No more paddling in the shallows as I dive headlong into union politics

There are many forms of addiction – drink, drugs, gambling and more. They nearly all start small but many lead to disaster.

As one drink leads to another, as one pill ends with a needle in your arm, or a flutter on the Grand National reaches the point when you put all you have left on that last do or die bet, addiction is hard to break.

Some addictions are less tangible.

For me there were two addictions – journalism and politics.

Not many people talk about their work as an addiction, maybe journalists are a different breed – I think many members of the public see us in that light, always have and always will.

I came into journalism in the old-fashioned way. I was an apprenticed trainee; I went on specialist courses; I listened to what my seniors told me; I immersed myself in the world of journalism; and I followed the path of a story from my notebook to seeing the ponderous presses roll and that story being printed on thousands and thousands of pages.

There is a smell at the works end of the newspaper process. It is hot metal, ink, grease and the general sweat of the workers.

The greatest thrill of all is hearing those presses thunder and feeling that vibration throughout the building.

I lost out on much of that when I went to work down South because my office was in the town centre and the works, which I never had reason to visit except for my own pleasure.

Then came the union lockout and a new excitement of people working together for the benefit of all and not just for the benefit of individuals.

Once that extreme excitement of the lockout ended and the joint print chapel disbanded there was a downturn again and the need to seek a further high which came with attending National Union of Journalists branch meetings.

It is strange how many workers join their union for protection and then let others get on with dealing with the nitty gritty of union toil. One the other hand this did mean that those I met at monthly branch meetings were committed to the NUJ – not just a socialist commitment, members were from the left, right and centre when it came to political views.

Even those monthly meetings were not always enough which is why just months after the united chapel victory I found myself on my way to Wexford, in Ireland, as part of the Southend NUJ branch delegation to the union’s annual delegates’ meeting.

This event, now held once every two years, is the equivalent of a political party annual conference except that in the title – Annual Delegates’ Meeting – it is made clear that it is those attending the conference that it is all about, not the people who run the union day to day.

At the time of the ADM the latest round of “the troubles” in Northern Ireland had been under way for more than four years (as it happens my father and I were in Enniskillen on the August weekend when it all flared – but that’s another story). This tended to give a bad name to the whole island of Ireland.

In response to the bad publicity, the Republic of Ireland (which is, after all, the vast majority of the island) wanted all the good publicity it could get, and what better way than playing host to journalists from all over Britain.

Since this time I have been to other ADMs and to party conferences and I have to say I never saw such lavish treatment as the Irish Tourist Board laid on for the NUJ delegates that April in 1974.

Our delegation had arrived the evening before conference began and had been taken to a very elegant hotel where we freshened up, left our bags and were then taken to the premises were the conference was being held.

Although it was basically meant to be a meet and greet so that we knew who to contact if there were any problems, and to meet other delegates before business began the next day, it was actually hosted by the Irish Tourist Board (or a similar organisation as almost 50 years later some details were hazy).

Having collected our document cases with delegate credentials, full details of all sessions and fringe activities, and all the other information we needed for the conference we were directed to a lavish buffet, with wine. There were also black plastic containers of JPS cigarettes, 50 in each, as JPS had also sponsored this event. I think myself and two others in our delegation of six were the smokers and we ended up with two drums each. Enouigh to keep any journo going for a couple of days.

There were also bottles of wine set on the tables.

Rather than hang around drinking my fellow branch delegates and I slipped some bottles of wine in our bags and headed back to our hotel. We did sit up for a good part of the night and we were drinking – but not to excess. We intended to keep our minds clear for the morning session and spent time figuring out which motions to keep an eye on and which ones we would try to speak at – for or against.

The next morning we were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and, after a good breakfast, ready to head for conference.

It was something special, being at my first conference as a delegate, and we intended to make the most of our time there.

A lot of the first morning was involved with admin-based information about which sessions would involve votes; which would be dealt with by a show of hands and which were likely to go to card vote. There were also short debates on clarification regarding putting motions together to save time in debate and voting.

In fact not much got done in actual debate and business before we adjourned for lunch in a big room in the same building.

Once again it was sponsored by the ITB and other local businesses.

The buffet tables groaned with food and each table, which seated six and was handy for our delegation, had two bottles of red and two of white wine.

Once more we stashed a couple of bottles, one red and one white, for later use and were surprised when an eagle-eyed waiter saw only two bottles on our table and immediately fetched two more.

Although the bottles had been uncorked the branch secretary, an experienced delegate, had brought along some bottle stoppers so that they wouldn’t spill inside a briefcase.

We only consumed three bottles between the six of us which meant when we headed back to the conference hall we were still very compus mentis which is more than could be said of some of our fellow delegates as the occasional snore echoed around the room.

It was certain that more business got done in the afternoon than had happened in the morning, at least from those awake enough to be involved. It did give more opportunity for newcomers to get their chance to speak for the first time on a motion.

As it happened there was nothing much to interest us on the order paper that afternoon and we kept our powder dry.

At the end of the session we had a couple of hours before an evening of entertainment which was planned for us. Because the following day there would be three or four motions that our branch had solid views on we used this “rest period” to draw up our battle plans, while imbibing most of our lunchtime wine supplies.

The evening was another sponsored session, I seem to remember music and some Irish dancing, with JPS providing more of their tubs of cigarettes and another buffet spread of Irish specialities.

The second day gave me the opportunity to speak at a packed conference hall for the first time in my life. I do believe that it was my theatrical training which got me through without deviation, hesitation or interruption. I don’t remember the motion we were supporting but I do know that it was approved by conference.

Another of our delegates was called to speak on further motion we had promised to support (that one went through as well) and we were quite pleased about our actions by the time we went for lunch.

This was a repetition of the previous day except we only had two bottles of wine between six, leaving us four for a late night strategy meeting as we knew on the next day, which was to include an address by a government minister, there were some major motions we wanted to speak on.

In the morning when we arrived at the conference centre we did notice there seemed to be more people than we had noticed previously. A large number of them appeared to be quite burly besuited men, some wearing belted trench coats, and others with suspicious bulges under their arms.

Just before conference was due to start a further group swept in through the front doors and headed for the doorway which led to the backstage area. I just had time to notice that buried in the middle of this group was a smaller man, almost invisible to the casual observer.

It seems they take more care of their government ministers in Ireland than we did in the UK.

As we sat down to begin conference we were asked to welcome the Irish government minister and there was the little man I had seen being escorted in to the centre flanked by burly intelligence officer with guns.

As the conference continued, once the Irish minister had welcomed us and asked us to take back good memories of the fine welcome we had enjoyed, some of the more serious motions came under scrutiny and I got a second chance to speak in favour, as did another member of our delgation.

All in all our delegation had a worthwhile trip to Wexford and I was pleased to have survived my baptism by fire.

The point is, once you have walked across the hot coals without burning your feet you find yourself seeking further and greater challenges.

Published by Robin

I'm a retired journalist who still has stories to tell. This seems to be a good place to tell them.

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