Tomás Ó Flatharta

Looking at Things from the Left

Words on Des Bonass (died 26th September 2019), commemorative evening, Teachers Club, 29th February 2020.

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Words on Des Bonass (died 26th September 2019), commemorative evening, Teachers Club, 29th February 2020.

Delivered by Des Derwin, on behalf of the Dublin Council of Trade Unions.

Des Bonass May 2019

Des Bonass, a constant campaigner in a long life of activity in the most stirring and also the most unproductive political times, is missing, just missing, the extraordinary outcome of this month’s general election. The upending of a century of duopoly by Tweedle Fail and Tweedle Gael, a surge for change at the ballot box, the development of a left-right configuration, however confused, and a crisis in mainstream, establishment politics. ‘Who would have thunk it’? An overflow crowd outside a political meeting in Liberty Hall [25th February 2020] addressed in the biting wind by one the speakers who has come out to speak to them too. In the 21st century.

Well, such is the lot of many a life-long political activist. Things happen just after you are gone. But that is not the way we think and its not the way Des would have thought. Because he worked and acted in the here and now; he did what could be done at the time. And because he helped set the present in motion, and a lot of other big steps too in the past. And because we are this evening giving Des his rightful place in whatever is happening now, because of his contribution, and because he would have been no less a part of the big things, and the small less-noticed things, than he ever was. And finally, what is happening this month is – if indeed it keeps up and develops – only a small proportion of the eventual historical events that will be needed, and that will follow, and will probably be missed by most of us here too, to bring about the really momentous social change that Des Bonass stood for, and worked for and carried a clear vision of in his head, throughout his long trade union, republican and socialist life.

Des Bonass was a central figure of militant trade unionism and socialism in Dublin from the 1960s until the end. At many times and junctures during the era of rank and file and shop steward strength Des came forward as a key pillar of solidarity organisation. Often acting in close concert with his close comrade and mentor Mattie Merrigan. Both worked together in the ATGWU (now Unite), the Labour Party, the Socialist Labour Party and in many campaigns. Des was Chief Financial Officer of the ATGWU until his retirement in the late 1990s. During the 1970s he sat on the Administrative Council of the Labour Party for the ATGWU. After 1977 he became National Treasurer of the Socialist Labour Party. He was a founder member of People Before Profit and remained a trustee (not a lot of people know that!). Des was a crucial link in the financial and material support centred in Dublin for the Miners strike and the NUM in 1984. He was President of the Dublin Council of Trade Unions in the early 1990s. He continued to be active in Unite and the Dublin Council of Trade Unions until the end. He was a rock on the executive of the Dublin Council of Trade Unions. There was a strong republican part in Des’ socialism.

Des was direct, open, fearless and challenging in his contempt for exploiters and their bootlickers and bullshiters. He tackled them with humour as well as courage. Two bouts of horrendous illness in recent years were borne with more than bravery. Almost with a good humoured shrug of the shoulders. Joking to the end. They say no one is irreplaceable. Well we have lost some stalwart veterans recently that will be sorely missed. Des will be sorely missed. As a person and as an important cornerstone of the workers’ movement.

In his memoir of Matt Merrigan, also a memoir of Des himself actually, in Red Banner magazine (No. 9, March 2001), he told how “I suppose he [Matt Merrigan] took me under his wing to some extent. I was a very close colleague of his right through his career”.

“I was involved in the Dublin Housing Action Committee at an early stage…He [MM] gave his support to the Dublin Shop Stewards Committee [in the mid 1970s]…Mattie would have unofficially encouraged our shop stewards to become involved in the DSSC. Due to the rules and regulations he couldn’t be seen to have been setting it up…In that regard, without boasting, Mattie would have relied on me a lot to carry out that kind of work, to be his eyes and ears, as it were. There was nothing secretive about it, but it was the way he wanted to do it.”

Des was on the executive of the Dublin Council of Trade Unions from the late 1970s, at its finest hour in modern times, the organisation of the giant tax marches. The ATGWU put a Motion to the Council, a proposal for tax marches. In a series of headline industrial struggles in the early 1980s, the Waterford shop stewards’ tax campaign, the Talbot Motors closure, etc., Des worked beside or on behalf of Matt Merrigan. I remember when the Ranks workers were jailed some of us struggled to see how a solidarity organisation could be set up. The problem was solved when Des and some ATGWU stewards either turned up to, or maybe even called, an initial meeting. Within a short while there was a strike and march to Mountjoy Jail by major Dublin workplaces, a glorious day. If only we had that ready network and backup today. In the ensuing tougher decades Des and other ATGWU figures were often central to campaigns against centralised (social partnership-type) bargaining, including Mick O’Reilly, Jimmy Kelly, Albert McCready, Harry Barron, Pat McGrath, Pat Murphy and others.

