David Granville reviews Gerry Fitt: a political chameleon by Michael A. Murphy (foreword by Tim Pat Coogan), Mercier Press, ISBN978-1-85635-531-5, €20.00 pbk
THE DEATH of Gerry Fitt in August 2005 brought to a close the life of a man whose political career spanned four decades and witnessed his transformation from Connolly socialist to British peer of the realm and de facto unionist.
Born in Belfast into a poor working-class Catholic family, it was whilst at sea as a teenager, serving in the merchant navy, that Fitt came across the teachings of Connolly. The inspiration that this provided, combined with his experiences at sea and as a member of the oppressed Catholic 'minority' in the north, were soon to propel him into the sphere of politics.
Six years after his involvement in the election campaign of Irish Labour candidate Jack Beattie, Fitt was himself elected to represent Dock ward on Belfast Corporation. Standing on an Independent Labour ticket, Fitt was able to defeat his Unionist opponent by attracting significant cross-community working-class support.
It was to be the start of 25 years of electoral success throughout which he was to champion working-class issues and become one the dominant figures of the nationalist community in the north. At one point he would hold seats on Belfast council and in both the Stormont and Westminster parliaments. In 1970, he would go on to become the first leader of the SDLP and, in 1974, deputy chief executive of the short-lived power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive.
From the early 1960s, and possibly earlier, Fitt had been influenced by Connolly Association leader Desmond Greaves, who had concluded that unionism would be exposed and undermined by a campaign for equality in the north.
Fitt used his position as a member of both the Stormont and Westminster parliaments to highlight the discriminatory nature of the Unionist regime and did much to encourage Labour Party interest in these issues.
However, once elected to Westminster, Fitt gradually moved away from his former allies in the Connolly Association, increasingly putting his faith in the Labour Party leadership. Paradoxically, it was Fitt's eventual disillusionment with Labour's policies in the north - particularly plans to increase Westminster representation there - which led to him to abstain in the 1979 crucial confidence vote that brought down the Callaghan government and ushered in the disastrous Thatcher era.
Murphy's contact with a number of former Connolly Association figures has helped to provide a clearer picture of Fitt's political career and influences in this important period.
Although Fitt's staunch opposition to the IRA's campaign of violence was viewed by many as principled, his condemnation of republican hunger strikers in the Maze, and his strident appeals to the Thatcher government not to give in to the prisoners' campaign for political status, led to widespread condemnation from republicans and sowed the seeds of a major nationalist backlash. Within three years, at the 1983 Westminster general election, Fitt would lose his West Belfast seat to Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams, having already lost his local council seat in 1981 in the midst the hunger strike.
Forced to flee his Belfast home, following repeated attacks by republican supporters, Fitt, as Murphy suggests, may well have felt justified in accepting the Tory government's offer of peerage, seeing it as a means of responding to the "extreme nationalist instincts put into practice by the IRA". It was to be another serious miscalculation. The move didn't play well with nationalists of any stripe - effectively completing the transformation of the one-time republican socialist from 'Fenian Fitt' to 'Fitt the Brit'.
For Murphy, Fitt's apparent volt face from socialist republican to peer of the realm was nowhere near as remarkable as it has appeared to some. Murphy points out that Fitt was neither a republican nor a socialist "in the commonly accepted sense", regarding his republicanism in the 50s and 60s as a mixtiure of tactical opportunism and sentimental idealism and his socialism as more reformist than revolutionary, more Redmond than Connolly.
Although a working-class politician with an opportunist streak and instinct for survival, Fitt was never a strong team player - as his rocky relationship with John Hume and other key figures in the SDLP demonstrated.
Two minor gripes. The first concerns Murphy's reference to the relationship between Desmond Greaves and the Communist Party of Great Britain. The author's assertion that the Connolly Association is a "front organisation for the Communist Party of Great Britain" is the repetition an old canard based on the prejudices of previous commentators and old political foes - left and right.
Over the seventy years of its existence communists have been active in the Connolly Association at all levels. Greaves himself a life-long communist and widely respected as the leading Marxist authority on the national question, Connolly and the Irish freedom struggle. However, as close associates and Greaves' unpublished journals confirm, he was extremely wary of the party leadership, too many of whom he regarded as having an insufficient grasp of the Irish question and its relationship to British imperialism.
Far from being a 'communist front', Greaves went to considerable lengths to ensure that the organisation's retained its independence. He succeeded in this objective.
My second concern centres on the author's comment on Greaves' assessment of Connolly. According to Murphy, "Connolly's behavoir in 1916 had been rendered incomprehensible by attempts to fit him into the Leninist mould - particularly influenced by the writings of the communist Desmond Greaves".
Connolly certainly admired aspects of the German state, which, though capitalist and imperialist, he nevertheless regarded as more 'civilised' than that its British counterpart and more likely to provide opportunities for progressive advance.
While there can be no doubt that Connolly would have welcomed German support against a mutual enemy - in much the same way as the United Irishmen welcomed the intervention of the French - to suggest that Connolly saw Germany as "a virtual socialist state", under whose "sponsorship", in the event of a German victory, a progressive Irish state could be built, is to reach a conclusion which is unsupported by anything that Connolly wrote or did.
Fortunately, neither of the above points detract significantly from Murphy's fascinating political biography, which will undoubtedly be seen as an important benchmark for future studies. Detailed and balanced, it remains highly readable throughout, shedding important light upon a man who, whatever his faults - and they were many, played, for a time at least, a not inconsiderable part in the struggle to bring equality and justice to the people of Northern Ireland.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2008 David Granville