Committed campaigner for socialist values

Bill Webster: October 23rd, 1941 - August 8th, 2014

Sat, Aug 23, 2014, 01:00

Bill Webster, who has died in his adopted home of Derry after a long illness, was a veteran socialist and a stalwart of the trade union movement in that city. Most of his life he spent campaigning against injustice and exploitation. He was a self-taught working-class intellectual, with a profound knowledge of literature, history and socialist theory. That self-education was completed in middle age by a degree in anthropology from the University of Ulster.

He had a spirit of solidarity and was always available to assist workers in difficulties. When a friend was sacked for union activity, Webster arrived at the house to express support – with a sack of potatoes on his shoulder for the family. He was one of the earliest members in Ireland of the Militant Tendency, the precursor of the Socialist Party. Years of division His most intense activity was during the 1970s, barren years for socialists and trade unionists in the North. Webster’s arguments that Catholic and Protestant workers should unite were challenged by the stubborn reality of division.

He was steeped in the working-class movement. Born in Liverpool in 1941, he was the youngest of four children of William Webster, a seaman, and his wife Lily (née Cooper). His father was a communist, and had been a courier for the Communist International. After school, Webster joined the Royal Navy and later became a merchant seaman, before getting a job with the General and Municipal Workers Union. He also joined the Militant Tendency in Britain, soon leaving a relatively well-paid union job to become the industrial organiser of a small left-wing group.

Through Militant, he met Eileen Cullen from Belfast: they married in Derry in 1975. He became part of that city’s fabric. He tied into Derry’s tradition of radical labour politics, helping reorganise the Derry Labour Party in the mid-1970s.

He was a man of immense humanity. There was nothing he liked more than sitting up till dawn having a lively argument, preferably about politics. He lived by the principles of one of his favourite poems, “Democracy”, by Langston Hughes: “Democracy will not come / Today, this year / Nor ever / Through compromise and fear.”

Bill Webster is survived by his wife, Eileen, his daughters, Caroline and Mary Elizabeth, his son, Matthew Anthony, and his sisters, Evelyn, Joan and Vera.