Des was involved in supporting the Dunnes Stores anti-apartheid strike which began in July 1984 [an involvement which, according to Arthur Scargill, Nelson Mandela was aware of and mentioned to Scargill].

Des tells of the shenanigans in the Labour Party in Dublin South Central in the1969 bye election following the death of Sean Dunne. Word was sent that leaflets smearing the Labour candidate Matt Merrigan were being printed by local Labour Party figures. Des waited in a car outside the printers for about three hours to see who would collect the leaflets, but they were never collected. Des was later to re-employ his ‘special agent’ talents in support of the Miners Strike. More of this in a while.

Des was part of the left in the Labour Party in the 1970s and in particular the Liaison Committee of the Left. He was at the famous conference in Cork where Labour decided to go into Coalition. He tells a rather different version of the historic walk out by the left.

“I was sitting beside Matt Merrigan, and Noel Browne was sitting with the left. Noel Browne got up and walked out. Mattie turned to me and said, ‘I’ve had enough of this, I’m going’. I got up to follow Mattie, and the thing snowballed. Noel Browne had gone about two or three minutes before us. People just got up to walk out. There was no planned walkout, I can assure you. Even though history is saying, ‘There was a walkout in Cork’, there was nothing planned. We were in the foyer and the press were looking for a good story. They gathered around us and were taking photographs. They turned to Noel Browne as he came out a doorway, and said, ‘Noel, you were organising this walkout’. ‘No, I wasn’t.’ says Noel. ‘I was only going to the toilet. I was only going out for a piss!’ Des says he told this story at one of Noel Browne’s memorial lectures, ‘and it didn’t go down too well’.” (Red Banner, No. 9, March 2001)

Des’ involvement in the foundation of the Socialist Labour Party (the Irish one!) at the end of the 1970s was a product not only of his collaboration with Matt Merrigan but of his abiding broad, pluralist, democratic yet radical politics, which were realised again in his involvement with the foundation of People Before Profit and its early promise. It is not yet appreciated how much of a pioneering forerunner the SLP was, two decades, or a lot more for some, ahead of a united, outreaching political method that has been widely adopted today with varying but sometimes astonishing success. It was a great pity that the far left at the time of the SLP didn’t have a more patient and flexible attitude to the opportunity. Sensing the end was near I asked Des last autumn about the SLP documents and records he had kept. Valuable history. He reminded me of what he had told me before, how the files were in the old ATGWU offices in Marlborough Street and how they had gone missing. Des inquired and was told that they had been dumped as of no interest. “Ah, sure who’d want to read that shite.” Des knew well that the person whom he asked was the the dumper.

Through the SLP and other avenues Des campaigned on H Block and of course on other issues relating to repression and the national struggle. He tells how the SLP Dublin Central branch protested on housing in Summerhill and he was arrested and prosecuted. Des tells of an SLP meeting in Belfast “with British soldiers standing around the hall”. When Noel Browne died Matt Merrigan refused to speak about him on RTE, so it was Des who did so.

There’s a great photograph of Des in 1983 at the Black Sheep public meeting, Coolock, speaking for the Anti Amendment Campaign with Manus O’Riordan and Dr. Andrew Rynne. The pub canceled the meeting which was then held in the car park. There was some barracking from the lifers I think. Des was an active supporter of the pro-choice movement long before it was fashionable. In the late 1990s Women On Waves brought a Dutch ship to Dublin with the idea of offering on board abortions to Irish women. Few people, and fewer prominent trade unionists, would have identified with this scandalous project. John Meehan relates how in this very Club, the scene of so many small historical incidents, he crossed the bar from an early organising meeting to interrupt Des and ask for any trade union assistance he could secure at Dublin Port. Des immediately obliged.

There are dozens of hilarious stories about Des Bonass, and he had dozens of hilarious stories to tell. I can hear his hearty laugh now with that kind of catching noise in his throat that he would add.

