Ex-Communist and headmaster who became the campaigning Labour MP for Sheffield Hillsborough
Wednesday 18 October 2006
Martin Henry Flannery, schoolteacher and politician: born Sheffield 2 March 1918; Headmaster, Crookesmore Junior and Infants School, Sheffield 1969-74; MP (Labour) for Sheffield Hillsborough 1974-92; Chairman, Tribune Group 1980-81; married 1949 Blanche Howsen (one son, two daughters); died Sheffield 16 October 2006.
In the feverish atmosphere of the Parliamentary Labour Party at the end of 1973, in the middle of the troubles of the three-day week when many were resigned to Labour's not regaining power, MPs whispered to each other: " The heavens are falling in. We have no chance. For example, Sheffield Hillsborough Labour Party have selected a raging left-winger, a former Communist!"
Sage heads were lamenting that the seat which had been held by George Darling, Harold Wilson's Minister of State at the Board of Trade, and a man of excellent judgement and great industrial knowledge, was to swing to an extreme left-winger. The candidate was a Sheffield headmaster, still with strong links to the Communist Party, Martin Flannery.
Though he continued to epitomise the extreme left from 1974, when he was elected, until he retired in 1992, Flannery was an issue politician, oblivious of any advancement to himself. His causes were never trivial. His opinions may have been extreme, but they deserved his passionate representation in the House of Commons. As a fellow officer of the All-Party Arts and Heritage Group in the House of Commons I must record that Flannery was a man of wide interests and considerable knowledge of the arts.
Martin Flannery was Sheffield through and through. Born in Hillsborough in 1918, he attended the Sacred Heart, Hillsborough, the De La Salle, Sheffield, and Sheffield Grammar School, before going on to Sheffield Teachers' Training College. Months into his first job, however, he volunteered for the Army, or as he would put it he volunteered for the struggle against Fascism and Nazism.
Family members, he proudly told me, had gone to Spain to fight in the Spanish Civil War and he had been brought up in a highly political family. Dick Caborn, now MP for Sheffield Central, remembers:
Martin Flannery was a great friend of my father, the powerful AUEW Secretary in Sheffield, and of the equally powerfull Bill Owen, Secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, Chairman of the Educational Committee and, like my father, then a member of the Communist Party.
The two trade-union secretaries along with Flannery were the forefathers of comprehensive education in South Yorkshire and indeed in the country. Flannery was more responsible than anyone for the creation of Northern College in Barnsley, which served so many working-class people.
David Blunkett, MP for Sheffield Brightside and before that Leader of Sheffield City Council, describes Flannery as "forthright, with all the traditions of the Labour and trade-union movement he loved":
I learnt debating skills from him in the Sheffield Trades Council. I learnt a great deal from him at the time when I was earning my spurs. He had a love of the countryside and campaigned vigorously for the Woodcraft Folk and Kinder Tor.
If I know a lot about Flannery's experience during the Second World War it is because, albeit from Sheffield, he was posted to the Royal Scots, which has a recruiting area in my old constituency. Regimental contemporaries told me that they had a high regard for Flannery, who was sent in 1942 to India, and wounded in Burma in 1945. However left-wing his stance may have seemed in speech and in demeanour he never lost the bearing of the Royal Scots warrant officer which he once was, and for which he could easily have been mistaken.
After the war he resumed teaching in 1946. His wartime experiences had served to confirm a distaste for the class system, though he was prepared to concede that some officers had been worthy of his admiration. He wasn't a crude class warrior as such.
In particular I remember his contributions on 28 January 1985 to a somewhat fraught debate on corporal punishment in schools:
As Honourable Members may remember, many teachers were needed after the war, so an emergency scheme was set up. People had only a year's training. Many of them were ex-servicemen. We needed them, even though they were inadequately trained. Many of them were far better teachers than they would otherwise have been, because they entered the profession after the war, after long experience of life, rather than being pushed into it by mummy.
