialist. I will defend and support this Government with everything at my command, but, having done that, I ask for the support of the Government and of every hon. Member in doing away with the situation that exists in Northern Ireland today.

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