Roddy Connolly: From left to right

This review by Mick O’Reilly in Issue 36 (June 2009) traced the political journey of a leading labour activist.

Charlie McGuire, Roddy Connolly and the Struggle for Socialism in Ireland (Cork University Press)

This is a well-written, well-researched study of the turbulent life and times of Roddy Connolly. The son of one of the executed leaders of the 1916 rebellion, Roddy Connolly was a significant political figure in his own right whose career stretched over a period of more than sixty years. This book charts his involvement with many of the Irish left’s political initiatives throughout the twentieth century. He was born in Dublin in 1901, had a unique political career which spanned the revolutionary period from 1916-23, and ended up in the Labour Party defending its coalition with Fine Gael in the 1970s.

Roddy Connolly participated in the Easter rising of 1916 as a boy of fifteen years of age. He was one of the few Irish politicians who met Lenin, the Soviet leader. He was instrumental in founding Ireland’s first Communist Party. He was involved in the Republican Congress which attempted to challenge the de Valera government in the mid-1930s. He argued as a member of the Labour Party for an alliance with Clann na Poblachta, which in the end yielded nothing radical because of the decision made to enter government with Fine Gael. He was twice elected a Labour TD, and served in the Senate during the Cosgrave/Corish coalition of the 1970s.

I remember Roddy Connolly as chairman of the Labour Party, and though he was a staunch supporter of coalition with Fine Gael you would occasionally see glimpses of his old radicalism. In the early days of the troubles in Northern Ireland when he was chairing a debate on the outbreak of violence in Belfast, he introduced a speaker from the floor, Brendan Scott, who was advocating co-operation between Labour and the republican movement. He reminded the delegates that the last time labour had co-operated with the republican movement was in the GPO in 1916, and anybody who understood his father could never oppose working with repub­licans. The book explores his relationship with his father, and what­ever can be said of Roddy Connolly, he always defended his father’s views and considered him to have been Ireland’s greatest revolu­tionary leader. One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is the section dealing with the war of independence, in which McGuire describes the attempt by Roddy Connolly to move the IRA to the left and convince them to adopt a social programme.

McGuire also sheds some light on a man called Seán McLaughlin, who at the age of twenty was in the GPO with Pearse and Connolly. After Connolly was wounded and just before the surrender, he gave full authority to McLaughlin to lead the Citizen Army. McLaughlin was a close friend of Roddy Connolly and was active in the first Communist Party. The book contains an amusing account of McLaughlin’s encounter with a British Communist where, in frustration, he tells him that you cannot simply talk to republicans and “turn them” to the left, but must join them and work with them. For the current generation of activists it is easy to see communism as one thing and republicanism as something separate. However, from the perspective of the time, Citizen Army volunteers who had fought with republicans in the GPO had no problem supporting the Bolshevik revolution and simultaneously fighting British imperialism.

One of the characters who is mentioned in this book is a man called Seán (Johnny) Nolan who was involved with Roddy Connolly in the second attempt to build a Communist party which was named the Workers’ Party of Ireland. Nolan was to retain a good personal relationship with Roddy Connolly although they went in different directions politically: Seán remained a loyal member of the Communist movement while Roddy joined the Labour Party. Because of their personal relationship Nolan was sent to see if he could elicit some co-operation from Connolly in relation to certain issues which the Communist Party thought would advance the interests of the working class. While reading this section I was reminded of a story Johnny Nolan told me relating to this request for co-operation. Apparently, when Johnny met with Roddy Connolly in the Dáil he was studying a book on the mechanics of parliamentary procedure. Seán never raised any of the questions that he was supposed to, and when he returned to his comrades he was asked for an explanation. His answer was that those who study books on parliamentary procedure will not co-operate with or help revolution­aries, and you don’t even need to ask. That was a penetrating judgement which was to foresee where Roddy Connolly would end his political career.

But nevertheless, the book illuminates this long story, which begins on 11 February 1901 in Pimlico where Roddy Connolly was born. He was the sixth child in the family, and James Connolly’s only son. We get a brief glimpse of his early years. For this information the author relies to some degree on the evidence of Nora Connolly, Roddy’s sister, who chronicled the Connolly household. “It is clear that there was no shortage of love and affection coming from both of Connolly’s parents, or extending back to them in return from their children.” We also have a clear portrait of James Connolly, who involved all of his children in political discussion from an early age. In a letter from Connolly to his wife in 1913 while serving a brief spell in prison for his involvement in the lockout, he says his youngest child Fiona, then aged six, would not understand why he had been imprisoned, but that the others—including Roddy, then aged twelve—would do so, adding they “should know that many more than I (perhaps thousands) will have to go to prison, and perhaps the scaffold, before our freedom will be won”.

At the age of fifteen Roddy was a participant in the 1916 rising, running messages for Pádraig Pearse and his father. According to McGuire, there was an argument in the Connolly household as to his suitability for involvement at such a young age, with his mother believing him too young to participate in such an event. His father settled the matter by saying that, at fifteen, Roddy was no longer a child, and he took his place alongside him in the GPO. The book deals with his leaving the GPO on the Wednesday under instruc­tions from his father to take vital information in connection with the ITGWU to William O’Brien. He would be arrested the next day and held for several days. When questioned, he gave a false identity and was released.

For a brief period following the rising he lived in Glasgow where he worked in the shipyards as a draughtsman. There he got to know a group who would later become known as the ‘Red Clyde­siders’. Here he was to see the power of the organised working class in actions which led to the shop stewards’ movement in Glasgow achieving substantial improvements in conditions for shipyard and engineering workers during the first world war.

One interesting fact which is explored is Roddy’s meeting with Lenin, which took place in 1919. He was introduced to Lenin in Moscow by the American author John Reed, and this is the only meeting of Lenin with an Irish person to be captured on film. It was to have a profound impact on Roddy. Lenin explained to him that he had read his father’s book Labour in Irish History,and regarded him as being head and shoulders above most of the other labour leaders in Britain and Ireland at the time. Roddy Connolly’s impression of Lenin is described in the book as one of a person who was without pretension and always willing to bend over backwards to find common cause to advance unity within the movement. Such was the impression made by Lenin that as late as 1967, Roddy referred to this meeting in a lecture he delivered to the Irish USSR Society commem­orating the fiftieth anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution.

The book is particularly useful for students of Irish history who wish to examine the role of the left in the period between 1916 and the early 1940s. Roddy Connolly established two Communist parties, and was the first Irishman to describe the Anglo-Irish Treaty as treachery and Michael Collins as a traitor. He predicted the Irish civil war, and consistently argued throughout this period that the left in Ireland should support the IRA in their struggle for Irish freedom. After the failure of the two Communist parties the Comintern put all their effort behind Jim Larkin as the best possible leader of a left party. However, Larkin’s detestation of O’Brien and his habit of speaking his mind about the nature of other labour leaders made it very difficult for Irish Communists to be fulsome in their support.

Roddy drifted into the Labour Party and was to stay there for the rest of his life. Although a member of the Labour Party, he re­mained a committed communist until the 1950s. This was expressed by his support for the Republican Congress, his stance in support of the Spanish Republic, and his consistent opposition to the Blueshirts and Fine Gael. The book deals with his painful move to the right, which began with his gradual abandonment of the Marxist under­standing of the nature of the state and his apparent isolation within the Labour Party, partly caused by his refusal to join left-wing factions or develop his own grouping.

In fairness to Roddy, the author explores the way in which he began a campaign to support Clann na Poblachta in the late 1940s when, after a period of sixteen years of Fianna Fáil rule, he believed that a combination of Clann na Poblachta and Labour could achieve a majority and form a government. This was not to be, and by using this logic he was to go on to advocate support for a government which contained not only Clann na Poblachta but also Fine Gael. This was painful for Connolly, and this is explored in the book. After that he entered a period of political inactivity, interrupted briefly by his decision to stand as a Labour candidate in Dublin South Central, the constituency of Young Jim Larkin and the strongest Labour constituency in the country. There was mass unemployment, and the Communist Party were behind the decision of the Unemployed Workers’ Action Committee to stand a candidate. This candidate swept the board, and Roddy Connollly suffered as a result.

Worse was to come for Connolly. He was impressed by Labour’s anti-coalition stance in the mid-1960s, and this caused his return to more active politics. During this period he was befriended by Brendan Halligan, Labour’s general secretary. In 1969, however, this period of Labour independence came to an abrupt halt with the eruption of violence in Northern Ireland and the ‘Arms Crisis’ in the Republic. This propelled Labour into a somersault on coalition which divided the party considerably. Connolly used his position not alone to argue for a coalition with Fine Gael but to refuse to challenge the views expressed by Conor Cruise O’Brien, vehemently opposed to all tenets of republican socialism. This was to be the tragedy of Roddy Connolly’s life. It expressed itself most publicly in his support of Fine Gael candidate Tom O’Higgins’s presidential campaign in 1973. O’Higgins had been an active Blueshirt in the 1930s.

