Bobbie Heatley, 1934-2004

In the mid 1990s Bobby Heatley was one of 40 people from Protestant backgrounds interviewed by independent film maker Marilyn Hyndman as part of a project which aimed to provide a picture of Protestant identity beyond unionism and loyalism. The interviews eventually appeared in Further Afield: journeys from a Protestant Past published by Beyond the Pale Publications in Belfast. Bobbie Heatley's story is reproduced below.
Bobbie Heatley

I REMEMBER my father dragging me into darts clubs on the Woodstock Road in East Belfast where they were showing movies of Russian ballerinas. I was about four at the time and I subsequently learnt that these clubs were also political debating clubs, or at least places where a lot of political debates went on, and I remember my father saying how he had collected donations there in support of the Irish Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.

My father belonged to an Irish socialist republican group in and around the Woodstock and Beersbridge Road. They were followers of James Connolly. It wasn’t a big or important group, but it certainly existed and would have tied in with the socialist thinking of the time which existed in the area, and which I think was due to the slump, unemployment and poverty of the 1930s.

I do remember there being considerable anti-fur coat sentiment in those days. Later in my childhood Brookeborough used to come round the streets on the back of a lorry dressed in a fur coat canvassing the people at election time. He threw little packets of sweets out to the children. That anti-fur coat sentiment continued for a few years.

The Northern Ireland Labour Party became quite strong electorally and the Communist Party within the trade union movement gained momentum. ‘Wullie’ McCullough polled thousands of votes in an election against Lord Glentoran.

Both my mother and father’s families, and my father too, had been in the British forces. Family lore states that my grandfather and my uncle both had military funerals at Dundonald. Their coffins, draped in the union jack, were transported up the Newtownards Road in a gun carriage. Interestingly enough, there was a radical streak on my father’s side of the family which came from generations back, but the most immediate connection was my grandfather who was an active member of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union and well versed in the teachings of Connolly and Pearse. My father picked a lot of this up from him, but I think that it was his experiences of being posted to India with the British Army, and later Aden and Egypt, that radicalised his thoughts about the political situation in Ireland and made him more aware of this side of his family tradition.

I didn’t have a lot of contact with Catholics during my childhood years except when we were evacuated during the war to Ballynoe. We did live on the New Lodge Road for a while during the period that Tom Williams (the republican) was executed. I actually went to a Protestant school there. I remember being surrounded by a crowd of Catholic youngsters who were going to beat me up, but as always happens, someone came forward to defend me and said that I couldn’t help where I was from. There can be a greater tolerance in the nationalist community even at such traumatic times.

Another memory I have of our time in the New Lodge was during an air raid. I remember it because it was very hard on my mother. My father was in the Home Guard and he was on the roof of the BBC as an anti-aircraft gunner, so my mother was on her own with two children. Everyone else was taken away from the street and we were left alone. I remember asking where everybody had gone and why we hadn’t gone too, but my mother didn’t answer. Looking back on it now I realise why we hadn’t been included. It happened just after Tom Williams had been hanged and there was the most terrible atmosphere in the area.

My uncle had a huge influence on my early childhood and he was probably closer to me than my own father. At that time my father was very much an adult’s person. My uncle was an enthusiastic Orangeman, I remember he put the Orange sash on me and dragged me down to Jerome’s, the photographers in North Street, to have my photograph taken. I loved him dearly, but as I grew older I became more aware of how unionism had shaped his life. In ways he was a victim of it in that he never got anything personally out of it. He had suffered hard during the depression of the Thirties, did difficult and dangerous work in the shipyard where his job was insecure and he was never highly paid.

When I was older, he took me by the hand down to Queen’s Island. He walked me through it, describing the shipyard and telling me what it was all about. He was as proud as punch, calling it ‘our’ ship yard, ‘my’ ship yard. It was so incongruous, this little man who didn’t own one screw of the shipyard and yet he had so much pride in the place.

I saw him shortly before he died and by this time he knew that I hadn’t grown up to be a unionist or an Orangeman and that I wanted to see Ireland united. He told me he couldn’t understand how I could be a traitor to my own country. That hurt me, but there was no way that I could make him comprehend. We didn’t part as enemies, we were still friends, but there was a gulf between us. It’s terribly sad when that happens but I couldn’t allow such feelings to imprison me, not even for someone that I felt a deep love for.

