Blease, William John ('Billy') (1914–2008), Baron Blease of Cromac, trade unionist and politician, was born 28 May 1914 in Gosford Street, off the Ormeau Road, Belfast, eldest of three sons and one daughter of William John Blease (1886–1954), restaurant chef and trade-union activist, and his wife Sarah (née Watts), housemaid (d. 1950). The family soon moved to McClure Street, also in the Ormeau area, where Blease grew up. Blease's father was English, and settled in Belfast after his family's Liverpool-based hide-and-skin business failed. Blease's parents were mildly labourist in their views, with some sympathy for the independent unionist Thomas Henry Sloan (qv).
Early life and career
Blease was educated at McClure Street public elementary school, and began working at the age of nine in a local barber's shop after school hours. In 1929 he became an apprentice chef; although he retained a lifelong fondness for cooking, Blease soon left to become an apprentice and messenger boy at a high-class grocer's shop in Shaftesbury Square. At the same time, he attended night classes in Belfast's technical institute. Blease retained lifelong memories of the unemployment and poverty of 1930s Belfast and the 1931 outdoor relief protests, and this motivated him for the rest of his life. After his five-year apprenticeship, he became an assistant in charge of a counter in the Stewart's Cash Stores chain, and later shop manager at the Oldpark Road branch, an unusually rapid rise. In 1938 he joined the National Union of Distributive and Allied Workers (later National Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (NUSDAW)).
In the late 1930s, Blease helped to organise youth camps for unemployed youths and children of the unemployed. In the process, he took up amateur boxing, first at the YMCA and then the Red Triangle Club, which acted as 'a sort of further education college' where he was tutored in ringcraft and the English language by Knox Cunningham (qv). Blease's boxing ended late in 1938 when he smashed his right knee against a vaulting horse while training; the injury was compounded by flawed treatment, which kept him in hospital for seven months. He lost a kneecap and acquired a permanent limp.
Blease married (July 1939) Eva (Sarah Evelyn) Calwell (d. 1995), who had grown up near him in McClure Street, attending the same elementary school and the same Sunday school. They began married life in rented accommodation off the Donegall Road. Blease's accident left them reliant on Eva's wages as a stitcher (30s. a week) while Blease received six shillings a week unemployment assistance (accompanied by visits from 'assistance officers' who suggested the Bleases should sell their furniture). 'It was humiliating to have to depend on Eva … it helped me to see … sickness and unemployment as part of life' (Belfast Telegraph, 21 June 1972).
Into the labour movement, 1940–60
In 1940 Blease found work in the shipyards as a clerk and security watchman (this allowed him to work overtime, compensating for the loss of Eva's income as their first children were born), and joined the National Union of General and Municipal Workers. He witnessed the horrors of the Belfast blitz (April–May 1941). In 1943 he joined the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) in the Cromac constituency. During his hospital convalescence Blease experienced a religious conversion (influenced by Eva, who was more religious than he), and subsequently taught Sunday school with Eva at the McClure Street mission hall and helped to run a weekly children's service. (During Blease's later struggle to secure official recognition for the Northern Ireland Committee of the ICTU, the trade unionist David Bleakley (b. 1925) publicly described Blease as 'a solid Ulsterman, a good presbyterian who goes to church and sends his children to church' (Mulholland, 85)). Blease always remained a presbyterian, and in later life served on the church's board of social witness, though he grew increasingly informal in church attendance and doctrinal matters.