This book illuminates an extraordinarily long and complex political life. It fails to answer the question of why Roddy Connolly ended up where he did, but that is no fault of the author, who has unearthed a mass of new material, particularly relating to the 1920s. The book should be read by anybody who seeks to understand the role of the left in twentieth century Ireland.

“Organise or die”

This interview with Mick O’Reilly, Irish Secretary of the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers’ Union (now Unite) appeared in Issue 21 in March 2005, shortly after he was reinstated following an attempt to remove him from his post.

After a three and a half year saga since your suspension in June 2001, you have been reinstated as Regional Secretary of the ATGWU. You have been described as a thorn in the side of the ICTU and of the former TGWU leadership. You are the best-known opponent of social partnership, you opposed the Nice Treaty, and at the time of your removal, you had taken ILDA into the ATGWU. You were accused of several relatively minor internal offences, and several other reasons have been claimed as the real reason for your removal. What do you think was the reason?

I’ve obviously thought about this question a lot. There were a number of factors. First of all I was probably the only Regional Secretary who Bill Morris [then General Secretary of the TGWU] didn’t want in his period of office, and he was there for a long time. I had a very substantial vote on the executive council. Secondly, I think that there were people in the wider trade union movement who attempted to contact Bill Morris. I don’t know, and I’ll probably never know, what took place in those contacts. I know, for example, that the then President of SIPTU spoke to John Freeman, a former ATGWU Regional Secretary, and asked him how he could go about getting to Bill Morris about me. I know, for example, that Peter Cassells tried to create an impression at the biennial conference that there was no involvement of anybody in the ICTU in relation to any of this, but I know that he had a meeting about ILDA and me with Ray Collins in the Gresham Hotel, because Ray Collins said this. He may have defended me for all I know. I don’t know what happened at the meeting. But I was always very disappointed that he denied, or appeared to try and cover up that situation.

So, I think the reasons were partly political. I think they were also personal. I think, frankly, that when you look at the actual charges they were trivial and not serious. I think that the people who made representations here probably didn’t want me dismissed. That’s the benign view. But I think they were wrong. I think they should have come and had the argument with me. Many of them who were involved in this I know for many years in the trade union movement. And there was nothing that we were doing that couldn’t have been discussed, unless you want to make a big issue of the ILDA thing. But quite frankly I have no apologies to make for the ILDA thing. The reality of the situation was that the Supreme Court and the High Court said that they [the train drivers] were not members of SIPTU. Mary O’Rourke, who was the minister at the time, actually made a plea for them to join the official trade union movement and come back. They certainly would have not gone back to either of the existing unions.

I don’t think Congress rules were correctly applied. The case was heard in my absence. I did request that it be done when I was here, but that fell on deaf ears, so I was quite annoyed about that. When I came back from holidays I was suspended. I was told I couldn’t have any contact with any third party who the union had anything to do with. I was barred from entering any union office. It was almost like a form of house arrest, actually. The reality is that most of the officers in the union stayed loyal to me. They knew that this was rotten fish. They got behind me.

Probably for the first time in the history of any union anywhere, officers, who I don’t know, officers right throughout England and Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland, all over the place, voted to take industrial action, which I think is unprecedented, in support of me and Eugene McGlone [ATGWU Northern Organiser, also removed at the same time]. I think that shook our union to its foundations. Not just that they were going to pull the plug and walk out, because I don’t think they were going to do it that way. I remember talking to Mick O’Riordan at the time, and he said it’s the equivalent of the cardinals voting against the pope, and if the cardinals vote against the pope, of course, the pope has to go.

I suppose we were lucky in the sense that Morris was coming up to retirement age. But I think it had a profound effect on the outcome of his replacement. Tony Woodley [successor to Bill Morris] has always been very clear that, no matter what happened, he was determined to see that justice was done. He had a lot of genuine excuses that he could have used to move away from the firm commitments and promises that he gave, and he chose not to use them but to do what he promised to do, and he has delivered it, and in such a way that nobody else has suffered as a result of it. Because it was never our aim to get justice for ourselves and then to implement some injustice to others. That was never part of our aim. I never made a personal attack on anybody in this campaign, and I never called for anybody’s dismissal. I’m not in favour of that. There’s better ways of doing things. So that’s the background to it.

What was the position of Ray Collins at the time?

He was Deputy General Secretary of the TGWU with responsibility for administration. If my memory is right, he was requested by Bill Morris to come over and investigate the matter because there had been a rail strike at the time, and an intervention by the National Implementation Body which said that the question of what union they [the train drivers] were in should be dealt with by the ICTU, and the grievances of the members should be dealt with by the Labour Court. That’s what happened.

Another politician’s name was mentioned. Is that just speculation?

Well, Bertie Ahern’s name was mentioned as being involved in that. The speculation was that the Taoiseach’s Department had spoken to Blair, or that the ICTU had spoken to the TUC and they had spoken to Blair. To be quite honest about it, I don’t know whether any of that’s true or not. I’m not making the allegation that anybody was involved, because I just don’t know. But journalists speculated on that, they have their sources, and I suppose people will have to make up their own minds.

The then General President of SIPTU, Des Geraghty, has vehemently denied allegations that he was involved in your suspension. He says he offered to mediate on your behalf and to provide material assistance. The General Officers of SIPTU supported in writing the Dublin Trades Council motion of May 2002 protesting at your sacking and supporting your appeal.

Well, the reality of the situation is that when it became such a cause, I suppose, in the trade union movement, I don’t think anybody wanted to be seen in public to be opposing me. To be quite honest, it was dealt with in a very authoritarian way by our leadership, in a very ham-fisted way. Actually what Dessie Geraghty said in public is in Magill magazine. He said: I did not make an official complaint to Bill Morris on record about Mick O’Reilly. I think that’s true. But why was he asking and enquiring as to how he would go about talking to Morris in respect of my situation? And I don’t say that he did that with a view to getting me dismissed. I’ve never said that, because I don’t know why he did that. I have to say, whatever position they took, I was never approached by the leadership of SIPTU in relation to their support for me. But there was widespread support throughout the ICTU in opposition to Morris, and I’m very thankful for it. But at that stage the die was cast and Morris was not going to step back for any outside body. I don’t know how serious they were, but a lot of people were genuinely sincere at that time, and wanted to try and be helpful towards myself and Eugene, and I would never deny that.

Was there a letter written by a senior officer of the ICTU to Bill Morris, a normal business letter that should normally have been addressed to you, shortly before your removal?

At that time I had had a very big argument, after the rail strike, on the executive council of Congress, and it was fairly traumatic, to say the least. My memory of it is that I gave as good as I got in the exchanges that took place. Afterwards when the Congress confer­ence came up, one person, I think he was president at the time, or running to be president, actually wrote to Morris looking for support from our union. Now the protocol would be that that would be done through me. Whether that’s all part of the pattern of events, I’m not sure. I was a bit isolated on the executive council of Congress, because I don’t think they were happy about the role that I played in relation to inflation and forcing the renegotiation of the agreement [the PPF national partnership agreement]. A number of people on the executive council did support me, both about the train drivers and that issue, and at the end everybody was supporting the re­negotiation of the agreement and that we had to do something about inflation.

But I can tell you that, whilst that might have been the position in the end, it wasn’t the position in the beginning, and it was very difficult to force the renegotiation of the agreement. I’m not certain of this, but I think it’s possibly the only time an agreement was renegotiated, and the employers were none too happy, nor were the government. I think it had to be done because we made a mistake in the negotiations, and I think it was a genuine error. All the indications from the government and the Central Bank and all the experts were that inflation would remain low, and the increase would be sufficient to stay ahead of inflation. My view was that that was more reason to have an indexation clause, not less, because if the government believed that, they should have put their money where their mouth was, rather than us having to make them. But we did make them. We got the support of people and we opened up the agreement. I happen to think that was a good thing for the trade union movement. It restored a bit of credibility. I think there would have been tensions, and people would possibly have had to break the agreement and take action. So I think it was as well that the leadership eventually got behind the argument that we were making in respect to inflation.

Was your removal found to be out of order? Was it against the rules and procedures of the union?

John Hendy, a very prominent barrister, was brought in to examine and report on the whole case. He’s a very eminent labour lawyer. He worked for nothing for the National Union of Mineworkers right through their strike. My view is he tore the procedures used against me, and indeed a lot of the charges, asunder. That report was accepted by the executive council. It’s a very formidable and very large report, and I think it will be used—already has been used—by our own union to change our structures in relation to situations like that. Indeed people used to believe that the Irish Regional Secretary in the Amalgamated Transport was untouchable. And of course that wasn’t so. But I think it will be so from here on in. I think anybody who gets the job after me will be relatively safe. I think it will be a long, long time before anyone dares to make that kind of intervention here, or I hope anywhere else.

