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Andy Barr

A funeral tribute by Joe Bowers
National Executive Committee, CPI

Comrades, friends,
    We’re gathered today to celebrate the life of Andy Barr, to say a last farewell to Andy and hopefully bring a little comfort to his three children, Andy, Melita, and Rae, and the wider family circle, the grandchildren, and Andy’s sisters.
    Andy Barr was born in 1913 at 29 Cluan Place, off the Mountpottinger Road. He would have been ninety on the twenty-third of September this year—a good innings—yes, a valuable life, but years spent in service to others and in the struggle defending, leading and representing working-class people.
    Andy started his working life as an apprentice sheetmetalworker in Musgrave’s on the Albert Bridge Road. He was apprenticed to Sam McCoubrey, who became the district secretary of the union. From his early days Andy was influenced by his father’s Left Book Club publications and his discussions about socialism with people like Sam McCoubrey.
    Andy left Musgrave’s when he got a job in Short’s, which he described as a nice clean factory, in 1938. He was elected a shop steward in 1942 and convenor of shop stewards in 1946. He said:
I was just known as a militant shop steward in Short’s. People came to me when they were selling literature and I would have bought it: Unity, Labour Monthly, Daily Worker . . . I was reading all that stuff and I was becoming really interested in politics and joined the party. That was in 1942.
    Andy married Dorothy Adrian in 1941—Dotsy, as we all knew her. She was active in the trade union movement too as a mill worker at Ewart’s Mill. She was a shop steward. She would tell Andy about the strike meetings she was involved in. He said:
They struck me more like concert meetings.
He said to Dotsy,
Look, you’ve got to stop all that singing at your union meetings. Get them to talk about the issue.
I can hear Dotsy telling him to catch himself on. She used to slag him a bit, get him to lighten up—which wasn’t too difficult, because Andy had a good sense of humour.
    And of Dotsy Andy said:
She was a good, solid, working-class woman and never had aspirations to be other than a working-class person. As far as I’m concerned, any contribution I’ve been able to make to the movement has been largely through her sacrifices. We had a very good life together, so we had.
    And Andy’s contribution was massive. He was a labour movement leader who was known the length and breadth of these islands and beyond. He became chairman of the district committee of his union in 1947. He was elected to the Executive Committee in 1948. He was elected district secretary in 1953 and national president (Britain and Ireland) in 1964. He was president of the CSEU in Northern Ireland from 1957 until he retired in 1978. He was elected to the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in 1954 and to the ITUC Executive in 1956. He was the first communist on the European TUC, where he represented the ICTU.
    But Andy didn’t just take up positions in the trade union movement. He was active defending and taking initiatives on behalf of his members and the working class in general. He was sacked in 1949 for holding a meeting of his members in Short’s during working hours. Then all eight senior shop stewards were sacked for standing on a platform to defend Andy Barr. Ten thousand workers in Short’s five factories stopped work. There were great strike meetings held in the Grosvenor Hall; MPs were lobbied. All the shop stewards were reinstated.
    Andy was the cornerstone of the strong trade union movement that developed in Short’s, and it was only because there was a strong trade union movement that Short’s developed to be the jewel in the crown of Northern Ireland’s manufacturing industry. On two occasions the unions stopped Short’s from closing. On the first occasion they stopped it being transferred back to Rochester, and on the second occasion they defeated the government’s decision to close Short’s, as recommended by the Plowden Report.
    For Andy these experiences confirmed the necessity of an independent trade union movement. He was a bit dismayed in later years about the union’s unwillingness to oppose wage freezes, redundancies, and dismissals of shop stewards. After he retired he refused to countenance a wage freeze for the employees of Short’s Social Club. He told the union reps on the social club management board:
Just because you’re accepting a wage freeze, don’t think you’ll impose one here.
    The trade union movement in Ireland was divided between 1949 and 1959, the ITUC and CITU. Andy Barr was on the Executive of the ITUC-NIC from 1954 to 1956. He played a prominent role in uniting the two bodies into the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, along with such people as Harold Binks, Billy Blease, Jack Magown, Billy Leeburn, and John McAteer. He was also at the centre of the campaign to achieve recognition of the ICTU by the Stormont government, which did not happen until 1964. Andy was proud of these achievements: the NIC ICTU had become almost an extraparliamentary opposition, which continues until the present time; but he had his reservations.
