The Changing of the Guard

The Election of the General Secretary of the ITGWU

For the last two years, the Irish Transport and General Workers Union has been racked by a level of internal conflict and division which has split it into two almost equal parts. The two elections since 1981 have been accompanied by attacks of a personal nature against one candidate in particular - Des Geraghty, at present National Group Secretary with responsibility for the construction, mining and related services industries, and a member of the Workers' Party.

On February 27, at a special conference in Liberty Hall, over three hundred delegates will again cast their votes, this time to elect a new General Secretary to replace Michael Mullen, who died last November. There are two candidates: Geraghty, and the union's Vice President and a Labour Party member, Christy Kirwan.

During the 1970s, the ITGWU the country's largest union with a membership of 160,000 - was controlled by the triumvirate of Fintan Kennedy, John Carroll and Michael Mullen as President, Vice President and General Secretary respectively. And during that decade, a large group of members and officials became increasingly dissatisfied with the Labour Party and its control of the union. The first opportunity they had to voice that disillusionment came in May 1981, with the retirement of Fintan Kennedy. John Carroll replaced him as President, and an election took place for the vacated position of Vice President. Des Geraghty topped the poll, but was defeated on transfers by Tom O'Brien, a traditional Labour Party trade unionist.

Geraghty was surprised by his high level of support within the union, and when O'Brien died suddenly the following year he decided to go forward again. The election took place in March 1982, and this time the Labour Party's front runner was Christy Kirwan, who was then National Group Secretary in charge of the transport, energy and communications sections. That campaign was characterised by the wide circulation of anonymous documents which attacked Geraghty on a personal as well as a political basis. Kirwan topped the poll with 100 votes, Geraghty coming second with 95. After the elimination of the other candidates, Kirwan emerged the victor with 192 votes to Geraghty's 158.

Shortly after Michael Mullen's death last November, Kirwan declared his candidature for the vacant position of General Secretary, and several union officials, mainly Labour Party members, felt that the expense of holding yet another special conference would be too great, and that Kirwan, as a sitting officer, should not be opposed (the election for his position as Vice President could then take place at the union's annual conference). Geraghty, in writing to the union's branch committees to declare his candidature, attacked this view.

"I feel very strongly," he stated, "that the members of this union have the right, in accordance with our Rules, to decide who should be the next General Secretary. I believe they must be allowed to decide this on the basis of the relative merits of all candidates and that Head Office should not attempt to deny them this right by implying that there should be an 'agreed candidate'." He also stated, that he would be agreeable, if elected, to remain on his existing salary until the costs of the special conference were recouped.

Christy Kirwan is confident of victory. Indeed, he is so confident that he has already occupied Mullen's office on the fifteenth floor of Liberty Hall. He says that fifty-five branches have nominated him for the position of General Secretary, including nine of the nineteen Dublin branches, and six of the eight in Cork, and he expects to get over two hundred votes. Geraghty has been nominated by eighteen branches, and feels that it will be "a difficult task to win, especially in that I'm up against it when contesting the position against an existing officer." But he feels that he has got a good response and is by no means out of the running.

Throughout this month, many of the branches are meeting to decide which way they want their delegates to vote; but the ballot is secret, and in the past, discrepancies have been noticed which indicate that delegates have not always followed the mandate given to them. And the number of nominations a candidate receives, though an indication of strength, may not necessarily be reflected in the voting patterns.

Kirwan's chances of success have undoubtedly been increased by the withdrawal from the race of Eddie Browne, a National Group Secretary and a member of the Labour Party. Browne, who was a candidate in the 1982 vice presidential election, received 88 first preference votes at that time, and on elimination his transfers went in a ratio of two to one to Kirwan. Browne has written to the union's branches declaring his support for Kirwan "in the best interests of the Union". His letter, however, reads more like an election manifesto for himself for some future election:

"On a personal note I can assure you that I retain a very keen interest in achieving a General Officer position in the Union, and I have given this matter most serious consideration. I have contested General Officer positions on two occasions in the recent past and I propose to do so again on the next occasion."

Sources within the union claim that Browne has withdrawn from the General Secretary contest on the basis of a guarantee of support from John Carroll and Kirwan for the position of Vice President should Kirwan win this month's election. Browne dismissed this as "absolute nonsense, pure mischief making". He refused, however, to discuss his reasons for withdrawal and his future plans. Christy Kirwan believes that Browne "took the view that it was not proper, to oppose a General Officer. "

In the midst of all this speculation and rumour, the conflict between Kirwan and Geraghty is perceived in a variety of ways. Both candidates deny that it is a straightforward battle between the Labour Party and the Workers' Party. Both say that on policy matters - which are decided exclusively by the union's annual conference - there is little difference between them. But there is, as Geraghty puts it, "a philosophical difference".

"Geraghty hasn't concealed the fact that he's a Marxist", says Kirwan. "I would prefer to describe myself as an Irish Labour trade union man." Geraghty, on the other hand, would consider himself to be "a constructive socialist, to use Connolly's phrase. Within my definition of it, I wouldn't consider Kirwan a socialist."

