Former Ictu leader who helped shape massive 1979 PAYE worker protests


Harold O'Sullivan: HAROLD O’SULLIVAN, who has died aged 85, was a former general secretary of the Local Government and Public Services Union (predecessor of Impact) and president of Ictu, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. Prior to his trade union career, he served as an officer in the Cavalry Corps, and when he retired turned to writing history.

As a prominent member of the trade union negotiating team at national wages talks and as an outspoken critic of many aspects of government policy, he was regularly in the news.

Where the trade union movement was concerned the law was “an ass”, he declared, based on 19th-century “notions of master and servant”. Making the case for national wage agreements, he said: “If you’re going to have an open season for profits and continued restraint on wages and salaries you have a ready-made recipe for massive industrial unrest.”

He was not prepared to see the right to strike written out of existence. “The day that happens is the day the worker will have to conform to every dictation from management.”

But he was opposed to unofficial strikes. Referring to a spate of such strikes in 1979, he said that they were due to the “yielding of power to small unelected groups”, which had brought chaotic conditions into many workers’ organisations invariably to the detriment of the workers.

Born in Dublin in 1924, Harold O’Sullivan was one of 10 children of John and Anne O’Sullivan. He grew up in Kildare where he was educated by the De La Salle Brothers. During the Emergency, he joined the Defence Forces, was commissioned as an officer and served as a lieutenant with the Cavalry Corps.

Returning to civilian life in 1946, he was employed by Bord na Móna. He next joined the staff of Kildare County Council and later became a health inspector in Waterford, transferring in that capacity to Louth County Council. He was based in Dundalk.

Early in his working life he joined what was then the Irish Local Government Officials Union, moving up through the ranks as shop steward, executive council member and finally, in 1964, general secretary.

He was first elected to the Ictu executive in 1968, with the support of craft and general unions. Never a firebrand, he told the Dublin Rotary Club that the idea of replacement of the capitalist system by a workers’ republic “at some remote time” was “ephemeral”.

In 1972 he was the first official representative of Ictu to attend a conference of the USI, the Union of Students in Ireland. He looked forward to closer co-operation between the trade union movement and the students’ organisation.

Elected vice-president of Ictu in 1977, he acted as a mediator in the ill-fated Ferenka affair. This followed an inter-union dispute at the Limerick-based steel cord manufacturing plant, which eventually closed with the loss of 1,400 jobs. He blamed the management’s “very poor” personnel policy: “They regarded their workers as they regarded their machines.”

In 1978, and now Ictu president, he described the situation whereby trade unionists paid almost 80 per cent of total income tax as “grossly inequitable”. In March 1979 he said it was a situation the “PAYE classes” would no longer tolerate.

Two massive nationwide demonstrations, supported by Ictu, took place that month. A quarter of a million workers took part in the second demonstration, with 150,000 marching in Dublin.

Differences over tactics emerged, however, and Ictu advised against further demonstrations. Nevertheless, a crowd of 50,000 turned out in Dublin for a May Day march in support of tax equity. Harold O’Sullivan was among the Ictu leaders criticised for failing to support the march.

Following his appointment in 1983 to the National Planning Board, he was succeeded as general secretary of the LGPSU by Phil Flynn.

In the mid-1980s, as chairman and acting director-general of the Institute for Industrial Research and Standards, he steered the institute through a period of staff changes and public scrutiny from the Dáil committee on public expenditure.

He later made his mark as a local historian, publishing or contributing to several books dealing with the borderlands of southeast Ulster. In addition he wrote numerous articles for local historical journals.

His M Litt thesis was The Trevors of Rostrevor: a British colonial family in 17th century Ireland (Trinity College, Dublin, 1985), while his doctoral thesis was Landownership Changes in the County of Louth in the Seventeenth Century.

His publications include History of Local Government in the County of Louth and John Bellew: a seventeenth-century man of many parts (both 2000).

A former chairman of the Irish Health Services Development Corporation, he also served on the National Prices Commission and was a member of the Telecom Éireann board.

He is survived by his wife Lillie (née Curran), whom he married in 1951; their two sons Seán and Gary predeceased him.

Harold O’Sullivan: born 1924; died October 20th, 2009