McAteer, Edward Gerard (Eddie) (1914–86), politician, was born at Coatbridge, Scotland, in June 1914, the eldest of four sons of immigrants from Donegal. His parents were Hugh McAteer and Brigid McAteer, née O'Doherty. His father, a native Irish speaker from Fanad, moved the family to Derry when Eddie was two and found work there as a dock labourer. The young Eddie was educated at the Brow of the Hill Christian Brothers’ secondary school in Derry. In 1930 he entered a competitive examination for the British civil service and secured a post in the inland revenue department at Enniskillen, but afterwards returned to Derry to set up his own accountancy practice.
The future nationalist leader had his first encounter with the Northern Ireland authorities in 1936, when he was arrested along with his father and three brothers on arms charges. He was subsequently released when his brother Hugh accepted responsibility for the weapons. The two brothers were close but while Hugh McAteer (qv) was to become chief of staff of the IRA during the second world war, Eddie maintained that only a patient, peaceful, constitutional approach by Irish nationalists would lead to the reunification of Ireland.
With the ending of the second world war, northern nationalist opinion swung back towards a policy of attendance at both Stormont and Westminster after a decade of barren abstentionism. There was a new emphasis on forging a united front among the various nationalist factions in an effort to force Britain to end partition. Against this background, McAteer, who was already prominent in the GAA and Irish-language movement in Derry, was elected MP for the rural constituency of Mid-Derry in 1945, one of ten nationalist MPs returned to the post-war Northern Ireland parliament. In November 1945 he was instrumental in convening a conference of ‘nationally minded’ groups at Dungannon, Co. Tyrone. The result was the formation of the Irish Anti-Partition League (APL) which aimed to unite all those opposed to partition into a solid block. McAteer, now aged thirty-one, became a vice-chairman of the organisation, which was led by James McSparran (qv), MP, a prominent catholic barrister. The league, the first real constitutional nationalist organisation since the National League founded by Joseph Devlin (qv) in the 1920s, sought to unite Fianna Fáil supporters such as McAteer, old-style nationalists, and former republicans.
McAteer threw himself enthusiastically into the anti-partition campaign, addressing rallies in Ireland and Britain. He was encouraged by the Labour victory in Britain in 1945, expressing the hope that the Attlee government might ‘listen with sympathy when the claim of a united Ireland was made to them’ (Irish News, 20 May 1946). However, he was deeply disappointed by the Ireland Act of 1949, which reinforced partition by making constitutional change dependent on the consent of the unionist parliament. His frustration with the APL's failure to dent partition led him to advocate a campaign of civil disobedience by the nationalist population in a pamphlet which he published in 1948 preceding the passing of the Ireland Act. Nationalists, he argued, should adopt the policies of Gandhi and Charles Stewart Parnell (qv) and seek by passive resistance to ‘render government impossible’. They should shun pro-British events and adopt an obstructive attitude towards government agencies. Such a policy did not commend itself to the nationalist ‘old guard’ and it was not widely endorsed.
During the late 1940s and 1950s McAteer never lost an opportunity to expose the naked injustice of gerrymandering in Derry corporation, where a unionist majority had exercised exclusive power since 1922. In 1951 he staged a protest by nationalist councillors during a visit by the governor of Northern Ireland. On St Patrick's day in the same year he organised a nationalist march in Derry city centre, an area reserved for unionist processions, which resulted in a government ban and the batoning of the marchers by the RUC. Elected to the corporation in 1952, he used aggressive tactics to highlight gerrymandering and discrimination in jobs and housing.
