In less than a week, a little-known union leader with a Cork-born father and an Armagh-born mother has become Britain’s most talked about man.
ick Lynch, the pragmatic 60-year-old boss of the RMT, the UK’s railway workers’ union, has shattered any media interviewer trying to paint him as a dangerous Marxist, thanks to his simple answers and sharp retorts.
He spoke to the Sunday Independent This weekend.
Independent on Sunday: There’s been a lot of interest here about your Irish origins. Did your parents move to the UK before you were born?
Mick Lynch: My father, Jackie, was from Cork City. It was born in the early 1920s, just at the time of the partition, right in the city center, on the quays. My mother, Ellen or ‘Nellie’ Morris, came from a farm in a township outside Crossmaglen in South Armagh. They both came to the UK during the Second World War, in 1941 and 1942. They have since died.
IF: What kind of house did you grow up in?
ML: We were from West London, Paddington. This and Kilburn were the centers of the Irish community at this time. I was one of five children and we were raised by my parents in apartments on a social housing estate. We did all the traditional Irish stuff: Catholic primary school, Catholic secondary school. There were a lot of Irish in our community, but it was also very diverse.
IF: What are your memories of your upbringing?
ML: We were always well fed and well dressed, as you would expect of an Irish mother, but we had no ‘spare’ money. We’ve never had a family vacation together, for example. Sometimes a few of us went back to Ireland from time to time, but we never all went back together at the same time. It was difficult to manage with five children.
IF: What part of Ireland have you visited?
ML: Just before my father died, we went back to Cork — it was during Queen’s [Silver] Jubilee at the time . And I went several times with my mother to Crossmaglen during the Troubles when I was very young. When my father died in 1978, we moved back to Crossmaglen, as my uncle still owned the farm there.
IF: Are there any values you received from your parents that have stayed with you?
ML: My father was a union representative. He wasn’t a massive militant, but he was a stubborn guy. He left school very early, just like my mother. It was very simple — we went to church every week. But I’m no longer Catholic – none of us are, I think.
My father went to the pub, my mother took care of the children. It was a very simple life, with the values of the Labor Party. I don’t want to pretend we were rabid activists – we weren’t, but we enjoyed a decent debate, what is now called the craic. A little atmosphere at home.
IF: Debates around the kitchen table?
ML: There was plenty of that. I had three older brothers, one older sister.
We have always been Labour, Socialists with a small “s”. They were not theoreticians. They just knew what their values were, which was always to stick together. We had a very tight-knit family.
IF: Did you have any idea of the pain your parents may have felt, having to leave their country of origin to work?
ML: Well, that was it. There was no money in Ireland. My father was born in 1922, so at the age of 16, 17, 18, De Valera was in power, the economic war was on and Cork was completely destroyed. So he had to leave and find work, and there was a lot of work in England because of the war – construction, engineering.
My mother came for domestic service and her two sisters came as teenagers during the Blitz. You couldn’t go to America then, so the only place you could go was England.
Later my father would take me to Cork and take me to see some of his old buddies who were still there. He was very passionate about sport – football, Gaelic football and hurling. He knew some of the pitchers – the biggest ones. Funny enough, he was also called Jack Lynch, but he wasn’t related to the posh Jack Lynch [the Fianna Fáil leader]. He was a little wilder than that.
He was a straightforward Labor supporter – maybe a little Fianna Fáil. But he was very patriotic towards his country. We weren’t involved in the ‘movement’ when we were here, but yes, that was what a traditional Irish working family looked like. We weren’t into or into Irish dancing, but it was very clear that our values are Irish. I will watch the Republic of Ireland away team whenever I can. I was in Stuttgart in 1988 and all that [when Ireland beat England in the European Championship].
IF: What is it about James Connolly that made him your hero?
ML: He is inspiring. It’s not just his involvement in 1916, but things before that. It was above all his trade union activity that interested me. He is a man born in utter destitution, another Irish exile from another generation.
His family in Edinburgh practically had to learn to read and write, and he had to go on and form his own view of socialism and his own view of national struggle – and try to mix those things.
He went to America for eight or nine years and tried to form unions there, start a movement. He ended up in Belfast trying to bring the loyalists, if you want to put it that way — the Protestant community — into unions. I think he was just a standout character.
IF: Who told you about him first?
ML: We would hear all the songs and then you had to go and read about it yourself. My father was by no means an academic. He was a guy who liked to go to the pub. He wasn’t uneducated, but he wasn’t an academic – he was a worker.
IF: Does your tenacity and tenacity come from your Irish side?
ML: I’m pretty sensitive – as much as anyone else. But I have a job to do for my members here. A few things have happened to me in the past. I
was blacklisted, like many Irish people in the construction industry. Construction companies used to keep “blacklists” of union activists, and I was sure
one of them. But we took them to the High Court and we got a settlement.
IF: When you say you’re sensitive, what are you sensitive to? It is apparent from your interviews that the criticism you receive is like water off a duck’s back.
ML: I am not Schwarzenegger. I have the same sensitivities as everyone else. I’m not a badass. But I love winning the argument, and sometimes that involves campaigning that leads to industrial action.
IF: Do you think Ireland could see similar strikes in the coming months?
ML: From what I know, the Irish economy is a delicate flower, and when things are going well people sometimes forget about the bad times. But I think there’s a bit of de-unionization going on, from what I can see. And if wages don’t keep up with prices, workers will always respond.
It’s like pressing down on a spring – it will eventually have to spring back. And that’s what’s happening here right now. People are tired of being told by rich people to hold back and tighten their purse strings, and I don’t think people are going to put up with that any longer. If you don’t get equity from the business community, there will be a response.
You have a different set of labor laws there, with the labor court. We don’t have that structure here. We just have very oppressive industrial action laws.
IF: Do you think there are people in Ireland looking at what you’re doing from across the water and saying, ‘They’re fighting back, maybe we can do the same?’
ML: I hope. I talk to people from Siptu and other unions, and if we can help each other, then that’s what we need to do – across the UK and Europe. It all has to start with joining a union. Then every member must be an activist, and every activist must be an activist. If you strengthen your union, your employer will eventually have to listen to you. And if they don’t agree to reasonable demands, then industrial action is an option. This is where we are.
The world is made up of two sets of people, and it is the workers who create all the wealth of any society. They have to get their share. Most of the problems in any society are based on an unequal distribution of wealth.
IF: What are you talking to Siptu about?
ML: We update each other. They come to visit our conference, and we go. I haven’t made many of these visits because I’ve only been Secretary General for a year.
IF: What do you think of the support you receive from Ireland?
ML: I didn’t have time to see everything. But having great visibility on social media is one thing, getting an agreement in a series of very difficult negotiations is quite another matter. I would trade any profile for a good deal for our members. We have to get something out of it — and we’re only in the early days.
That said, I would like to thank the Irish for their support. Maybe I’ll come by personally to thank them soon and have a drink.
IF: What have you learned about media in the past week?
ML: They’re a little superficial and a little unprepared and a little flippant. But I have to go. There’s a producer calling me here now.
And with that, he enters another British TV studio, ready to take on his next interviewer in the battle for hearts and minds.