In less than a week, a little-known union leader with a Cork-born father and a mother from Armagh has become the most talked-about man in Britain.
Mick Lynch, the 60-year-old no-nonsense boss of the RMT, the UK’s rail workers’ union, has made mincemeat of every media interviewer trying to portray him as a dangerous Marxist, thanks to his simple answers and quick-witted retorts.
He spoke to the Sunday Independent this weekend.
Sunday Independent: There’s been a lot of interest here in your Irish background. Your parents moved to the UK before you were born?
Mick Lynch: My dad, Jackie, was from Cork city. He was born in the early 1920s, just at the time of partition, right in the city centre, on the quays. My mother, Ellen or ‘Nellie’ Morris, was from a farm in a townland outside Crossmaglen in south Armagh. They both came over to the UK during the Second World War, in 1941 and 1942. They’ve since passed away.
SI: What kind of home did you grow up in?
ML: We were from west London, Paddington. Both that and Kilburn were the centres of the Irish community in those days. I was one of five kids and we were raised by my parents in flats on a council estate. We did all the traditional Irish stuff: Catholic primary school, Catholic secondary school. There was a lot of Irish people in our community, but it was very diverse as well.
SI: What are your memories of your upbringing?
ML: We were always well-fed and decently turned out, as you would expect from an Irish mother, but we didn’t have any ‘spare’ money. We never had a family holiday together, for example. Sometimes a couple of us would go back to Ireland now and again, but we never all went back together at the same time. It was difficult to manage with five kids.
SI: Which part of Ireland did you visit?
ML: Just before my father died, we went back to Cork city — it was during the Queen’s [Silver] Jubilee at the time . And I went a couple of times with my mum to Crossmaglen during the Troubles when I was very young. When my father passed away in 1978, we went back to Crossmaglen, because my uncle still had the farm there.
SI: Are there values you got from your parents that have stayed with you?
ML: My dad was a shop steward. He wasn’t a massive activist, but he was an opinionated fellow. He left school very early, as did my mother. It was very straight down the line — we went to church every week. But I’m not a Catholic any more — none of us are, I think.
My dad went to the pub, my mum looked after the kids. It was a very straightforward life, with Labour Party values. I don’t want to make out that we were raging activists — we weren’t, but we did like a decent debate, what is now called the craic. A bit of atmosphere in the home.
SI: Debates around the kitchen table?
ML: There was plenty of that. I had three older brothers, one older sister.
We were always Labour supporters, socialists with a small ‘s’. They weren’t theoretical people. They just knew what their values were, which was always to stick together. We had a very tight-knit family.
SI: Did you get a sense of the pain your parents might have felt, over having to leave their homeland for work?
ML: Well, that was it. There was no money in Ireland. My dad was born in 1922, so by the time he was 16, 17, 18, De Valera was in power, the economic war was on and Cork was absolutely wrecked. So he had to leave and find work, and there was loads of work in England because of the war — construction, engineering.
My mum came over 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 on, my dad used to take me around Cork and take me to see some of his old pals that were still around. He was very big into sport — soccer and Gaelic football and hurling. He knew some of the hurlers — the greats. Funny enough, he was called Jack Lynch as well, but he wasn’t related to the posh Jack Lynch [the Fianna Fáil leader]. He was a bit more feral than that.
He was a straight-down-the-line Labour supporter — maybe a bit Fianna Fáil. But he was very patriotic towards his country. We weren’t involved in ‘the movement’ when we were over here, but yeah — it was what a traditional working-class family would be like from Ireland. We weren’t full-on, or into the Irish dancing, but it was very clear that our values are Irish. I go and watch the Republic of Ireland team play away whenever I can. I was at Stuttgart in 1988 and all that [when Ireland beat England in the European Championship].
SI: What is it about James Connolly that made him your hero?
ML: He’s inspirational. It’s not just his involvement in 1916, but the stuff before then. His trade union activity is what mainly interested me. This is a man who was born in absolute destitution, another Irish exiled family from a different generation.
His family in Edinburgh virtually had to teach themselves to read and write, and he had to go on and form his own view of socialism and his own view of the national struggle — and try to blend those things together.
He went out to America for eight or nine years and tried to form unions there, start a movement. He ended up in Belfast trying to get the loyalists, if you want to put it like that — the Protestant community — to join unions. I think he was just a remarkable character.
SI: Who first told you about him?
ML: We would hear all the songs and then you’d have to go off and read up about him yourself. My father wasn’t an academic in any way. He was a bloke who liked to go to the pub. He wasn’t uneducated, but he wasn’t an academic — he was a labourer.
SI: Does your toughness and steeliness comes from your Irish side?
ML: I am fairly sensitive — as much as anyone else. But I have a job to do for my members here. I’ve had a few things happen to me in the past. I
was blacklisted, like a lot of Irish people in the construction industry. Construction companies used to keep ‘blacklists’ of trade union activists, and I was on
one of them. But we took them to the High Court and we won a settlement.
SI: When you say you’re sensitive, what are you sensitive about? It comes across in your interviews that the criticism you get is like water off a duck’s back.
ML: I’m not Schwarzenegger. I’ve got the same sensibilities as everyone else. I’m not a hard nut. But I do like to win the argument, and sometimes it involves a campaign that leads to industrial action.
SI: 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 go well, people sometimes forget about the hard times. But I think there’s a bit of de-unionisation, from what I can see. And if wages don’t keep up with prices, then workers will always respond.
It’s like pressing a spring — eventually it will have to bounce back. And that’s what’s happening over here at the minute. People are sick and tired of being told by rich people that they have to rein their belts in and pull their purse strings tighter, and I don’t think people are going to take that any longer. If you don’t get fairness off the business community, there’s going to be a response.
You have a different set of labour laws over there, with the Labour Court. We don’t have that structure here. We just have very oppressive laws about having industrial action.
SI: Do you think there are people in Ireland looking across the water at what you’re doing and saying: “They’re standing up for themselves, maybe we can do the same?”
ML: I hope so. I speak to people in Siptu and other unions, and if we can help each other, then that’s what we’ve got to do — across the UK and Europe. It has all got to start with joining a union. Then every member has got to be an activist, and every activist has got to be a campaigner. If you make your union strong, your employer will have to listen to you eventually. And if they won’t agree to reasonable requests, then industrial action is an option. That is where we are here.
The world is made up of two sets of people, and it’s the workers who create all the wealth in any society. They have got to get their share. Most of the problems in any society are based on unequal distribution of wealth.
SI: What do you talk to Siptu about?
ML: We update each other. They come over to visit our conference, and we go over there. I haven’t done many of those visits because I’ve only been general secretary for a year.
SI: What do you make of the support you’re getting from Ireland?
ML: I haven’t had time to see it all. But having a high profile on social media is one thing, getting a deal in a very tough set of negotiations is an entirely different matter. I would trade any profile for a good deal for our members. We have got to get a result out of this — and we are only in the early days.
In saying that, I would like to thank the Irish for their support. Maybe I’ll come over soon and thank them personally and have a drink.
SI: What have you learned about the media in the past week?
ML: They’re a bit shallow and a bit unprepared and a bit glib. But I’ve got to go. There’s a producer calling me here now.
And with that, he steps into another British TV studio, ready to take on his next interviewer in the battle for hearts and minds.