Harry Midgley and the Spanish Civil War

Assorted articles

Midgley, the Irish News and Spain

Extract from ...

A History of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, 1891-1949

By John Fitzsimons Harbinson, B.Com.Sc.

Pages 88-94.

A Thesis at Queens University Belfast, 1966.

Shortly after the start of the July rebellion of that year [1936] in Spain, the Irish News which had a circulation of about 50,000 among the Roman Catholic and Nationalist community, published attacks on the Spanish Government.

It must be said that the Irish News adopted, at least in the beginning, a reasonable attitude on the question of atrocities, and attempted to access the situation with as much impartiality as is shown by any newspaper on an issue about which it has very strong views. Thus it wrote, "Reports of the progress of the war in Spain and of the atrocities committed by the contending parties should be accepted with reserve, especially when they come from holiday makers, interviewed, after they have left Spain, by Press reporters." (Irish News, August 1st 1936) The editorial then proceeds to give some guidance on how to judge these stories, and commends The Times, and Daily Telegraph among English papers, the New York Times and L’Echo de Paris, as having a reputation for accuracy.

They continued, "Photographs are also a fairly reliable source of information as to what is happening. One of the most gruesome was published in L’Echo de Paris on Thursday. It shows 12 human skeletons propped up against a church door, four of them in coffins from which the lids have been torn, all with their hands folded as they had been arranged at death." The letter-press underneath says: "We believe that we ought, in spite of its horrible nature, to place this record before the eyes of our readers to give them an idea of the ferocious anti-clericalism which rules the mobs of fanatics armed by the Government. The photograph represents the skeletons of Carmelite monks torn form the peace of the tomb and exhibited on the porch of a church in Barcelona." (Irish News, August 1st 1936)

This is in keeping with the caution counseled by the editor to his readers. But later his comments did not appear to have the same balance or restraint. On the question of foreign intervention in Spain he wrote, "Russia is forcing her work people to pay a 'Spanish levy' for the purpose of making Communism supreme in Spain. Soviet Russia's interference in European affairs has always been for evil. A few months ago she turned up at Geneva in the role of defender of international law and as a protector of primitive Abyssinians. Today she is helping a Government to overthrow Christianity, in the hope that Spain will speedily become the Russia of Western Europe." (Irish News, August 6th 1936)

Or again, on the same question, "The real danger point at present is the attitude of Russia. That country is said to have agreed to non-intervention 'in principle', but at the same time money is dispatched from Moscow to help the Spanish Government. The argument that these are 'private collections' is ridiculous. If Russia were a free country, such an argument might be put forward; but unfortunately it is not. The raising of funds is therefore essentially a State affair, and in the present circumstances becomes an international affair." (Irish News, August 10th 1936)

This selection will suffice to show the editorial attitude of the Irish News. The Popular front Government was being classified as anti-clerical, which meant anti-Catholic, and pro-Communist. Anyone, therefore, who spoke in support of the Spanish Government was given the same label.

Harry Midgley, the Member of Parliament for Dock, took it upon himself to reply to these charges, first by letters to the Irish News, and later by publication of a pamphlet. (H Midgley, Spain: The Press, The Pulpit and the Truth, Belfast, September 1936) By doing so he left himself open to the same charges as had been brought against the Spanish Government. In a prologue to his pamphlet he wrote, "...many persons have written informing me that I have been denounced all over the country as a bigot, a bolshevist, a representative of the Spanish of the Soviet Government..."

"As Chairman of the Labour Party, Northern Ireland, Alderman of the City of Belfast, and Member of Parliament, I am determined that the workers of Northern Ireland shall be warned off the fate which may befall them and the workers of Great Britain if the forces of Democracy and Representative Government are overthrown in Spain by the cruel and arrogant forces of Fascism. A Fascist victory in Spain means new life, hope and inspiration to Mussolini and Hitler; a new menace to Democratic Government in Britain and France, and the inevitability of world war."

