A reminiscence of D.N.Pritt

[This was written in the June 1987 issue of the “Irish Democrat” in connection with a news item on the unveiling by the Mayor of Hammersmith of a plaque in that borough to the “great democratic lawyer D.N.Pritt 1, who defended political rebels both in Britain and the colonies”. ]

I remember that day, though it must be thirty years ago. The Connolly Association found itself in a legal impasse. I rang up Ralph Millner, who had defended Eamon Lyons when he was arrested for speaking at Arlington Road in Camden Town. He hadn’t the answer but he said, “We’ll go and see D.N Pritt.”

This was the impasse. Try as we could we could not get the government to admit any responsibility for what was going on with the Six Counties.

We wrote about the B-men. “That is a matter for the government of Northern Ireland.” We gave evidence of discrimination against Catholics. That also was a matter for the government of Northern Ireland. Friendly MPs asked questions. “It would not be proper for HMG to intervene.” Indeed, pressed hard on the matter they said they had no power.

One Member of Parliament, since ennobled, assured us that the Government of Ireland Act conferred as much independence as the Canada Act, and was quite hurt when I pointed out that the British had troops in Ireland but not in Canada.

It was at that point that I went to the Stationery Office for a copy of the Government of Ireland Act. They hadn’t got one but advised me to write as there might be an odd copy knocking about. I wrote and they found one – the last copy.

And there I found Section 75, reserving to the British Parliament authority over every person and thing in the Six Counties. So how could Her Majesty’s Government say they had no power? It was this we wanted Pritt to resolve.

Oddly enough, and it shows how the facts of the matter had been hushed up, he also quoted the British North America Act. I mentioned Section 75. “Very well, we’ll look at it.” He sent for his clerk who took the tallest ladder that was ever seen and climbed to the very top shelf, then came down for a duster, finally bringing down the bound volume of British statutes.

“Ha!” he exclaimed. “What did you say they’ve been telling you? That the government has no power to intervene?”

“Exactly that.”

“Well, they haven’t. The Act doesn’t say government. It says Parliament, and Parliament can intervene whenever it likes, in whatever way it likes.”

He became quite enthusiastic. “Let me see now. An MP wants Parliament to intervene. He asks ‘What do I do?’ And they say ‘go and find out,’ so he tries a motion. Or of course if you decide what you want, you can draft a Bill.”

He began thinking of sitting members who might act. I’ve forgotten what he called whom. There was “that rat ABC” and “that ass XYZ” and I well remember “Sir No-good Thomas”2. He had no opinion of his former colleagues.

Anyway, as a result of his advice we completely revised our tactics in relation to Parliament. And the claim that the government had no recourse (It could act through Parliament) was revised. There was a “convention” that it did not do so.

How much that convention was worth when it was established that the Six County Government had contravened the 1920 Act by raising an armed force was shown a decade or so later. The required legislation went through in hours.

Pritt was very much to the “left” of the Labour Party. He was thrown out in 1940 for refusing to support Chamberlain ‘s attempt to switch the war against Hitler into one against Russia. Yes, that happened and the Labour Executive supported it. He stood again for Hammersmith North as an Independent and was returned with a substantial majority. But in 1950 he lost the seat. I helped him in that election, running round the constituency with a loudspeaker with Commander Young. The House of Commons lost one of its few independent intellects. But few missed him. They weren’t his size.

  1. Denis Nowell Pritt QC, 1887-1972
  2. A play on the name of Sir Lynn Ungoed-Thomas, 1904-1972, a Welsh Labour MP and British judge