By Ciaran Mulholland
Longstanding, Belfast-based Socialist Party member David (Davy) Bell has died at the age of 69. Davy joined Militant, the forerunner of the Socialist Party in 1978 and dedicated himself to selfless activity on behalf of the working class across more than four decades.
Davy came from a Protestant background and grew up in the Cregagh estate in east Belfast. He liked to say that he once “skinned” George Best, who was also from Cregagh, when playing football as a teenager! He worked for British Telecom and was an activist in the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU), attending national conferences of the union, and working with his comrades Bernard Roome, Judy Griffiths and many other genuine lefts to overcome the dead weight of the dominant bureaucratic layer. In his union role, he represented literally hundreds of workers over many years. His patient approach to trade union work gave him hard-earned respect and standing, and he was well known in his own area as a “union man” who would help out with a benefit claim and countless other tasks.
Throughout his life, he stood firm against sectarianism in all its guises. In February 1992, he put himself on the line when the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) killed five Catholics and wounded nine in a gun attack on Sean Graham’s bookmakers on the Lower Ormeau Road. This attack was part of a cycle of sectarian atrocities at the time. Less than three weeks earlier, the IRA had blown up a van carrying Protestant building workers near Teebane in County Tyrone, killing eight and wounding six. The North was on the edge of a precipice. A united, working-class response was essential, and it was activists such as Davy who stepped forward, putting their lives at risk in the process.
The Teebane attack had already been answered by a regional strike and protests organised by the Mid-Ulster Trades Council, on which Socialist Party members played a key role. Immediately after the Sean Graham massacre, Socialist Party members on Belfast Trades Council moved a motion for a united trade union demonstration in the area. As was often the case, the local geography of sectarian division had to be carefully considered in organising a protest. The attack had occurred on one side of the Ormeau Bridge, in a majority Catholic area. Davy lived on the other side of the bridge, which was mainly Protestant. His front door was literally yards away from a UDA club and the killers were widely assumed to be from the surrounding streets. If the Trades Council protest was to be successful, it was essential that Protestant workers crossed the bridge to join their fellow Catholic workers.
The UDA were determined that this would not happen and Davy came under fierce pressure not to support the protest. He faced down the implied threat of physical violence and ensured that Protestant workers walked across the bridge in a magnificent display of class solidarity. Anyone who was there that evening will recall a sombre and fearful atmosphere, but also the grim determination on every face. The majority of working-class people on both sides of the bridge were resolutely opposed to the violence and refused to be dragged into widening sectarian slaughter.
In the late 1990s, Davy played an important role in the Labour Coalition, sitting on its Steering Committee. The Labour Coalition brought together the Socialist Party, a group of activists around Councillor Johnny McLaughlin in Omagh, and three other councillors in Newtownabbey, Craigavon and Downpatrick with their supporters. The Coalition won two seats in the 1996 Forum election and had real promise. Unfortunately, one of the component parts of the Coalition, the British & Irish Communist Organisation, sought to destroy it almost as soon as it won its seats. In the months of political battling that followed, Davy was always present and always reliable. Out of this defeat, Johnny McLaughlin was won to the Socialist Party and, for a period, an important group struggled to create a viable socialist presence in Omagh. The formation of the Labour Coalition was an important first step which could have assisted in the rebuilding of a mass, independent political party of the working class. Such initiatives rely on comrades with the ability to work with others on the left in a principled manner, a quality Davy possessed in abundance.
Davy was a close friend of Peter Hadden, the Regional Secretary of the Socialist Party and a leading Marxist theoretician, who died in 2010 (they were born within a few weeks of each other). He was keenly aware that Peter’s early death robbed his comrades of political guidance and he felt this personally. Peter, for his part, developed the ideas of the Socialist Party, particularly around the national question, through frequent interaction with comrades like Davy and many other working-class activists, both inside and outside the Party. Davy was amused when, during one of the regular attacks he came in for in the CWU, he was accused of not acting independently but under the “direction” of the Socialist Party and Peter Hadden. Ironically, the accusation was cast by a leading member of the Stalinist Communist Party, not known for its espousal of freedom of thought.
Comrades like Davy are the true giants of the workers’ movement. He was always positive, loved music and singing and loved a joke. He was unassuming but dogged in his day-to-day work, and fearless when taking on management in the workplace, the bureaucracy in his union, or the paramilitaries who sought to control the streets where he lived. It was a privilege to know him. We send our condolences to his wife Jane, his children Suzanne and Lisa, and his grandchildren Kaitlyn, Zoe, Keira, Reece, and Conor, and to all his comrades in arms.
Photo Copyright © Kevin Cooper Photoline