I don’t believe that you can solve political differences by admin­istrative methods and by dismissal. You have to solve them by democratic discussion, using the procedures of the union to argue different points of view out. I think this case demonstrates that, because the union lost credibility. It spent a lot of resources. At the end of the day I’d have to say I’m very proud that the union had the capacity to turn this around, to look at its mistakes and rectify them, to renew itself because of all of this. I think that’s a strength; I don’t think it’s a weakness.

I’m not certain that I’m right in this, but my feeling is that this is the only time in the history of the trade union movement that anybody like myself and Eugene has got back when they have been attacked by the establishment to such an extent. It’s a real credit to Tony Woodley and to all those that supported him, to our executive council and, I have to say, to the Irish membership who in the darkest days stood up for me, because I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the rank and file, the officers and all the people who campaigned. I’m very, very grateful. And also, it has to be said, for the wider trade union movement, the trades councils, etc. I suppose it’s like throwing stones. Maybe at first you don’t think you are making much of an impact, but when a lot of people start doing it, it really does, and it burst the damn open on the case. So I’m very grateful. I’m quite humbled about the support that I have got. I have to work to restore things, because we lost a lot of members in the process, and we lost our reputation to some degree. I think we have begun to restore that and to turn it around, and I’m delighted to be back.

When you were summarily suspended, there was a story in the media suggesting financial irregularities. Then the stuff about the sexist mug appeared. Were these attempted smears? Where did they come from?

On the question of the financial irregularities, I have to say the person I’m eternally grateful for in relation to that whole area was Gene Kerrigan. I don’t know Gene Kerrigan, except that I read his column from time to time, when I can find somebody else who has bought the Sunday Independent. He certainly blew that out of the water. You see, all they said from the office in London was that they were doing an administrative audit and examining the finances of the union. It was a statement of fact. It was the context and the way that it was said that was meant to have a certain impact. Of course, in a society awash with tribunals you only have to say ‘finance’ and ‘audit’ for people to say—and this is the dreadful, dreadful statement, I hope I never make it—‘there’s no smoke without fire’. And it’s very easy to damn somebody in that way. Gene Kerrigan certainly blew that one out of the water. There was no substance, there was nothing in the finances. I may say that at one stage I was scratching my own head, though I always knew I didn’t take anybody else’s money. But I wasn’t sure that I hadn’t put something in a wrong column. I’m responsible as Regional Secretary for every penny that’s spent in Ireland. That’s a fairly big budget. So I worried about that. But there was absolutely no substance in that at all. In fact no question that I was asked in the very, very long procedures, the years I spent arguing all these issues, was asked in respect of finance.

In respect of the mug, well, I never saw the mug and I didn’t know anything about it until it was raised in the papers. The story is quite simple. One of our women delegates, over at some conference, bought the mug as a joke. Apparently it was in the canteen in Belfast. Eugene took the mug away, never used it and it was never seen. So I don’t know why it was raised. It was a contrived thing. My view is that it was contrived to give a certain image to us, that we weren’t active on behalf of women, and we were somehow chauvinistic. I found that very insulting. My record is there, and people know what it is. I’ve never been involved in anything like that, and I’ve taken a lot of cases for our women members down through the years. I’ve always fought for a progressive position, and that is true of Eugene McGlone as well. There was a lot of discussion in the press about it: it was a bit salacious. Actually no questions arose [in the hearings] about it at all.

Do you think that your instant removal showed a weakness of the left in the ATGWU? If so, is there now better organisation of the left and stronger roots among ATGWU activists?

Well, everybody was surprised, and there was nobody more surprised than me. And to say that we hadn’t got a plan to deal with this would be true, because we never thought that anything like this would ever happen. Yes, the left were taken off guard, and yes, you could argue that there should have been some instant action. Whatever you say about it now, everything we did was right. It had to be, because it brought about the right results. The fact is that there was a lot of argument amongst ourselves about how we should go about things, and what we should do. We hadn’t at any stage a master plan. In fact, we had only a simple plan: whatever you do, keep fighting. Keep throwing punches, keep coming up with ideas, keep in the ring. Stay on your feet, and never yield to them. Apart from that, there was no theory behind it, no plan. And obviously: keep the issue in the media, keep people focused on it, keep telling the truth, and it will get through. That was the plan. And I think it worked, in the end.

If the officers had all walked out immediately, yes, that probably would have worked. If the membership had all gone on strike. I don’t know whether they could have done that. A lot of them had agreements with their employers, so that wouldn’t have been a right thing to do. It was very, very difficult to know what to do. And remember, the officers and the shop stewards had to keep servicing the members. I never made a case that our members shouldn’t be looked after in all of this. Because that’s important, and of course that’s the great contradiction of trade unions. It’s not really like any other organisation. You spend your life building it up. You are not likely to walk out and leave it to chance, even if there is an injustice. And the union starts off with a huge amount of capital in respect of the way that it treats people. Because we believe in it: I believe in it.

I have to imagine what I would have done if I had heard of some officer going on like that. I would have been like any other officer. I would have said: ‘There must be something in this! Our leadership are not prejudiced. They’re not just nasty for the sake of it. There must be some substance in it.’ So it took a long time to get that argument across. But when it got across, when people examined it, when the case started to be heard, then I think the tide started to turn.

Were you surprised by the level of abandonment of you among ATGWU officials?

Well, first of all, I wasn’t abandoned by them, because they voted by 70 per cent to go on strike. So if that’s a level of abandonment, then I’ll live with it. I was surprised by some of the people who I thought were close personal friends of mine who, in a period when I was silenced, actually attacked me. I think that was wrong, and I was disappointed by the behaviour of one or two people. But in all the circumstances the majority of the officers here supported me, and the majority of Regional Committees supported me, and the confer­ences supported me.

They [the full-time officials] were under very intense pressure. They were in a very awkward position. It wasn’t easy. I’ve thought about this and I’ve said to myself: ‘Now what would have happened if this had have happened to Matt Merrigan?’ I was a very close friend of Mattie. I think I would have continued to service the members. And I hope I would have done what a lot of the officers did, come up to the person and say: ‘What do you want me to do?’ and do my best to do it. I don’t think there’s any magic to it. That’s what you do in any dispute. You ask the people who are affected, and you try to do it for them. Most of the officers did that, and it should be said that, after I was sacked, the officers sustained me for months in terms of my wages. They didn’t give me the Regional Secretary’s rate, they only gave me an ordinary officers’ rate, but I’m taking that up with my shop stewards! But seriously, the majority of the officers sustained me right through this. A small minority of people didn’t, but these things happen.

Were you happy with the level of support at activist and shop steward level?

Oh, I was delighted with it. From the shop stewards, from right throughout the union, the amount of letters and phone calls was amazing. I was worn out. I was happy to go back to work for a rest, frankly, with the amount of people that contacted me! It was absolutely marvellous. Not only in my own union, but right throughout the trade union movement. People may not agree with a lot of my ideas, and argue about this, that and the other, but I have come across hardly anybody who agreed with the way this was done. I think it was badly handled. I think that it was seen as a very authoritarian, unjust, politically motivated attack on two individ­uals. I think most people reckon that it was rotten fish, and most people said that. And that’s the truth of it.

There was a tremendous groundswell of support for you throughout the unions and a big campaign within the ATGWU, the British TGWU and the wider Irish trade union movement. The campaign, in Ireland at least, appeared to have bouts rather than consistent activity. Did you choose, at the beginning and at other intervals, to hold off campaigning to allow the case to be fought through procedures and the law? Would you conduct the battle differently in hindsight?

No, I wouldn’t, because I won. That’s not to say that I got everything right, because I didn’t. It is true that during the periods that you were in an internal process in the union, you couldn’t spend that much time campaigning. I could not speak in public during a lot of this. A lot of people took the view that I should have defied Morris and spoke.

I was actually banned from speaking at the Desmond Greaves School. A lot of people thought I should speak there. I believe that if I had done that, he would have sacked me instantly, there and then. I had letters more or less saying that. I chose to duck and bob and weave. I wasn’t certain that that was the right thing. I was agonising over whether it was the right or wrong thing. I had different impulses at different times. But in the end, a lot of people took the view that I shouldn’t make it easy for them, I should make it difficult. That view prevailed, and that’s what I did. I didn’t defy it, I didn’t speak out. I think that that made it very difficult for him, because he was painting a picture of me as a sort of malcontent who wouldn’t accept the legitimate authority of the union, and all of that. And I think our reasonable behaviour during the thing made life more difficult for him, actually.

Now I have to say there were a lot of people who criticised me for not speaking out, and thought I should speak out. Genuine people who genuinely thought that, if I was dismissed on that issue, I could win in the courts. Anyway, I decided not to do that, and I didn’t speak until I could speak. But when I could speak, I did: I was on the radio over issues. It’s hard to know what would have happened if I had spoken out. We don’t know. You don’t get a chance to revisit history and find out. I did what I did. I wasn’t always certain that I was doing the right thing. In some cases I was agonising over it. To say I was furious about not speaking at the Desmond Greaves School is the understatement of the century. It tested my patience to the limit, because I thought it was a gross interference with my personal liberty as an Irish citizen. I thought it was disgraceful that Morris had done that. But anyway, I tactically decided to deal with it another way. Whether I was right or wrong, that’s what I did.