In 1945 Blease became provisions chargehand in the Clifton branch of the Belfast Co-operative Society's stores, and returned to NUSDAW. He was elected to the union branch committee in 1947, later progressing to the divisional council – involving monthly meetings in Liverpool – and the national council. (He was promoted to branch manager in 1948, but reverted to assistant to have more time for trade-union activities.) Blease also pursued further education through the National Council of Labour Colleges and the Workers' Educational Association, gaining nine NCLC correspondence-course certificates, becoming an NCLC voluntary lecturer, and finishing up as chairman of the Belfast labour college and a representative on the NCLC's national council (1948–61). Like many activists of his era, Blease saw the labour movement as not merely about higher wages but promoting workers' self-improvement through sport, education and the arts; he believed such shared cultural activities could bridge the communal divisions of Northern Ireland. In these years he developed the skills of compromise, committee management, and understanding a situation as a whole which led him in later years to be regarded as 'the ideal committee man' (Belfast Telegraph, 21 June 1972) – though he could display a sharp tongue and a short temper at moments of particular exasperation.
In the late 1940s Blease became secretary of the Cromac Labour party and of the South Belfast Federation of Labour Parties, and served on the NILP executive (1949–59) (with one year as deputy chairman). As an NILP member, he accepted the constitutional position of Northern Ireland, believing labour politics were best achieved in the British context. (He modified this view somewhat in later life, and as early as 1958 he was calling for extensive North–South economic cooperation.) He stood unsuccessfully for Belfast Corporation in the Cromac (1951) and Clifton wards, and for the Stormont parliament in the 1953 general election in the Oldpark constituency. He faced violent opposition, at one point being dragged off an election platform outside his parents' front door in McClure Street by a mob including former schoolmates; he got a black eye and his election agent was beaten up. When contesting the Oldpark Stormont constituency, Blease became known as 'the singing candidate' because he ended his meetings by singing 'If you can help somebody', rather than 'God save the queen'. (He was always fond of the music of Percy French (qv) and of 1930s sentimental songs.) Blease's defeat on this occasion was assisted by the intervention of an 'Irish Labour' candidate (the combined labour vote was only 200 less than the victorious unionist).
Blease subsequently decided that his trade-union activities came before electoral politics, though he remained active in the NILP until its demise, and took a leading role in attempting to resolve the divisions caused in 1964 by the refusal of some party councillors to support party policy on Sunday opening of Belfast parks. (Eva also held a number of small NILP posts.)
Northern Ireland officer, ICTU
By 1959 Blease was assistant manager of the co-operative store in Oldpark, and won a three-month Ford Foundation scholarship to visit the USA. While there, he applied for, and was later (June 1960) appointed to, the position of Northern Ireland officer for the southern-based Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU). This was a risky decision, since it involved a reduction in wages and a degree of job insecurity (some expected ICTU's Northern Ireland Committee (NIC) – and with it, Blease's job – to disappear within months of his appointment). The position had only been founded in 1956 and had little prestige; the ICTU kept the NIC (founded in 1944) on a tight rein for fear it might secede, while the Stormont government refused to recognise the NIC (because it was based in a foreign country), and appointed trade-union members to official bodies on an individual basis. There was some support within the trade-union movement for an independent Northern Ireland trade union congress, or for affiliation to the British TUC; Blease consistently opposed such proposals on the grounds that they involved political dictation about trade-union structures, would divide Northern Irish trade unions along sectarian lines, encourage provincialism, and hinder legitimate cross-border cooperation on matters of common concern.
At Blease's behest, the NIC raised its profile in the early 1960s by orchestrating protests against rising unemployment rates and campaigning to secure continued British support for the Harland and Wolff shipyard and Short Brothers aerospace factory. (Blease was the principal author of Facing the issues (1962), an ICTU pamphlet on unemployment.) This, combined with British moves towards structured worker–employer cooperation and the growing prospect of a British Labour government, pressurised the governments of Lord Brookeborough (qv) and Terence O'Neill (qv) to recognise the NIC, despite continuing opposition from hard-line backbenchers. The decisive conflict came in 1963–4 when ICTU included Blease among its six nominees for the new Northern Ireland Economic Council (NIEC). The government initially refused to accept Blease, because his appointment was tantamount to recognising the NIC, but backed down after a trade-union boycott forced the suspension of the NIEC while some employers and church representatives backed Blease. As a result, the NIC became an influential interlocutor with the government, appointing representatives (including Blease) to various official bodies and exerting control over contacts between government and trade unions. This reflected Blease's own deeply entrenched belief that the way forward lay in cooperation between government, employers and unions.
