The late Tony Benn: remembered in Belfast

Tony Benn

Tony Benn

By Steven McCaffery

TONY Benn famously kept diaries and he encouraged the people he met to do likewise – even journalists.

So on the day of his death, and 14 years after interviewing him, it is an easy task to go to the files and retrieve the notes.

What is incredible is that the comments he made in March 2000 about the Northern Ireland peace process are just as relevant today.

The night before our interview was due to take place all those years ago in London, he telephoned to say his wife was ill in hospital.

But he insisted that meeting early in the morning would help distract him until hospital visiting time began.

He lived on a corner of Kensington and Chelsea and at 6.30am the streets were still quiet.

A light drizzle darkened the steps that led down to the door of his basement office.

There was a warm greeting, followed by coffee that he made in a small kitchen.

In his office we sat on white plastic garden chairs, with the morning sun shining across the room towards the shelves of folders that held the diaries he kept throughout his life.

The former cabinet minister, left-wing campaigner, and anti-war activist was an early supporter of the peace process.

He met Gerry Adams with Labour colleague Ken Livingstone in the 1980s.

But while unionists disagreed strongly with his views on the `Irish question’, they at least knew where they stood with him.

He was up-front about his beliefs and, agree with his views or not, there was a refreshing absence of spin.

Very few media interviews begin with the politician refusing all questions on the grounds that first: “I should give you my background”.

He added: “I was brought up as a supporter of the Irish cause. My grandfather was elected in 1892 as a Home Ruler. My dad was in parliament when the black and tans were in Ireland and he moved an amendment to the Queen’s speech.

“The interest has always been in my blood.”

In 2000 he was aged 74 and was still an MP, but he had announced his intention to retire from the House of Commons, “to spend more time on politics”.

He was critical of many aspects of the Labour government led by Tony Blair and sensed a growing disenchantment among voters.

“They got rid of the Tories – new leader, new Labour, new everything.

“And then, all of a sudden, the recognition that they are not being represented anymore, they are being managed.

“Even I have a fax machine, and it comes in every morning with a brief from Millbank Tower, telling me what I am expected to say on everything, whereas actually I am elected to represent my constituents and my convictions.”

He was first elected to the House of Commons in 1950 and became one of the great parliamentarians.

His recollections of how government viewed Northern Ireland down through the decades foreshadowed some of the concerns that hang over the peace process today.

“Northern Ireland was not an issue in British politics until the civil rights movement,” he said.

“I was in the cabinet in ’69 when we sent the troops in, but even then you couldn’t get anyone in Dublin to take any interest.

“People in Britain were not particularly interested.

“The cabinet never discussed Northern Ireland in the period ’66 through to ’70, I don’t think.

“Indeed we didn’t discuss it much in ’74.

“We discussed it briefly at the time of the Birmingham bombing and of course arrested innocent men.

“We discussed it briefly during the Ulster Workers’ strike.

“But the British aren’t really interested in Ireland unless there’s trouble. And if there is trouble – then it’s too sensitive to deal with.

“Of course, I have always thought that the one thing the unionists and nationalists have in common is neither of them trusted Britain and they are right.”

His wife, Caroline, died from cancer towards the end of 2000.

The couple met as students at Oxford and he proposed to her nine days later on a park bench, which he subsequently bought and kept in the garden of their home.

When asked about his political legacy, he nodded towards his diaries: “I haven’t written memoirs where you remember triumphs and forget failures. All my failures are meticulously chronicled.

“But I think if I was to look on the cheerful side, I would say two things: I have never argued a case I didn’t believe in for the purpose of personal promotion.

“Second thing is – when I look at the things I have campaigned for – I have planted a few little acorns and you find a surprising number of trees growing.

“If I am remembered at all – and very few people are – I’d like somebody to put on my gravestone: ‘Tony Benn, he encouraged us’.

“I’d like to think I have encouraged people.”