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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 March, 2004, 12:40 GMT
The Night the Government Fell
Photo of Frank Maguire MP
The "Lost Leprechaun" lands in London for the vital vote
BBC Parliament has produced a new programme to mark the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the Labour Government led by James Callaghan.

'The Night the Government Fell' charts the unique occasion when the government was defeated by a vote of no-confidence in the House of Commons.

It was the first time in over half a century - since Ramsay MacDonald's Government suffered the same fate in 1924 - the Commons had forced a general election, and it hasn't happened since.

The programme speaks to some of the key players in the Commons at the time and documents some of the attempts by the government to secure its majority on that memorable night.

The Commons' decision changed the political landscape of Britain, triggering a general election, which resulted in the country's first woman Prime Minister.

Minority government

By 1979 by-elections and defections had produced a minority government. Labour was relying on alliances with smaller parties - particularly David Steel's Liberals - for the government's survival

The Callaghan administration arrived at the confidence vote following the collapse of their flagship devolution policy, after the legislation for referenda in Scotland and Wales had scraped through Parliament.

The Scots and the Welsh did not embrace Labour's attempt to locate political power in their hands.

The inevitable happened: the Conservatives tabled the classic win-or-die motion that "this House has no confidence in Her Majesty's Government."

Bad Tactics

The Seventies had proved a turbulent time in British politics under the thrall of striking public sector workers, rejecting the government's pay policy in the Winter of Discontent of 78-79.

But The Night the Government Fell sheds new light on the significance of decisions about Northern Ireland in determining the outcome of the vote of confidence.

The Leader of the SDLP at the time, Gerry Fitt was a key player in negotiations and his support that night would have carried the Government.

But the lifelong socialist decided he couldn't support the Government that night because of the Northern Ireland Secretary.

"Roy Mason went native as far as Unionists were concerned. Whenever he went on TV or made speeches, he made himself out to be totally in support of the unionist case to the exclusion of other political opinion," says Lord Fitt.

He continued: "The more Roy Mason went on TV, the more inflamed nationalist opinion got My conscience couldn't allow me to vote for a government which retained Roy Mason as its Secretary of State."

Even the Prime Minister tried to get the SDLP leader on board with a summons to the Cabinet Room at Downing Street.

But Lord Fitt didn't like Mr. Callaghan's tactics: "He did something that put me in a position where I couldn't retreat. He signalled to someone and they put in front of me a bottle of gin and a bottle of tonic. And I didn't like that one little bit."

'Lost Leprechaun'

And ever since the vote, Westminster has wondered what happened to the Irish Nationalist MP Frank Maguire on that night.

Yet to make his maiden speech, Mr Maguire flew over to Westminster especially for the landmark division but on the night he didn't vote.

Then Education Secretary Shirley - now Baroness - Williams believed he may have simply been locked in the lavatory - she called him the "lost leprechaun".

And the energy secretary at the time, Tony Benn, believed he was presented with a bottle of whiskey to buy his vote.

But according to Lord Fitt, Frank Maguire was being held by the whips, aided by a few drinks, in one of the bars in the Palace so he could be pushed into the relevant lobby for the 10pm division.

And Mr Fitt informed the House of the government's machinations when he stood to address the House in the confidence debate.

"Frank Maguire was an Irish publican. He could have drank the entire government into oblivion!" Lord Fitt told BBC Parliament.

His story concludes with the intervention of Mrs Maguire who - on hearing the SDLP leader's revelations - went to find her husband to instruct him not to vote for the government.

This tale and more will be unfurled in 'The Night the Government Fell', shown throughout the Easter recess on BBC Parliament.

Michael Foot's speech to the Commons, 28 March 1979

Today in Parliament special edition
The BBC's Mark D'Arcy talks to key players from the fateful night

Building Britain: Gladstone & Disraeli pt2
29 Mar 04  |  BBC Parliament


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