After 14 years GCHQ staff go marching back in

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The Independent Online
They were 20 minutes late for work. The trade-union heroes who had spent nearly 14 years campaigning to get their jobs back at the top secret Government Communications Headquarters failed to turn up on time for their momentous journey through the gates.

It was the fault of the photographers who insisted on several "walk-ins" before the nine GCHQ refuseniks got it right. There were also the glasses of bitter to be emptied at the nearby Hewlett Arms where assorted trade unionists foregathered for the occasion and eventually trickled in ones and twos towards the main GCHQ gate 200 yards away.

There were no bands, little in the way of popular tumult, although several union banners made an appearance.

This was the great symbolic occasion for those who refused to give up their union membership despite the insistence of the Thatcher government in 1984. It was an opportunity for them to thumb their noses at Baroness Thatcher.

In fact, the unions had agreed the event should be "understated". David Omand, director of the communications centre, had counselled that a triumphalist return of trade unionism to the Cheltenham-based listening centre, would not go down well with existing staff.

Having finally negotiated the gates, with refusenik Mike Grindley to the fore, the returnees, along with assorted civil service union bigwigs, were taken by transit van to the centre of the complex. There they encountered a strangely different atmosphere to the one they left more than a decade ago. There was tea and bickies and a presentation by Mr Omand, who told them that the end of the Cold War meant that the main emphasis of the electronic snooping at the centre had now changed from countries with which the United Kingdom disagreed politically to international criminals.

In a previous meeting with union leaders, the director had even suggested that he would encourage his employees to become members of the PTC civil service union which the old pariah staff association recently voted to join.

Mr Grindley, an expert in Mandarin, who is presumed to have monitored the military and diplomatic conversations of the Chinese, noted that the director could not bring himself to apologise for the ban and neither could any of his lieutenants. Nevertheless, Mr Grindley admitted that he was amazed that the day had finally arrived. "After so many years arguing the case with anyone prepared to listen, I feel elated. The people in GCHQ were very welcoming and very civilised."

John Sheldon, general secretary of the PTC and one of those who accompanied the returnees through the gates, was determinedly upbeat about the day. "The slur that unions would somehow damage national security has been lifted from ordinary working people and I think that's wonderful."

There was a nagging doubt among other trade unionists present at what will be seen as a rather esoteric little gathering. The Labour Party has met its pledge to allow unions back into GCHQ, but there are infinitely more sensitive decisions being sought from the Government by the union movement.

It was relatively easy to allow a few union members back into GCHQ and even to recognise their organisation. The big prize for trade unions will be the eventual introduction of legislation enforcing union recognition where more than half of any workforce votes for it.