The core of the argument, therefore, was the extent to which atrocity stories published by the Irish News were a true reflection of the situation in Spain. While Midgley did admit that atrocities had taken place, simply because they were inseparable from war, he strongly attacked the editorial attitude of the Irish News in suggesting that the atrocities were all on one side, and that the Government of Spain was composed of desperadoes whose only function and purpose was to destroy churches, and murder clergymen or other representatives of the Church. He also claimed that many of the stories noted by the Irish News had been exposed as untrue by a number of English national papers, including The Times and the Manchester Guardian, and he quoted examples of atrocity reports from various newspapers, and refuted each with a contradictory report from a different paper.

He then turned to the other side of the question; the stories of atrocities being committed by the rebel army. The Irish News had presented these forces as 'Christian patriots', but reports from Harold Pancherton[?] (Daily Express, August 27, 1936) and other correspondents (Daily telegraph, August 17 1936) revealed that they too were guilty of such grievous activity.

Midgley then posed the question, "....why is this (situation) so? It is not sufficient to condemn the whole Spanish Government and the workers as an army of Godless rascals. The explanation lies deeper than that, and we must face up to the facts no matter how unpleasant they may be, and tell the truth, even if we lose friends in so doing." (Midgley, Spain.., p9) As events were to prove before very long, Midgley was to lose more than friends.

The controversy might not have had such serious repercussions had it not been for the intervention of the Rev. J.P. Burke, C.C. In a sermon preached in Newry Cathedral and comprehensively reported in the Irish News (September 10 1936), he made the following statement:

The present war in Spain is not an attack by rebels on a legitimate government, but a defence of their lives by Catholics of every shade of political opinion against a Government which has ceased to govern and the mobs which it has armed. The attack on the Church is not made for any reason whatever other than the hatred of religion which Communism inspires.
The Amalgamated transport Union has decided to send a thousand pounds to support the Reds in Spain, and some of your Labour leaders are openly advocating support for the Communist movement. Catholics in Omagh have left the Transport Union in protest. Catholic workmen in Armagh have publicly asked for prayers and Masses for the Catholic cause in Spain. What of Newry?
I make no suggestion, it's up to yourselves. But I do ask you to pray fervently and earnestly for the success of the Catholic cause in Spain, and pray that your own beloved country may be spared the horror of this evil.

Midgley, in the epilogue to his pamphlet referred Father Burke to certain statements made by Miss Monica Whately, a Catholic and former Labour candidate in England, who had been in Spain during the trouble, and which refuted the claims made against the Government. And then he wrote, "Does Father Burke think he is doing a good day's work by introducing sectarianism into the Trade Union Movement ? Knowing Belfast and Northern Ireland as I do, I am convinced that he has made a profound mistake?" (Midgley; Spain, p14)

But as events were to prove, it was Midgley who made the mistake: his judgement of the effects of international politics was more accurate than his judgement of the local scene. He either failed, or refused, to recognise that religion was an overriding consideration in Northern Ireland politics. However much it was to be deplored, it was a fact of life, and any politician who ignored it did so at his peril. When the election of 1938 came to be fought on the constitutional (religious) issue, Harry Midgley found that the events of 1936 were too close for comfort.

[Moving along the thesis to the reports of the election in 1938]

Page 97-99

The Labour party fared badly. This can be attributed in part to...organisational deficiencies.., partly to the Midgley - Irish News controversy of 1936, and partly to a rather poor electoral policy. …As the campaign went into its full swing, it became clear that the seat in dock was in danger of being lost. When the Labour Party tried to hold meetings in Nationalist areas of the constituency they meet great difficulties. Whenever Midgley appeared he was greeted by hostile crowds of young people whose constant shouting caused at least two meetings to be abandoned. (Belfast News Letter, Feb. 2nd 1938) On occasions there were possibilities of ugly demonstrations. "Young people, especially girls from 10-16 years, kept up a continuous interruption at one meeting by singing 'The Soldiers Song' and chanting the words 'We want Franco'… The lorry, in which Alderman Midgley and other Labour speakers, was followed by two tenders containing about two dozen police." (Northern Whig, Feb 2nd 1938)

[Midgley lost this election.]

