OBITUARY: Denis Healey, political heavyweight of early Troubles era – with Ulster heritage

MP Denis Healey gets a word of advice from a pensioner on a visit to Higher Ince Labour Club in the 1970s
MP Denis Healey gets a word of advice from a pensioner on a visit to Higher Ince Labour Club in the 1970s

Denis Healey was in charge of UK defence policy at the time the Troubles broke out.

While the various obituaries in the UK national press have focused on his Parliamentary career, he had a prominent (albeit fairly brief) place in determining policy on Northern Ireland as the Troubles began to flare in the late 1960s.



He was very wary about the idea of military intervention and, by a sheer quirk of fate, happened not to be present when the time came to sign the papers committing the British Army to its long and bloody deployment in the Province.

A stalwart of the Labour Party, he died last month, aged 98.

He was born on August 30, 1917, in Mottingham, Kent.

He had Ulster ancestry – his grandfather, John William Healey, was a tailor from the Enniskillen area who had emigrated to the industrial town of Todmorden, northern England.

Denis Healey's grandfather, John William Healey, was a tailor from the Enniskillen area

Denis Healey's grandfather, John William Healey, was a tailor from the Enniskillen area

He had been a member of the Fenian movement in his youth, and the Daily Telegraph said that Denis Healey “inherited his bellicosity” from him.

John William had also transmitted his sense of Irish nationalism to Denis Healey’s father, Will, who taught the young Denis the Ulster folk tale of Cuchuilan, and encouraged him to “rage at the iniquities of the Black and Tans”.

He went to Bradford Grammar School, and from there to Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied philosophy.

He also joined the Communist Party, later explaining the decision by saying that it had seemed to be the only party of the day which was “unambiguously against Hitler”.

He left just a few years later, after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Non-aggression Pact.

During the war he served in Italy and north Africa and rose to the rank of major.

In 1945 he joined the Labour Party, winning a seat for the first time in Leeds South East in 1952, and becoming defence secretary in 1964.

The book ‘The British State and the Northern Ireland Crisis, 1969-73’ states that Healey, along with Prime Minister Harold Wilson and the foreign and home secretaries, determined policy on Northern Ireland “to the virtual exclusion of the British cabinet”.

However, Mr Healey was more cautious than Wilson, and the book quotes him complaining about his “crazy desire to go out there and take things over”, warning in May 1969 that “Northern Ireland has completely different conditions from Britain and we shall be as blind men leading the blind if we go in there knowing nothing about the place”.

On his first-ever visit to Ulster during the late 1960s, Healey recalled having been met by cheering Catholics on the Falls Road, following the Government’s decision to replace the B Specials.

He wrote that, unbeknownst to him at the time, he had been accompanied by two IRA men (whom he did not identify).

He declared himself “appalled by the squalor” of working-class Belfast and Londonderry, “and even more by the atavistic sectarianism of both communities”.

When the security situation deteriorated in 1969 it was his deputy, not him, who deployed the Army.

He had been in hospital, and Roy Hattersley later described how he “solemnly signed the required document” in his boss’ absence.

Operation Banner, which began on August 14, 1969, did not end until July 31, 2007.

Healey wrote in his own 1989 autobiography, that while he had repeatedly warned against troops entering the Province, ultimately, “I could see no alternative, nor can I see one now”.

He also praised the soldiers’ “unique self-discipline”, adding “I do not believe that any other army in the world could have performed so well”.

He said while some fellow socialists saw the Troubles as part of a class war or anti-colonial struggle, “they were soon to discover that the hard core of uncompromising opposition to the unity of Ireland was the working class of the Protestant majority in the north”.

Rather revealingly though, given the scale of violence which then began engulfing the Province, he added that from autumn 1969 “Northern Ireland receded into the background as the government became increasingly preoccupied with the need to face the electorate again”.

Northern Ireland, which had been raised just a handful of times up until that point in his autobiography, was scarcely mentioned again in the book.

Mr Healey himself was removed from post thanks to Labour’s General Election defeat of 1970.

Seen as generally on the right of the party, he made a bid for the leadership of the party in 1976 and 1980.

Though he lost on both occasions, he became deputy in 1980.

He stood down as an MP in 1992, and became a member of the Lords.

Known for his combative style and sharp turns of phrase, he once famously described coming under assault from his rival Geoffrey Howe as “like being savaged by a dead sheep”.

Interviewed by the Guardian newspaper following one particular gaffe, he defended his outspoken approach by saying “the only politician who doesn’t make that sort of mistake is the sort who tries never to say anything, and my great weakness as a politician is that I always say too much”.

He died on October 3 at home in Sussex, after what was widely reported to be a short illness.

He is survived by son Tim and daughters Jenny and Cressida.