Sensational Expulsion Of Newry Council Chairman

THE most sensational episode in the political history of this region, over the past half-century, occurred when the chairman of Newry Urban Council, Tommy Markey, was expelled from the Irish Labour Party, for taking the salute of the Irish Guards, over 40 years ago.

But that formidable personality swiftly bounced back. Forming his own Newry Labour Party, he was re-elected to the council chairmanship, with the support of Unionist members.

The unrepentant Tommy Markey, who was chairman of the ILP’s Newry Branch, explained: “The Administrative Council of the Party in Dublin had threatened me with expulsion, unless I apologised, and gave an undertaking that I would never again participate in anything British. I told them to go and jump in the Liffey!”

A request had come to the Urban Council from the Irish Guards in July 1962, seeking permission to use the Edward Street car-park for “Beating the Retreat.” The council chairman was invited to take the salute. It was unanimously agreed to grant the application; and the chairman intimated that he had no objection to taking the salute.

Present at the council meeting were Frank Mulligan, Jimmy O’Neill, John Ruddy, Joe Maney, Robert Dixon and J.J. Campbell, - all from the Irish Labour Party. Absent were Cllrs Tom Kelly, Gerry Mulholland and Tom Morgan (ILP). The only Unionist present was Jack Bradfield.

Defending his action later, Mr Markey declared: “I consider it my duty, as chairman of a local authority, to show courtesy towards all visitors to our town. Peace, harmony and goodwill are the hallmarks of this council; and nobody will make me lower my head in shame.”

However, ILP headquarters in Dublin regarded the occasion as a “recruiting drive for the British Army,” and stated that the council chairman “should not have associated himself with such a campaign.” It was unanimously decided to cancel Mr Markey’s membership of the party. But no action was taken against those members, who had endorsed Mr Markey’s action.

A telephone engineer, Tommy Markey had served during the war as a sergeant-instructor with the London-Irish Regiment. Later, he led Catholic ex-servicemen in annual parades to Newry Cathedral, for services on Remembrance Day.

The next council elections, after the expulsion, resulted in Newry Labour and Irish Labour each winning six seats. But the Unionists weighed in behind Mr Markey, who was reinstated as chairman. The new ILP councillors, over the next seven years, were Pat McMahon, Mickey McKeown, Matt McAteer, Barney Maguire, Colman Rowntree, John “Brickie” McKevitt, Mick Murphy, Hugh Golding, Tommy McGrath and James Connolly.

Despite this disruption, and various splits within the Irish labour Party, the councillors of the 60’s created the modern face of Newry, with mushrooming housing estates like Derrybeg, Barcroft, Mourne View, Courtney Hill, Drumalane and the Armagh Road. Also provided were a host of amenities, such as the swimming-pool, recreation areas at Carnbane and Jennings Park, etc, as well as major water and sewerage schemes.

When I first reported the meetings of Newry Urban Council in 1957, the Irish Citizens Association was in charge. Council chairman was Max Keogh, a journalist with the `Frontier Sentinel,` of which Cllr Joe Connellan, M.P. for South Down, was editor. Their other councillors were Gerry Rankin, Quinn Bennett, Barney McShane, Gerry Hand (father of Rowan) and Johnny Brown (father of Down GAA manager, the late Gerry Brown).

Council elections were due, so I interviewed a number of I.C.A, and Irish Labour candidates. However, Max Keogh issued instructions that no interview with any member of his party should appear in my newspaper. This development was communicated to our readers.

Whether the embargo had any effect on the voters is uncertain. But the result was that the Irish Labour Party swept to power with a large majority, despite only having one member on the outgoing council, - Tom Kelly (RIP), grandfather of the prominent Newry businessman. He was elected council chairman.

As the new team, led by the dynamic Tommy Markey as party spokesman, buckled down to the task of rebuilding and regenerating the frontier town, newsmen like John McAnulty, Hal O’Brien, Gerry Duffy (RIP) and myself were faced with marathon council meetings, dragging on into the wee small hours.

Few councils could boast such a record of progress and achievement, with a total lack of sectarian tensions, - and they were not paid a penny! The housing allocations scheme, operated by the council, was a model for the rest of the North. For, although Protestants represented only one-fifth of the local population, the unionist councillors were given one third of the houses to allocate.

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008