Obituary: Mick McGahey

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
MICK McGAHEY, Vice-President of the National Union of Mineworkers for 13 years until his retirement in 1987 at the age of 62, was probably the last of the genuine Reds, but he never hid his Communism under the bed. He detested Communists who tried to work "behind the scenes for the Party" while pretending to be something quite different. In short, he hated hypocrisy. He was proud of his political faith and called himself a "devout Communist".

Known to outsiders and the media as "Red Mick McGahey", he was called "Michael" by those who knew him well and respected him. His outspokenness and unwillingness to compromise won him as many enemies as friends. He did not suffer fools gladly and was just as happy in the company of a diehard Tory as an intransigent Trotskyite.

He loved the stimulation of good, intelligent conversation, particularly if there was a glass of amber liquid in his hand. He was not a raconteur and wit but was never devoid of humour. Once, when commenting publicly on a Tory sex scandal involving two members of the Lords, he quipped: "At least we Reds are in our own beds". His mainly serious profile did not detract from his charm and most listeners were relaxed and happy in his company.

His family came from Northern Ireland around the time of the Industrial Revolution and settled in the west of Scotland, where one generation followed the next down the mines. He was born in 1925, in the Lanarkshire town of Shotts. When he left school at the age of 14 on a Friday McGahey knew that he was starting work down the Gateside pit in Cambuslang, Lanarkshire the following Monday on the 7am shift.

His father, James, was one of the founding members of the Communist Party of Great Britain and had a strong influence on him: "I learned from my father a bitter resentment at the conditions and exploitation of ordinary working people." In contrast, his mother was a "seven days a week Catholic" from Derry. Indeed, she persuaded him to be a choir boy "for a few weeks" before he gave it up.

He was a member of the NUM and the Communist Party from his early teens and by 1961 was working a three-day week in the pit, with the rest of the week devoted to union work. By 1966 he was a full-time official and by then most men in the coalfield were aware of his oratory and authority. He was the typical class warrior but conceded that, as a union bureaucrat, he had to learn business acumen to handle miners' investments. His outstanding ability as a public speaker earned him a nickname he detested: "The Minister".

He believed that people were not born to rule or to be ruled and said every human being was entitled to an opportunity to grow, mentally and physically. Although he had fought for better pay and conditions all his life he hated materialism and disliked those who had an obsession with money. "An acquisitive desire for cash reduces people to the nexus of cash. After all, you can only drive one car and eat sufficient food to keep you in good health."

One of his best achievements was the provision of pithead baths and laundry services. He had bitter memories of miners' wives staying up part of the night cleaning their mens' clothes. He welcomed the emergence of feminism but admitted that he did not do the washing up or cooking. He was also responsible for the introduction of Self Rescuers after the Michael Colliery disaster in Fife, a system which gave men vital minutes in a poison-free atmosphere to reach safety after an accident.

A session in his presence usually got off to a good start. In answer to the question: "What would you like to drink, Michael?" he would reply: "A wee Bells". In answer to the question: "What would you like in it?" he would respond: "Another wee Bells". When he left a conference room for church colleagues always knew which pub he was heading for.

Industrial correspondents called an evening in his presence "an audience with Michael". Reporters of his acquaintance all admired him and he admitted to having a few "pet journalists" whom he actually liked. This did not mean, however, that he showed anyone any special favours and he had the gift of treating every scribe with an equal degree of contempt. One evening during the coal strike in 1984/85 a journalist probed vainly for the quote he wanted. McGahey said: "That's the 17th time you have asked that question and no matter how many times you ask it you will get the same answer". Finally, at 4am the reporter was assisted to bed. McGahey told his few remaining listeners: "The trouble with journalists today is that they have no staying power. Had he stayed for another drink he might have got the quote he wanted."

Being savaged by the man, however, was never unpleasant because you knew he was only doing it for your own good. He listened politely to all questions and rarely said "no comment". If he suspected, however, that the questioner was out to do down his beloved union he brought the conversation quickly to a conclusion. He could cope with personal attacks, however rare, but could not forgive a verbal or written assault on his union.

His loyalty and integrity were unmatched by anyone of his generation and background. If he had a fault, he was too loyal, failing to see the imperfections of some colleagues and never criticising their behaviour even when it was clearly warranted. His failure to bring the bitter 1984/85 coal strike to an end was the best example. He had the stature and the authority to do it, but stayed steadfastly loyal to the NUM President Arthur Scargill right to the ignominious end of that dispute. Most miners, particularly the hard left, would have followed him like a Pied Piper had he given the appropriate nod.

He refused to reveal his reasons for adhering so devotedly to the Scargill line, even in private. An authorised biography was ditched because he refused to disclose his views on many key issues or to discuss Scargill. Without that the book was unsaleable. He said: "Differences must remain within the family".

However, he could not hide his disillusionment with Scargill and when pressed by friends or journalists he would simply stare at the floor and shake his head sadly, referring to Scargill only as "that young man". He never forgave him for quitting the Young Communist League and said: "The trouble with that young man was that he didn't like standing outside the pithead selling the Daily Worker". It was the only criticism of Scargill I ever heard from his lips and he always refused to discuss why Scargill had ditched the Communists.

He once stated publicly that he believed in the "democracy of the ballot box". Quite why he changed his mind during the great strike of 84/85, however, will remain his secret. His public stand on starting the strike without a ballot was "because no man should vote another man out of a job", a line copied parrot fashion by the then NUM general secretary Peter Heathfield.

He had given "King Arthur's" election his blessing when Scargill became President in 1982 because the Barnsley militant was the official candidate of the Left. McGahey took the view that if he could never be President himself, thanks to Joe Gormley's rule change which excluded him on the grounds of age, then it might as well be Scargill.

