Donnelly John

John Donnelly

John Joseph Donnelly was one of the most prominent early Communists in Motherwell, Scotland, having joined the Party in April 1921. He was the proposer, agent and key adviser to J T Walton Newbold (see separate entry), who was elected in 1922 as a Communist Member of Parliament for Motherwell. Arguably, Donnelly made the single most important contribution to Newbold’s election.

Donnelly was, by this time, in his late thirties and a well-known and respected campaigner in Motherwell. He had served two years imprisonment as a conscientious objector during World War One, from 1916. For several years, he was the Secretary of Motherwell & Wishaw  Independent Labour Party (ILP). Along with James White, Donnelly played a leading role in winning the local ILP to support affiliation to the Third International. By the end of 1919, he was active in the wider ILP Left Wing Committee (later ILP Left Wing Movement), which issued a small paper in 1921 entitled “The International”.

A circular to ILP branches issued by the ILP Left Wing movement, “The Call of the Third International” , bore the names of 160 signatures, including the names of prominent ILPers who were to become Communist Party members, 22 of whom were from Scotland and 16 of which were from Motherwell. The leading movers of the ILP Left Wing movement included the rather more well-known Emile Burns and R Palme Dutt, along with Shapurji Sakalatvala (City of London ILP). But Newbold (Motherwell ILP) was also accompanied by a number of key activists, whose collective role led to a later significant local base for the fledging Communist Party in various parts of the country; there were: Helen Crawfurd (Glasgow ILP ), Peter Keating (Clapham ILP) J.R. Wilson and E.H. Brown (Shipley ILP), amongst others. 

Newbold, as Motherwell’s Communist MP, described John Donnelly and the group of Communist militants around him as “superlatively skilled in local agitation”. Making clear the cultural milieu that dominated this part of Lanarkshire, he said that he “was content that the local branch of the Communist Party was in the hands of Irishmen”. Parts of Motherwell and the surrounding villages were in fact beset with religious divisions based on residence. But, difficult though the tensions from this might occasionally be, the role of the Communist Party effectively pushed divisions to the sidelines in the face of the titanic assaults on working people in this period.

Soon after the inception of the Communist Party, Motherwell Communists soon secured leading roles in organising and mobilising campaigns around unemployment, housing, rent and anti-eviction issues, turning them into high profile, broad based agitations as unemployment accelerated and wages plummeted. When the Lanarkshire steel works closed it was said by Newbold that: “Flemington went dead and Craigneuk went red”.  Newbold’s election address included the slogans:

“Working men and working women of Motherwell and Wishaw
Rally to the call of the Communist Party!
Rally to the cause of a Labour Government !
Let your vote be –

Nonetheless, the power of orange and green tensions had arguably been largely at play in loosing Newbold his seat in 1924. Having won it in 1922 with 8,000 votes, he lost it in 1924, even though he polled over a thousand votes more. The Liberals had allowed the Tories a free run, whilst the Conservative candidate made it clear he was standing as an Orange Protestant, which creamed off some working class votes. Interestingly, a Protestant clergyman was adopted as Labour’s next candidate, wrecking the united front that had been welded around Newbold by people such as Donnelly.

Other early Motherwell Communist Party activists included, James White, Chair of Motherwell Communist Party, unemployed steel worker Pat Devine, Hugh Higgins, unemployed miner, James Stephens from Wishaw, and Mary Boyle,  Superintendent of Motherwell Socialist Sunday School  (SSS).

Sources: `Motherwell for Moscow’ by Robert Duncan; additional information from Jim Whyte, Morning Star 3rd March 2010.


Michael Walker

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