Your removal appeared to be followed up by a purge of, for want of another term, the left, or those close to you, in the ATGWU. Are you and your supporters now fully re-established?

In the period I was outside the union, it was a very cold house, and it was extremely difficult for them. Some of them lost elections. But in the big public elections, in terms of the executive and all of that, the people that stood with me were elected repeatedly in any popular contest where people made it clear where they stood. And it’s very interesting that nobody in that period [who stood in these type of elections] didn’t support me. Because you couldn’t run in an election and say: ‘I was in favour of what Bill Morris did’. There were people who were in favour of it, but they wouldn’t say it. They could read a situation the same as I can. So there was no support in the body of the union for what happened. Yes, some of my supporters lost positions. The chairman of the Regional Committee, Jack McKay, lost his position. But he didn’t lose his position on the Regional Committee, and he fought for me right through this, and he’s still a good friend. These kind of things happen. The reality of the situation is that I know of nobody who would get elected anywhere in the T & G who would say that what Bill Morris did was right. And if people want to do that, as far as I’m concerned the T & G is a big democracy. If people want to say: ‘I think Bill Morris was right, I think Mick and Eugene should have been sacked’, they can put that in their manifesto and see how many votes they get.

Is ILDA now safely established as a branch of the ATGWU, and are you recognised by Iarnród Éireann?

No, we’re not recognised by Iarnród Éireann, but ILDA is a branch of the ATGWU. In fact ILDA is no more, it’s gone into the annals of history. But we’re still seeking to get proper representation for the train drivers and they still continue to suffer. However, there have been extraordinary developments in respect to the train drivers’ dispute. When ILDA had the first dispute, before they were in the ATGWU, there was, I think, a ten or twelve week dispute. And of course, the drivers took a claim to the appeals panel of the Depart­ment of Social Welfare, that they should be paid social welfare. Now this panel consists of an independent chairman, employers’ reps and ICTU reps. You have to be able to prove that an employer behaved unreasonably and locked you out before you get paid. They established that as a matter of fact. The panel met twice, because it was appealed by the company. So the train drivers received, whatever it was, over €300,000, as a result of this. My view is that that’s an extremely serious situation, because that means that those who worked in the dispute collaborated with the employer in a lockout. And I imagine that, retrospectively, they are probably a bit shameful about that. I’m sure, as they were doing it, that vista wasn’t in front of them, but it’s a fact, it happened.

Of course, then there’s the costs of the dispute. Depending on who you talk to, the figures vary: some journalists said the cost was about €30 million because it lasted ten weeks or so. And what that means is quite interesting, because I’ll go back to Thatcherism. Whilst the left in general and trade unionists are in favour of the public sector, it is a fact that sometimes the public sector can be used to enforce things on unions and workers that the private sector could never do. I don’t believe the Ford company in Britain would have ever done to our shop stewards what Thatcher was able to get Edwards to do to our shop stewards in British Leyland when it was nationalised, because they were able to pour in public money. And I think that this question of what happened in the dispute in Irish Rail should be investigated by a Dáil committee, and those responsible in management should be held to account. And I think if you go over the facts it would be very difficult to say why they shouldn’t be dismissed for what they did, because they behaved disgracefully.

The truth of that is out now. But the difficulty, of course, is that it’s four years later that’s it’s coming out. It’s a pity we didn’t have the hearing back then. I think retrospectively it justifies the train drivers, because you don’t easily convince ICTU representatives, employers and an independent chairman that it was the employer who behaved wrongly and who locked them out. I think that’s quite a significant development. People should go back and examine that, and I think indeed the workers who mistakenly worked during that period should examine that with a view to not repeating it in the future. Not with a view to scoring points over them, but with a view to not repeating it in the future, because I don’t believe they wilfully did that. But I do believe that retrospectively it can now be seen objectively that that’s what happened and they were wrong. And the trade union movement, when it does something like that and makes a mistake, should not be afraid to say we got that wrong, at that time, in those circumstances.

And Congress’s position on ILDA at the moment?

Well at the moment I’m in discussions with SIPTU, and Jack O’Connor made a statement in 2001 that we couldn’t resolve the problems of representation for the train drivers in the narrow context of just the Disputes Committee and the ICTU rules, and that what he wanted to do was explore the possibility of a co-operation agreement with the Amalgamated Transport. So I’m in discussions with SIPTU over that, and my view is that I certainly want a co-operation agreement with SIPTU. I think it would be a wholly good thing. I think we should look at possibly a number of joint ventures where we should attempt to organise workers who are not in unions, and put our energies into that.

I think if we learn to trust one another and work together for the good of the movement, then the problems, whatever they are, are easier addressed, and I want a good positive working relation­ship with SIPTU. Now that’s not going to be at the expense of policies. We are still going to argue over policies. I am profoundly convinced that the SIPTU attitude, and indeed the wider Irish trade union movement’s attitude, to partnership is a disaster. It has led to a decline. You can’t have the contradictory position of saying govern­ments and employers are your partners and you are working with them on national level, and to be launching campaigns to fight back for unionisation on local level in the unorganised area.

What would you say to the accusation that you poached the train drivers from SIPTU, and that the train drivers are an elitist section?

Well, let’s take first things first. I didn’t try to poach anybody. They were having this argument with SIPTU, as far as I understand, from 1994. Indeed this is on record: it is their view that the voting procedures left a lot to be desired in relation to some of the deals that they had. I don’t know the whole ins and out of that, but they went to court and it was established that they were not members of SIPTU. But they tried also to make a complaint to the ICTU. And they received a letter from Tom Wall [of the ICTU] and he said he couldn’t investigate the complaint because they weren’t members of SIPTU. So I don’t know how SIPTU made a complaint to the ICTU that I took their members. I didn’t. They were already three years out. There’d been a Supreme Court and High Court decision. They were outside of the whole trade union movement. The other thing that’s complex about the case is that a number of them were in the NBRU, and therefore not subject to the rules of Congress at all.

So I think there should have been a bit of lateral thinking in the trade union movement. And I think, if we had stood back from it, it would have been better. Because the key is not the number of unions that represent workers. The key is the voting mechanism. I said to the train drivers, on the first day that I met them, that I insisted on one thing: that all decisions made by the train drivers would be made on the basis of 51 per cent of those people who were drivers. If we had a hundred unions, it would make no difference once that principle was enshrined. And I’ve also gone on record, and I said this at the time: the answer to the problem of the train drivers is to take the bureaucrats away from them, lock them in a room, and they’ll find a common cause in themselves because they are all train drivers. The problem is the unions are really fighting over income. That’s the problem, and they should raise their eyes from that.

By the way, I think the leadership [of SIPTU and Congress] want to find a solution to the problem. It’s not going to be easy, but I think it can be found. There are a lot of ingredients that make it different from a normal situation. No, I never poached the train drivers. I didn’t create any of that. It had run for ages.

Are the train drivers elitist? Well, the reality of life is that the trade union movement from its inception has always had to deal with crafts and different skills, and people combine together to get as much as they can for their particular craft or skill. I don’t think the train drivers are any more elitist than engineers or sparks or crane drivers or anybody else. I think they try to get as much as they can from their boss. And I’ve never found them to be elitist in their attitude. They fight their corner, but there’s nothing necessarily elitist about that. Quite frankly, I think when people can’t win the debate on issues they turn to clichés like ‘elitist’. I don’t think they are elitist, and if they are, the trade union movement is full of people who are elitist and look after themselves. I think it’s overstated with the train drivers. I think they are no more elitist than anyone else.

Is it not, generally speaking, better to stay in your union and change it from within? Have you any views on the Independent Workers Union?

I think it’s wrong to make a principle of being outside Congress. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being outside Congress. You can find yourself outside Congress on issues, on rules and procedure and tactics and all the rest of it. Some unions do reasonably well outside Congress. The NBRU are outside Congress. I don’t work with unions on the basis of whether they are in or outside Congress. I think all of us should work with the Independent Workers Union. But I think they are mistaken to make a principle of not being in Congress.

You can be in, but not necessarily of. There’s a case for an opposition in Congress. It seems to me that’s the one mistake the Independent Workers Union have made. It’s still kind of an important organisation, and it still remains to be seen whether it will succeed or not. I think it has partially succeeded. It’s recruiting mainly, as I understand it, in areas of unorganised workers. It’s not setting out to be a poaching organisation. I don’t think that’s the motivation of it.

