Binks, J. Harold (1911–86), trade unionist, was born in Portadown, Co. Armagh, one of several sons of Thomas J. Binks (who was probably the Thomas James Binks, carpenter, resident at 66 Hanover Street, married to Annie S. Binks (née Kelly)). He attended a mixed-denominational infants’ school in Dungannon, Co. Tyrone, an experience that helped form his lasting conviction that ‘if we are educated together we can live and work together in friendship’ (Ir. Times, 25 June 1977). While he was still a schoolboy the family moved to the Ormeau Rd, Belfast. Leaving school to work at age fourteen, and influenced profoundly by the poverty and associated social problems of the area, he read extensively on politics and socialist economics, and became involved in the trade union movement. Joining the Northern Ireland Labour Party owing to the forthright stand of the party leader, Harry Midgley (qv), in support of the Spanish republic on the outbreak of civil war in 1936, within a year Binks was serving on the party executive, and stood unsuccessfully in local government elections. In 1942 he became chairman of the joint council of the Clerical and Administrative Workers’ Union. Serving for thirty-two years as the union's Northern Ireland area secretary–organiser (1944–76), he oversaw an impressive expansion among white-collar workers in several major industries in the region, including Shorts, Harland and Wolff, and James Mackey and Sons. He continued in the position after the British-based union was renamed in 1972 the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical, and Computer Staff (APEX).
Binks was deeply involved in the formation of the Northern Ireland committee of the Irish Trade Union Congress (ITUC), of which he became a member on its formal constitution (1945). After the split in the Irish trade union movement (1945), he vigorously resisted attempts by constitutional unionists to exploit the situation by breaking with southern-based trade unions and forming a separate Northern Ireland congress. As the NI committee's longest serving chairman (1949–64), he secured considerable autonomy for the body within ITUC structures; by the mid 1950s he was regularly presiding over the committee's meetings, and the annual conferences of unions with NI members, in lieu of either the ITUC's president or vice-president (both of whom were members ex officio of the NI committee). He spearheaded trade-union efforts to attain parity with Great Britain in wages, social legislation, and democratic political reform. He led the lengthy campaign for recognition by the Stormont government of the NI committee of the ITUC as the region's representative trade-union centre, finally achieved in 1964.
Binks was first president of the provisional united organisation of the trade union movement, established in 1956 to facilitate the movement's reunification, resulting in the amalgamation in 1959 of the ITUC and Congress of Irish Unions (CIU) into the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU). A long serving member of congress's executive council (1950–67, 1968–70, 1971–2, 1974–7), he was ITUC president in 1956. His multi-faceted prominence in the movement in the 1950s contributed immeasurably to acceptance by northern trade unionists of the movement's reunification. He represented congress at international labour events, including conferences of the International Labour Organization, Geneva, and May Day festivities in Moscow. He was a member of the NI shipbuilding and engineering confederation, Belfast trades council, the economic and social council, and industrial tribunals. During the year before his retirement, he was elected ICTU vice-president to fill a vacancy (1976–7).
Binks firmly believed that a unified working class, organised in the trade union movement, and struggling for economic, social, cultural, and civil objectives, could be the vehicle by which the political divisions of Northern Ireland would be assuaged. An early advocate of ‘partnership’ in government, with neither community dominant, he urged cultural cooperation between north and south in such highly visible arenas as sport as a pathway to reconciliation. A moderate socialist, who exemplified a tradition of radical, agnostic, Ulster labourism, he occupied a middle ground between conservative trade unionists and the small but influential group of Belfast Marxists. Courageous in his convictions, during the 1950s especially he was assailed by both unionists and nationalists as communist, and by the former as pro-catholic. In a highly symbolic gesture, as ITUC president he delivered the oration outside Dublin's GPO at commemorations marking the fortieth anniversary of the death of James Connolly (qv) (1956). During a second stint as chairman of the NI committee of ICTU (1975–7), he mobilised the local trades councils to resist the ten-day loyalist strike of May 1977 against government security policy and direct rule from Westminster. Deriding the strike as an attempt at a ‘fascist coup’, he subsequently hailed the trade unions’ successful maintenance of industrial production and services as ‘our finest hour’ (Ir. Times, 25 June 1977).
Compulsively devoted to his professional responsibilities to the exclusion of leisure activities – he worked seventy-hour weeks, and never took a holiday for twenty-one years – in his youth Binks had been an avid ballroom dancer and energetic hill walker, and also enjoyed watching cricket and supporting Glentoran soccer club. It is not recorded that he married or had children. After attending the opening day of ICTU's annual northern area conference, he died suddenly early the next morning, 30 April 1986, in his home at 83 Killowen Street, east Belfast, survived by three brothers.