Rugged voice of the Belfast shipyards

ANDY BARR: Andrew (Andy) Barr, the veteran Belfast trade unionist who has died in his 90th year, at several points was a one…

ANDY BARR: Andrew (Andy) Barr, the veteran Belfast trade unionist who has died in his 90th year, at several points was a one-man bridge across the divide between nationalism and unionism that has always weakened Northern Ireland unions.

For decades a leading shop steward in the strongly loyalist Harland and Woolf shipyard, he was also a supporter of the civil rights movement and later president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. Born in east Belfast in 1913 within sight of the shipyard, he outlived it by a fortnight. An apparent contradiction of his career was that in tandem with support for civil rights and membership of the Communist Party of Ireland, he was so prominent in shipyard trade unionism, a movement with a sorry history of discrimination against Catholics and indeed against active socialists.

Subsidising "The Yard" was policy for successive Northern Ireland Office administrations throughout the Troubles, as for previous unionist government. The unions Andy Barr helped lead bolstered the case, when necessary, that loyalist workers would turn to paramilitary violence if the yard closed.

The bitterness of one of the most contentious arenas in Northern public life left marks, but he was above all resilient. Weeks ago he phoned several elected politicians to invite them to his sheltered accommodation complex. He told a Women's Coalition representative he wanted fellow residents to know more about those they were backing in the coming Assembly election.

He was for decades at the centre of the dilemma for many Northern trade unionists, the painful choice of affiliation with London or Dublin. In his 30s he joined the CPI, which encouraged his support for civil rights and adherence to 32-county union organisation. At one point the (British) Confederation of Shipbuilding Unions expelled him: the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) promptly made him chair of its Northern Committee.

His last major project before retirement in 1977 was the joint trade union anti-violence and anti-sectarianism Better Life for All campaign.

In a conservative political society, some might think it curious that the Soviet-style Marxism of a shipyard shop steward attracted comparatively little criticism in the yard. But a strand of trade unionism in the Protestant community was communist for many years. Fellow communist and shipyard trade union figure Joe Bowers gave the oration at the funeral in Roselawn Crematorium, and spoke later in a Belfast hotel at the celebration organised by Barr himself. "We had an Ulster fry and a few Guinness," he told Radio Ulster's Talkback. "Joan Baez sang Joe Hill, on tape. We had the Green Glens of Antrim, sung by my wife, and we all sang the Internationale with the Red Army Choir."

His communism was "almost irrelevant", Joe Bowers said, recalling unionist politicians exempting Andy Barr from criticism of civil rights activists as republican communist agitators, in recognition of the fact that many of his union followers were also their own voters. Bowers also recalled how when shipyard management in 1949-50 singled Barr out and sacked him for calling union meetings, fellow shop stewards campaigning for his reinstatement were sacked in turn, which produced a total stoppage.

"There were 10,000 employed in the shipyard at that point - there were meetings in the centre of Belfast, and all shop stewards were reinstated."

In the judgment of friends and critics alike, the outstanding moment of Barr's life came during the loyalist strike of 1974 which brought down the first Stormont power-sharing Executive, when he led a 200-strong march of those who wanted to work into the shipyard.

They faced "thousands in loyalist regalia", Joe Bowers recalled. "Andy took his glasses off, saying 'these'll be a liability', and he led them in. That's part of labour history now."

Some at his funeral recalled that because of later loyalist threats he had had to be smuggled into Belfast at one point in the boot of a police car to go about his union duties. Other trade unionists opposed the march as a divisive gimmick. Brian Garrett, now a member of the Irish Association, then chairman of the NI Labour Party, said he criticised it as "a very dangerous move - it would set worker against worker. I suppose looking back Andy Barr was on the side of the angels and I was on the side of the nasties. Still, it was a terribly small turnout, worse than having no march at all. But that was some indication of the kind of man he was."

Andy Barr was predeceased by his wife Dotsie (Dorothy). They had two daughters, Rae and Melita, and a son, Andrew. A leading member for many years of the Sheetmetal Workers' Union, he also served as president of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions, chairman of the NI Committee of the ICTU, and was the first communist to gain a position on the European TUC.

Andrew (Andy) Barr: born 1913; died March 2003