In 1965 Blease helped to prepare an NIC/NILP joint memorandum on citizens' rights, proposing various political reforms in response to the developing civil rights movement. The memorandum was submitted to the government (with little success) and eventually published in 1967. In 1969 he participated in the drafting of an NIC-ICTU Programme for peace and progress in Northern Ireland, accepting that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland could only be changed by consent and advocating political reforms. This lobbying continued despite government complaints that the NIC should confine itself to trade-union matters. In 1969–70 Blease was a member of the MacRory commission on the reshaping of local government in Northern Ireland. From the outbreak of the troubles in 1969, he developed a close relationship with British Home Secretary James Callaghan (latterly prime minister (1976–9)), who shared his culturally conservative labourism. Blease encouraged Callaghan to establish a Northern Ireland ombudsman, a community relations council, and a single province-wide housing authority; Callaghan later praised Blease as 'a man who was never blinded by faction' (Independent, 21 May 2008).
As the Northern Ireland troubles developed, Blease repeatedly denounced political extremism and tried to use his influence to restrain sectarian divisions on the shop floor and elsewhere. (He and other trade-union leaders were denounced by radicals for suspending Belfast's annual May Day trade-union procession to prevent its becoming a focus for rival loyalist and republican demonstrations.) He sought to represent what he saw as the 'fourth dimension' of Northern Ireland (besides Irish, British and Ulster): 'the trade union dimension, and it transcends any narrow, sectarian, bigoted outlook. The principles of the trade-union movement are the principles of human dignity, compassion, tolerance and working-class solidarity' (retirement speech, Irish News, 8 May 1975). In these years he displayed both the best aspects of labourism and its limitations; critics suggested that Blease's anger at the destructiveness of sectarianism led him to overestimate the ability of 'real' class politics to bridge the sectarian divide, and left him blindsided by the ability of unionist-labour groups such as the Loyalist Association of Workers to appeal to local union shop stewards and convenors who saw the NIC as out of touch with their concerns. One old associate recalled that Blease's faith in labourism displayed 'a kind of innocent quality' (Independent, 21 May 2008).
Blease strongly supported the cross-party executive created under the Sunningdale agreement and believed the Council of Ireland created by the agreement (and seen by many unionists as a 'Trojan horse' for Irish unity) would be useful for cooperation on matters of common concern. He was a vehement opponent of the work stoppage of 15–28 May 1974 organised by the Ulster Workers' Council, which brought down the executive. Blease helped to organise a 'back to work' march (21 May) from Queen's Bridge to the nearby Harland and Wolff shipyard, led by the secretary of the British TUC, Len Murray; only a few hundred marchers turned out (many were not shipyard workers), an army escort was required to protect them from loyalists, and the event was widely seen as humiliating both the trade-union leadership and the Labour government (which Blease – and many others – thought could have done more to prevent intimidation). Blease always refused to call the stoppage a strike because it was politically motivated; he thought workers who supported it were duped by highly placed unionist extremists – 'power-drunk, personally ambitious individuals, who have contributed nothing of lasting value to the well-being of working people' (Cradden, 154) – and believed an official inquiry should have been held to expose the alleged conspirators.
The strike was followed by renewed calls for an independent Ulster TUC; groups such as the Workers' Association (sponsored by the British and Irish Communist Organisation, a small, maverick Marxist body) claimed the NIC was unrepresentative and dominated by a 'secret society' of anti-partitionists associated with the Communist Party. (Blease called this 'gross misrepresentation and blatant lies' (Ir. Times, 13 August 1974).) Blease also received threatening phone calls; these, with strain due to overwork, and the pressure his job placed on his family, contributed to his retirement as Northern Ireland officer in 1975, though he remained attached to the NIC as an 'executive consultant' until 1976 to build up trade unionism in the industrial civil service and promote a campaign for cross-community reconciliation, 'Better Life for All'. In 1976 he finally left the NIEC and was appointed a JP for Belfast. He also joined the British Institute of Management, which later made him an honorary fellow.
