Labour and civil rights activist


WILLIE BRESLIN:WILLIE BRESLIN, who has died aged 69, was a key figure in the Labour Party in Derry and a civil rights activist.

He was active in the party in its heyday in the 1960s and was an organiser of the Civil Rights march on October 5th, 1968, that was attacked by police, marking what many see as the start of the Troubles.

Outside politics, he was an inspirational teacher in Strabane in the 1970s.

Willie Breslin was born in Derry’s Bogside, the youngest of four children to Derry native Eddie Breslin and his Donegal-born wife Annie (née O’Donnell).

He was educated at St Columb’s College, Derry, and later at Queen’s University, Belfast.

On graduation, he became a history teacher in St Colman’s College, Strabane, where he spent his working life.

He was in his mid-20s when he joined the newly formed Derry Labour Party, then Derry Branch of the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP). He soon became chairman. In 1967 he was one of the driving forces when Labour took 30 per cent of the vote in elections for the old Londonderry Corporation.

Because voting was on a panel system, not proportional representation, Labour did not win any seats.

However, the election established the party as a major political force in Derry, and subsequently it joined with local left-wing republicans to establish the Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC). The committee waged a militant campaign against poor housing conditions, and prepared the ground for the Civil Rights Movement.

As the Civil Rights Movement developed, Breslin was one of those who maintained a Labour voice.

This was despite the NILP’s descent into political irrelevancy. He was one of those who kept Labour organisation alive in Derry after it had collapsed almost everywhere else in Northern Ireland.

As a teacher he took a strong interest in his pupils. They were from one of the North’s most deprived towns, overwhelmingly working-class, and seriously affected by the Troubles.

Dr Michael Duffy, now a senior lecturer at Queen’s University, was one of Willie’s pupils during the worst of the Troubles in the 1970s.

“He enabled many of us who might have succumbed to the sectarian pressures of the day to rise above that and gain an understanding of what was going on around us,” he said.

“He raised a socialist perspective in a non-dogmatic way. He was trying to raise another way of seeing the world we lived in, rather than in simplistic sectarian terms. Many of us are forever in his debt.”

In retirement, he worked on his grandchildren. He taught them to stand up for themselves, but to use their minds, not their fists, when in dispute.

Breslin is remembered particularly as having neither sought nor received advancement for his involvement in struggles. Veteran Derry socialist Eamonn McCann said: “He had no personal ambitions whatsoever. He was always the organiser of other people’s campaigns.”

He is survived by his wife, Gloria; children Aidan, Carla, Leona and Cathal; brother Michael and sister Agnes, and seven grandchildren. He was predeceased by his sister Anne.

Willie Breslin: born July 1st, 1940; died November 17th, 2009