The polite rebel: Sheelagh Murnaghan

The polite rebel: Sheelagh Murnaghan
by Allan LEONARD
3 October 2019

Sheelagh Murnaghan was the only Liberal Party MP (1961-69) in the Northern Ireland Parliament, representing the constituency of Queen’s University Belfast, which was the venue for a launch event of a new biography about her remarkable life. There were many Murnaghan family members in the audience of a few dozen attending.

The book, Sheelagh Murnaghan, was commissioned by the Albert McElroy Memorial Fund, which was established to commemorate the life of Reverend Albert H. McElroy (1915-75), a Non-Subscribing Presbyterian minister who founded the Ulster Liberal Party in the 1950s. The fund’s trustees (this author included) commissioned Irish historian, Ruth Illingworth, to write the book, which was published by the Ulster Historical Foundation.

The Foundation’s Executive Director, Fintan Mullan, described his organisation’s work in genealogical services and publishing books, often about those people and perspectives that would otherwise be forgotten. He thanked everyone involved in the book’s creation and remarked that it was important this story of Sheelagh Murnaghan was told:

“It’s one of those books that is a pleasure to be involved with because it shows the goodness that does exist in Northern Ireland. The goodness of people who want to break from the traditions and the prison, the chains of the past that we’re still grappling with today. It shows the calibre of Sheelagh Murnaghan … who I got to know through this book.

“It is remarkable how all the political parties are now wearing the clothes of Sheelagh, in terms of the things that she stood for in her political career and her life. That is heartwarming to see. It should be applauded in public.

Berkley Farr, a former chairman of the Ulster Liberal Party, gave a brief description of Rev. McElroy, who stood for election as a Northern Ireland Labour Party candidate before driving the reformulation of the Liberal Party in Ireland, in 1956:

“Albert drew his inspiration from the United Irishmen and people down the years in Ulster Liberalism … [Rev. McElroy] had this vision of non-sectarianism, to bring communities together and stamp out bigotry, which was quite evident then as it is now.”

Farr informed the audience of a particular Ulster Liberal anniversary:

“This Sunday (6 October 2019) is 60 years since the 1959 General Election, when Sheelagh stood as a Liberal candidate, here in South Belfast. At that election, it was quite unique … you had Sheelagh Murnaghan (with her grandfather [George Murnaghan] as a [former] Nationalist MP) on the same platform as Albert McElroy, a Non-Subscribing Presbyterian minister … Murnaghan and McElroy were great political partners throughout the years.”

Ruth Illingworth gave a concise and reflective overview of Murnaghan’s life and her impact on politics in Northern Ireland. Some might say her career was unsuccessful — her equality legislation was defeated four times in the Northern Ireland Parliament. Yet when you review her speeches and arguments for justice for all in society, you realise that she was ahead of her time. For example, she spoke for the rights of itinerants — now known as Travellers — “which was certainly not politically advantageous in the 1960s, if hardly now … she saw them as human beings, when many didn’t.”

Illingworth said that she hoped the book does Sheelagh justice, “because she was, by any standards, a quite remarkable person”. Murnaghan was the first female barrister in Northern Ireland and one of its first female MPs in the Northern Ireland Parliament. She was the first person (as is known) to put a human rights bill before any parliament in these islands. In one of these bills, she included a clause on equal pay for women — in 1966, four years before the Equal Pay Act was passed. She was also involved in the first case that involved sexual harassment ever brought before a court in these islands, back in 1983. The successful result of that case positively affected legislation in the UK and European Union.

“What I love about Sheelagh was what the late Maurice Hayes — who was a great friend of hers — said, that she was a true liberal — she stood up for the rights of everyone. And there are not always people like that. There are people who will stand up and look willfully and powerfully for the rights of their own particular tribe, or whatever. But she was there for everybody.”

Illingworth said that what comes across in reviewing Murnaghan’s eight years (1961-69) in the Northern Ireland Parliament was “this incredible common sense and decency”, which the author labelled as “the polite rebel”. She thought that Murnaghan may not have been a great orator, but that she was a very good parliamentarian speaker, which she argued mattered more:

“Northern Ireland suffered much from people who were brilliant orators, but sadly what they said… I love one of [Murnaghan’s] election literature [that said], ‘Politicians here should be seen more and heard less.’”

Illingworth presented some possible motivations for Murnaghan’s ceaseless campaign for human rights in Northern Ireland:

“Sheelagh said that there were ‘degrees of citizenship in this country’ [Northern Ireland], and that ‘discrimination is something to be angry about’ … She found it incomprehensible that people could be denied a job, denied a house, or whatever, because of their religious affiliation. It wasn’t the way that she was brought up. She was brought up to believe in equality for men and women. She grew up in a time when community relations were generally quite good; she had many Protestant friends. I think that she found it appalling when she encountered the discrimination, when she encountered the bigotry, and including not just the naked, in-your-face bigotry … but the sort of polite, hidden bigotry that was just as bad. [Murnaghan] said that it was awful that there were people who wanted to do down the other side.”

Illingworth said that one aspect of Murnaghan’s character that came across was her love for her country, Northern Ireland, “the wee province”:

“It upset her and annoyed her that Northern Ireland’s standing in the world was not as it should be. One of the main reasons she pushed the agenda of the human rights bills to end discrimination, to have equality, was because she wanted Northern Ireland to be a place that would be seen as progressive — a civilised place.”