Retirement, civil society and the house of lords
After his retirement Blease featured prominently in the 'quangocracy', the network of appointed bodies which took over much of the administration of Northern Ireland under direct rule. He served on numerous commissions and public bodies, including the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights (1977–9), the Police Complaints Commission, and the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) as NI representative (1975–9). (A full list of these appointments is given in his 2001 Who's who entry.) In 1976 Conor Cruise O'Brien (qv) offered to appoint Blease (with whom he was on friendly terms) to the RTÉ Authority, but Blease declined the nomination to avoid any perception of a conflict of interests with the IBA; for the same reason he resigned from the Irish Times Trust within a few days of being appointed as a founding member (June 1974). Blease received an honorary D.Litt. from the New University of Ulster (1972) and an honorary LLD from QUB (1982). He was a member of the Irish Council of Churches' working party on community relations (1974–83), a trustee of the Belfast Trust for Integrated Education (1984–8), and a board member of the Co-operative Development Agency (1987–92) and of the University of Ulster vocational guidance council (1974–83). These official appointments made little or no difference to his finances or lifestyle; he turned down well-paying job offers and continued to live modestly in the Strandtown/Belmont area of east Belfast.
Blease received research fellowships from TCD (1976–9) and the New University of Ulster (1976–83) to write on aspects of trade unionism. He found it difficult to write about his personal experiences as he originally intended, because it might be seen as self-promotion and because of potential controversy. However, he assembled a large collection of source material which he made available to researchers, and some of his less controversial research was published as volume one of the Labour Relations Agency's Encyclopedia of industrial relations law and practice in Northern Ireland (Belfast, 1982), reprinted as an Ulster Polytechnic monograph on The trade union movement in Northern Ireland (Jordanstown, 1983).
After turning down several honours, including a knighthood, on 21 June 1978 Blease was created a life peer as Baron Blease of Cromac. He accepted on the understanding that he would be a working peer representing Northern Ireland interests, and took the Labour whip. He was Labour's lords spokesman on Northern Ireland (1979–82), and served as a lords whip for ten years. In the early 1980s he was said to spend seventeen hours a day in the house when he attended, and belonged to the maximum six parliamentary committees. In 1985 he joined Paddy Devlin (qv) in the electorally unsuccessful Labour Party of Northern Ireland (later reorganised as Labour '87). When Labour returned to office at Westminster in 1997, Blease was appointed to the British–Irish inter-parliamentary body, taking a keen interest in its work; he maintained in interviews that, whatever the constitutional position, cross-border cooperation meant Ireland was united where it mattered. He continued to attend the lords – travelling weekly from Belfast to London, and staying in a Salvation Army hostel near the houses of parliament – until 2004, when he applied for leave of absence because of his advanced age.
Billy Blease and his wife had three sons and a daughter, all of whom received a university education. Their eldest son, (William) Victor Blease, unsuccessfully contested Belfast St Anne's for the NILP in the 1965 Stormont election (some writers mistakenly list the elder William Blease as the candidate) before entering the public service, eventually becoming chairman of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. Billy Blease died 16 May 2008 in Belfast City Hospital after a short illness. His career represented both the achievements and limitations of a labourist politics heavily influenced by a culture of puritan self-improvement, which failed to prevent the troubles but may have helped to keep them from getting even worse. He did not share the view that this culture was the product of a vanished industrial past: 'Although the unions are in a bit of a trough at the minute, I think people are beginning to realise again the need to belong' (Cradden, 156).