Notes on the Socialist Party of Northern Ireland.

This piece comes from an article, Letting Labour Lead: Jack Macgougan and the Pursuit of Unity, 1913-1958. The article was carried in Saothar, No. 14, 1989.

Macgougan, b 1913 was an activist in the labour movement in Belfast.

His "involvement had commenced in the early 1930s.

"I went along to meetings at Custom House steps on Sundays and listened to various speakers from the independent Labour Party (I.L.P). At about this time the I.L.P disaffiliated from the British Labour Party and the Northern Ireland branches left the I.L.P to form the Socialist Party of Northern Ireland (SPNI). The SPNI provided individual membership whereas the NILP was largely affiliated like the trade unions.

The SPNI was an integral part of the NILP but political activity was difficult in those years. "In 1935 there was an outbreak of sectarian rioting coinciding with the Jubilee celebrations and the Labour Hall, where the SPNI were tenants, had its windows broken on two occasions. This was ironic because the I.L.P had had a hall in the Crumlin Road, which was burnt down in the 1920s. The SPNI got a fairly substantial sum of money in compensation but by the time I was elected Secretary in 1935 it had dwindled down to about £1,500, although still a lot of money in the mid-1930s.

Activity in the SPNI gave Macgougan his first experience of political journalism. As SPNI Secretary he was one of two representatives on the editorial board of the Irish Democrat with Victor Halley. Frank Ryan was editor until he went to Spain when he was succeeded by Sean Murray. The Spanish Civil War was an important influence on the young Macgougan.

"Night and day we were at it and we opened up a Relief Fund and support for a Scottish Ambulance Unit. I was on a committee chaired by the Earl of Antrim. He was very fond of Spain and a good public front man. He persuaded Bradley MacColl, later a judge, to chair one of the committees and was very useful at trying to get money from the public. The first big meeting was organised at very short notice for the Labour Hall in York Street and Harry Midgley, Peadar and Billy McCullough were the speakers. There was a bit of trouble at the meeting and some of the hecklers were dealt with in a rough and ready manner and thrown onto the street. It gradually became clear that Midgley was more inspired by anti-Catholicism than the pros of the Spanish Civil War. The second full house we had was at the Ulster Hall with Father Laborda and Peadar O'Donnell. I'd booked the hall but they said that unless you put a deposit of £150 down against damages the booking is cancelled. Much to their surprise we found the £150 and it went over without any trouble. One person shouted 'Up Franco' and was shown the door quite gently. If he hadn't gone easy, it wouldn't have been so gentle…Midgley cried off this meeting. Many felt it was because of the association with O'Donnell and a Catholic priest."

The SPNI's Chair was Fred McMahon who Macgougan recalls was a "real live wire". He went to Spain in 1936 and "didn't come back until his period of office had run out." McMahon then married fellow member Greta Davidson and dropped out of politics to become a successful businessman before, in later years, drifting back to the NILP.


File in the Public Record Office, Balmoral Avenue.

HA/32/1/558 Spanish Medical Aid Relief Committee

  1. 20th September 1936, meeting at Customs House Steps (CHS), attended by 250. Chaired by Victor Halley of 5 Enfield Street.

The R.U.C notes state that this is the first Labour meeting at CHS for 18 months. Halley pointed out that Sir D Stephenson, a Glasgow Liberal, had promised the initial £10,000 needed to send a medical unit to Spain, so the purpose of this meeting and others was to raise the money to pay him back.

Of the 20 people going with the Scottish medical unit, 18 were Scots, 2 from Belfast.

Halley is quoted as saying:

"The 2 Irishmen are members of the Socialist Party. They gave up their jobs and volunteered to go to Spain to assist all those who have been wounded in the fighting there. They don't get any pay and they have given up their jobs. Now these two members of the Socialist Party, Joe Boyd and Fred McMahon, by a mere coincidence happen to be members of 2 different religions, but that did not make any difference. They know that the struggle in Spain was not only the struggle of the Spanish workers but was the struggle of the working class the world over.

"They went with the medical Unit because by doing so they knew they were going to be of some service to those who were sick, to those who were wounded, and to those innocent victims of the Civil War into which the officer caste has plunged Spain. The Unit has taken more than 100 miles of bandages and many large boxes of anti-gas and anti-tetanus serums."

Labour Movement Responses