But I think it would be better if it could find a way to be in Congress. Time will tell. But I wouldn’t make a principle or a fetish of not being in Congress. Sometimes you have to be outside an organisation to change it, and then go back into it. The movement is littered with unions that were outside Congress for a period of time. After all, Larkin himself was outside Congress from the 1920s right through. In fact, he only ever went to Congress as a delegate from the Dublin Council of Trade Unions: the Workers Union of Ireland was outside. The Irish Transport split from Congress in 1945. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. So I’m not going to criticise the Independent Workers Union. As far as I’m concerned, they’re there. But I think tactically they’ve have made an error in erecting that into a principle. I don’t think it’s a principle myself.

What is the future for the ATGWU now? Is it, in straightforward trade union terms, doing well as regards membership and strength? Will it take a leading role in posing an alternative to social partnership and for a fighting and democratic trade unionism? What are your plans now? Do you see yourself in a stronger position to develop the role you had, or were seen to have had, before June 2001? Can the ATGWU reach out to oppositions in other trade unions to work for change?

Well, first of all the union lost a large number of members as a result of what happened to myself and Eugene, and that has to be faced. We have a lot of restructuring to do in the organisation. But the truth is that I think the wider trade union movement need the Amalgam­ated Transport, and the debate that we have represented, because we don’t just speak for our own members. I think we speak for a lot of people who have reservations about the relationship we have with government and with the employers, about the impact of these agreements and the way they erode the independence of the trade union movement. As far as the ATG and its position is concerned, it hasn’t changed. As far as I’m concerned, we will be arguing for a different strategy.

One of the things we are looking at is that we have restructured the organisation. We have taken away a lot of the administrative tasks. There has been some voluntary redundancy in the union as a result of all this. What we’re saving is going into organising, because you can’t organise unless you put resources into it. It is our intention to employ 110 organisers [throughout the whole TGWU] on short-term contracts for a period of three years. We intend, for the first time in the history of the union, to go outside of our own membership for some of the organisers. Obviously, our own members will be core to it as well, but we will go outside too. We are going to launch a big education programme on organisation. We are talking to the American unions about this, and they are helping us to do this. I think this is extremely important. I would venture to say it’s prob­ably the biggest thing we have done in the Transport Union since our foundation. We’re putting very, very big resources into it, between £7 million and £10 million. I hope to have ten or more organisers in Ireland.

I hope that the debate at the ICTU conference this year centres around the question of organisation. I hope to play a part in that debate with others. And that’s part of the co-operation agreement I want with SIPTU. Because I want to turn the movement outwards, and I think if we start organising it will have a huge impact on social partnership. Even if people don’t think it will, it will, because of the way we have to bring people in. You don’t build organisation unless you’re prepared to fight back. People won’t join you unless you stand up for them, or show them how to stand up for themselves. If you do that they’ll join you, if you don’t they won’t. It’s not complicated, it’s dead simple, but we’ve forgotten it. We’ve made the world too complex for ourselves. We worry too much about government, and we’re declining. If we start worrying about the members we’ll grow. The members are not foolish, they can smell this a mile off. They know whether you are serious or whether you are not serious. They know when you’re in bed with the boss, and they know when you are trying to do your best.

I’m not talking about miracles, and I’m not talking about getting the members everything they want. I’m simply talking about doing the best you bloody can in the circumstances you find yourself. Doing the fifteen rounds for them, and getting them trained in how to do the fifteen rounds for themselves. Because that’s the big task, to get the members into servicing themselves and stop relying on the officials, to turn the officials into organisers, to bring new blood into the trade union movement. We have to trust the members to do that, and if we trust the members they will trust us and give us the resources that we need to do that. And if we don’t do that—and this is critical—if we don’t do that and do that quick, we won’t be here in five years. It’s as stark as that. It’s organise or die. And as far as I’m concerned, I’ve no intention of dying, and I want to organise.

Do you think that some of the unions are backing down from an inevitable showdown on privatisation and outsourcing?

Well, as far as privatisation is concerned, I think that the ethos of the Fianna Fáil government can be exploited much more by the trade union movement. It has to be understood that the public sector in this country was created by Fianna Fáil. It was created by what I would call developmental nationalism. And of course, that’s in decline as an ideology because of globalisation and all the rest of it.

But the trade union movement would need to make up its mind about how serious it is about fighting on this. I have to say that some of the performance of the trade union movement, in respect to some of the employee share option dealsthat have been done, leaves a lot to be desired. It’s quite clear now that the overall economy is suffering because of the lack of investment in broadband [following the privatisation of Eircom]. It’s quite clear now that we shouldn’t have gone up that road of privatisation, though there was very little resistance put up from the trade union movement. And I think, quite frankly, we have got away very lightly, given our performance in that whole area. I think we should learn lessons from that, and I don’t think there should be any attempt to repeat it.

I have to say that, in the ESB, we’re absolutely opposed to the selling of any power stations for more shares, which some of the unions seem to think is a good idea. We are not just opposed to it in the leadership. We have taken the trouble to go around all our membership, and they’re behind us in this, and I believe the rest of the trade unions in the ESB will follow us. I do not believe there is any support for the privat­isation of the ESB, and I intend to take an interest in that area, and to do all I can to encourage our members not to be afraid of that. And not to think that privatisation is inevitable: it isn’t inevitable, it’s a political decision. And if we don’t want to accept privatisation, we won’t: whatever the difficulties are can be overcome.

The people who built these industries were great people. They had a vision of this country, they were patriotic. They may not have been socialists, but they were progressive people. And if we were waiting for the private sector to do it, we’d still be waiting. We would never have had rural electrification, we would never have developed Bord na Móna, we would never have created the jobs, we would never have created industrialisation. We’d never have had an independent state worthy of the name. And the real question for us is: are we prepared to stand up for those publicly owned industries?

I think we can find lots of allies in different places. Not just among our membership, but even among sections of the manage­ment of these companies who still maintain some of the ethos of the public sector. I think we should be creative. The one thing we have to do is see that these companies are managed well. We have to see that we co-operate in sensible ways about growing these businesses, but not do anything to dismantle them just to make a few people who are rich already even more rich. I don’t think that’s in the national interest.

I think we should use this concept of ‘the national interest’. It seems to me it’s always exploited by employers or right wing politicians. As John Wesley said, why should the devil have all the best tunes? Why shouldn’t we strike a popular touch with people out there? Because I think people out there are very sceptical about privatisation, about big multinationals getting their hands on the ESB, or our trains or buses or whatever.

The Irish people are lucky, in particular in relation to public transport, because most of them are able to see the BBC, and if you want to find out why you should have nothing to do with privatis­ation, just look at the safety record of the newly privatised companies over there, and all the other things. They are pumping public money into what are now virtually private monopolies. Now we do not need that model, we don’t need to go up that road, and we should start fighting that and stop dodging it. We should put it plainly to government that all partner­ship and all relationship with them is over if they go up that road. And I don’t believe they have a popular mandate for it. The only people who have are actually the PDs. It’s a tragedy the way the Fianna Fáil party are now being led by Michael McDowell. I think we should be appealing to the Fianna Fáil grassroots on this, and I think we’ll find an echo if we do that.

Left unity is still, or again, in the air. Do you see yourself as having a prominent function here? Do you see the Labour Party being engaged with the left?

I’ll play whatever role I can in relation to bringing people together. I believe in left unity. I just think it’s what we have to do. No matter what divisions there are between us, I think it’s the only way we can grow the left. And of course, left unity doesn’t mean no competition. We can have unity and competition. We can even have unity and argument. We can find a few core things that we want to support. It seems to me that argument on the left is a good thing. I don’t think we should want a sort of a Soviet parliament model, where we don’t argue about anything and it will all collapse on us. I think we can have sensible arguments, and we can also put our arguments in our back pockets and still work together. I think actually that that’s what happens in practice a lot of the time.

It will be difficult to win these arguments about unity. I think the trade union movement have a big role to play if they have the courage to create a left-of-centre co-operation first. It couldn’t be immediately implemented, but they could negotiate a kind of a plan. That would have a big impact on the public out there. It could deal with the questions of privatisation, the environment, industrial relations reform, etc.

The whole of the movement needs to move away from a situation where we are seen to be propping up quite frankly, not in the words of anybody in the trade union movement, but what Fianna Fáil backbenchers regard as, the most right wing government since the war. I don’t know why we are in partnership with it. I don’t want to be in partnership with it. We have a responsibility to build a political alternative. I think that a political alternative is already there in embryo. If you look at the Labour representation in the Dáil, the independent socialists, Sinn Féin and the Greens, they’re bigger than Fine Gael. They should form a bloc. And I think they should negotiate with the trade union movement on a minimum of the kind of things they could deliver for the trade union movement. They should fight an election on that basis, and be demanding that their programme is taken on board by either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, whoever happens to be there, because I don’t believe they’ll be able to do that in one election.

