Passionate socialist and a true friend of Ireland

Sheena Clarke reviews Joan Maynard, passionate socialist by Kristine Mason O'Connor (foreword by Tony Benn), Politico's, £20 hbk

THIS WELL-RESEARCHED biography gives a detailed account of Joan Maynard’s life in the labour and trade union movement. 

The author describes Joan’s rise to prominence from humble origins as the youngest child of a north Yorkshire smallholding family to a national figure in the National Union of Agricultural Workers and a Labour MP.

Essentially it is an account in which Joan as a person tends to be subsumed in the minutiae of her political life.

A recurring theme is Joan’s steadfastness exemplified by a commitment to moral and political principles that was unwavering regardless of the unpopularity of her views. 

It was perhaps in her support for the cause of Ireland that Joan courted greatest public criticism. How was it, then, that this Labour councillor in rural north Yorkshire and vice-President in the NAWU came to develop a “passion for Ireland”?

Mason O’Connor recounts how, like so many others in the 1970s and 1980s, Joan was converted to the cause through a visit to the north of Ireland. In Joan’s case she was a member of a small National Assembly of Women delegation in 1970. 

What she saw and learnt during her first brief visit she interpreted in the light of the class politics she had developed through WEA classes and the influence of her Marxist comrades in the agricultural union. 

The following years saw repression against nationalists and republicans intensify as new measures were introduced to maintain British rule. Throughout these years Joan could be relied upon to use her position on the NEC of the Labour Party and as an MP to support calls for British withdrawal. 

Often her views got her into ‘hot water’, as they did when she declared, during Tony Benn’s election campaign in Chesterfield, that “she would not consider the IRA to be terrorists”.

Her political support during these years was complemented by the practical assistance she offered, especially to Irish prisoners held in Britain and to for campaigns for the release of the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four and Judith Ward.

Unfortunately, the biography does not pass any comment on Joan’s attitude to developments in the 1990s such as the Good Friday Agreement and the devolution of powers to a re-vamped Stormont. 

Her days in retirement see her returning to her home town and joining local environmental campaigns, serving as a parish councillor and caring for her elderly brother. 

Did she see justice in the evolving political settlement, as Gerry Adams suggests in his 2001 Joan Maynard Memorial Lecture? Or would she be reiterating what she said in 1997:

“The only solution to the problem is a united Ireland. Ireland is one country, there will never be peace until it is reunited?”

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2004-05-26 13:06:29.
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