Billy Blease has died in May 2008 aged 93. He went to elementary school and technical college in Belfast, and was also educated at various Labour Colleges and the Workers’ Educational Association. He was an amateur boxer as a youth, but an injury suffered in training at the age of 19 left him without a kneecap in his right leg and a permanent limp.
Billy worked in the grocery trade and in Belfast’s shipyard, all the while devoting much effort to the trade union movement. In 1959 he became in effect its leading figure in Belfast as head of the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. He held that post for 16 years, during which time he helped reverse the then Unionist government’s refusal to recognise trade unions.
The sharply increased divisions of the late 1960s shattered the dream Billy shared with many of the Protestant and Catholic working classes united in harmony.
As Merlyn Rees, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 1974-76, said of Billy, “He worked hard on behalf of the workforce but he faced the problem of representing members who had different political aspirations”.
In his memoirs, James Callaghan described Billy Blease – a Presbyterian who never displayed any sectarian tendencies – with fondness and respect as “a man who was never blinded by faction”.
In 1978 he became a life peer. He served for several years as Labour spokesman in the Lords on Northern Ireland, and in later life served on a myriad bodies and voluntary committees. He regularly travelled to London to attend debates in the Lords until he was 90.
In one impassioned contribution he declared: “Politics must transcend old dogmas that have blocked progress for so long. Politics is not about nationalist against Unionist, Catholic against Protestant. It is about respect as against intolerance, democracy as against tyranny, peace as against violence. It is about making a palpable difference to people’s everyday lives.”
Billy Blease was married to Eva Caldwell, from 1939 until her death in 1995, their marriage bearing three sons and one daughter.