I have to say I’m very disappointed with Pat Rabbitte, who seems to have as his hero now Michael O’Leary [former Labour leader who later joined Fine Gael], and seems to be intent on reviving the Fine Gael party rather than growing the Labour Party. I want to talk to SIPTU about this as well, because I believe that the trade union movement should fight for a Labour Party that’s independent. For the trade union movement to be able to do that, it has to become itself independent and move away from its own propping-up exercise, or coalition exercise, or partnership exercise that it has with the government.

I think what the trade union movement should do is actually go for a partnership with its members. If it goes for a partnership with its members, it will revitalise itself, and it will grow. But if it chooses the government over its members, it’s not going to work.

There’s a lot that we can do, and it’s really up to us to do it. If we don’t do it, nobody else is going to do it for us. Nobody else only the left can resolve its own problems. I’m still a member of the Labour Party, actually, and I’m looking forward to the conference, and I’m going to argue about some of these things. Sinn Féin is a growing force, and I think we should be working with Sinn Féin, with the Labour Party, with the independent socialists. We should find ways and means of working together. We do it in the trade union movement: there’s no reason why we can’t do it in all these broad forces in politics. And if I can play a role in that, I will play a role. I want to do that.

Matt Merrigan: A marvellous legacy

Shortly after the death of veteran socialist Matt Merrigan, Mick O’Reilly paid tribute to him in Issue 8 of Red Banner (November 2000).

Matt Merrigan has written on his early days, and I’m hoping to get the work published. He was born in the Dolphin’s Barn area of Dublin in 1921. I know he took an interest in the Spanish civil war, and was aware of what was happening at the time. He came from a large family and his father died when he was very young, so he knew what poverty was like as a direct experience in his life.

However, the poverty of the area and these experiences could not ex­plain his commitment to a socialism which lasted his whole life and never dimmed. He was in a variety of organisations, but his consistency is there through the whole lot of them, and that can’t simply be explained by the poverty. He made a commitment in his early life to the socialist movement and he never varied from that. He was unusual in the sense that in the 1930s he considered the October revolution to be the greatest thing that happened in the twentieth century. He was committed to the Left Oppo­sition; he never changed his views on that. Not with the massive advance of the Soviet Union after the war, with the huge advances of all the Com­munist Parties—it never dimmed Matty’s view that the Soviet Union needed more democracy and participation, and this view stayed with him in a variety of organisations right through his life.

He was certainly involved with socialists in Belfast in the late thirties and early forties. He was also a committed trade unionist from the time he started to work in Rowntree Mackintosh, and he lived in the period where there were two congresses in Ireland, because the trade union movement split after the war, partially over the influence of Communism in the World Federation of Trade Unions and partly over the existence of what were called British-based unions here—not a term I ever use, but what some people called British-based unions. That split lasted fourteen years, and he was involved as a shop steward in trying to get an agreement in the other congress and push that situation forward.

He saw Larkin speak when he was very young, and it made quite an impression on him. I always remember him telling me that it was a Saturday afternoon outside some shop. His mother said to him, “Remember this.” Years later he would say to me that work finished in those times (in the 1930s) usually on Saturday afternoon. Larkin was still working, and it impressed him. Of course he would have been involved, and known and seen Larkin, probably, in the last great campaign of his life, which was the Standstill Order on wages in the war years. Larkin, as was his way, burnt the declaration at a demonstration in, I think, College Green. There was a big meeting there, one of the biggest meetings ever, and Larkin spoke at that, and Matty would have been involved.

He had in himself some of the spirit of the old Larkinites who, if you talked to them, never called a union official an official, but called him a delegate. They used that language on the basis that he’s someone you can recall and someone you can control. And he had some of that in him, because he had known some of these people who were called, in Dublin at the time, Larkinites. People like Christy Ferguson and others who Matty would have been active with in the Labour Party in the forties, and of course the Labour Party made massive advances in Dublin. It was almost the largest political party in Dublin in the 1940s. But that was quickly to be torn asunder once they went into coalition. What’s new….

There is no doubt about it, Matty really enjoyed himself in the ATGWU, because he was able to advance his own politics: he never found it a detriment, something that held him back. And of course, if the union had a different policy to Matty, he simply went ahead with his own policy on a personal basis. Indeed, occasionally he fell out with some of his col­leagues in the union, but basically, I think, the structures of the union allow for a higher level of participation. He had a belief in the shop stew­ard system, he believed in empowering them. He pushed that all his life.

Of course, he was responsible for the union affiliating to the Labour Party. The ATGWU in 1949 disaffiliated from the Northern Ireland Labour Party, and indeed the Labour Party in the Republic, on the basis that the Northern Ireland Labour Party at the time supported the constitution of Northern Ireland. Although we didn’t do an awful lot about it, we never formally endorsed the constitution of Northern Ireland, and Matty would have been involved and active in the union at that time, and I think he fought very hard to get the union affiliated to the Labour Party, because he didn’t agree with non-political trade unionism. Even though he was the scourge of the leadership of the Labour Party he was also very committed to it. He was, of course, expelled twice from the Labour Party. Most people only manage to do this once, but he was expelled twice. Once in the period of the early forties when a lot of communists were expelled, he was expelled with them; and secondly, he was expelled over Noel Browne in the seventies, when he went out and tried to set up the Socialist Labour Party, which was shortlived and only had one TD. He was president of the party.

He was shop steward in Rowntree Mackintosh until he became a full-time official. He became a full-time official fairly young—he was 35— and he was only two years an ordinary official before he became Rep­ublic of Ireland district secretary, and he held that post for approximately 26 years. So that’s 26 years when he would have been in the leadership of the union, and in the leadership of the Labour Party. He was on the Admin­istrative Council of the Labour Party and, really, he was active. I don’t know of any political cause that was going in Dublin, or indeed any­where in Ireland, at the time that he wasn’t associated with.

One of the first times I met him, I was active in the Dublin Housing Action Committee, and we had great difficulties. But I remember going around to Abbey Street, and I walked in to where the clerks were, and I said, “Is there any chance of seeing Matty Merrigan?”, and they just picked up the phone. He said, “Who is it?” They said, “Someone from the Housing Action Committee”, and he said, “Tell them to come up.” It was just as straightforward as that. I said “Will you speak on our platform? We’re having a demonstration on Saturday”, and he said the immortal word, “Yes”, and he turned up and spoke. He was the first trade unionist to do that; it was unheard of at the time, and he made no big song and dance about it. He just got up and said his speech, and he supported us, and he was always there at the demonstrations, always around. And, as I say, would find time in a very busy life to associate with a group like that—and I can tell you, it was neither a popular nor a profitable organisation to be in at the time.

Anyway, Matty was one of the people who were associated with that, and was associated with a whole lot of other things that happened outside of the trade union movement. He identified with the women’s movement. He identified with the struggles of republicans in the North, in the long, long years when censorship took place, when nobody would stand on Sinn Féin platforms. I remember Matty supporting the hunger strike. It was very difficult for Matty to support the hunger strike because we have a big membership in the North of Ireland. But he never flinched, because it was his view that they were political prisoners, and that they should be treated as such, and he never apologised to anyone for that, and he stood on their platform. I remember at one stage he was chairperson of the National H‑Block/Armagh Committee. Now that’s not an easy thing to be. Several people lost their lives who had been associated with the hunger strike. There were lots of assassinations—I knew Miriam Daly who was murdered in such a situation, so it’s not something that should be just lightly gone over. He had the courage of his convictions.

I remember just before the British troops entered Northern Ireland there was a special meeting of the trades council. It was held on a Sunday morning, and I remember Matty making a call for the Irish government to send troops across the border, and that was very controversial at the time. He wanted them to occupy part of the six counties, because he believed that would internationalise the conflict and the United Nations would intervene because it was an argument between two democratic states, Britain and Ireland, and the whole basis of the Northern conflict would have been resolved in a different way.

I didn’t actually agree with that at the time—I remember arguing with him over it. But, looking back on it now, maybe he was right. Maybe if the United Nations had intervened in 1969 there would have been a very dif­ferent situation. You have to remember, at that time, there were riots in Derry, there were thousands of people on the streets in Dublin, the Soviet foreign minister was banging the table in the UN demanding intervention, the conflict was being hugely internationalised as never before. The eyes of the world were on the Northern state, how it was treating its citizens. And remember, the demand of republicans and the Civil Rights people at the time was not for a united Ireland, but simply for the application of British rule and rights throughout the North of Ireland. And this of course had a huge impact on the Unionist leadership, and split them. They’ve never really recovered their composure since.

In the seventies there were several strikes in the motor industry, incl­ud­ing one in G H Brittain’s which Matty supported. It lasted eight and a half months, and we not only stopped the company producing cars but we blacked every spare part, every imported car, the length and breadth of this country, and we actually won that strike. We campaigned over membership of the Common Market, and because of that we got a special protocol which protected car workers’ jobs from the time of entry in 1972 until 1984, and employers had an obligation to sit down with us and try to de­velop suitable alternative employment.

