Harry Midgley and the Spanish Civil War
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.
A Thesis at Queens University Belfast, 1966.
Shortly after the start of the July rebellion of that year
 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 LEcho
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 LEcho 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
"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
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
This piece is reprinted from New Ulster, the journal of the
Ulster Society, a unionist history magazine in Northern Ireland. Issue 2, Winter 1986
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
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
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.
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