Derry’s long tradition of struggling for justice

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Thursday’s planned demonstration by Derry people with disabilities will call back to mind a half-hidden episode from the city’s long tradition of struggle for justice.

The gathering will assemble at Waterloo Place at 1pm under the giant screen showing the Paralympics. It will focus on the role of Paralympics sponsor Atos in implementing cuts to disability benefits. This is the company whose “reassessment” of claimants was recently shockingly portrayed in ‘Panorama’ and ‘Dispatches’.

Group pictured oustide the social security Medical examination centre where people before profit organised a protest regarding cuts. (0308SL14)

Group pictured oustide the social security Medical examination centre where people before profit organised a protest regarding cuts. (0308SL14)

It is not out of the question that any day now Atos will be cutting the benefits of a Paralympics competitor.

Precedent for a fight-back can be found in the campaign of blind workers in Derry in the 1930s - an experience rescued from obscurity by historian Máirtín Ó Catháin, writing in the academic journal, Radical History Review.

“Blind, but not to the Hard Facts of Life” was the slogan heading a march from Brooke Park to the Guildhall in March 1939. The protest was the culmination of years of campaigning in the face of widespread ignorance and official hostility.

It is impossible to put an exact figure on the number of blind people in Derry - or anywhere else - in the first half of the last century. But, certainly, the incidence was higher than in our own time. This reflected the extreme poverty and poor health that characterised the period - as well as the continuing ravages of shrapnel and gas from the killing-fields of the Great War. Faced with this daunting need, facilities for the blind in Derry were “practically nonexistent”. All that was available in terms of public provision was the workhouse.

A basic legal entitlement was achieved in the Blind Persons’ Act in 1920 - won in the main through the agitation of the National League of the Blind (NLB). The Act provided for a pension for over 50s, maintenance grants and subsidies for wages in workshops.

The measure had made little discernable difference in Derry by May 1925, when a NLB delegation arrived to press the corporation to implement the act. The delegates left with reassurance ringing in their ears that their representations would receive “careful and sympathetic consideration.” Four months later, the strength of this pledge could be gauged from the corporation’s response to a letter from the NLB enquiring about progress.

Unionist big-wig Sir Basil McFarland allowed himself to be persuaded that the letter should at least be acknowledged - but only in the hope that “they would hear nothing more about it.”

Rebuff

In December 1925, the NLB wrote to the corporation again, pointing out that the Blind Persons’ Act was, after all, the law of the land. This time the councillors didn’t bother to reply.

Following this rebuff - possibly as a result of it - a Derry Organised Association of the Blind (DOAB) came into being, with Bogside former IRA man Andrew McDermott as secretary. He was to prove “an indefatigable organiser”. One of his early initiatives was to put together a rally with himself and a British soldier blinded in the war as the main speakers. He produced a policy document challenging the idea of “sheltered” workshops and demanding proper training and working conditions. His instincts were not those of the supplicant. He was up for confrontation.

Under continuous pressure from the new group, the corporation established a committee to oversee introduction of the Blind Persons’ Act. It organised conversion of the basement of Gwyn’s Institution in Brooke Park into a training facility - at a budgeted cost of £143.

The Institution had been used to store books and museum artefacts. It was a musty and even slightly mysterious place which everybody in Derry knew from the outside but few had ever ventured into. Ó Catháin observes that locating the workshop in the Institution’s basement “represent(ed) at least the possibility of a desire to conceal those with blindness after their very visible campaign for welfare rights.”

By August 1929, two representatives of 14 blind workshop employees, McDermott and Margaret Wilson, had been coopted on to the committee. Two years later, the pair had been dropped: the committee now consisted entirely of councillors. A pattern may be detected.

The Brooke Park facility was the subject of complaint and a source of frustration for the workers over subsequent years. Equipment ranged from the very basic to the non-existent. It took a bit of a brouhaha to have a guard installed on the open stove. However, the pleas of McDermott and others don’t appear to have made the blind workers’ cause into a major issue in the town.

There was deep discontent concerning pay and working conditions at Gwyn’s. Ó Catháin says that blind trainees in Derry were being paid ten shillings a week - and some only half that - compared to twenty-seven shillings in Belfast.

A letter to the local press from another blind activist, William McGovern of Nelson Street, complained that the “scanty” sums of maintenance received by the blind in no way matched the rising cost of living, adding that the Derry workers lagged behind “not only Belfast but every other city with similar provisions for the blind in England, Scotland, and Wales.”

