Midgley, Henry Cassidy (‘Harry’) (1892–1957), trade unionist and politician, was born 8 September 1892 at 59 Seaview St., Belfast, third child and eldest son among two daughters and three sons of Alexander Midgley (1860–99), shipyard labourer, originally of Lurgan, Co. Armagh, and Elizabeth Midgley (née Cassidy; c.1862–1929), also of Lurgan. His father had declined to enter a family linen-trade manufacturing business, and emigrated for a time to Australia (c.1880–90), before settling in Belfast. Living in the protestant Tigers Bay area of north Belfast, after his father's early death (1899) the family suffered severe privation, supported largely by his mother's working at stitching handkerchiefs. On his mother's insistence, he remained full-time at Duncairn Gardens national school until age twelve, then worked two years as a grocer's helper before commencing as apprentice joiner in the Workman & Clark shipyard. Attracted early to socialism, he attended the Socialist Sunday School of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), and canvassed for William Walker (qv) in his third unsuccessful Westminster campaign (1907). Debuting as a public speaker at age fourteen at ILP Sunday meetings at Belfast's Custom House steps, he worked diligently to hone his technique and matured into one of the most effective political orators of his day. He supported the separatist socialist republicanism of James Connolly (qv) against Walker's British-linked labourism in the controversies of 1911–12.
‘Workers' champion’ Emigrating to the USA, Midgley worked at labouring jobs, and joined the moderate American Federation of Labor (1912–14). At home in Belfast on holiday at the outbreak of the first world war, he enlisted in the 36th (Ulster) Div.; serving initially with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, he transferred in 1917 to 150th Field Company of the Royal Engineers. Attaining the rank of lance corporal, he was wounded and gassed. He believed that the revulsion throughout Europe to the horrors of the war made more likely an imminent realisation of socialist ideals of brotherhood and peace. While on leave in Belfast in August 1918, he married Eleanor Adgey, also of north Belfast; they would have two sons and two daughters. After his demobilisation (May 1919), the couple lived with her family in Hillman St. while Midgley worked as shipyard joiner with Harland & Wolff until his appointment (January 1920) as organising secretary of the Irish Linenlappers’ and Warehouse Workers’ Union, a full-time permanent office that he held until 1942 (remaining after the Linenlappers’ absorption (1926) into the National Union of Distributive and Allied Workers (NUDAW)).
With his gift for flamboyant, eloquent, frequently acerbic oratory – which admirers found to be fluent and forceful, but detractors adjudged as excessively verbose and painfully florid – he rose swiftly to prominence in the Belfast labour movement, active in both the ILP and the Belfast Labour Party (BLP), and commencing a long association with the Belfast Co-operative Society (management committee member from 1923). A small, wiry, swarthy man with black hair and bushy eyebrows, he had a voice that was penetrating, coaxing, and mellifluous. He highlighted the plight of unemployed ex-servicemen, extolled the revolutionary workers’ uprisings in Russia and Germany, and urged municipalisation of distribution of essential commodities. With the Belfast labour majority he supported all-Ireland home rule with close ties to the UK, and opposed partition as likely to sunder the Irish labour movement, thereby facilitating the evolution of two reactionary capitalist states. When the expulsion of catholic workers from the shipyards by loyalist mobs was followed by similar attacks on leftist protestants (July 1920), Midgley was among the trade-union leaders targeted for particular abuse. Independent labour candidate in Belfast East in the May 1921 elections for the Northern Ireland parliament, he came last with a mere 645 first-preference votes in a turn-out of some 35,000. As BLP secretary (1922–4), he initiated a rapid invigoration of grassroots organisation, contributing to dramatically improved labour performances in both the December 1923 and October 1924 UK general elections. BLP candidate in Belfast West, despite attacks on his meetings in the protestant Sandy Row and Shankill, he attracted considerable cross-sectarian support. With the nationalists boycotting both elections, he was twice defeated by sitting unionist MP Robert Lynn (qv), editor of the Northern Whig, but polled over 21,000 votes each time out, accounting for 47 per cent in the 1923 contest, and 40 per cent in the three-way 1924 race with Sinn Féin.
