OBITUARY : Harry Diamond

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Harry Diamond was the voice of the working class of Belfast whom he represented in the Northern Ireland parliament at Stormont for 23 years until 1969.

A devout Roman Catholic, he was a vigorous campaigner for the rights of nationalists and dis-possessed Protestants at a time when no one else spoke on their behalf. He was the last link with the generation of the late Joseph Devlin and the old Home Rule Party.

Diamond was born and spent his early years on the Springfield Road in Belfast. He was educated at St Paul's National School, Cavendish Square, off the Falls Road, and went on to work with his father as a shoemaker in the family business.

He entered politics in 1929 as a Poor Law Guardian on the Belfast Board of Guardians - a body set up to administer unemployment relief to outdoor relief workers. While the board's underlying aim was to deny benefit to as many people as they possibly could, Diamond fought tirelessly to improve the relief workers' pay and conditions, and on one occasion when a member of the board dismissed an appeal on their behalf, he picked up a doormat and flung it angrily at the chairman.

He was imprisoned for two months in 1933 after he led a protest at the arrest and detention without trial of 100 young Republicans; he recently recalled with amusement how "the only reading matter in my cell was the Bible and I read it from cover to cover".

With the family business unable to support him, he travelled to England in 1937 in an effort to find much-needed employment. He quickly ran out of money and was standing at the River Thames one day seriously contemplating taking his own life when by chance he met a fellow Belfast man who eventually managed to get him a job.

This period in England laid the foundation for a close involvement with the trade union movement. On his return to Belfast in 1943 Diamond formed the Socialist Republican Party which then became known as the Republican Labour Party.

Many of the people around him were from a Protestant radical background and, unusually, his closest associate at that time was a Shankill Road Presbyterian, Victor Malley of the Transport and General Workers Union, who edited Diamond's news sheet, the Northern Star.

Harry Diamond was fiercely opposed to the partition of Ireland, and although a staunch socialist he shied away from the Northern Ireland Labour Party who pledged to "maintain unbroken the connection between Great Britain and Northern Ireland as part of the Commonwealth." As RLP's leader Diamond concluded "there is no room for pure Labour!"

His parliamentary political career began in 1945 when he was returned for the Stormont constituency of Lower Falls in Belfast. He was very trenchant and forthright on behalf of the under-privileged and had few friends in the Stormont par- liament, but he was highly respected for the way he represented his constituents.

He was very much an individualist and consistently called for reform on housing, employment, health and education, but his demands - a forerunner for the later demands of the Civil Rights movement of the late 1960s - were treated with contempt by the Uunionists.

In 1969 he wrote of how "time and again Unionists were warned, not least by myself, that their policies would result in violence". He was an outspoken critic of the Stormont regime and had an intense dislike for the B Specials (Ulster Special Constabulary) - an anti- Republican paramilitary-style auxiliary force of the Royal Ulster Constabulary - and was regularly ordered out of the Stormont parliament for lambasting their activities. He was also frequently censured for referring to the Royal Family as the "foreign royalty".

After a brief alliance with Gerry - now Lord - Fitt, he lost his seat in 1969 to another colourful left-wing politician, Paddy Devlin, and the following day shunned politics and retired to the tranquil setting of Glenariffe on the Antrim coast.

Malachy McCourt

Henry (Harry) Diamond, politician: born Belfast 10 May 1908; married Mary Legget (marriage annulled), 1958 Sinead Nesbitt (died 1991), 1992 Amy Browne; died Glenariffe, Co Antrim 7 May 1996.