When I was 16, I went to work as an apprentice joiner for the City Surveyor’s Department in Belfast Corporation. At that time those jobs were definitely the preserve of Protestants and I think that was the reason why I got the job. The trades were very stratified in that, for instance, Catholics could be pavers or slaters and some Catholics were allowed to be painters, where the trade was more mixed. All the ‘aristocratic’ jobs, such as carpenters and joiners, were totally Protestant. Not all of the people that I served my apprenticeship with would have been stereotypical unionists. There were some who had a lot of inner conflict and the conflict, as I could see it, was between their socialist leanings and their commitment to the Union.

During the time I worked for the Corporation I was involved in Socialist Youth Group activities in Belfast. We would go down to meet people in Dublin like the Behans and I would talk to my work mates about them. They would argue back that those sort of people could not possibly be labourist or socialist. I’d ask them why and they would tell me it was because they were Catholics. The Pope told Catholics what their politics should be and the Pope was not a socialist. Whether it was an excuse or a genuine belief I don’t know, but it was the one reason they gave me for not looking to the South for support and solidarity.

Sam Thompson, the playwright, was employed as a painter whilst I was working there and I used to discuss plays and politics with him. I was very much into Seán O’Casey at the time, although my memory was that Sam wasn’t over-enamoured with Seán O’Casey; perhaps it was a case of professional jealousy!

Sam didn’t stay very long; he got the sack over trade union activities. The politics we discussed would have centred around socialism and the Soviet Union and not so much the actual Northern Ireland situation. Whether or not that was because we were running away from Irish issues I don’t know. Political debates were always more international rather than local in tone.

My family never had any doubts as to their nationality. It just was not an issue. Even my most Orange aunt had no doubts at all that she was Irish. It came as quite a culture shock when I met people on the radical fringes of politics on my trips to Dublin. Their whole attitude was different to mine. I had Protestant, puritan attitudes and an inherited code of respectable behaviour. I found that in the South of Ireland none of these attitudes applied to the people I was mixing with!

At the time when De Valera and Cardinal McQuaid were creating the Catholic ethos, my friends lived in a different world. I had always thought that ‘The Lark in the Clear Air’, ‘Kitty of Coleraine’, ‘Star of the County Down’, all those tunes, made up Irish culture.

I thought I knew something about Irish republicanism; I’d heard about Wolfe Tone and James Connolly, but it was only when I met people connected with the Irish Workers’ Party that I came into contact with what might be called a republican culture – the hooleys, the theatre, the art world, the drinking, all the things my mother would have been suspicious of as a life style, and which were, you might say, broadening experiences for me. She, in an extreme Presbyterian manner, was a deep and sincere Christian who had an equally deep and sincere suspicion of ostentatious church-goers, bible thumpers and institutional religion.

After my apprenticeship finished at the Belfast Corporation, I was asked to stand as a shop steward. Nobody else really wanted to be a shop steward because in those days you could be told on a Wednesday that you were being let go on the Friday.

Friends of mine advised me not to stand. They would come up and say, ‘row in, row in’, from a protective point of view because they knew that if I agreed to stand I would get the sack, which duly happened. I was made the shop steward on the Tuesday and I was sacked on the Friday! My only regret about that incident was that six of my colleagues who shared a taxi with me were sacked as well to make it look non-discriminatory.

I ended up going to London. There was a great demand for labour at that time; it was a boom period in 1957 and I ended up in a Czechoslovakian merchant bank in the City. In those days you were recruited on the basis of your handwriting, but afterwards I went on to study and pass my banker’s exams.

I joined the Connolly Association and took part in the very first civil rights marches in England – this was before they took place in Ireland – and I began speaking from Connolly Association platforms. The Connolly Association had quite a few Protestants from both parts of Ireland involved in it. Some would have been trade unionists from working class backgrounds, but there were others with a Protestant ascendancy background from the south of Ireland, people who had attended public school and universities like Cambridge.

We campaigned against the injustices of the six county state, the Special Powers Act, gerrymandering, all the basic civil rights demands. We also worked very closely with the British Labour Party, with a group which was known in those days as the Movement for Colonial Freedom. It was a kind of sub-committee on Ireland which tried to involve as broad a spectrum of the Irish people as possible, although we weren’t totally successful in that. I chaired one of the committees which met in the House of Commons with Lord Brockway as host.

When civil rights agitation broke out in Northern Ireland I wanted to come home. It wasn’t just for that reason though, for by then I had married, I had two sons and I didn’t want to bring them up in London. I thought they would be better off back in Ireland, so I came back and immediately got involved in the civil rights movement.

