Paddy Behan: An active trade unionist with a Christian socialist outlook

Obituary: ‘Housing crisis spurred him into joining the local branch of the Labour Party’

Paddy Behan: February 18th, 1938-May 13th, 2016. Above, protesting on behalf of Bank of Ireland pensioners at the bank’s agm in 2005. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Paddy Behan: February 18th, 1938-May 13th, 2016. Above, protesting on behalf of Bank of Ireland pensioners at the bank’s agm in 2005. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

 

Paddy Behan, who died aged 78, epitomised working class Dubliners of his generation. He had a deep commitment to his community, his union and the labour movement in general. He was equally devoted to his religion and was buried from Our Lady of Lourdes Church, where one of his heroes, Matt Talbot, lies. He was, less typically, a jazz enthusiast.

Born in 1938 at Stella Gardens in Ringsend, the eldest of seven children, he joined the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union at 16, while working as a van boy. After various jobs he joined the Bank of Ireland as a porter in the 1960s.

He married May Blair in 1961. They met while doing voluntary work with mentally handicapped children. After living for a time with her parents they decided to squat in a building in Mountjoy Square and helped initiate the Dublin Housing Action Committee. It was the housing crisis that spurred him into joining the local branch of the Labour Party.

When he started at the Bank of Ireland branch in Talbot Street there was an “upstairs-downstairs” attitude to porters and cleaners, who were forbidden to use staff toilets or attend the Christmas party. They had poor pensions and were denied access to staff bank loans. When his negotiating team met the Bank Standing Committee to demand access to the staff mortgage loan scheme they were told that on their rates of pay they could not afford a mortgage. Two hours later they had secured a “furniture loan scheme” and a pay rise. Paddy said that “from that day we never looked back” and ultimately achieved parity of esteem for his grades.

He developed a good relationship with managers, one of whom confided in him one morning that his family were victims of a tiger kidnap. When he asked what he should do Paddy said, “You can replace the money, but you can’t replace your family”, and helped him load the cash into his car. The Garda Síochána was alerted subsequently.

The nearness of the Talbot Street branch to Liberty Hall enabled Paddy Behan to become involved in union work at national level. He strongly supported the merger of the ITGWU and Federated Workers Union of Ireland to form Siptu in 1990 and he served on Siptu’s national executive from 1994 to his retirement in 2004. Other campaigns he was prominently involved with included the PAYE tax reform marches of late 1970s and early 1980s, the Dunnes Stores’ workers strike against the sale of apartheid produce, the battle for union recognition in McDonalds and, most recently, the Clery’s workers’ protests.

He always believed in the unity of the trade union movement with the broad left, although unity within the left proved more difficult and he used to recall one meeting in the Mansion House that ended with warring factions throwing chairs at each other.

He remained active in the union’s retired members section after 2004 and became even more involved in the community. His deeply felt Christian socialist outlook informed his work with groups such as the Citywide Project, Swan Youth Service, Matt Talbot Committee, Macushla Dance club and attempts to revive docklands regeneration projects.

A committed follower of Jim Larkin and James Connolly he joined the Labour Party because he believed it provided the best political vehicle to advance the conditions of his class, but he was never shy to criticise it.

May, his partner of 54 years, died last January. He is survived by his children Derek, Brian, Raymond, Noeleen, Louise and Angela, grandchildren and extended family.