One teacher at [my] school had been a lieutenant in the Navy. He was a very good person, but as soon as there was any indiscipline he felt that he must use the cane. Like me, he had taught primary and secondary school children. He took over a class of mine in which there were 46 nine-year-olds. I had found the class easy and friendly. When the head asked me to move around the school and teach history and English to some of the bigger and smaller boys, the teacher to whom I referred took over my class. I still took the class for one or two lessons a week. On one such occasion a little boy came and stood by my desk and boasted: "Sir, I have been caned." I asked: "Have you, John? What had you done?" He told me about some peccadillo for which he'd been caned. Another child came up with his book and said the same thing. I told him to go and sit down. I then said, "Hands up those boys who have been caned", and 46 boys put their hands up.
Ever one for detail, Flannery told the Commons that in England and Wales there was a caning every 19 seconds and that it closed the channels of learning, made it more difficult for the teacher to teach and had all sorts of bad effects.
As an experienced and successful headmaster in a tough area of a tough city, Flannery was one of the driving forces in changing the parliamentary attitude to corporal punishment. And for 15 years few Commons debates on education were complete without his contribution.
Where the Commons was less likely to listen to him was on foreign affairs, where he held extreme views and where he was suspected, rightly, of anti-Zionist tendencies and, wrongly, of anti-Jewish tendencies. He was a passionate advocate of human rights, with excellent contacts with Amnesty International. I remember his sustained onslaughts in the early Eighties on the Chilean junta. On 7 July 1982 Flannery asked:
Does the minister remember the torturing of Sheila Cassidy who is now President of the Chilean Human Rights Committee? Does he further remember that William Beausire, who is a British as well as a Chilean citizen, was kidnapped from a plane in Argentina while on his way to Paris, taken back to Chile and tortured there? We have reason to believe that that young man is still alive. Are the British government doing anything to get William Beausire home and to find out what the Chilean government have done?
That he didn't get a helpful answer from the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Cranley Onslow, was of no surprise to him.
But this did not deter the energetic Flannery from going, as he often did, on delegations or with fellow members of the Tribune Group of which he was chairman in 1980-81 to see Tory ministers. A number of ministers said that they were surprised by his charm and good manners, and his persistence in private, since they had expected an uncouth firebrand.
In the Commons, certainly, he could be, as Dennis Skinner remembers, a marvellous putter-down of those who irritated him. When one "pompous Tory" was "blethering on and on", Flannery remarked acidly, "The Right Honourable Member could strut sitting down."
In my recollection the issue that mattered most to Flannery above all others was Northern Ireland. He was Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party Northern Ireland Committee from 1983 to 1992 and spoke in every Irish and terrorism debate that I can remember. After 11 o'clock at night, in the fraught circumstances of 21 February 1985, he said this:
Conservatives do not really understand the serious problem we are facing. They should appreciate that people have a right to come to this place and to talk to Members about their feelings and about what is happening. The Irish community on the mainland has about 750,000 members. It includes those whose connections with Ireland are not those of individuals such as myself, whose families have been here for over 100 years. It includes those who have come here from Ireland in recent years.
The Federation of Irish Societies has profound feelings against the [Prevention of Terrorism] Act and Conservative Members should understand that. It feels that [the Act] bears down on them in a terrible way.
Flannery had left the Communist Party in 1956 over Hungary (though his wife, Blanche, remained a Communist until the Communist Party of Great Britain was disbanded). He remained in the Labour Party - just - but died, say his family, ranting against New Labour and all that it stood for, not only the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Dennis Skinner respected Flannery's absolute values. He would never miss a demonstration on any left-wing cause and didn't expect others to either:
I will always remember Flannery turning up at Grunwick [the 1976 cause célèbre over trade-union recognition] and, as was his headmasterly wont, pointing one finger at me and saying: "Dennis, I didn't see you there today."
Skinner had actually been there, but still found himself making excuses. In Martin Flannery's view, not to turn up on the picket lines was a simple dereliction of duty.
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