The Dublin Council of Trade Unions, other trades councils, the ATGWU and Des himself drove an extraordinary solidarity, support and fundraising campaign for the Great Miners Strike of 1984, still a pivotal moment for the fate of trade unionism on both sides of the Irish Sea. Des recorded his leading part which was also also published in Red Banner magazine (No. 22, July 2005). It is reprinted along with his recollections of Matt Merrigan in a commemorative booklet for this evening, Telling It Himself. It is a very entertaining read. He begins,

“When the miners strike began in 1984, the dimension of 1913 lockout and how the miners in Britain had supported the Irish trade union movement then was very important…It would be very difficult to put your finger on the exact amount of money, but we raised hundreds of thousands of pounds: there’s no doubt about that. Scargill has said, and I think he’s right, that Ireland’s contribution per capita, per trade unionist, would have been bigger than any other donations they got throughout the world”.

Ireland was allocated the South Wales miners to support. Delegations of miners were brought around workplaces to tremendous welcomes, even from some managers. Des was part of big fundraising events organised here, and a fundraising tour of top Irish musicians around England. The Dublin Council of Trade Unions banner led the entry into a rally at a stadium in Chesterfield.

But Dublin was financially more than a fundraiser for the National Union of Mineworkers. The resources flowed both ways, so to speak. Des also tells of his central and secret role in the transfer of the NUM’s funds to Dublin when the Thatcher regime sequestered and deactivated the union’s finances. There were some hairy times, hilarious in hindsight back to a very different banking age.

“I got a phone call to say he wanted a new bank account opened. And we walked into the bank, which was a small branch of one of the main banks here, and Arthur Scargill was carrying the big holdall. Of course all the customers were delighted to shake his hand, and some of them were giving him money into his top pocket, saying: ‘This is for the miners’. We met the young bank manager, and he said, ‘Fair enough. How much are you depositing?’ And Arthur Scargill said: £500,000 sterling’. Of course the young bank manager nearly died, he thought we were joking. He said, ‘Are you serious? Where is the £500,000?’ He (Arthur Scargill) said: ‘It’s all in this holdall’. He [the bank manager] freaked out. He said he couldn’t handle that, and we’d have to get in touch with the senior bank, which we did. But it meant we had to get out, and get into a taxi and drive across town with the £500,000. The money was safely deposited in the bank.

There was another occasion when I was to meet a courier bringing in money, and you didn’t say too much…She came into my office in the ATGWU, a bit distressed. And she said she was after being mugged outside the union, two young lads had mugged her just on the pathway outside, and her handbag had been stolen. But the point about it was she had £18 sterling in her handbag, but she had £250,000 in a holdall, strapped around her, that she was bringing in to this account. So those young fellas, wherever they are today, took the wrong amount of money!”

Des says, “I had great respect for Arthur Scargill. There are trade union leaders who always do what they’re told: unfortunately they do what they’re told on the wrong basis. Arthur Scargill did what he was told by the members, and that’s the difference.”

Des’ funeral at Glasnevin showed how greatly and widely he was respected. It showed some of us a side of Des we were not very aware of. How respected and loved he was by family and friends, how much of a teacher and mentor he was to several generations, how he had interests which some of us who knew him as a valued comrade had no idea about.

For many years Des was the voice of the Dublin Council of Trade Unions supporting, and often speaking on the platforms of, almost every protest or campaign for justice, for a progressive cause, against an injustice. Des was a conscientious fixture on the executive of the Dublin Council of Trade Unions for decades and it is hard to believe he won’t be at any more meetings. He reported dutifully at each meeting, and not without sarcasm in some cases, from the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed, Citywide Drugs and a few other partnerships and centres he represented the Council on. He was always a left, critical voice at meetings, letting no one away with anything and sometimes piping up just to be a little mischievous. He was active or supportive in every DCTU campaign. I remember his input into the campaign for a National Minimum Wage in particular. It was fitting, in time and place, that Des was presented with a medal for his service to trade unionism at last year’s Trades Council Connolly commemoration in May at Kilmainham Gaol, at the spot where James Connolly was shot (see photgraph above).

I must leave the last word to Des himself. He said of Matt Merrigan, in words that were not included in the final print of Des’ reminiscences of his friend and mentor, that, “He was a revolutionary leader of his time. On the grounds of Connolly or whoever. That’s what I would call him.” I think, with all due proportionality, these words can now be applied to Des himself.

See Also


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