Midgley, Roman Catholicism and Spain, 1936

Paul Abraham

This piece is reprinted from New Ulster, the journal of the Ulster Society, a unionist history magazine in Northern Ireland. Issue 2, Winter 1986

Civil War
Bedevilled for five years by political instability, Spain finally plunged into civil war in July 1936. On one side stood General Franco and the Fascists, enjoying strong clericalist and Army support. Opposing them was the elected Leftist Government in Madrid, the champion of a constitution which had established a democratic republic, curbed the power and influence of the Roman Catholic Church and granted such civil rights as that of divorce.

Both sides received foreign support. Roman Catholics and conservatives generally favoured Franco's Insurgents, seeing them as battling against the Red menace; Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy provided material assistance. Socialists, communists and Liberals saw Madrid as beleaguered by the forces of reaction. Soviet Russia backed Madrid. In the ideological battle truth was an early casualty as the warring forces and their foreign sympathisers spread propaganda exaggerating every atrocity. Incensed by the horror stories or motivated by political commitment, young volunteers set out from the United Kingdom and from Ireland to fight In Spain for their idea of civilisation or of democracy. Others contented themselves with a war of words, and that was a war, which broke out in Ulster in 1936.

Midgley Speaks Out
The Irish News took up the cudgels on behalf of the Insurgents in its editorial of 23 July: 'The Communist Bid In Spain'. A weak Madrid Government was the puppet of Communists intent on controlling Spain and continuing the "campaign of outrage against religion". Ireland was urged to pray that Spain would not "go down in defeat before the enemies of God and nationhood". In the following days, reports appeared of burning and looting of churches and of gross acts of sacrilege. The Irish News glorified the Fascists as those "prepared to fight and die for the ideals of Catholic Spain", believing that Soviet Russia wanted Spain to become "the Russia of Western Europe."

Harry Midgley, the pugnacious Labour MP for Dock at Stormont, was stung into replying. A democratically elected Republican Government was under attack from an alliance of Fascists, Monarchists and aristocrats backed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Far from being the champions of Christianity and civilisation, the Insurgents cynically used churches as forts - leaving the Government forces with no alternative but to attack them - and employed coloured colonial (Moslem) troops to set up a Fascist "white terror". The Spanish masses were fighting to defend "the republic which was established by the blood sacrifice and sorrow of the workers of Spain", and workers in democratic countries should assist them "financially, materially and morally".

There followed a spate of angry letters to the Irish News rebutting Midgley s arguments A Ballycastle correspondent alleged that the majority of Spaniards were hostile to a Madrid Government propped up by Communists and financed by Moscow. Under the guise of defending civil and religious liberty Madrid was at war with religion: "The present Government in Spain believes no more in democracy than does Lord Craigavon, and if force is being used to destroy it, it is because the anti-Government forces have no other remedy." Another reader asserted that Freemasonry, the bitter enemy of the Church, was at work. But that insidious force had, in his view, been checked in Germany and Italy and faced the same fate in Spain. He was full of praise for Mussolini's regime but, nonetheless, rejected Midgley's charge that the Church had compromised with the Italian dictator: "Let me remind him the Church compromises with no one, and what Rome says is final."

Midgley hit back. For equality in every land, he saw the issue in Spain as one of "Liberty or Death". The Moscow subsidy for Madrid was a smear. Instead he pointed readers to the moral worth of Franco's Spanish and foreign supporters: at home backed by men who butchered the workers; in Italy, Austria and Germany, backed by regimes which threw thousands into prisons and concentration camps; while in Abyssinia, Mussolini used poison gas against Christians. In defiant mood, Midgley not only refused to give way to threats of loss of electoral support, but aimed a calculated insult at those who talked of a Red menace: far from being a menace, Communism if honesty applied was the very 'Gospel of Jesus".