In 1953 McAteer, now seen as one of the nationalist party's most dynamic representatives, decided to shift his political base from Mid-Derry to the city seat of Foyle, thus challenging the sitting MP and veteran nationalist, Paddy Maxwell. In a bitter internecine contest McAteer made clear his opposition to Maxwell's individualistic and abstentionist stance and won the seat by a majority of almost 2,000 votes. McAteer strongly supported the northern nationalists’ request in the early 1950s for seats in Dáil Éireann and was disappointed when the John A. Costello (qv) government rejected their demand. With characteristic bluntness he retorted: ‘Evidently, the two main parties in the Dáil are determined that no reproachful voice from the North will disturb their Kathleen Mavourneen policy on partition’ (Irish News, 15 Nov. 1954). His own request in 1954 for ‘a right of audience’ in the southern legislature was similarly denied by the Irish government.
By the mid-1950s McAteer was already being viewed as a future leader of northern nationalism. Like the Irish government and his party, he condemned the IRA's border campaign of 1956–62, while claiming that republican violence was ‘the harvest of years of Unionist oppression’ (Irish News, 15 Dec. 1956). Despite his forthright statements, McAteer was convinced that the nationalist party should project an attitude of reasonableness in Northern Ireland politics. To this end he instigated the so-called ‘Orange and Green talks’ of 1962–3 between his colleague Senator J. G. Lennon (qv) of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Sir George Clark (qv), grand master of the Orange order. McAteer expressed his hope that the dialogue would remove ‘the stigma of discrimination’ (Lynn, 157) in the north and foster an atmosphere of tolerance and mutual respect. The agenda, which he helped to draw up, ranged over such issues as discrimination, unemployment, and nationalist under-representation on statutory bodies. However, the talks collapsed when the Orange leadership made nationalist recognition of the north's constitutional position a pre-condition. McAteer would later claim that his ‘olive branch’ to Orangeism had paved the way for the improvement in cross-border relations in the mid 1960s.
In May 1964, on the death of the old-style Redmondite Joseph Stewart (qv), McAteer became leader of the nationalist parliamentary group of ten members. By this stage the party was under mounting pressure from sections of the newly emerging catholic middle class – products of the 1947 Education Act – in ginger groups such as National Unity (later to become the National Democratic Party) and the Campaign for Social Justice, to transform itself from ‘a collection of local notables’ into a modern, accountable, political party, geared to current realities and constructive opposition. McAteer was aware of the need for the nationalists to adopt a more modern image, especially after the party's embarrassing failure to confront Sinn Féin in the 1964 Westminster general election; but he was suspicious that groups like National Unity were really seeking to take over the traditional party. Despite this he cooperated with his critics in the National Political Front established at a conference at Maghery, Co. Armagh, in 1964, and opened (ultimately fruitless) negotiations with Gerry Fitt (qv) of the left-wing Republican Labour Party on the possibility of creating a single anti-partition party. As a result of his reforms, the nationalist party held its first annual conference in 1966.
McAteer's initiative was overtaken by the meeting between prime minister Terence O'Neill (qv) and taoiseach Seán Lemass (qv) in January 1965, and he was to find himself challenged to respond to the ending of the ‘cold war’ between north and south. To McAteer the historic summit was yet another example of Dublin's lack of consideration towards the northern nationalists. Of his numerous meetings with Irish ministers he said: ‘We are the bastard children of the Republic; sometimes they must needs acknowledge us, but generally speaking they try to keep their distance’ (Curran, 37–8). In Dublin, he remarked, ‘I got hospitality, but little real support’ (ibid.). He was especially suspicious of Lemass, who tended to blame the northern impasse on the intransigence of both unionists and nationalists. However, at Lemass's urging, and against his own inclination, he agreed to the nationalists’ becoming the official opposition at Stormont in February 1965. He later said that the unionist government had failed to reciprocate his gesture, which amounted to a de facto acceptance of partition, and cited this as evidence that O'Neill was insincere in his bridge-building activities. For McAteer the turning-point came with the O'Neill government's decision in 1965 to site a new university in the unionist market town of Coleraine rather than in nationalist Derry. His rapid disillusionment with O'Neillism and the lack of serious measures to end ‘the era of discrimination’ convinced him of the urgent need to raise nationalist disabilities with the British government. He met the home secretary, Roy Jenkins, in 1966 but the Labour government proved reluctant to intervene in the north's ‘internal affairs’.
