Thursday 17 January 2019

Analysis: Many never wanted to go to London - but they faced reality

Palace of Westminster. Photo: PA
Palace of Westminster. Photo: PA
John Downing

John Downing

Few people remember Frank Maguire these days.

Perhaps the easiest way to stoke memories of him is to say that he was the man whose sudden death in March 1981 opened the way for a by-election in Fermanagh South Tyrone which gave the entire world the epic story of Bobby Sands, the IRA hunger striker who became an MP.

Frank Maguire was an unusual man. Born in Gort, in Co Galway, he had family links in the Fermanagh area. He was an IRA activist and one of the so-called "fifties men" involved in those quixotic Border campaigns with people like Seán Sabhat and Feargal O'Hanlon.

By 1974 he was a very successful publican in Lisnaskea, Co Fermanagh, and 'Frank's Bar' was a busy place. That was when he was elected as 'an Independent Republican' candidate and MP for the Westminster parliament.

Frank Maguire was not an 'abstainer' but he was a very sporadic attender at the London parliament. Apart from anything else, his pub business was thriving.

But embattled British Labour prime minister Jim Callaghan did avail on a few occasions of Frank Maguire's vote to stay in power as his government's support continued to fall away in the period 1976-1979. A few times Frank Maguire showed up and did the business for Mr Callaghan and British Labour, but they could never entirely rely on it happening.

In March 1979, Jim Callaghan's administration was completely on the brink. An Irish-friendly Labour emissary was despatched to Lisnaskea to ensure Frank Maguire would make a scarce Westminster appearance.

It was a hard sell for the London legate. Eventually he had to spell out a no fuss door-to-door itinerary from Lisnaskea to central London. Thus Frank Maguire promised to attend.

March 28, 1979, was a busy and excited night in the Palace of Westminster as everyone speculated on whether Jim Callaghan could survive another knife-edge vote.

The Labour Party emissary was happy to see Frank Maguire ensconced in the bar flanked by Welsh and Scottish colleagues and all of them happily imbibing.

Time moved relentlessly to the witching hour and the vital vote. But Frank Maguire hugged the bar and seemed immovable.

"Frank, Frank, come on ... you'll miss the vote," the Labour man plaintively called.

"Vote? Nobody said anything about a vote to me. I came to abstain in person," the Fermanagh South Tyrone declared. Prime minister Jim Callaghan's government was defeated. Cue somebody called Margaret Thatcher.

But the bigger point is that Irish people have many times cut a dash and made a difference in the London parliament. Many of them never, ever, wanted to be there - but they faced the realities of life as it is.

That is the challenge coming at Sinn Féin.

Irish Independent

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