The fact that he never became NUM President was a big disappointment to all who knew him including, possibly, Downing Street. He believed in compromise, an art Scargill was never to perfect or even attempt. He steadfastly refused to blame himself, Scargill or anybody else for the inglorious end of the miners' strike. "There will be no sacrificial lamb," he growled when it was suggested that the strike could have been started with a ballot:

There are many lessons to be learned, but people must remember that the miners had no choice but to fight.

MacGregor, without a ballot or consultation, decided with Thatcher's backing to close pits and throw thousands of men out of work at whatever the cost to the nation. It was a challenge that could not be ducked, and the men had a moral and constitutional right to ask their colleagues in the movement to help.

His contempt for the former National Coal Board chairman Ian MacGregor and Prime Minister Margaret Thather was limitless. He said: "MacGregor is an alien whose clan does not even have its own tartan. He christened Thatcher "the bubonic blonde" and referred to the "Triple Alliance" of miners, railwaymen and steelmen as the "Cripple Alliance''.

McGahey's humour was mischievously blasphemous. His Catholic mother would never have approved of this remark: "If there had been a Communist mayor in Nazareth 1,987 years ago, they could have allocated Joseph a wee council house and saved us all a lot of bother."

He never ducked a challenge and carried the scars to prove it. Pioneering on behalf of the Communist Party as a 14-year-old, he was stabbed with a broken beer glass in a pub in Cambuslang, Lanarkshire. Not long afterwards he got a "good kicking" from shipmates in the Navy when he dared to sympathise with the Chinese over the "Yangtse incident". He was ambushed and beaten up by a mystery assailant during the coal strike and had black eyes for days afterwards.

But be could dish it out as well. When one journalist pushed a tape recorder up his nose he grabbed the machine and trapped the man's hand in the car door, seriously damaging the man's finger. The recorder was not returned. His loyal wife, Cathie, was often described as "more Red than Mick" and she threatened to thump a journalist who called he husband a "scarface boss". McGahey explained: "She wanted him to know that I was democratically elected."

The unification of the union was McGahey's priority after his retirement but the speedy collapse of the industry prevented that happening. He declared, in opposition to Scargill, that the breakaway Union of Democratic Mineworkers should not be treated as "untouchables", as "Once they have been used by the Government and the Coal Board they will be discarded. They must be allowed to return without any talk of vengeance."

Mick McGahey suffered from chronic emphysema, a chest condition which gave him his wheeze and his gruff, gravel voice. He was proud of his four grandchildren and, before retirement, gave up a lifetime of smoking to ensure that he lived long enough to see them.

For half a century no union, left-wing or Scottish Labour Party rally of consequence was complete without Mick McGahey's enlivening presence, writes Tam Dalyell. On one occasion a fervant, earnest feminist was haranguing us from the rostrum on the iniquity of male chauvinism in the trade union movement in Scotland. As she screeched her closing peroration, there was a growl next to me, in that unmistakable basso profundo voice, matured by chronic emphysema, pneumoconiosis and half a million untipped cigarettes, "Good on you, hen!" Anyone else would have been lynched.

Throughout the late 1980s, when chided with the failure of the miners to hold a ballot - which he would have had the political nous to do - McGahey told of his reply to the young Fife priest who questioned the NUM's failure to consult its membership. "Pontius Pilate did not hold a ballot vote on Barabbas and Jesus Christ. Jesus never got a ballot vote, but he went on to found a mass movement." The written word cannot convey the nasal inflection which produced laughter at the mention of names such as Barabbas.

McGahey did not believe in being hurtful to people long after events, which was why he refused to write his memoirs - "I would have to be factual about men still alive, like Arthur Scargill and Albert Wheeler [the distinguished mining engineer who headed the NCB in Scotland at the time of the miners' strike]. They are human beings and have wives and families!" He was among the kindest of men. No miner's funeral went unattended, no widow unremembered.

Eric Clark, now MP for Midlothian but earlier general secretary of the Scottish Miners, who saw him day in and day out at close quarters said: "He disarmed his opponents by kindness. He never personalised problems, however angry he was on behalf of the miners."

McGahey was extremely cautious. When the leadership of the NUM during the miners' strike informed him: "We've got an excellent lawyer who will win for us," McGahey replied: "Have you also got a good left-wing judge?" "Um, er!" And, he added: "And where does this lawyer come from?" "Barnsley." "Well I know even better lawyers!" "Where do they come from?" said the NUM leadership. "A place called the Inns of Court," said McGahey.

He was dismayed that NUM funds could evaporate in court cases. He would say: "Son, you don't run to the courts. And never above all do you sue the press. They'll get you. You trust your ability to have decent relations between you and the employer."

Joe Hogan, the respected mine manager of the Greenrigg, Woodend and Riddochhill collieries in West Lothian told me: "I never had any trouble with McGahey over 30 years. I found him straight and an excellent negotiator. Once an agreement was reached he kept his word and made everybody else keep theirs." McGahey asked Hogan and other mine managers to the NUM Christmas parties as honoured guests.

Cast in the formidably well-read tradition of Arthur Horner, Will Paynter, Abe and Alec Moffatt, and other Communist miners' leaders, Mick McGahey believed in the sustained, continuing mass expression of the Scottish populace. He died in the knowledge that after years of campaigning, a government has at last recognised the real hardship caused by the disease "white finger" associated with the mining industry. McGahey really did care about working people and they sensed it. He was a genuine working- class hero.

Michael McGahey, miner and trade unionist: born Shotts, Lanarkshire 29 May 1925; Vice-President, National Union of Mineworkers 1974-87; married 1954 Cathie Young (one son, two daughters); died Edinburgh 30 January 1999.

Comments