The reconstitution (March 1924) of the BLP as the Labour Party (Northern Ireland) – renamed by 1930 the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) – of which Midgley was briefly secretary (1924–5), signified pragmatic accommodation to the reality of partition coupled with an intent to extend organisation throughout the six counties. Narrowly elected to Belfast City Council (January 1925), he commenced a lengthy tenure (Dock ward councillor (1925–9) and alderman (1929–43); Ormeau ward councillor (1946–9). Affable, unceremonious, and solicitous, he proved highly adept at the personal, clientelist flavour of local politics, thereby building a substantial support base. Styled ‘the workers’ champion’ and promoting labour's ‘municipal charter’, he concentrated on educational issues, pushing for free schoolbooks and meals. Faced with red-baiting by nationalist and unionist adversaries alike, and accusations of covert republicanism from the latter, he continued to adopt militantly leftist positions in local and British politics. A prolific polemicist, he contributed to party and trade-union organs and to the leftist Scottish journal Forward. After election as NILP chairman (1932–8, 1939–42), he dominated the party through the force of his personality and electoral popularity. Critical of the direct-action militancy of Belfast's small but highly active communist movement, he insisted on peaceful, constitutional methods and ballot-box democracy towards redressing the massive unemployment generated by the depression. Mustering an especially devoted personal following in catholic areas (where his photograph illuminated by votive lamps decorated many a front window), he campaigned on platforms festooned with the tricolour and was elected to the Stormont parliament for Belfast's Dock division (1933–8).
Spanish crucible The watershed of Midgley's career was the fierce controversy aroused in catholic circles by his outspoken support for the republican side in the Spanish civil war (1936–9). Regarding the conflict as a critical theatre in the struggle between democracy and fascism, with the very survival of western civilisation at stake, he collided with those who viewed the struggle in equally apocalyptic terms as a titanic contest between Christianity and atheism. While demonstrating notable political and moral courage amid the timid quietism of the mainstream labour movement, his polemicism was frequently intemperate and gratuitously provocative to religious sensibilities. The controversy crystallised his changing attitude to partition, and accompanied a moderation of his socialism. Identifying nationalism as the progenitor of fascism, he described southern Ireland as governed by an economically regressive, socially insular ‘catholic nationalism’. He urged close cooperation among labour movements throughout the British commonwealth, which he extolled as a bulwark in the defence of democracy, and a potential instrument for worldwide social progress and international cooperation. Abandoned en masse by catholic voters and harassed out of their areas, in the January 1938 Stormont election against both nationalist and unionist opponents he suffered disastrous defeat, plummeting to the bottom of the poll on 1,923 votes (24 per cent). Deeply embittered, thereafter he castigated the catholic church as a backward, reactionary influence in human affairs, inherently opposed to the principles of individual liberty rooted in the protestant reformation.
Commonwealth Labour and wartime minister Midgley's home in Belfast's Duncairn Gardens was badly damaged in the German blitz (April–May 1941), his family joining the thousands who evacuated the area. Attacking the laxity of Stormont and Northern Ireland industry in mobilising manpower effectively into war production – charges made less stridently by UUP backbenchers and Westminster ministers – he scored a massive upset victory (his 7,209 votes amounting to 75 per cent of the total) in a December 1941 by-election in Belfast's Willowfield division (1941–57), indicative of broad public discontent. His ‘Declaration of policy’ (20 November 1942), committing the NILP to support for Northern Ireland's constitutional position within the UK, signified an open challenge to party anti-partitionists and neutrals covetous of party unity, and precipitated Midgley's resignation from the party (15 December 1942), removal from his long-held NUDAW office, and launch of the Commonwealth Labour Party (CWLP), with himself as chairman. Seeking support among the skilled protestant workforce, the new party combined constitutional unionism with social progressivism, endorsing comprehensive post-war welfare-state reconstruction – adumbrated by the 1942 Beveridge report – as a stepping stone towards the more complete socialism of communal ownership and control of industry. Appointed minister of public security (1943–4) in the new quasi-coalition cabinet formed by Sir Basil Brooke (qv), Midgley – the first non-UUP Stormont minister – tirelessly toured the province working to maintain civilian morale and civil defence readiness. As minister of labour (1944–5), concerned that an expected post-war influx of former British servicemen from southern Ireland, attracted by superior employment prospects and social services, would ‘gravitate to the disloyal element in our population’, he enacted a policy of granting the necessary residence permits only when warranted by the labour situation.