Murnaghan brought forth human rights legislation to Westminster, where it failed to be passed. Illingworth said that many politicians, over several decades, said more or less the same thing: if only Sheelagh Murnaghan’s legislation had been accepted, the whole course of this country’s history could have been very different:

“I think [Murnaghan] could see what was coming. And she desperately tried to save this country from itself.”

Sadly, she couldn’t. Murnaghan told Hayes that she felt a complete sense of failure:

“I would say that [Murnaghan] didn’t fail. Inasfar as she could not get what she wanted through parliament, that was not her fault. The MPs who voted against her and the ones who [abstained], they’re the ones who bear responsibility for that failure. But most of what she set out to achieve was achieved over the next few years.”

Murnaghan’s political career continued after the university seat was abolished in 1968. She was an advisor to William Whitelaw when direct rule administration was brought in 1972. And Murnaghan was also sought after by women trying to get their sons or husbands out of internment: “Internment was something that horrified her. She saw it as totally against the law and against everything that she stood for.”

Murnaghan’s life would have been in danger in the 1970s and 80s, because during those years lawyers — people Murnaghan would have known — were murdered. She would have been a “legitimate target” because she worked for the state, as a government advisor and on tribunals: “But she was a person brave enough not to allow herself to be intimidated, ever, by anybody.”

Illingworth felt that Murnaghan died too soon: “I’m sorry that she didn’t live to see the peace process. It seemed to me that the Good Friday Agreement embodied so much of what to all her career she sought to achieve.”

“I’m really delighted to have been asked to write this book. I hope that Sheelagh will now be remembered as she should be remembered. There’s been a lot of talk of women being written out of history, or never written in the first place. That’s changing now. I’m delighted that we’ve been able to put Sheelagh back where she belongs, with her place in history — as one of the truly great Northern Irish/Irish women of the 20th century,” concluded Illingworth.

Then, Stella Burnside read aloud a “Ballad of Human Rights”, which was published by the Ulster Liberal Association following the failure of Murnaghan’s second Human Rights Bill in February 1966. The ballad includes the lines:

“Twas on the eighth of Febru’ry
In Stormont’s halls proceeding
That Sheelagh’s Bill for Human Rights
Came up for second reading.
MPs assembled, bringing all
Their dash and verve and go,
The Unionists determined to
Preserve the status quo.

“Plan speaking came from Stewart and Fitt
And Diamond, Boyd and Currie:
The incidents they mentioned should
Have made the members worry,
But Bradford swept them all aside
By saying Human Rights
Might interfere with liberty
And lead to human fights;

“The Government of Ireland Act
Is all we really need
For it forbids all laws against
A man because of creed;
And as for other things, if there’s
A tendency to bias
In housing and employment, say,
Such things are sent to try us.

“So Sheelagh’s Bill was voted down,
Once more with smugness greeted,
But she will to to Westminster;
She will not be defeated,
And when she does the Big Ben chimes
Will mock those who insist
That they can cure a social ill
By saying, ‘It don’t exist.’”

The event concluded with a playback of an audio recording of Sheelagh Murnaghan, from a speech made during the 1964 (or 1966) UK General Election campaign (audio courtesy of BBC):

“This election is not about the constitution of Northern Ireland. On that issue, it will prove absolutely nothing. Even if all twelve people elected were opponents of the Unionist Party, it would not alter the undoubted fact that a substantial majority of the electorate would prefer to remain in the United Kingdom. Even if twelve Unionists are elected, it would not alter the fact that there is a substantial body of opinion in favour of uniting with the Republic.

“What is essential is that sensible people be elected to Westminster, people who recognise the facts and who realise that the problem is to find a way that will enable the community to live in peace. We must have representatives who acknowledge, firstly, that unionists have a right to be unionists, that republicans have a right to be republicans. And secondly, and most important, that both have a right to use reasonable, democratic means to persuade the other to change their views.

“Now, Liberals would amend the Ireland Act 1949, to make provision for a referendum, before any major constitutional change could take place. We would set up consultative machinery, whereby the governments of Northern Ireland and the Republic, together with representatives of the United Kingdom government, could meet regularly to discuss problems of mutual interest.

“The present threat of civil commotion, north and south, is a dramatic example of the sort of problem upon which joint discussion should take place.”



Fintan MULLAN. Book launch: Sheelagh Murnaghan by Ruth ILLINGWORTH. Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, Northern Ireland. (c) Allan LEONARD @MrUlster
Ruth ILLINGWORTH. (c) Allan LEONARD @MrUlster
Ruth ILLINGWORTH. (c) Allan LEONARD @MrUlster
Stella BURNSIDE. (c) Allan LEONARD @MrUlster
Berkley FARR holding Northern Radical leaflet featuring Reverend Albert McELROY. (c) Allan LEONARD @MrUlster
Berkley FARR. (c) Allan LEONARD @MrUlster


The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) is hosting a talk by the author, Ruth Illingworth, about the book and life of Sheelagh Murnaghan. The presentation event will take place at PRONI on Monday, 7 October 2019, 1.00-2.00pm.

Originally published at Mr Ulster.

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