What happened was, in 1984 the Chrysler corporation negotiated with Desmond O’Malley, who was then Minister for Industry and Commerce. And our membership had the right to go and apply for jobs in Semperit, which was a tyre manufacturer at the time. We rejected this as firstly, it didn’t guarantee that they would get jobs; and secondly, we didn’t regard it as suitable employment, because it was already there. Now that would have meant that all the car workers would have been sacked, and they would have been allowed to import cars into this country freely—that wasn’t the situation then. So we endorsed and made the strike official.

There’s a famous judgement on this strike which you can’t find any­where because it’s not written down. The only person to have written it down was actually the correspondent from RTÉ, Pat Sweeney, who, as far as I know, has the only record of the Talbot decision. But basically, the judge found that the Transport Union was guilty and responsible for the sum total of losses of the Chrysler corporation for the duration of the dis­pute, and we refused to accept that judgment. We blacked cars, we occu­pied the factory, and Matty was threatened with going to jail. Now, arising from that, when we got that information, we threatened to bring out our entire membership in the ESB and close the power stations, whereupon the pragmatist of all times, Mr Charles J Haughey, intervened in the dispute, and we negotiated an agree­ment with him, and basically the agreement was: all our members in Chrysler were made redundant, and each and every one of them were given jobs in the civil service. So if you see strange-looking civil servants around Iveagh House or Government Build­ings, who don’t really look like normal civil servants, they are all these car workers.

We won that dispute, and for years spokespeople for the Labour Party, particularly Barry Desmond, were criticising Haughey, insisting that he made a pragmatic decision to give us jobs and to yield to what we were looking for. The truth is, he should have criticised Dessie O’Malley, who made a worse decision: to allow Chrysler to sack all the membership and bring the cars in without extracting jobs for us first. So maybe everything that Charlie Haughey did wasn’t wrong. Maybe he sometimes did the odd thing that was right in his life.

There was a visit to the Soviet Union once in which Matty was shown around the museum which is dedicated to the October revolution. Of course, the history of the time notwithstanding, a lot of people would have been airbrushed out of history, and Matty would have had knowledge of the particular photographs concerned because he knew a lot about Soviet history. I wasn’t there, but I did speak to people who were and they told me that the curator left the museum when Matty finished giving his alternative talk—who was commissar for war and wasn’t commissar for war, and who was in this photograph. He knew all of the Bolsheviks who met their dif­ferent fates during the Stalinist era. He knew of them, he knew the photo­graphs they were in, he knew the positions that they held, he knew what the official line of the Soviet Union was on them. So he left this man in a very difficult state, and that was his way. You couldn’t falsify history with Matty, because he knew too much about it.

People certainly regarded Matty as a Trotskyite. I think that’s far too narrow a definition of him, myself. I prefer to see Matty as someone who supported the Left Opposition, not simply the works and position of one person, because he wasn’t that kind of a guy. He was certainly influenced by the writings of Trotsky, there’s no doubt about that. But the writings of Connolly just as much; the influence of Larkin, the influence of Lenin. He read fairly widely, actually, and he wasn’t the kind of person who was narrow or dogmatic in his analysis. He could read situations. As I said at his funeral he was a very catholic person, in the sense that he could wake up in the morning, meet the shop stewards, talk to other full-time officials, deal with the bureaucracy of Congress, give a speech on women’s libera­tion, and meet the republicans late at night—he was a catholic person. He spread himself widely over a huge number of movements and causes, and to say that he was simply a Trotskyite is, I think, to misread the totality of his life.

Because also, I can say that amongst the people that he most admired in the later period of his life were the leadership of Sinn Féin. He had nothing but the highest admiration for them, and it would be true to say that he had a big falling-out with the Workers Party, and those in Democratic Left. He thought they abandoned the nationalist people in the North. He wasn’t someone who would have agreed with Sinn Féin on everything, but he thought that the peace process was worth supporting, he thought it had the germs of the potential to possibly lessen sectarian tensions, and possibly to bring Catholic and Protestant workers together, a thing he was committed to all his life. And I’m bound to say that, as someone who was a repub­lican, the unionist membership of our union had the height of respect for him. Because whatever else—they might have disagreed with his views politically—they knew that if he was to take up their cause with the emp­loyer, you never scratched your head and tried to figure out what side he was on.

That was always abundantly clear when he came into a room. He saw himself as a representative, not as a buffer between workers and employers, as somebody who would try to find a solution, he saw himself as the repre­sentative of workers, and he saw himself as somebody who represented that view—independently. Now, like anyone else, if he was in a boat that was sinking, he would quickly tell you to find another way forward. He was no fool. He could handle himself around, be quite pragmatic. He knew that advancement for workers didn’t go in a single direction. It wasn’t always forward, there were detours sometimes on the way, and he could get very annoyed with people if they didn’t accept his advice on what particular detour to take. Nevertheless, in the core of all that was absolute commit­ment to your cause, and I’ve seen him numerous times talking to workers and they always understood that. And really, that meant that always he was halfway to a solution, because they believed in him.

Maybe the biggest thing I learned from Matty was his view that you could pursue a united Ireland, you could pursue socialism, you could pursue high wages, but he would always say, “Make sure you enjoy it as you go through life, because you only get one chance at this.” And of course Matty had the same religion as myself: he was a baptised atheist. He enjoyed his life. He left a legacy of unselfish dedication to the working class, the people of Dublin, whom he loved—he was a real Dub. At his funeral there were lots of people down from Belfast, where he made acquaintances throughout the years. When I looked down at the assembled gathering at his funeral, I don’t know who else could bring together repub­licans, socialists, trade unionists, bureaucrats, people who were active in the women’s movement, and also people who were active in the retired workers’ movement.

I remember him saying, when he finished as a full-time official in the ATGWU, that he was going to do what he was doing before, as an unpaid agitator for the working class. He carried that promise out. He was active in the Pensioners’ Parliament. He was active in anything he was ever asked to do. He kept the pensioners’ movement going in the Transport Union; he was president of our pensioners’ society. Active in the union. Interested in everything, in every aspect of life. I can only say that it’s a marvellous legacy to leave to the world, to basically have a lot of people say, “He done a grand job”, have a lot of people say, “He stuck by his principles”, and say that, basically, Matty Merrigan had a rich life, a very happy life. And that’s the message. If you ask me, that’s the most important thing.

“Socialist trade unionism, not trade union socialism”

Veteran socialist Mick O’Reilly was interviewed by Rosanna Flynn for Issue 3 of Red Banner in May 1998. At the time he was Irish Secretary of the Amalgmated Transport and General Workers’ Union (now Unite).

What do you think of the possibility of workers’ unity in the North?

The North has been pulled asunder by the troubles. The divide between the working class is particularly difficult. But I have to say that the Belfast agreement offers the possibility of some co-operation. One, there has to be some kind of a healing process between the two communities, particularly on the level of the working class; and two, there will be an assembly in the North. Working class people have aspirations in the social field and they will make demands on the Assembly. Those demands will have a social, rather than a sectarian character. If we can find agreement on what constitutes social exclusion, unemployment, and the other things that affect working class people, and argue for the working class in a totality, we can begin to tackle this. In other words, if there are sections of—for want of a better term—the Catholic working class who suffer marginally worse than the Protestant working class, or vice versa, as long as their representatives—like people in the PUP, in Sinn Fein—have a common definition of social exclusion, then it’s an argument about sufficient resources to tackle the problem. And in that way you begin to solve the problem, but I think it will take a long time to get a situation where there will be real, meaningful co-operation.

Has what happened in Omagh made the situation worse, better, or is it still in a state of shock?

Well, it’s in a state of shock, but it has also made the situation paradoxi­cally—and there are contradictions in this—worse and better, in the sense that it’s obviously worse, because of what it has done to the people of Omagh. When the public grieving is over, on a private basis and in a town like that, it has probably destroyed the lives of a very, very significant number of people and I don’t think there’s any public way to heal that or to resolve that. That’s a personal trauma for each and every one of them, who’ve seen their loved ones slaughtered and murdered. But the Omagh tragedy highlights the futility of violence in present circumstances, and I think, paradoxically, it will mean greater support for the Belfast agreement, rather than less support for it. You don’t have to believe that the Belfast agreement is the answer to the problems. What you have to believe is that it lays a structure which has the potential to put aside sectarian violence as the answer to the problem, and it allows for the primacy of politics as the way forward. And I think everybody on the left has an interest in doing that, because elitist, terrorist bombings of this kind, by their nature, exclude the participation of civil society from the debate, and from the idea of advancing the interests of working class people and of people in general. So there’s a contradiction in what’s happened in Omagh, but in the long term, I believe, it will strengthen the agreement rather than weaken it, and the same is also true in what happened in the aftermath of Portadown.

What do you think about the situation in the south industrially, particularly in relation to Partnership 2000?