I also went back to work for the City Hall in the City Surveyor’s department but this time on the administrative side. Again, I have to say as a point of honesty that not everyone employed in the City Hall was bitterly anti-Catholic, but the atmosphere there was very tense. I have fond memories of many of the people who worked in the department; two socialists from the Shankill, one a storeman, the other a messenger, are among those who come to mind. No one could have been more humorously destructive of unionist notabilities and unionism than were ‘characters’ such as these two.

I became a member of the Belfast executive of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and subsequently became their Public Relations Officer during the anti-internment campaign, and for a while I edited the Civil Rights paper. Then, of course, the Civil Rights Association got into difficulties; the splits took place and the military campaign began.

We began to walk a tightrope, very conscious that we should not be provocative or confrontational but at the same time always wanting to carry out our agreed programme in the way that we had decided. Our aim might have been a utopian one. We wanted to focus the issues on the democratisation of Northern Ireland and to achieve it on the widest possible basis by involving forward thinking people in the Labour movement and liberal Protestants.

In so doing we believed that Northern Ireland could be transformed. Paisley, of course, accused us all of being crypto-IRA members but that wasn’t the case. I make no secret of the fact that I was approaching civil rights issues from a socialist republican perspective in those days. I wanted a united Ireland and I thought unionism was only maintaining itself by creating a class of poor whites and an aristocracy of Protestant labour that by no means included large sections of the Protestant working people.

It was this that I believed was dividing our people. The so called ‘unionist family’ had obviously some very neglected, if not abused, members. I believed that was the real basis of partition and I wanted to work politically, rather than militarily, to end it. I certainly had no time at all for the kind of politics that confuses people into denying their own nationality. I saw the civil rights as a means of reuniting the people of Ireland into a more democratic system of government. I make no apologies for that. This would still be what I would like to see.

Others were more impatient, younger and thought that they could leap over hurdles and get to the goal quicker. Some of them were motivated by a reactive sectarianism. They were more focused, probably justifiably, on the injustices they had suffered under a Protestant unionist regime, more so than they would have been on the real government which was over in Whitehall and Westminster.

I would say that NICRA never lost sight of the fact that ultimately all the abuses and all the problems emanated from Westminster and Whitehall. That is where they still reside. The military campaign, whatever the arguments for it, certainly did make it exceedingly hard for NICRA. It made it especially hard to rekindle an awareness that unionism was not synonymous with Protestantism among sections of the Protestant population. Ultimately though, I think that everyone in NICRA wanted the same thing, we just had different ideas about how to get there.

For a while after NICRA ended I just dropped out of politics and concentrated on studying to qualify as an economist. More recently a group of us who had been involved in civil rights decided to get together again and we formed the Campaign for Democracy in 1991 during the bicentenary of the United Irishmen. The Campaign has a strong Protestant input into it.

The idea is to campaign beyond civil rights into the area of democratic rights. We believe that people here should govern themselves and have the political institutions that will enable them to do that, not talking shops or institutions which are circumscribed and limited. We don’t believe that such democratic institutions can be achieved within the present United Kingdom constitutional set up. We know that they can’t be achieved within a six county set up either.

We believe the only solution is a new Ireland with all-Ireland institutions that are agreed and governed by a constitution that satisfies everybody and in which everybody has their input. That constitution should follow the principles of the United Irishmen but updated to suit modern conditions. It would be secular, pluralist and have an all-inclusive definition of Irish nationality. It would enable the people of Ireland to be self-governing, so far as that can happen in an EC context, and it would be democratic and anti-sectarian.

Book Cover

Part of what we see as important is to bring the Protestant anti-unionist heritage back to the Protestants and at least give them the knowledge of its existence so that they can make a choice. I don’t think they have a choice now because most of them have been indoctrinated by unionism over 70 years.

I think that if I had had only my schooling to rely on then I would have been the same. It just happened that in the environment that I was brought up in the unionist hegemony wasn’t complete; there were huge gaps in it and I was able to learn about our other traditions.

I do find it interesting that in the present political environment the younger of the traditions, nineteenth century unionism, is seen by more and more people as something of the past, whereas the ideas of the United Irishmen, which never had a chance, are still relevant and have the elements of the key to the future.

The above appears in Further Afield - journeys from a Protestant Past, by Marilyn Hyndman, Beyond The Pale Publications (1996) ISBN 1 900960 01 X. The book is available in paperback priced £9.95

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2004-10-06 10:41:00.
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