'Red Mick' was more than just a militant

THE murky coalfields of Scotland spawned one of the country's best union leaders who waged war against Tory governments but lost a personal battle with emphysema.

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Mick McGahey addresses a crowd in George Square during the miners' strike in 1985
Mick McGahey addresses a crowd in George Square during the miners' strike in 1985

Mick McGahey, a firebrand who became a working class hero, died 15 years ago today but etched an indelible mark on the industrial face of a nation.

He left school at 14 and three days later was working the 7am shift down the mines at a coal pit not far from his home in Cambuslang on the outskirts of Glasgow.

Less than 30 years later the man known to his friends as Michael was elected leader of the National Union of Scottish Mineworkers and became the scourge of the Tories and the right wing media.

He was an active member of the Communist Party of Great Britain which his father had helped launch while a miner in the pit village of Shotts in North Lanarkshire.

It wasn't long before he became a hate figure with the Establishment.

Tory-backed newspapers vilified him as "Red Mick McGahey" while spies with MI5 monitored his phone calls because he was seen as an enemy of the State.

But the clandestine operation was a disaster. He had a distinctive gravel voice honed from years of working underground and a lifetime of smoking strong, untipped cigarettes.

His prominent Lanarkshire pronunciation and a fondness for whisky combined to bamboozle the phone tappers.

They complained how they couldn't understand what he was talking about and blamed their failed asignments on his accent and his alcoholic consumption.

But Mick who became chairman of his local NUM branch at just 18-years-old was the man who successfully fought for the introduction of pit baths and laundry services.

His Irish mother was a devout Catholic from Derry while her son described himself as a "devout communist" who spent several weeks as a choir boy just to please her.

He was branded a militant - even by fellow union colleagues - though some management negotiators described him as pragmatic.

The father of three fought fiercely for coalfield workers but away from public view he was a man who had a passion for poetry and a love for the works of Robert Burns and Shakespeare.

He was a key union figure when the NUM and a Tory Government led by Edward Heath went head to head in the early 70s. Heath became a beaten man when he called a General Election and told voters to side with either his government or the miners. Heath lost and Labour were given the keys to No. 10 Downing Street.

A decade later and Mick and the NUM stood up against a new Tory Government but this time led by Margaret Thatcher.

The union was headed by the controversial Arthur Scargill after attempts by the former schoolboy from Cambuslang to become national president were thwarted.

It was a bitter dispute which raged during 1984 and 1985.

Mrs Thatcher and Arthur Scargill had a deep rooted hatred for each other while rows over the NUM's refusal to conduct a national strike ballot - clause 41 in the union's rule book allowed votes to be taken region by region - divided coalfield communities

Scargill wanted to stoke up the dispute by starving coke supplies to Britain's steel plants. Mick knew that could sound the death knell for Ravenscraig.

The steel plant's convener Tommy Brennan had warned him that if the fires went out in the coke ovens and blast furnaces of Motherwell they would become unworkable.

He was also warned that if the rail supplies of coke were stopped the picketing miners outside the gates of Ravenscraig would be smashed because the ore would be brought by road.

Mick agreed the furnaces and ovens would be allowed to work at minimum safety levels

But he became engrossed in a row over the union's pension scheme and his agreement was ignored by a senior colleague.

The consequences led to violent clashes between strikers and the police outside Scotland's biggest steel complex as wagons brought vital supplies to Ravenscraig to keep the fires burning at Motherwell.

Tommy Brennan knew McGahey well.

Those were the days the unions representing the steel, railway and mining industries, had formed what was known as the "Triple Alliance."

Both men often met on union business. And Mick made a lasting impression.

"I think Michael was one of the greatest leaders of the trade union movement that this country has ever seen.

"He was an honest man and 15 years on still miss him very much."

Michael McGahey was born on May 29, 1925, and died on January 30, 1999, at the age of 73.

A memorial stands near Cambuslang's Main Street in honour of him and the mining communities.

gordon.thomson@eveningtimes.co.uk

MICK McGahey was portrayed by the media as a hard, uncompromising union leader.

But the man they loved to paint as "red" and "bad" was known to his friends as a warm, compassionate and witty person who enjoyed a whisky.

Asked what he wanted to drink he would often reply: "I'll have a wee Bell's." It was the name of one of the country's top selling drams back then. Asked what he wanted in it he would joke: "I'll have another wee Bell's."

It was probably the influence of his Catholic mother but Mick was not one who liked swearing.

Tommy Brennan remembers him chiding a senior NUM officials after he used bad language.

"The dictionary is full of other words you can use," said Mick.

Tommy said: "Michael was a communist but at times he was more of a Christian than the rest of us put together.

"I remember us both on a march in Edinburgh. We were nearing the end of our time as active union members. We were heading up a hill to the Royal Mile when he turned and said:

"You know Tommy. You don't known you are going down hill until your going up a hill." He would often come out with stuff like that. I also remember him telling me that 'democracy is so precious that it should only be dished out in small dollops.'

"How true that was for Tony Blair. He gave everyone who asked democracy when leader of Labour and look at the party now. Michael was a very clever man."

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