Obituaries: Paddy Devlin

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IN HIS eventful life, Paddy Devlin ran the gamut: from teenage gunman to mature democrat, from sensitive negotiator to pugnacious opponent. For many years at the heart of Northern Ireland politics, he was a member of many parties but always, above all else, a man of the left.

For the first half of the 1970s he was a central figure on the hectic political scene at the side of John Hume and Gerry Fitt, during the early days of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the formative period of modern northern nationalism. His finest moment was as minister for health and social services in the power-sharing government of 1974, but that lasted for only five months before being brought crashing down by a loyalist general strike.

The irony in this summed up the central difficulty in Paddy Devlin's lifelong and alas quixotic political aspiration. He wanted above all to see unity between the Protestant and Catholic sections of the working class, but both sides were uninterested in this.

He will probably be remembered not so much for his political activities as for his outsize personality. In 1977 he was described as "a maverick among mavericks, by turns considerate and insulting, conciliatory and verbally violent".

He was a complex man who could be kind and generous to a fault, but he also had a reputation for unusual political belligerence. Legend has it that participants at meetings with him sometimes stood the risk of being flattened with a punch, or threatened or actually struck with a chair. Reginald Maudling refused to see him again after Devlin threw a newspaper at him during a meeting.

This persona as a political pugilist has probably become greatly exaggerated in the telling, though the title of his 1993 autobiography, Straight Left, is taken as a punning reference to his fisticuffs. But it co-existed with a sympathetic personality and continual concern for the underdog, born of childhood poverty and early immersion in socialist ideals.

He was born in 1925 and raised in the Lower Falls area of west Belfast, an IRA stronghold, and like many other local boys he joined the organisation's youth wing, the Fianna. He was motivated, he later wrote, not by patriotic zeal but a desire to increase his status. He was only 11 at the time. By the age of 14 he was in the senior IRA where as a Volunteer in "D" company he "threw bombs and fired shots at the police". This duly led to his wartime internment in 1942.

By 1950 he was out of the IRA and active as a trade union shop steward. He drifted through inconsequential left-wing politics before becoming a senior member of the Northern Ireland Labour Party and one of its Stormont MPs. He was also a founder-member of both the Civil Rights Association and in 1970 one of the six Stormont MPs who founded the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the SDLP. Devlin was in the thick of things for the next few years both on the streets and at important meetings.

James Callaghan, who as Home Secretary was feted by nationalists when he visited Belfast, recalled: "The crowds were so huge and so emotional that Devlin had to climb on to the bonnet of my car, where he half stood, half kneeled, and used the force of his personality - which is pretty considerable - to clear a way through the crowds."

Meanwhile the IRA raked his car with gunfire and terrorised his children, but for many years he refused to leave his modest home in the heart of west Belfast. At the same time he and John Hume acted as go-between in negotiations which led to a short-lived IRA ceasefire in 1972, and to direct contacts between the Government and the republicans.

The SDLP, which was pretty much the first organised party the northern nationalist minority had ever produced, had now developed a pivotal role in politics. The party first helped bring down Stormont and then became the first nationalist grouping to enter government, in the 1974 power- sharing administration.

Devlin revelled in his role as health minister. Civil servants were instructed to call him not minister but plain Paddy, and he is remembered as a breath of fresh air. The more staid of the bureaucrats were however silently appalled by his practice of swearing and cursing on a grand scale. He was also a great man for developing an animus, and through his life pitched himself against a series of targets. The first seems to have been his mother, with whom he said he was "always at loggerheads", while in later life the target was to become John Hume.

Within the power-sharing executive the enemy was a Unionist ministerial colleague, Roy Bradford. The former civil servant Maurice Hayes recalled that often Bradford

provoked Paddy to verbal retorts which were not always restrained, and on occasion to threats of physical correction. Roy would sigh audibly and make some cutting remark, prompting Paddy to an even cruder expletive than usual. Both were continually threatening to resign, Roy in a mutter, Paddy in a roar.

In what was described as "a typically unpredictable and emotional reaction", Devlin did in fact write a letter of resignation from the executive, but held off lodging it.

Having been a destabilising element within the executive, he later became disruptive within the SDLP itself. Although a senior office holder he publicly levelled swingeing policy and personal criticisms against its other leaders, leaving them little choice but to expel him in 1977.

Although one of John Hume's biographers wrote that the criticism "owed much to political jealousy", there was a genuine basis for the split. Hume was edging the party away from 1960s socialism and towards social democracy: Devlin was a sort of Belfast-based John Prescott, though one who refused to go with the flow. Fond of conspiracy theories, Devlin came to believe that the Catholic Church was pulling the strings within the SDLP, speaking darkly of "a hidden hand" which was packing the party with devout middle-class teachers. Accusing the party of moving away from its roots, he declared: "I am basically a trade unionist and a socialist. I am not a Catholic or an Irish nationalist."

There were few takers for his proposition that socialism could unite the workers, and when he walked away from the SDLP no one went with him. Having left the political mainstream he went into full-time trade unionism and became a playwright, journalist and commentator.

He mellowed greatly in later life, once remarking that he regretted having been so belligerent in his younger days. Earlier this year Paddy Devlin, who as a teenager had fired guns at the police, quietly accepted his appointment as CBE. He will be remembered for many different reasons, but few would dispute that he had one of the biggest hearts ever seen in Northern Ireland politics.

Patrick Joseph Devlin, politician: born Belfast 8 March 1925; CBE 1999; married 1950 Theresa Duffy (two sons, three daughters); died Belfast 15 August 1999.