We had to work very closely with government agencies, and this had an impact on the NIC and led to economist-type thinking, support for all the training that goes on, etc. It blunts the edge of the struggle—you know, the class struggle, so it does.
    Andy was always reassessing and looking for better ways to progress working-class interests. He wasn’t an economist. He promoted the Communist Party’s policy as contained in its 1962 programme. He advocated and actively supported the ICTU’s demands for democratic and economic reform. He supported the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. When politicians characterised the civil rights movement as a communist-republican conspiracy, Barr’s analysis was:
I don’t think the party received full recognition of the part we played. We had many key people who devoted themselves almost full time to it. The CP played a very good role . . . One thing in particular, we tried to get the trade union movement to affiliate to NICRA. Of course we were not helped by some leftist elements among the republicans. That didn’t help us. Communists were playing a very important role in the mass demonstrations, the discussions that took place over the place—communists were involved in them all and tried to influence the civil rights movement along sensible lines that could be accepted by the Protestant population. That’s who we had to win to the civil rights struggle.
    And at the TUC conference he said:
There has never been any conflict of interests between Catholic and Protestant workers in Ireland. There is no religious war. There are no fanatical hordes of Irishmen murdering each other for the privilege of worshipping God, being restrained only by the benign hands of the British security forces. And it goes without saying that there is no “honest broker” who, if only the Irish savages would listen, would sort out the country’s problems to the benefit of the natives. But there are those inside and outside the government who exploit and magnify every difference, real or imaginary, which emerges within our divided community. The ICTU have consistently fought for and defended the unity of our people. The trade union “Better Life for All” programme can make a reality of the words “We wish that our animosities were buried with the bones of our ancestors and that we could unite as citizens and claim the Rights of Man.” To this congress I commend the International Labour Organisation motto, “If you wish peace, cultivate justice.”
    Andy believed all working-class people were suffering injustice. As president of the Confed he regularly convened Port of Belfast shop steward meetings to co-ordinate campaigns, including industrial pressure for wage increases, shorter hours, and better holidays.
    He had great faith in the common sense of working people and would try his best to deliver what they aspired to. He said,
You know, workers are very tolerant if you try your best. They know you’re trying your best, and they’ll be pleased even when you don’t succeed.
Andy always tried his best.
    There were two events in Andy’s life which occurred in 1974. He was finally elected president of the ICTU, a position which an Executive member would normally have achieved by what was called Buggins’s turn. But from 1956 every time Buggins’s turn was Andy Barr’s, then Buggins’s turn was replaced to ensure Andy wasn’t president—the effects mainly of the Cold War and hysterical anti-communism. When eventually elected president he said:
I think it is the highest honour that can be paid to any trade unionist. I have never sought honour from other than my own class—the working class. The radio this morning referred to my politics. Throughout my life I have fought sectarianism and discrimination.
    The second event was the Ulster Workers’ Council stoppage. It was a pretty terrifying experience. Despite workers expressing through democratic meetings their opposition to the stoppage, people were being forced out of work by the threat of paramilitary violence. Andy and Jimmy Graham convened a meeting in AEU House of shop stewards in the Port of Belfast. Everyone spoke against the stoppage. I was there; there was fear in the meeting room. Andy proposed that we organise a march into the shipyard, and that we invite Len Murray, the general secretary of the TUC, to attend. Credit where credit’s due: Len Murray turned up, but by that time the fear in the streets was palpable. There was a couple of hundred people, I suppose. Andy recalled:
We saw there was going to be difficulties, but we said let’s start, small and all in numbers as we are. We’ll go through with it. And we marched through. I can recall very clearly taking off my glasses, as I knew they were going to be a liability, and we formed up in the front row.
    Andy Barr had the courage of a lion. The photographs of the march back to work are still about the place and are part of labour history.