Some senior trade unionists see the divide in the Transport Union along left-right lines, others believe it to be a struggle between the old guard and the new guard. "If thirty-four years in this union rates me as the old guard, then old guard I am" says Kirwan.

Christy Kirwan was born and grew up in Meath Street in the Liberties area of Dublin. On leaving school he spent fourteen months as a ship's clerk at sea. He disliked the work and returned to Ireland to a job as a shunter on the Great Northern railway line. There he was responsible for bringing the 760 Great Northern railway workers into the ITGWU, and became their first branch chairman in the late 1940s. In 1953 he joined the Transport Union's full-time staff as secretary of the railwaymen's Dublin No 11 branch. A decade later he was promoted to National Group Secretary with responsibility for transport and communication workers.

As Group Secretary for that area, he was involved in the controversial petrol tankers strike in 1980, a dispute which was the subject of an internal inquiry in the union. A report was produced, the full content of which has never been made public.' The report did, however, state that "the oil workers went to war for over two months to secure precisely what they had been offered in 1975. This was a dispute which should never have occurred!" The report strongly criticised the oil company managements, but also laid part of the blame on the union's officials, saying that they "must come a close second in the lack of leadership qualities." Kirwan himself says "I didn't approve of the unofficial action they took. I was firm with them, and the dispute was never officially recognised. It was a serious dispute, but it was resolved and after that I was elected Vice President. There's a moral there somewhere."


"I'm a Labour man," says Kirwan "but first I'm an ITGWU man. I'm not too enamoured with parties that impose too much discipline on their members. That's why I like the Labour Party." The reason he is running for election, he says, is because he has a lot of support.


"It was felt I should take over this job, and I felt that I was equipped to do it. I've been a rank and file member, and then branch secretary. I come from the practical side of the union. And the branch secretary is really a microcosm of the General Secretary."


Des Geraghty was also born and grew up in the Liberties, in the old Cornmarket area. Like Kirwan, he comes from a strong Labour background, and his family all supported Larkin. Three of his mother's brothers fought in Bolands Mills with de Valera, and his father was among the founders of Fianna Eireann under Countess Markieviez. His four brothers are all actively involved in the trade union movement:

Sean has become a national figure in Britain as Secretary of the London Press Branch of the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union; Tom is a fireman and on the executive of the Federated Workers Union of Ireland; Hugh is shop steward in the CIE works at Inchicore; and Seamus is a foriner secretary of the A TGWU branch in Waterford.

Des Geraghty started work as a junior labourer in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, and then spent some years working as a labourer and with telecommunications firms in England. In 1968 he became a studio operator in RTE and joined the ITGWU. He had already decided that he wanted to work within the trade union movement, and had applied for several jobs before he became a branch official in the ITGWU in 1969. He was thrown in at the deep end, he says, when he was appointed branch official for the Dublin No 1 branch which represented the docks workers.

It was a time of rationalisation in the Dublin docks, with the introduction of containerisation and the roll on roll off system. B&I were modernising, and the workforce was falling rapidly. He believes that the changes which took place in the docks at that time were the forerunners of the technological change in industry which has occurred since, and he felt that the union was unequipped to cope with that change.

So in 1973 he joined the newly established Development Services Division of the union as one of its first Industrial Relations Tutors. He had been contributing articles on industrial relations to Liberty, the union's paper, and in 1978 he applied for the position of Publications Officer, to which he was appointed. He subsequently became Communications Officer with responsibility for public relations together with the union's various publications. In 1981 he replaced Tom O'Brien, who had beaten him in that year's vice -presidential election, as National Group Secretary.

Before he joined the Workers' Party, Geraghty was an active Labour Party member, and worked in the late 1960s for Michael O'Leary.

"The feeling at the time," he says, "was that the Labour Party was about introducing socialism. But it became increasingly obvious that this was not the case. For instance, I could never see any basis for a coalition between Labour and Fine Gael."

But he considers it nonsense to explain the present conflict within the Transport Union in party terms. "The strength of the Irish trade union movement is that unions are organised along industrial lines, not on the basis, as in many European countries, of political parties." He feels that people are tending to "forget the ideological basis of trade unionism. The task facing the modem trade union movement is to interpret Connolly and Larkin in a modem context."

The power of a General Secretary of the ITGWU is considerable; responsibilities include the union's financial and general administration, organisation, recruitment, education, training, communications and publicity. The position carries with it enormous influence both nationally and within the country's trade union movement. With the Labour Party's participation in Government, it is also a position which they would regard as highly sensitive.

The lines within the ITGWU are clearly drawn: of the six National Group Secretaries, four support Kirwan, and one, Pat Rabbitt~, backs Geraghty. But Rabbitte, who is also a member of the Worker's Party, is not optimistic about the outcome. He sees the division in terms of a left‡ right split in the union, and says that that split was shown last year to be in the region of 45% to 55% in favour of the right; he sees no reason why it would be reversed in so short a time.