McAteer was suspicious of the burgeoning civil rights movement in the late 1960s, feeling that street protests might spark a sectarian conflagration. He warned O'Neill of the ‘smell of sulphur’ in the air and predicted that the decision to ban the fateful civil rights march in Derry on 5 October 1968 would ‘prove the greatest mistake by a Stormont government since the inception of the state’ (quoted by Frank Curran, Derry Journal, 28 Mar. 1986). McAteer was batoned at the march and saw his prediction fulfilled, as the Wilson government forced O'Neill to introduce much needed reforms. When the prime minister announced his five-point reform package in November 1968 McAteer felt that the nationalist community should recognise the problems O'Neill faced within his own party and counselled moderation: ‘I would like to give it a chance. It is half a loaf’ (Lynn, 214). His cautious tone antagonised the growing civil rights movement and paved the way for his defeat by its rising leader, John Hume, in Foyle at the ‘crossroads’ general election of February 1969.
The election highlighted the essential difference between McAteer's traditionalist approach and the urgent demand of the civil rights movement for ‘British rights for British subjects’ espoused by Hume. To McAteer the civil rights movement was too ‘six-county orientated’, and had downgraded the importance of the border issue. His defeat by more than 3,500 votes was more comprehensive than anyone had expected, but he accepted it with dour humour, remarking: ‘It's a right day for a funeral’ (obit., Derry Journal, 28 Mar. 1986). He never held public office again, being defeated as a unity candidate in the Westminster election of 1970 and in the subsequent Northern Ireland assembly elections of 1973. By then the nationalist party itself had disappeared, eclipsed by the SDLP.
A big man physically, ‘Big Eddie’, as he was affectionately known, had a ready wit and a facility for colourful expression. Beginning his career on the militant wing of nationalism, he had come by the late 1950s to favour a policy of conciliation towards unionism in the hope of eradicating nationalist grievances. His aim, as he told O'Neill in 1963, was ‘to lift the scowl from the image of our mutually beloved North’ (Lynn, 161). In his efforts to promote reconciliation he went so far as to urge that the sectarian Ancient Order of Hibernians dissolve itself in 1967 but was unsuccessful. By the 1960s he favoured a federal Ireland, with the Northern Ireland parliament retaining its regional powers.
McAteer saw the need to modernise the archaic structure of the nationalist party after he assumed the leadership in 1964, but he failed to detect the sea change in minority attitudes symbolised by the rise of the civil rights movement. With his party, he was swept aside by the new militant street politics of the late 1960s. He had no answer to the devastating charges of critics such as Hume, who accused the nationalists of offering only ‘the comfortable leadership of flags and slogans’ (articles by John Hume, Ir. Times, 18, 19 May 1964) instead of constructive opposition. He saw his personal defeat as evidence that many northern catholics had abandoned the aspiration of a united Ireland, but he felt sure, as he told the playwright Brian Friel (qv) in 1969, that ‘they will return when they have filled themselves with the mess of British rights and welfare benefits’ (Lynn, 221).
Eddie McAteer and his wife Rose had four sons and six daughters. His son Fergus McAteer founded the Irish Independence Party in 1977. After a short illness, Eddie McAteer died 25 March 1986 at Altnagelvin Hospital, Derry, aged seventy-two. In a tribute the SDLP leader, John Hume, described him as ‘a highly respected national figure throughout his long period of dedicated service to the people of Derry and Ireland as a whole’ (Derry Journal, 28 Mar. 1986). In the late 1960s the pro-union Belfast Telegraph had described McAteer as ‘the most pragmatic leader’ nationalism had ever produced. He symbolised the moderate face of nationalism and many shared the view of his erstwhile colleague Austin Currie that ‘if he had been met half-way in the mid-1960s’ (obit., Derry Journal, 28 Mar. 1986), the history of Northern Ireland might have been different.