Roman Catholic Disapproval
Midgley's stance could not but receive strong Roman Catholic disapproval. The Archbishop of Armagh, Cardinal MacRory, in a Lenten pastoral, warned darkly that "a disguised Communist movement is actually in existence in more than one place here in the Six Counties". The bishop of Down and Connor directed that 6 September should be a Day of Atonement and expiation for the sacrileges in Spain", a call answered by crowds of "fervent worshippers", in diocesan churches where there was a "Solemn Exposition of the Most Blessed Sacrament". The national secretary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians warned Ulster's Roman Catholics not to allow Communists and others to divert them from the great issue of a united Ireland. At 15 August demonstrations the AOH passed a resolution denouncing the "campaign of Anti-Christ, which, under the Satanic flag of Communism - "waged war" - "against God, His Church. and Christian civilisation". One speaker at a demonstration warned that the organisation persecuting the Spanish Church had "crept into Ireland" another saw the AOH as existing to "checkmate Communism" or any other society condemned by the Church.

In this atmosphere of bitterness and suspicion there came to the fore the amiable figure of the Rev Dr Arthur Ryan of Queen's University. In a public lecture on 19 October, he attacked as local bigots those rejoicing at the discomfiture of Spanish Catholicism while ignoring the attack on all religion by the Communist regime in Madrid. The victims of persecution, the Spanish Catholics had accepted the Republican Government only to have their newspapers suspended and religious buildings attacked by Red mobs. It was these outrages which provoked the rightists to rebel. Ryan exhorted local Roman Catholics to support religion generously, and "with the Pope to lead us rally round the standards of the Church, the standards of Christ, whether in Spain or Ireland".

Midgley- Ryan Debate
On the 26th Midgley delivered a lecture in the Labour Hall entitled: "A Reply to Dr Ryan". Three hundred people crowded in, among them Ryan who exchanged friendly greeting with his protagonist. Midgley was sharp in his criticism of a Church which for nearly 450 years had dominated Spain, enjoying "dominion over the spiritual lives of the people" and control of "education, politics, industry, commerce, land policy, and finance". Obstructing any attempt at reform in Spain the Church had earned the hatred of a people which, in their anger, turned on Church properly. There was talk of persecution in present day Spain, but had Ryan protested when a Government including Fascists slaughtered thousands of workers and imprisoned some 30,000? As for the Church in Ireland, it blundered in supporting tyranny in Spain: the Irish 'people would turn and tell it to leave them "to work out their own economic and industrial destiny". His words were blunt and Midgley knew well the likely consequence: "I will probably lose my position in public life as the result of the stand I have taken, but I deny the right of any Church to dictate how I should think on political wilderness and be ostracised by the men whose friendship I cherish.".

Allowed to reply, Ryan employed a narrow definition of democracy and a conveniently wide definition for the right to rebel. For him democracy was not a matter of majorities. of popular support, but of the principle of absolute equality regardless of affiliation. Using his own definition, Ryan excused the support given Fascism by Spanish bishops and priests on the ground that the 1931 Constitution was "completely unfair to them", adding that the Government's seizure of Church land and legal restrictions on religions gave people a right to rebel. On a personal note, Ryan observed that he and Midgley were both Socialists often on the same side; if they now parted company it was because of Midgley's allowing himself to be misled by slogans about democracy and the voice of the people.

In 1938, Midgley was to hear the voice of some of the people: Nationalist Intervention in Dock cost him the seat, his vote slumping from the near 5,000 of three years before to under 2,000. At the declaration of the result, Midgley stood unbowed and proudly proclaimed, "I have preserved my soul, my independence and my character and I will never bow to any dictatorship, theological or otherwise." In those words Midgley expressed the essence of his philosophy the dream he wanted others to share, the dream of a land where intellectual freedom would reign supreme.