Major figure in Northern Ireland’s Labour politics of the 1960s

Obituary: David Bleakley; born January 11th, 1925 – died June 25th, 2017

David Bleakley: passionate about the regenerative power of education and culture

David Bleakley: passionate about the regenerative power of education and culture


David Bleakley, who has died in his native Belfast in his 93rd year, was a major figure in the North’s Labour politics when Labour almost outpolled the Unionist Party in Belfast in the 1960s. He sat in the old Stormont Parliament from 1958 to 1965 as Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) MP for the long-abolished Victoria constituency in East Belfast. In 1970 he won over 40 per cent of the vote in East Belfast in the UK General Election.

He was a man whose deep Christian faith guided his politics, which he categorised as Christian Socialist and pacifist.

As an MP he was an effective critic of the Unionist government, pursuing it for financial sleaze, and was famously frugal in expenses claims.

He lost his seat in the 1965 election after Unionists ran a strong campaign to stop the Labour advance. Later, he wrote that election had “stopped the momentum of change and released most unfortunate forces in our community which have so far not been contained”.

In 1971 he was appointed Minister of Community Relations in the last Unionist government. This caused uproar in the NILP and angered the Unionis right-wing. He eventually resigned, in protest at the introduction of internment.

The Troubles shrank the space for his Labour politics. In 1973 he was elected as NILP Assembly member for East Belfast, and two years later to the Constitutional Convention. However, the NILP disintegrated. For a time, he was a member of the Alliance Party, but later returned to his Labour roots.

Politics was only one aspect of him. Having left school at 14 he became a teacher in one of Belfast’s most prestigious grammar schools, Methodist College. He was authour of 14 books, on a range of topics.

David Wylie Bleakley was born in the Strandtown area of East Belfast in January 1925 to John Wylie Bleakley, a bricklayer, and his wife Sarah (née Wylie). He was the only child of their marriage, his father’s second. Within a month tragedy touched him when his mother died. His father remarried: the day after his 17th birthday, tragedy struck again when his stepmother Jane (née Lightfoot) died.

He attended Strandtown Primary School, leaving at 14 to become an apprentice electrician in the Harland & Wolff Shipyard. He worked there through World War Two when it was one of the world’s largest shipyards, employing 30,000.

He was keen to further his education. At 21 he left the ‘Yard’ to study at Ruskin College, Oxford. This was a trade-union linked College, dedicated to providing educational opportunities to adults with few educational qualifications. There he studied economics and politics.

On graduation he returned to East Belfast to give something back to his community, and give others the education he had enjoyed. He became a tutor in social studies, then head of the East Belfast Further Education Centre.

After losing his Stormont seat, he went to teach in Tanzania for two years. There he saw different ways of resolving problems.

For a decade he was head of Economics and Political Studies at Methodist College. As a teacher, he did not stick to the curriculum, letting his students give free rein to their own opinions. This was because, as part of his Christianity, he was passionate about the regenerative power of education and culture.

His Evangelical Christianity was not narrowly conservative. Over a generation ago he proclaimed: “The Anglican Church must move into the 20th century and accept women as equals.”

He is survived by his sons Brian, Desmond and Peter. He was predeceased by his wife Winifred.