Liberal outlook — Brian Maye on Sheelagh Murnaghan, an indomitable presence in NI politics

The only Liberal Party MP in the 51-year history of the Northern Irish parliament

She was the first female barrister to practise in Northern Ireland, a talented sportswoman who played hockey for Ulster and Ireland, and the only Liberal Party MP in the 51-year history of the Northern Irish parliament. She championed many liberal, civil-rights and other minority issues and was exceptional and prescient in the combative atmosphere of Northern Irish politics. The person in question was Sheelagh Murnaghan, the centenary of whose birth occurs on May 26th.

Born in Dublin, the eldest of six children of Vincent Murnaghan (from Omagh, Co Tyrone) and Josephine Morrogh, she was educated at Loreto Convent, Omagh, Loreto College, Rathfarnham, and Queen’s University, Belfast. Her grandfather was George Murnaghan, Home Rule MP for Mid-Tyrone from 1895 to 1910. She studied law and was called to the Northern Ireland bar in 1948, becoming the first practising female barrister there. She also pursued a sporting career, playing hockey for Instonians and Ulster and captaining Ireland in 1955-56 and 1957-58, during which she toured South Africa and the US and played at Wembley Stadium on one occasion before 50,000 spectators and TV cameras.

In 1959, she joined the cross-community Ulster Liberal Party, standing unsuccessfully for Belfast South in the October 1959 British general election. But in a 1961 byelection, she was returned to Stormont for Queen’s University constituency, the only Liberal politician ever to be elected to that parliament. “In Northern Ireland politics, I don’t know which is the greatest obstacle: to be a woman, a Catholic or a Liberal. I am all three,” she declared, but did not let any obstacle stand in her way.

“Passionate and indomitable, while possessing much common sense, she spoke frequently at Stormont on many liberal and civil-rights issues,” according to CJ Woods, who wrote the entry on her in the Dictionary of Irish Biography. Four times between late 1965 and early 1968, she proposed a Bill to criminalise discrimination on racial, religious or political grounds and to establish a commission to investigate allegations of such discrimination, but was unsuccessful on each occasion. She also introduced a Bill to abolish the death penalty in Northern Ireland, campaigned for the rights of Travellers (setting up a school for Traveller children in Belfast in 1967), and sought to end pay discrimination against women in the workplace.

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She was returned unopposed to parliament in 1965 but in early 1969 the Queen’s University seats were abolished. She failed to win North Down in the 1969 general election and was also unsuccessful in Belfast South in the Northern Ireland Assembly election in June 1973. At the latter, her election address declared: “First preference for sanity. Women, do you want your children to be fountains of hate? Young people, do you want to inherit a desert? Northern Ireland needs politicians who are more seen than heard.”

Sheelagh Murnaghan served on the first Northern Ireland Community Relations Commission (1969-72) and following the introduction of direct rule from Westminster in March 1972, William Whitelaw, secretary of state, appointed her to his special advisory committee. Afterwards, she chaired national-insurance and industrial-relations tribunals and, continuing her support for Travellers, was chair of the Belfast Settlement Committee. She strongly condemned the violence that erupted from 1969 and in February 1970 her Windsor Avenue home in Belfast was bombed by loyalist paramilitaries, but she refused to be intimidated.

In 1983, she chaired a tribunal that heard the first sexual-harassment case brought before a court in the UK or Ireland and her finding paved the way for other such cases in these islands in subsequent years.

According to her biographer Ruth Illingworth (Sheelagh Murnaghan: Stormont’s Only Liberal MP, published in 2019), she was seen as somewhat eccentric, smoking cigars, drinking brandy, and arriving at tribunal hearings with a bundle of papers under one arm and a dog under the other. But few would disagree with Illingworth’s assessment of her contribution: “In a country riven by sectarianism, she was consistently a voice of reason and humanity, endlessly challenging the widely held assumption that it was normal and right to ‘look after one’s own people’ and ‘do down the other side’. A patriot in the most genuine meaning of the word, she tried to save her country from its demons. Her efforts were spurned and Northern Ireland paid a terrible price for that rejection.”

As a hockey player, she was described as “a diminutive but ferocious fullback”, and she continued to be combative but, as CJ Woods remarked, “she was overtaken by much more aggressive politicians in the 1970s”. She lived on Windsor Avenue, Belfast, and afterwards at Crossgar, Co Down, and died, unmarried, on September 14th, 1993.