Tom Mitchell obituary: One of Sinn Féin’s first MPs after partition

Dubliner sided with Officials in IRA split but played peace-making role behind scenes

Tom Mitchell. Photograph: Pacemaker

Tom Mitchell. Photograph: Pacemaker

 

Born: July 29th, 1931
Died: July 22nd, 2020

Tom Mitchell, the former Sinn Féin MP for Mid-Ulster and civil rights campaigner has died, aged 88.

He was elected to represent Mid-Ulster in the UK general election of 1955, while serving a 10-year sentence for treason felony in Crumlin Road prison, Belfast, for his part in an arms raid on the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers’ depot in Omagh, Co Tyrone, in 1954. Fellow prisoner Phil Clarke, who was also serving 10 years for his part in the same raid, won the Fermanagh-South Tyrone seat. They were the first Sinn Féin MPs to win seats in Northern Ireland since partition.

Mitchell, from Fairview, Dublin, was a bricklayer who joined the IRA when it reorganised after the second World War and decided to launch a Border campaign to end partition. The Omagh raid was one of several operations aimed at rearming the organisation and securing public support North and South.

Although not in charge of the Omagh raid, Mitchell was elected OC (officer commanding) by his fellow prisoners, and his calm authority and common sense gave him a moral authority that ensured he was both liked and respected in the turbulent years ahead.

Like Clarke, Mitchell ran on an abstentionist ticket. Mitchell defeated his unionist opponent, Charles Beattie, by 260 votes. Clarke’s defeated unionist opponent, Col Robert Grosvenor, petitioned to have Clarke disqualified, as a convicted felon, and was duly awarded the seat. In Mitchell’s case the British attorney general proposed in parliament that the seat be declared vacant and a byelection held. Left-wing Labour MP Sydney Silverman moved an amendment that parliament accept the right of the electorate in Mid-Ulster not to be represented in Westminster if it so chose and secured a surprisingly high 63 MPs to support him.

Because he had not been disqualified, Mitchell was able to contest the byelection and increased his majority to 806. Beattie now followed his unionist colleague Col Grosvenor in lodging a petition that Mitchell be disqualified, as a convicted felon, only to be disqualified himself as it emerged he was receiving emoluments from the government.

Split vote

When another election was called in Mid-Ulster, the unionists did not contest it but a former nationalist MP, Michael O’Neill, did. Confident that the nationalist vote would now be divided, an independent unionist, George Forrest, lodged his nomination papers at the last minute. Mitchell polled 24,104 votes to O’Neill’s 6,421, but Forrest slipped through with 28,605.

Mitchell was released from prison in July 1961. He returned to Dublin and continued to be active in both Sinn Féin and the IRA. He argued strongly for the party to abandon abstentionism at a special ardfheis in 1965 and threw himself into the civil rights movement, participating in the first Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association march, from Coalisland to Dungannon, in August 1968. Although he remained the leading anti-unionist candidate in Mid-Ulster, he made it clear he would not run again on an abstentionist ticket and his stance was pivotal in seeing Bernadette Devlin, for whom he subsequently campaigned, selected to run in 1970.

When the republican movement split over abstentionism, among other issues, Mitchell stayed with what became the Officials, but he retained friendships across the divide and often played a significant role as peacemaker behind the scenes.

He died on July 22nd. He was predeceased by his wife, Ita, and survived by his son Seamus, daughter Brídín and extended family.