Kevin McNamara, politician and advocate for Irish unity

In a career as an MP which spanned almost 40 years, Kevin McNamara was notable as a stalwart of the Labour left and advocate for the Catholic church and especially for its adherents in Northern Ireland.

He had such a deeply-felt romantic attachment to the dream of Irish unity that his heart seemed to lie in Ireland rather than Britain. Former Irish prime minister Garret FitzGerald once noted that James Callaghan “seemed to regard Kevin as an Irish politician” who had nothing to do with Labour.

He never realised his dream, never managing to persuade unionists of the merits of Irish unity. He never managed to convince London – or for that matter Dublin – that even the most determined efforts were likely to bring it about.

But if his brand of distinctively old-fashioned Irish nationalism made little progress on that front, he and others of like mind succeeded in helping to gradually but effectively transform Northern Ireland from a unionist-dominated state to today’s largely equal society.

Today, as McNamara’s co-religionists have access to many of the levers of power in Belfast, the days of unionist supremacy have gone. This is no abstract point since the sense that power-sharing has replaced discrimination was a key factor underpinning the peace process.

Born in 1934 into an Irish family in Crosby, Lancashire, Joseph Kevin McNamara studied in Hull where he taught history in a grammar school and lectured in law in a local college. He is survived by his wife, four sons and a daughter. 

McNamara entered parliament after a 1966 by-election in Hull North. In his 39 years in the Commons he took an interest in topics such as defence, disarmament, Nato, foreign affairs, and overseas development. He also immersed himself in a stream of human rights issues and what he saw as questionable military behaviour.

To the left of his party, he was sponsored by the Transport and General Workers’ Union and for some years was secretary of its parliamentary group. He was deeply attached to the teachings of the Catholic church, strongly opposing abortion and the morning-after pill. He wrote a regular column in the Catholic Tablet magazine, and at one point quixotically brought forward a bill to repeal the ancient legislation excluding Catholics from the line of succession.

Against this background, it was unsurprising that he should champion the Northern Ireland civil rights movement when it emerged in the late 1960s.

He was one of a small…

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