After resignation from the wartime cabinet, Midgley secured comfortable reelection to Stormont (June 1945), and unsuccessfully contested the July 1945 UK election in Belfast South, placing second with over 14,000 votes. The lone CWLP member of parliament, he was estranged from every other grouping on the opposition benches. His long-standing political and personal feud with Jack Beattie (qv), anti-partitionist and variously NILP and independent labour MP, erupted into fisticuffs on the floor of the house (October 1945). Long an advocate, on socialist principles, of a comprehensive, non-denominational, publicly funded and controlled school system, he further embittered his relations with nationalist politicians and catholic clerics with vehement criticisms of the levels of state grants to voluntary schools, the majority of which were catholic. Voting with the UUP government on such welfare-state measures as housing, family allowances, and national insurance, he moved to a social democratic outlook that he believed compatible with prevailing UUP policy, favouring central planning combined with a vigorous private sector.
Unionist minister Contending that the renewed campaign against partition, both north and south of the border, necessitated unequivocal unionist unity, Midgley resigned abruptly as CWLP chairman and entered the unionist party (September 1947). He also joined the Orange order, and subsequently the Royal Black Preceptory. In the February 1949 Stormont election, soon after the declaration of the republic by the Dublin government, he enjoyed the most resounding election victory of his career, drawing 85 per cent of the vote. Briefly minister of labour and national insurance (November 1949–January 1950), amid a cabinet crisis arising from protestant disquiet with terms of the 1947 education act, he was shifted to minister of education (1950–57). Notwithstanding his trenchant criticisms of educational policy, he proved pragmatic once in office, and oversaw a departmental review concluding that fundamental change in the education system was not possible. Failing to secure cabinet approval for a policy of inducing voluntary schools by a phased reduction in grants to accept ‘four and two’ management committees comprising parental and civic representation, he conceded publicly that voluntary schools were an ‘inevitable and essential’ component of education in Northern Ireland. While expansion of the new system of secondary intermediate schools mandated by the 1947 act was delayed for some years amid recalcitrance within local authorities and economic stagnation, after 1953 progress was rapid, allowing Midgley to intensify the construction of new school buildings, and raise the school leaving age to 15 (1957). He made important strides in teacher training, provision of state scholarships, and education for disabled students. Though a competent administrator, he alienated senior civil servants with the ebullient informality of his style.
Countering his ministerial moderation with demagogic rhetoric, he delighted unionist hard-liners on constitutional and sectarian issues. He counselled protestants not to sell lands for the building of catholic schools, asserted that ‘all the minority are traitors’, and described the Vatican and the Kremlin as competing, but equivalent, centres of authoritarian tyranny. His equation of the British commonwealth with ‘all that is best in the human race’ had racist overtones in an age of anti-colonial awakening.
A member in early adulthood of Agnes St. presbyterian church, in the 1920s he attended the York St. unitarian church of socialist clergyman A. L. Agnew. After the second world war, he lived on Cedar Avenue. His last residence was at 5 Knutsford Drive. A fervent supporter and sometime chairman of Linfield football club, he was an avid reader of novels, and a passionate devotee of classical music and grand opera. After falling ill while attending the conference of the Ulster Teachers’ Union, he suffered a heart attack in his home and died the next day (29 April 1957). He was buried from Carlisle Memorial methodist church.