Three years ago Northern Ireland lost one of its most distinguished trade union leaders. The death of Bobby Gourley in January 2012 robbed working class people everywhere of one of their greatest champions. In a notice placed in the Belfast Telegraph shortly after his death, the members and staff of UNISON recognised Bobby as one of the most “courageous and committed trade unionists” who ever sat on both the Northern Committee and the Executive Council of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. “He stood up for the rights of all working class people in this society and was particularly courageous in his high profile support for the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement”, noted UNISON. “He also worked tirelessly on behalf of his local community and his achievements will be remembered.”
It was the latter contribution which Bobby made that will remain my abiding memory of him. An intelligent, honest and humble man, he was a ‘charge hand’ and a shop steward in the ICI factory in Carrickfergus in the 1970s. He later went on to serve in the Ulster Defence Regiment, though he will perhaps be best remembered as the long-serving chair of the NIC.
In a particularly grim time for community relations in 2002, he led the labour movement in a huge cross-community, anti-sectarian demonstration at Belfast City Hall. The rally marked a groundswell of public opinion in support of the peace process in the aftermath of the murder of Gerard Lawlor, shot dead by loyalists on Floral Road of North Belfast as walked home from the Bellevue Arms public house after a night out, and former UDR soldier David Caldwell, who was blown up by republicans in Derry/Londonderry as he worked on a refurbishment of the Territorial Army base on the Waterside. They were not the only murders that year, with 16 deaths related to the conflict in one way or another.
As Bobby told the rally at the time:
“The evil purveyors of bigotry have declared war on us all and wished to ensure that the legacy of hatred continued.
To each and every one of you in attendance here today, sectarianism kills all of us and we must all fight against sectarianism at every opportunity – in our workplaces, societies, clubs, as well as in our immediate and extended families.
By your presence here today and on behalf of the trade union movement we repudiate the right of any murderer to purport to carry out such atrocities in our name.”
The rally was not attended by the DUP because of the presence of Sinn Fein Lord Mayor Alex Maskey, though it did illustrate the level of political maturity that the PUP had reached that one of its senior members was prepared to stand alongside other parties and face down the sectarianism that was poisoning community relations at that time.
Apart from his trade union commitments, Bobby was also an active member of the East Antrim Constituency Association of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), a former member of the party’s Executive Committee, and a staunch supporter of peace initiatives pursued by the PUP and others (like me) who were never members of the party but who, nevertheless, wished to offer a helping hand in the conflict transformation process, especially where it sought to challenge the basis of paramilitarism that had become an unfortunate part of working class life in Northern Ireland.
I have fond memories of political discussions with Bobby. In the lead up to the Belfast Agreement (April 1998), I recall challenging him to explain why loyalists had “sold out” by entering into negotiations with Irish republicans. I freely admit to being something of a teenage ‘hot head’ then, with an unsophisticated understanding of politics at that time – though this would soon change! Bobby sat back and listened (one of his great strengths) as he gave me just enough ‘rope to hang myself’ and I learned an invaluable lesson: never engage anyone in political debate unless you have your facts straight and know what you are talking about.
Bobby Gourley was certainly a man in command of the facts and, in this respect, he will be remembered by peacebuilders and trade unionists for his commitment to peace in Northern Ireland.
At the time of the Belfast Agreement I was only beginning my journey of self-education, which would eventually culminate in me pursuing a degree course in Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Ulster between 1998 and 2001. Bobby was on hand throughout my studies (and subsequent postgraduate courses) to pass on his vast knowledge of labour and Irish history. It was because of Bobby Gourley (and others like him) that I was inspired to write my PhD on the Northern Ireland Labour Party and to tackle the perennial issue of the conflict between socialism and sectarianism in Northern Ireland.
I last saw Bobby a few months before his death in October 2011. We talked about trade unionism, the PUP, and my plans for writing a book about the UVF. I have no doubt that had he lived he would have guided me through the trials and tribulations of sections of the Protestant working class who abandoned peaceful political discussion for what some termed ‘armed resistance to violent nationalism’.