McGovern went so far as to assert - somewhat fancifully, it may be - that the Brtooke Park workers were “the lowest paid blind citizens in the British Empire.”

The non-deferential approach didn’t please everybody. One trainee wrote to a local ‘paper: “Our claims for an increase are in the capable hands of the Blind Persons’ Welfare Committee, Derry Corporation, and we are content to await their decision on the matter.”

The Nelson Street man shot back: “Under our very capable Corporation the blind workers in Derry have not got the Government grant of £20 per annum which every blind worker in any workshop in the United Kingdom outside Derry enjoys…We are also deprived of the benefits of both the Insurance and Unemployment Acts…Your correspondent has not consulted me or the majority of any of the workers in Brooke Park who are highly indignant and entirely disapprove of what appeared.”

Generally speaking, Derry doesn’t emerge aglow from Ó Catháin’s account. It wasn’t just Unionist big-wigs who appear to have wanted nothing to do with the issues raised by the blind workers. There was stigma attaching to disability. Some seemed to harbour a suspicion that a significant section of those seeking support were, in effect, putting it on. (That trend in thinking hasn’t disappeared either.)

Ó Catháin singles out members of the Rotary Club for organising fund-raising functions for the blind workers and two individual councillors for taking an active interest in their plight. It’s a short list.

Protest march

“Derry’s council chamber continued to resound with assurances that matters were in hand and that new proposals were being formulated to bring the city into line with other parts of the country….By the end of February (1939) the workers, infuriated at the continual disdain their claims received, organised the unprecedented move of a protest march….

“Led by McDermott and William McGovern, the protesters were photographed soon after leaving Brooke Park with a placard outlining their cause and finishing with the declaration, ‘Blind, but Not to the Hard Facts of Life.’

“The local newspapers referred to the procession through the rain-soaked streets as a ‘touching spectacle’ and noted the surprise of the councillors as the workers filed into the corporation chamber and demanded to have their case heard. Journalists recording the event noted a Royal Ulster Constabulary police detective who had followed the workers moving to a seat in the public gallery to observe proceedings.” (No change there, either.)

After McDermott had outlined the workers’ grievances, “The mayor, Sir James Wilton, was indignant and responded by warning those in the public gallery not to heed all these allegations…He went on to add that it was ‘only on account of their disability’ that he had given them a hearing; had they been ‘ordinary people,’ he would not have allowed them to open their mouths….

“A delegation of two councillors that subsequently visited Gwyn’s workshop reported that the workers’ allegations were ‘absolutely without foundation’ and authorised the workshop instructor to suspend any trainee guilty of insubordination.”

McDermott issued a statement on behalf of the workers: “We would like to remind the Mayor…that the blind are ‘ordinary people’ and as such only want ‘ordinary conditions.”

Storm clouds

By now, the storm-clouds of World War Two were gathering. The welfare state established in the aftermath of the global conflict was to change the landscape of entitlements. But Derry’s blind were to remain in what Ó Catháin calls “their bunker workshop” at Brooke Park until 1966. The tectonic plates of western society were beginning to shift, and perspectives on equal rights to adjust accordingly. The closure of the Brooke Park workshop was attended by no ceremony. But the legacy it had housed wasn’t lost.

Two years after the closure came the Housing Action Committee, the Unemployed Action Committee, the civil rights movement, October 5th etc. The Derry Organised Association of the Blind had already blazed that trail. It is striking that in a city which sometimes seems unhealthily obsessed with its own history, that that experience had been virtually forgotten until Máirtín Ó Catháin began digging it out. The blind were still being kept out of sight.

Ó Catháin concludes: “In voicing their demands in such a way and at such a time, they contributed exponentially to the rich heritage of street politics and radical dissent for which Derry became famous in later decades… The unmatched quality of the Derry struggle certainly warrants a special mention in British and Irish labour history, and it may serve as a starting point for British and Irish disability history…This episode of blind activists in Derry is therefore as important for disability history as it is for the tradition of bottom-up, anti-authoritarian radical history…”

That importance will be clear to see on Thursday, when disabled Derry people come together again to demand basic rights, walking in the footsteps of the fighters who went before, spurred by the spirits of Andrew McDermott, William McGovern, Margaret Wilson…