A focal point for journalists for 20 years
“WELCOME to Belfast, my home town. It is a trade union town with a proud trade union tradition.”
With these words Kevin Cooper, the NUJ’s leading activist in Northern Ireland for 20 years, began his speech accepting Membership of Honour.
His father and grandfather were prominent trade unionists who resisted the sectarianism that has plagued Northern Ireland, and Kevin Cooper himself has worked to help protect journalists on all sides from the threats and worse that they have had to face.
Among his earliest memories were of Belfast Trades Council meetings held in the family home. His father, an official with the transport union, was president of the council for 19 years, and at times in the Troubles the Cooper front room was the safest place to meet.
His earliest union activity, he said, was taking part in an occupation when he was at art college. “I was carrying a placard saying NO CENSORSHIP”, he recalled. “It was over the banning of a painting of a male nude.”
Kevin Cooper became a photographer and joined the NUJ, where his courageous work contacting paramilitary groups to head off threats to kill union members earned him the sobriquet of “the NUJ’s military wing”. This was bestowed on him admiringly by the union’s former national official in Ireland Jim Eadie, and was reported to ADM by freelance organiser John Toner, who as a long-time friend and colleague presented Kevin Cooper with his honour.
John Toner said: “For 20 years he has been the focal point for journalists in Northern Ireland when they found themselves in trouble. That means not just the sort of trouble that all have to face, but ones we don’t have in Britain.”
When Sinn Fein tried to introduce its own press card, John Toner said, Kevin Cooper talked them out of it and persuaded them to recognise the NUJ card. “Kevin is best known for supporting journalists’ right to work in the face of censorship from the police and the judiciary, interference by the state and threats from the paramilitaries.”
Kevin Cooper concluded: “In Northern Ireland now we have a new political dispensation. The military elements have been largely removed. But there is much work to be done. The NUJ should play its role and help our members, particularly those whose jobs were to cover the conflict and who at the end of their shifts went home to their divided communities.
“We have to talk about the work to be done to help journalists who have suffered trauma.”
ADM voted to support Healing Through Remembrance, a body that helps people damaged by the 25-year war, which was commended by Kevin Cooper in his acceptance speech.
Cornerstone of union’s Leeds branch
Tony Harcup has been “the cornerstone of the union’s Leeds branch for 20 years.” So said Vice-president James Doherty as he presented him with the union’s Gold Badge.
As well as making Leeds branch meetings run on time, Tony Harcup has a record as a workplace trade unionist too.
He had been sacked as father of the chapel at the Harrogate Advertiser — under the guise of redundancy — for being a union activist and attempting to win recognition of the NUJ.
He began in journalism on the Leeds Other Paper, one of the longest-running alternative newspapers in Britain. “It supported workers and communities in struggle, and it exposed the crimes of the powerful,” said James Doherty.
Unwavering commitment to the cause
Eight years ago Brid Fitzpatrick, Mother of the NUJ Chapel at the BBC in Newcastle, took a break after her husband died, Deputy General Secretary John Fray told ADM delegates.
But on her return to work “she insisted on picking up her work for the chapel,” he said presenting her with the union’s Gold Badge.
With that one break she had now been MoC for 19 years, and, said John Fray, “her commitment to the NUJ cause has been unwavering.
“She has almost single-handedly organised every picketline in BBC disputes in Newcastle in all that time.
“Her commitment to her colleagues in dealing with their problems is legendary.”
Brid Fitzpatrick was a member of the extraordinarily distinguished delegation from Newcastle branch at ADM. Her two colleagues were George Macintyre and David Baines, both of whom are NUJ Members of Honour — rewarded for their work for the chapel at the Newcastle Journal and Evening Chronicle.
Netherlands branch founder
Belinda Stratton is so committed to the interests of the NUJ that she did not come to the conference to collect her Gold Badge. She lives in Amsterdam — where she had been founding secretary of the NUJ Netherlands Branch for 12 years until she switched jobs last year. General Secretary Jeremy Dear told ADM that she had sent a message saying the cost of flying her to Belfast would be better spent supporting NUJ members on strike.
Belinda Stratton went to Amsterdam as one of the Pergamon 23 strikers who held out against the tyrant Robert Maxwell for three years after they were sacked for staging a lawful 24-hour strike. During the strike Robert Maxwell sold Pergamon Press to the Dutch-based Elsevier group. A team of strikers went to Amsterdam to pursue their campaign for solidarity with Dutch unions.
Belinda Stratton never left but found work there and helped start the NUJ branch.