Martin Flannery (an appreciation)

02.03.1918 - 16.10.06.

THE CONNOLLY Association and the Irish Democrat are among those saddened by the recent death of the former Sheffield Labour MP Martin Flannery.

Martin Flannery

The youngest of seven children, he was born in Walkley, Sheffield, in March 1918 to Irish parents. At that time, his father, a soldier with the Dublin Fusiliers, was stationed at the nearby Hillsborough Barracks. His mother worked as a Buffer Girl in Sheffield's famous cutlery industry.

Although brought up in a strong Irish Catholic environment, Martin was to become an atheist in his teens. He often mentioned the "brutal and sadistic" treatment metered out by the Christian Brother teachers at the De La Salle Grammar School in Sheffield, to which he had won a scholarship.

Despite numerous beatings, he thrived academically, becoming fluent in French and Latin and developing a love of poetry and literature which he was to retain throughout his life.

However, as a result of Britain's entry into the Second World War, he was called up to serve in the army immediately after qualifying.

Strongly influenced by the grinding poverty he had experienced as a child and as a young man, and appalled by the attacks in the Catholic press on the democratically elected republican government of Spain and its allies fighting the fascist insurgency led by General Franco, he had developed strong socialist and republican sympathies by the time he was sent out to India.

However, he spent most of the war in Burma, where he was wounded in action.

He joined the Communist Party on returning home from the war, although it is known that he organised socialist meetings among the troops and collected funds for the Indian Communist Party during his wartime service overseas.

He left the British CP in 1956 over the Soviet intervention in Hungary, joining the Labour Party shortly. He remained a member until his death, despite grave misgivings over the political direction of the party, particularly under the current 'New Labour' leadership.

After the war, following a spell as a volunteer helping to rebuild Czechoslovakia's railways, he returned to teaching. A dedicated and enthusiastic educationalist and a trade unionist, he went on to become the headteacher at Crooksmoore Junior School in Sheffield and president of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) in the city. He also served on the NUT's national executive committee and was made an honorary life member of the union at the NUT's annual Conference in 1992.

However, he also had a wider role in the local trade union movement, serving for a number of years as the vice president of Sheffield Trades and Labour Council.

He was an ardent promoter of comprehensive education and, perhaps not surprisingly given his own schoolboy experiences, a committed opponent of corporal punishment in schools.

Martin was passionate about art and literature and loved classical and Irish folk music. As an environmentalist and member of the Ramblers Association he enjoyed long country walks and was a member of the Campaign for Real Ale.

Elected to represent the Hillsborough constituency in Sheffield in the 1974 general election, he was soon to throw himself into another of his passions: Ireland. A socialist and a republican by conviction, he was to chair the Parliamentary Labour Party Northern Ireland committee from 1983 - 1992.

However, he attracted the ire of some colleagues on the left and the Troops Out Movement in Britain, when, following a visit to the north in 1984, he changed his position on the need for an immediate British withdrawal. Having spoken to people on the ground, including with prominent figures from Sinn Fein, he became convinced, that such action would result in a "bloodbath" in which the Catholic and nationalist community would be the main victim.

Violent attacks by republicans on SDLP parliamentary colleague Gerry Fitt and a belief in the kind of civil rights approach to solving the conflict in the north originally advocated by Desmond Greaves and the Connolly Association, and subsequently taken up by the Northern Ireland Civil Right Association, also led Martin to become a strong and consistent critic of the IRA's military campaign, which he felt was unnecessary and counterproductive. However, he never lost his republican sympathies or belief that the conflict in Ireland was the result of British colonialism and the illegal partition of Ireland under the threat of "immediate and terrible war" in 1921.

He also spoke out regularly in the Commons against the renewal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and railed against the inequalites and discrimination experienced by the Catholic and nationalist population of the north.

Throughout time in parliament he built up a reputation as a diligent constituency MP and, as a socialist and an internationalist, he championed the fight for human rights, freedom and democracy throughout the world.

Martin was a strong supporter of the campaign against Pinochet's fascist dictatorship in Chile and was an active member of the Anti-Apartheid Movement long before it became the mass movement into which it was to develop into.

Throughout the 1970s and 80s he fought to preserve Britain's steel and coal industries, playing an active role in mobilising support for the National Union of Mineworkers in defence of jobs and communities.Martin also fought hard for justice for the victims and families of the Sheffield Hillsborough Stadium disaster.

On a personal note, I remember going to lobby Martin during the Time To Go campaign of the the late 1980s, when he was still an MP. Although a member of the Association, he made it clear that he was not happy with the Connolly Association's backing for the Time To Go Campaign. A few weeks later his daughter Kate told me that he'd told her that he'd been visited by "that lovely man David from the Connolly Association". "That's right," I said, "and he chewed my ear right off."

But, spite occasional differences, he never wavered in his support for the Association and generous donations from Martin and his wife Blanche have continued to turn up at regular intervals over more years than I care to remember.

Martin also never wavered in his vision for a socialist world or in his support for a Irish unity and independence. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the peace initiative, launched initially by Gerry Adams and Martin's old friend John Hume, which eventually resulted in the signing of the Good Friday agreement.

Throughout his political life he fought for the interest of working people. He did so without consideration for personal benefit or the impact this might have on his political 'career' - indeed his forthright and principled outspokenness, and a passion for the kind of socialism that sent shivers down the spine of many a Labour leadership, ensured that he remained a backbencher throughout his 18 years in the House of Commons.

Not that Martin would have wanted it otherwise. He was far more interested in being able to speak freely on behalf of working people, especially those in struggle, than the transient trappings of political office.

Socialist, republican and internationalist, he was tenacious fighter for his class and a true friend of Ireland. But while we mourn his passing, my instinct is that he wouldn't have wanted us to waste too much energy or time on this, especially if it distracted us unduly from the struggles of the day and those that still lie ahead.

So in paying tribute let us do so by responding in the spirit of one of the great slogans from the anti-Apartheid struggle: "Don't mourn, mobilise!". It's the very least he would have expected of us.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2006-12-27 17:24:26.
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