    When I became a trade union official Andy said to me,
If you’re going to do it right, Joe, it’s a hard job. You need two things: a level head and a fire in your belly; and the most important of the two is fire in your belly, which comes from belief in the cause of the working class and their struggle for emancipation.
    When internment without trial was introduced, of course we were opposed to it, but Andy would try and do something. He resigned from the Northern Ireland Economic Council as a protest. He sent his resignation to Brian Faulkner, the Northern Ireland Prime Minister, and to the ICTU, which he represented on the NIEC. And he did more than that: he visited many of his members who were interned and reported those prison visits back into the union to try and break down the prejudice that existed.
    There were many people who didn’t agree with Andy Barr, but there were very few who didn’t respect him. He was opposed to violence, which he knew could make no contribution to the problems facing our people. He condemned the campaigns of bombings and shootings. When Catholics were put out of the shipyard he didn’t just sit and shake his head: he organised meetings of the intimidated workers. He organised meetings of Shop Stewards and their members in the yard. He demanded that management and government publicly take up an attitude, and successfully created the conditions for a return to work in a safer environment.
    He was also opposed to industrial sectarianism. He said:
The lads saw their future as being secure if they were able to corner as much work as possible for their particular craft union. I had some difficulty with this; I saw clearly the reason that drove people to fight around demarcation. The solution to this problem was to fight for full employment for all people.
    And on the Irish question Andy was equally clear.
There can’t be any future for Ireland except as a unified country, a small island like ours. If there’s one thing the Communist Party has done, it always worked hard to unite people. It’s made a contribution to uniting people. I think it has been correct and will be proved right in the long run.
    When Andy retired as a trade union official he continued campaigning, lobbying for pensioners, campaigning for peace, freedom in South Africa, support for liberation struggles, Cuban solidarity. And he found time to go swimming and ballroom dancing.
    Of course Dotsy’s death was a terrible blow, but he came round and carried on. Regularly he would be involved in public meetings in Corn Market in Belfast, and appeared on television. The energy he had at eighty years of age would have put most of us to shame.
    In later years he slowed up a good lot. There was physical decline, but his mind was as sharp as a razor. Sam Warden used to pick him up regularly and take him into Bangor. Andy would have a glass of stout and a whiskey, maybe two, and a discussion about the latest trade union and political developments, local, national, and international.
    I used to participate in those outings from time to time. It was amazing how Andy never lost the ability to try and learn lessons from life’s experiences. Sam was a very close friend, comrade and lifetime supporter of Andy Barr. He died almost exactly a year ago, which was another blow to Andy.
    Andy was participating in education classes in the Fold, where he lived in Bangor, up until he died.
    Peter Bunting tells me that he received a cheque for £25 from Andy Barr a couple of weeks ago for the Stop the War Coalition. Andy would regularly send cheques to various causes—Help the Aged, various charities, Third World causes—right up until he died.
    Andy was a strong supporter of the Soviet Union. He supported perestroika and glasnost, elated when the Soviet people voted in referendum to continue on the socialist path, and disappointed and saddened when the Soviet Union was dismantled, the forecast that capitalism would attempt to roll back the gains of people all over the world. He said:
It hasn’t led me to look for some alternative for the world to the communist way of life.
    Andy remained a communist, and in a letter he wrote to the Guardian he stated:
The lesson is not that this or that faith is the right one and therefore will triumph. It is that faiths and philosophies exist and will be fought for, wherever conditions create a need for them. Faiths which promise social justice will never die, so long as social injustices prevail.
    I’ve a short verse which is appropriate to Andy Barr:

    Man’s dearest possession is life,
    And since it is given to him to live but once
    He must so live as to feel no torturing regrets for years without purpose,
    So live so as not to be seared with a cowardly and trivial past,
    So that dying he can say:
    All my life and all my strength was given to the finest cause in the world,
    The liberation of mankind.

    I consider it an honour to make this small tribute to Andy Barr, working-class activist, leader, teacher, United Irishman.

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