Andrew Boyd: Writer and trade unionist who chronicled the history of sectarianism in Northern Ireland

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The history of the sectarian divisions of Northern Ireland was highlighted in a ground-breaking book by the writer and socialist Andrew Boyd in August 1969, just as the Troubles broke out. Holy War in Belfast was widely regarded as a seminal work, taking a harsh and individualistic look at the developing strife that was to dominate Northern Ireland for the next 30 years.

Boyd, a socialist, trade unionist and historian, detailed the depth of feeling rampant in the Belfast community. Holy War in Belfast reminded historians and trade unionists alike of the need to recall how violent some of the outbreaks had been. It described the rise of Paisleyism in opposition to the Prime Minister Terence O'Neill's liberal unionism and covered the civil rights movement. The late Professor John Whyte was to state that previous histories had been bland, hardly mentioning the riots, and that Boyd's history brought them back into “the consciousness of historians”.

From a Protestant background, the son of a Boer War veteran, Boyd was born in 1921 in East Belfast and began work as an engineer in the shipyards. Rejected by the Royal Navy for war service, he served as the youngest member of the shipyard committee for war procurement services. He became a socialist, having seen the effects of poverty in Northern Ireland and the rise of fascism in Europe and became increasingly involved in left-wing and trade union politics. He remained a “free thinking” socialist for the rest of his life.

He moved to London, and in 1951 married Kathleen Kelly, a Catholic from the Falls Road; the pair returned to live in Belfast in 1953 after his wife became homesick, having had the first of their four daughters. From 1954 to 1970 Boyd worked for the National Council of Labour Colleges, and for the TUC when it took over the NCCL role, as trade union Regional Education Officer for Northern Ireland.

He graduated as a mature student from Queens University with an honours degree in economics in the 1960s and went on to play a prominent role in developing adult education, writing books and pamphlets on a wide spread of subjects, from political and historical figures to trade unions and trade unionists; many of them are still in circulation and used in education. His book Fermenting Elements , on the history of Labour colleges, was his favourite work. He established a reputation as an able and invigorating, sometime argumentative lecturer who would influence many young economists and journalists, establishing relationships which would last for the rest of his life.

He forged close connections with organisations such as the civil rights movement, the SDLP, the Communist Party and societies such as the Socialist History Society, for whom he also wrote a series of pamphlets; one of which was on Jim Connell, writer of “The Red Flag”. Boyd played a prominent part in getting support, including forging close relations with English trade unions, for the erection of a monument to Connell. Speaking on behalf of the Jim Connell Society, Tommy Grimes said: “Without his work, dedication and knowledge there would have been no monument to Jim Connell. Andy was a fantastic socialist, and a fantastic friend. If you were getting out of line, he would not hesitate to tell you.” The Jim Connell Society is to unveil a plaque to Boyd's memory.

Boyd was a frequent contributor to publications such as the Irish Times , the New Statesman , Economist , Tribune and The Daily Worker and would make frequent appearances on the BBC, Ulster Television and RTE, where his sometime critical but always “straight” comments often made people look at matters from a different historical perspective.

He hated the partition of Ireland and the creation of Northern Ireland. His left-wing, rather individualistic views meant that he was always as critical of the left and the right as he was of the various Northern Irish political parties. Harsh words were reserved for the IRA, whom he declared had decided “to kill thousands of decent, inoffensive people and innocent children, destroy commercial and private property to the value of billions of pounds and incite the bloodlust of the most brutal loyalists.” The Unionist Party in turn was accused by him of exploiting the ignorance and fear of Protestants to maintain power: “thriving on recurring violence, the inflaming of hatreds and the continuance of divisions.”

He remained sceptical about whether the peace process would bring peace to Belfast and disapproved of the Good Friday Agreement on the basis that it was a “verbose and infuriating programme for an unstable form of government” which “accommodated” the sectarianism of all parties.

The Labour historian Francis Devine, who worked many times with Boyd, stressed how important his contribution had been to Irish history, education and trade unionism: “We all owe a debt to Andy. He was one of the great figures in labour history, popularising and giving Irish workers a sense of their history. His book The Rise of Irish Trade Unionism was for many years the definitive guide. Politically, and importantly he represented an anti-unionist approach from a non-Catholic nationalist point of view.”

A lover of Gaelic songs, especially those sung by his wife, he was a keen mathematician, setting puzzles for his grandchildren, recounting old stories and talking and corresponding with academics, and students interested in his book and work. As his daughter Barbara recalled: “He was such fun - every time I saw him I learnt something new, and that continued up to the end.”

Andrew Boyd, writer, trade unionist and historian: born Belfast March 1921, married 1951 Kathleen Kelly (died 2007; four daughters); died Belfast 5 July 2011.