Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

GCHQ rebels keep fighting - 10 years on: They wouldn't quit the unions. They have no regrets

Paul Routledge,Political Correspondent
Sunday 30 January 1994 00:02 GMT

SINCE 1984, the trade union movement has lost nearly 3 million members. But none among them is remembered so well as the woman and 13 men who gave up secure civil service jobs rather than submit to Mrs Thatcher's diktat to tear up their union membership cards.

Yesterday, thousands of demonstrators paraded the streets of Cheltenham to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the ban on trade unions at GCHQ and to celebrate the defiance by a cross-section of the government's own employees.

Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders repeated their pledges to restore union rights. John Monks, the new general secretary of the TUC, said everything expected of him and Prunella Scales and Timothy West provided the cabaret. But it was unmistakably the day of the little people, the GCHQ 14 who said no and maintain a campaign for trade unionism that has already lasted 10 years.

The ban and the sack changed all their lives. Some have gone into full-time education, one is a Liberal Democrat councillor and spiritualist churchman, several are virtually full-time campaigners and some have now retired. Only one has made it back into mainstream employment. But none of those contacted by the Independent on Sunday over the past few days has any real regrets.

Mike Grindley, a Mandarin-Chinese linguist who worked at the main intelligence gathering base at Oakley for 26 years, chairs the organisation that campaigns from two rooms over the Co-op bank in Cheltenham. 'Losing our jobs was not nice,' he admits. 'But it was a necessary corollary of taking the original stance.

'Once I had made up my mind, that was it. Now we look on our lives as being in two parts: before the ban and after the ban. We fought behind the razor wire for five years before we were sacked, and we will go on fighting until we win. I don't like being trodden on in this disgraceful fashion.'

Alan Rowland, formerly a radio officer, found it virtually impossible to get a job until a former GCHQ engineer took him on. Then he went to college to improve his businesss qualifications and worked for Alan Meale, the town's Labour MP, for a while before becoming a Welfare Rights Adviser.

'They have turned middle- of-the-road, quite staid civil servants into politicised people,' he said. 'We were seen as the soft under-belly of the civil service because there is a large intake to GCHQ from the services so they have no experience of trade unions. They thought we would roll over and play dead. But we have outlasted Thatcher and we will outlast the ban.'

His words are echoed by Margaret O'Hagan whose husband Gerry, an electronics specialist, was 'retired' at age 27. 'We are very political now,' she said. 'I stood as Labour candidate for the local council, and Gerry studied politics at Oxford. He's just about to take economics finals at Cambridge. I'm very proud of him, proud I stuck by him. We did the right thing. I can sleep at night.' Allan Chambers and Bill Bickham also returned to education.

John Cook, a cypher co-ordinator, was apprehensive about losing his job. 'My wife and I had heated arguments. We had a mortgage and commitments. But I have no regrets.' Now 57, he works full- time as campaign co-ordinator, organising a travelling stall that goes to trade union and political conferences, selling memorabilia such as the pounds 10 tenth anniversary plate. Brian Johnson, who was a telecommunications technician at the Benhall site, usually goes with him. Clive Lloyd, aged 53, who was a communications cypher officer at the Oakley HQ, is a Liberal Democrat councillor in Cheltenham and an active campaigner. He harbours no bitterness, but finds that some of the 6,500 people still working for GCHQ have distanced themselves from their sacked colleagues. 'They stopped speaking to us at retirement parties,' he said. 'Then they told me they had been instructed not to speak to me.'

The only woman who was sacked, Dee Goddard, lives in the Gloucestershire countryside. She is now married with two young children. Another refusenik, Harry Underwood, a radio officer, has retired, as next month will Roy Taylor. Robin Smith, sacked from the Benhall station, is now a full- time official with the civil service specialists' union, IPMS.

Of the GCHQ 14, only Gareth Morris, an executive officer at Oakley HQ, has got a 'conventional' job. With his computer skills he was able to get a job with a bank.

Graham Hughes, sacked from his post as an executive officer at Benhall, is contemptuous of the Government's invocation of national security as grounds for the dismissals. 'There was no legitimate reason,' he said. Stories peddled by Conservative MP Rupert Allason that industrial action in 1981 - seven years before the sackings began - cost the West valuable intelligence about General Jaruzelski's regime in Poland are pooh-poohed, along with similar tales about the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

''We provided cover on the few occasions when industrial action took place,' said one refusnik. 'In any case, the place was so short-staffed at weekends that the Russians could have done what they liked.'

The civil service unions who called those strikes are still footing the bill, currently exceeding pounds 1m, for the campaign to restore membership rights. The GCHQ rebels who have no work and no reasonable expectation of finding it, receive dispute benefit equivalent to their old net salary.

'We have to keep it going until the next election,' said a spokesman for the Council of Civil Service Unions. 'We are confident that will bring in a government that will change things. Even if it doesn't, we will keep on going.'

(Photograph omitted)

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in