I think there isn’t a majority for Partnership 2000. I think it’s simply the mechanics of how the votes are counted, and how the votes are counted at the ICTU. I think even the last agreement was probably—was certainly rejected by a majority of workers in the private sector. And I think actually it’s the biggest obstacle to both co-operation and movement on the left. Where the trade union movement sees itself as a three year referendum club, where the members vote on wages and conditions every three years and then do nothing in the interim, I think that turns off the whole trade union movement, and I think it’s very, very anti-democratic. We have hundreds of full-time officers, we have thousands of shop stewards who can, because of these agreements, do very little. They can’t make claims on their employers, they can’t learn the skills, because these are skills which are only learned by doing. You can’t learn them in any other way, and like anything else, if you don’t practice the art of free collective bargaining, if you don’t hone the skills of negotiating with employers, they become rusty on you, they become out of date. We have a whole generation of trade unionists now who have never actually made a claim on their employer. I believe, because of the growth in the economy, there is no possibility of a repetition of an agreement like Partnership 2000, and I think what we need is an agreement which, if you like, reflects the diversity of the circumstances that we face. Certainly—because workers in the public sector have a common employer, the government—there’s nothing wrong with them combining to negotiate with their employer. But that should not be at the expense of the private sector, and these agreements have been constructed by the leadership in Congress in such a way that they have given marginal advantages to the public sector at the expense of workers in the private sector, and they have sown the potential seeds of division, which are very, very dangerous in the trade union movement. Now many people are reluctant to speak about this because they feel if you speak about this, you will be seen to be supporting right wing economists and others who argue about holding down public sector wages. That’s not the point I’m making. The point I’m trying to make is this, that the restrictions of these agreements on the private sector are dividing the trade union movement, and the private sector, actually, should be allowed to lead the push for improved wages and conditions, because always, in a period of free collective bargaining, you look to the strong sections of the movement to make a breakthrough, and lead it.

The other thing that’s been completely neglected has been the whole question of hours of work, because, with the growth of technology, the biggest challenge facing the trade union movement is the question of the hours of work. The hours of work are something that was referred to in Marx’s Capital. The hours of work was what the first May Day demonstrations took place about. The hours of work are the biggest thing facing us, because if you make a breakthrough on the hours of work, you cannot take it back—employers have historically never been able to take it back. They have, of course, been able to take back wages, through inflation and taxation, and many other things that affect us. So the hours of work are the big issue that’s facing us. We need free collective bargaining and we need to make that a big issue because that’s relevant in a society where we have huge levels of unem­ployment. So the hours of work are, I believe, the biggest issue facing the labour movement in Europe as we go into the next century, and I don’t see why we shouldn’t have a radical slogan like ‘A 30-hour week’. After all, this century, we’ve moved from probably about 80-90 hours down to less than 40. There’s no reason why, if our grandparents did this, we shouldn’t have the same ambitions for the working class of today.

What do you think are the chances of left unity?

Well, I’m not sure what the left is any more. There’s been, I suppose, a his­toric breakdown with the collapse of the socialist countries of Eastern Europe, and many people have, because of their association or belief in those countries, lost their vision of building an alternative. Now I think the need for left unity is still there. I think it’s a difficult situation to build. I think you have to try and build left unity while simultaneously you have to tolerate left competition. I think if you see unity as a basis of wiping out competition, then you won’t get unity. So unity has to take place in diversity, and amongst com­petition, and it seems to me it has to be over a number of very minimum kind of demands. Most people on the left—though not all—would agree that Part­nership 2000, for example, is a barrier and it’s probably easy to get some kind of a consensus on the left about that. I can’t think of any other thing that is so easy to get some kind of a consensus around. And as I say, even on that issue, there would be some people in the Democratic Left who would favour agree­ments like that. Now because somebody wants to make an argument over something like that, I don’t think they should be excluded from participation in the building of some kind of a broad left. But I think building a broad left both within the trade union movement, and in society generally, is not easy.

I have to say it is made easier by the Belfast agreement, because the great division in Irish politics has been the whole question of the national question. How we address the Protestant working class, what we say to them, how we build an inclusive kind of socialism, do we do that on all of the island or do we ignore the North? I think most people on the left do wish the Belfast agreement well, and I think because of that it would probably be easier to build left unity, though I think left unity will only be built over a minimum kind of demands. And the big thing that’s facing us is that there’ll never be any advance for the left whilst the trade union movement and the trade union leadership in particular see themselves as a prop to the government of the day, rather than as independent representatives of the membership, and that’s the most important thing the left can do. Win—not the trade union movement to socialism, but simply to win the trade union movement to independence from the state, because if that’s not done, there’ll be no progress in relation to left unity, and no progress in relation to any other matter.

Have you any comments on a European currency?

Well, I’m a sceptic in relation to a single currency. I’m a sceptic in relation to the creation of a single European state. I think the idea that you remove, if you like, the politics and the control from national states to a superstate or a superbank in Europe is, by any definition, anti-democratic. There are, of course, difficulties in relation to the Irish currency standing on its own, but I believe at the end of the day, that’s the better thing to do. We can, of course, sack an Irish finance minister. We cannot sack a centralised European bank which we have no control over. And this idea that a single currency is a technically better way of running Europe, I think is disastrous. It has meant and will mean attacks on the welfare state. It is an attempt to try and take the politics out of currency, and I don’t think that’s possible. And I think there will eventually be a revolt against this kind of thing, because although all the political parties in Ireland seem to favour it, it seems to me that a state has two things which it normally controls: one is an army, and the other is currency. And if you hand over your currency, you’re not far away from handing over the state itself. And it’s a great paradox, when people are blowing the guts out of Omagh to try and advance the idea of an Irish state, we have an Irish state actually in existence handing over many of the mechanisms which we need to try and improve the lives of the people. So I am a sceptic. I don’t favour the idea of a single currency in Europe. I think it will, in the end, be to the disadvantage of smaller countries, particularly small countries like Ireland.

It’s a while ago now, but have you anything to say about Packard?

Well, I suppose it was that kind of business where maybe the closure of Packard was inevitable. The lessons to be learned from it are that there are great difficulties in trying to industrialise an economy like Ireland in situa­tions where you simply make components, and you have no control over the end product. There were possibly 28 plants of General Motors which operated on a European level. I think about 3 or 4 of them were organised in unions. Most of them were not. The Packard work as such, and what happened in Packard, is part of what’s happening in the whole of Western Europe. There were about 3 or 4 million people who worked in that business throughout Western Europe, and the Brookings Institute did a study on that industry, and predicted that over half of those jobs would be lost. We were in a very difficult negotiating position in Packard. We had to make very complex judgements about, for example, whether we would defer wage increases; about, for example, whether we would loan the company one extra hour a week’s work. Our judgement was that a straightforward simple confrontation of holding everything that we had, was not the way to do it. It’s like dancing with a bear: it’s a very difficult process. But every agreement that we made with Packard —we made no concessions to them, because every agreement started with the words, ‘We are loaning you one hour a week, which you owe us, and you will pay back to us in the event of this situation not working out—the same wages, and so on’. So all the conditions at the end of the day were held up.

But the big lesson of Packard is really about the power of multi-nationals, and I suppose the need to spread trade union organisation; and the trade union movement, although it talks about internationalism, doesn’t really invest in it. And there needs to be a dialogue with members about getting more resources, and investing in a better international structure, to try and match, in some measure, the global nature of these multi-national corpora­tions. And of course, again, to make the argument at the level of the state, that we would be much better making components in Ireland for cars, based on our own resources. We have lead, we have zinc, these go into many of the components of cars, yet we export them in the raw, and we end up with these sub-assembly plants where it’s very, very difficult what you can do. I’ll say one thing about Packard, it’s very difficult to live through a closure and lose almost 2,000 jobs and stand at the end of that and be clapped by workers who would go out and say at the end of the day, the unions did not let them down. And I think we managed to shift the total burden of the closure on to the company, and we managed to give Packard and General Motors a bad name in the media—now that’s very difficult when you think what their advertising budget is. And I think all credit to the shop stewards, for the way that they managed that. But at the end of the day, the big lesson in Packard is about the kind of industrialisation you want to go for.

And finally, why are you in the Labour Party?

Well, I suppose ultimately the real reason I’m in the Labour Party is I believe in socialist trade unionism, I don’t believe in trade union socialism. And unlike many people who are trade union officials, I came to being active in the trade union movement through politics, not the other way around. I was first active in the Connolly Youth Movement, I was then eleven years in the Communist Party, and I then joined the Labour Party, partly because the union is affiliated to the Labour Party, and the union plays a role in the Labour Party. I may say I have never felt comfortable in the Labour Party. It asks actually very little of its membership, other than that they be a kind of a support machine for the TDs. But at the end of the day, if you want to try and influence events, you have to influence parliament. Parliament is an impor­tant place in the Labour Party. It is the largest representative of working class people and trade union opinion in parliament, and you have to try and influ­ence that. There are a lot of people who would be quite happy to see me out­side of the Labour Party. And I have no intention of obliging them.