Tony died two weeks ago. In over 60 years of political activism he was a tireless and articulate campaigner for democracy, social justice and equality in Britain. He was an internationalist, as well as a stalwart friend and advocate for peace in Ireland and for Irish unity.
All of this was reflected in the breadth of political opinion that packed into the small chapel or stood outside.
His three sons and daughter and his sole surviving brother David all spoke of him and of the events in his life that shaped him. David explained that Tony ‘hated’ attending Westminster School. It brought home to him the inequity of the class system. His brother Michael was killed in World War Two and that made him a passionate pacifist. And in the RAF in that period Tony was stationed in what was then Rhodesia and saw for himself the ill-treatment of black Africans and that made him a life-long campaigner for equality and against racism.
Tony was also a Christian, raised in the anti-establishment Congregationalist tradition.
As his sons and grandsons carried his remains from the Chapel at the end of the service the organ gently played ‘The Red Flag’. As mourners realised what was being played many inside and outside began to sing and applaud.
Like all who were there on Thursday morning I have my fond memories of Tony Benn. My earliest recollection of meeting him was in London in July 1983, a month after I had been elected for the first time as the MP for west Belfast. The British efforts to criminalise the republican struggle had foundered two years earlier on the courage of the hunger strikers but the Thatcher government was still locked into a political and military strategy of repression, of shoot-to-kill actions and collusion, and of trying to politically isolate and criminalise Irish republicanism.
Just prior to Christmas 1982 the British Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw had banned me from travelling to London for an event organised by the Troops Out Movement.
In February 1983 Ken Livingstone, who was leader of the GLC (Greater London Council), visited west Belfast. The British media was predictably outraged. In June I was elected as MP by the people of west Belfast. They were outraged again.
So, in July Joe Austin and I travelled to London to meet Ken Livingstone in County Hall, just across the River Thames from the British Parliament. The British media found new levels of outrage!
Among those we met in County Hall was Tony Benn. Tony had been in the British Parliament from 1950, was a Labour government Minister in several governments, including the Wilson government that sent in the British Army in 1969, and he had a reputation of being an outspoken critic of British policy in Ireland. He also kept a daily diary of his work which has been published over the years in a series of books providing an insight into the inner workings of the British political system.
In his diary dated Tuesday 26 July 1983 Tony wrote about that visit: ‘Gerry Adams began the meeting by thanking Ken Livingstone for his invitation. He said there was an ongoing attempt to develop a dialogue as a basis for peace … We have a lot in common with British socialists. You can’t be a socialist in Britain if you support British imperialism in Ireland, or even if you ignore it.’
In his response Tony welcomed the dialogue. He wrote: ‘I thought this should be seen as a mission for peace. People are beginning to realise that whatever attitude towards Northern Ireland, the present policy is one of absolute bankruptcy…’
A few years later, in June 1989, I attended a Labour Party Conference. In his diary Tony expressed his concern at political censorship and the impact Thatcher’s broadcasting ban, introduced the previous October, was having on the media.
He records: ‘The television crews were filming Gerry Adams speaking, knowing it would be illegal for them to play the sound recording, because of the broadcasting ban on any direct speech by Sinn Fein members. The journalists would all be in trouble, might be sacked, might even be punished more severely, and I felt a cold hand around my heart as I sat there watching this censorship process taking place.’
In a later interview Tony explained his attitude to British policy in Ireland succinctly. He said: ‘The problem is not an ‘Irish problem’ in the United Kingdom, but a British problem in Ireland. Once you get that straight you can see it quite differently. I’m not a nationalist but I support the right of people to control their own affairs and to that extent I am really strongly in favour of getting the British out of Northern Ireland.’
During the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement Tony provided me with a paper on the constitutional issue. Sinn Féin had been pressing the British to change the constitutional arrangements, specifically removing the Government of Ireland Act. We believed that the unionist veto had to end and that consent had to apply both ways, that is not just unionist consent but nationalist and republican consent as well. Consequently any new agreement had to be built on a working partnership of equality.
In his paper Tony explained to me that absolute British sovereignty can be regarded as having been absorbed and consolidated in the Act of Union of 1800, which united Scotland, Ireland and England and Wales as one kingdom. It remained absolute in 1920, when Ireland was partitioned, even though the majority of Irish people had voted for independence. Now, according to Tony, absolute sovereignty was being vested instead in the people of the north ‘to be quantified or assessed by a referendum requiring a simple majority’.
What other state in the world has written into its legislation, and as part of an international treaty the right of a part of that state to secede if a majority within a specific geographical area wish to? States have fought wars over secession. There is currently a crisis around Crimea over its decision to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.
On another occasion I recall Tony telling me about erecting a plaque in the British Parliament for the Countess Markievicz. He would put it up and the powers that be would remove it and he would put it up again. It was one of several plaques Tony put up without permission. He felt that as Markievicz was the first woman elected to the British Parliament that this fact should be recorded.
Tony did not stand for the British Parliament in 2001. He said he was ‘leaving parliament in order to spend more time on politics.’ And he did. Tony became President of the Stop the War Coalition.
Three years ago Sinn Féin organised an event in the London Irish Centre to mark the 30th anniversary of the Hunger Strike. Tony was the final speaker. He spoke of how necessary it is to see the Irish struggle for self-determination not simply as a small isolated fight, but as part of a huge and general struggle against colonialism worldwide. He pointed to the rise of Sinn Fein, the advancement of the cause of Irish unity and of his own conviction that Irish reunification would happen.
Finally, apart from sharing much of our politics Tony and Sinn Féin were also the target of the British media over many years. He too was vilified and demonised.
In his remarks in the Chapel his son recalled that on one occasion when he asked his father how he could maintain his composure and not get angry and lash out at those who denounced him Tony gave him the same advice his father had given him: ‘Don’t wrestle with the chimney sweep.’
In other words don’t sink to the same level as your opponents. If you do you will end up as dirty as them and achieve nothing. Stay focussed on what you want to achieve.
A valuable life lesson.
On behalf of Sinn Féin I want to extend my condolences to Tony’s many friends but especially his sons and daughter; Stephen, Hilary, Melissa, and Joshua and his brother David.