Belfast trade unionist dedicated to working-class unity

Sean Morrissey: July 29th, 1923 - January 3rd, 2016

Sean Morrissey, who has died aged 92, dedicated more than seven decades of his life to uniting workers in Northern Ireland to fight for their rights, and to socialism.

He was a self-taught working-class intellectual, a leading member of the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers’ Union, and a member of the Communist Party’s executive committee. He was also one of the few surviving republican prisoners from the 1940s.

Morrissey was born in Sultan Street in Belfast’s Lower Falls district in July 1923, and attended primary school locally.

Easter Lily

Early during the second World War he was imprisoned for three months for wearing an Easter Lily. The sentence served, he was interned until the war’s end.

In prison he moved politically to the left, rejected physical- force republicanism, resigned from the IRA and joined the Communist Party of Northern Ireland.

He expressed sadness, but never bitterness, that internment had stolen so much of his youth.

After release he became close to Communist Party general secretary Sean Murray, another self-taught working-class intellectual.

He worked first in the building industry, joining the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers’ Union, and then in Inglis’s bakery.

Banned from office

Because communists were banned from holding office in the ATGWU, he could not be a shop steward in his union. However, all unions in the bakery participated in a shop stewards’ committee, and they elected him convenor.

When the union eventually lifted its ban he became a delegate to Belfast Trades Council. Through it he was also one of the founders of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association.

He also became education officer for the ATGWU, training shop stewards and giving them a grounding in economics and politics. His education influenced a generation of the union’s activists.

Morrissey was active in the community too. In the 1960s he was chair of the Belfast Corporation Tenants’ Association. This represented 40,000 households across the city. His work won him respect – including from the unlikely quarter of unionist politician Brian Faulkner.

The respect did not, however, prevent his being detained during the internment swoop of August 9th, 1971. His arrest caused a barrage of protests though, and he was quickly released.

Loyalist strike

In 1974, loyalists organised widespread intimidation as part of a work stoppage aimed at bringing down the power- sharing executive established as a result of the Sunningdale agreement.

Morrissey was one of those trade unionists who defied the loyalist action by organising back to work marches.

Throughout his life he maintained his socialist principles. He walked in his last Belfast May Day march at 90. In old age he maintained a phenomenal memory for facts and statistics.

He went for a long walk every day. He was a non-drinker and non-smoker in a Belfast trade union milieu where this was unusual.

Personally, he was a modest and private man, noted for his personal kindness, and for understating his achievements.

He is survived by his daughters Mairead and Oonagh and son Michael. He was predeceased by his wife, Catherine.