Flannery Martin

Martin Flannery

Born on 2nd March 1918, the youngest of seven children, Martin Henry Flannery was born in Walkley, Sheffield, in March 1918 to Irish parents. At that time, his father, a soldier with the Dublin Fusiliers, was stationed at the nearby Hillsborough Barracks. His mother worked as a Buffer Girl in Sheffield’s famous cutlery industry and his father became a foreman at a steel works.

Although brought up in a strong Irish Catholic environment, and as a boy attending the Sacred Heart School in Hillsborough, Martin was to become an atheist in his teens. He often mentioned the "brutal and sadistic" treatment metered out by the Christian Brother teachers at the De La Salle Grammar School in Sheffield, to which he had won a scholarship. Despite numerous beatings, he thrived academically, becoming fluent in French and Latin and developing a love of poetry and literature which he was to retain throughout his life.

Having successfully completed the sixth form, he went on to train as a teacher at the Sheffield Teacher Training College. Strongly influenced by the grinding poverty he had experienced as a child and as a young man, and appalled by the attacks in the Catholic press on the democratically elected republican government of Spain and its allies fighting the fascist insurgency led by General Franco.

After having begun work as a teacher, he had already developed strong socialist and republican sympathies by the time he was sent out to India in 1942 as a member of the 1st Battalion, Royal Scots; he was sent to India in 1942. He was to spend most of the war in Burma and was wounded in action. A warrant officer when he was demobilised, Martin joined the Communist Party after the war, having organised socialist meetings among the troops and collected funds for the Indian Communist Party during his wartime service overseas. He married Blanche Howsen in 1949, and they were to have one son and two daughters together.

He returned to teaching after the war, following a spell as a volunteer helping to rebuild Czechoslovakia’s railways. A dedicated and enthusiastic educationalist and a trade unionist, he went on to become in 1969 the head-teacher at Crooksmoore Junior School in Sheffield and president of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) in the city. He also served on the NUT’s national executive committee from 1970 t0 1974 and was made an honorary life member of the union at the NUT’s annual Conference in 1992.

However, he also a wider role in the local trade union movement, serving for a number of years as the vice president of Sheffield Trades and Labour Council. He was an ardent promoter of comprehensive education and, perhaps not surprisingly given his own schoolboy experiences, a committed opponent of corporal punishment in schools. Martin was passionate about art and literature, he loved classical and Irish folk music. As an environmentalist and member of the Ramblers Association he enjoyed long country walks and was a member of the Campaign for Real Ale.

Elected to represent the Hillsborough constituency in Sheffield in the February 1974 general election, he was soon to throw himself into another of his passions: Ireland. A socialist and a republican by conviction, he was to chair the Parliamentary Labour Party Northern Ireland committee from 1983 – 1992. However, he attracted the ire of some colleagues on the left and the Troops Out Movement in Britain, when, following a visit to the north in 1984, he changed his position on the need for an immediate British withdrawal. Having spoken to people on the ground, including with prominent figures from Sinn Fein, he became convinced, that such action would result in a "bloodbath" in which the Catholic and Nationalist community would be the main victim.

Violent attacks by republicans on SDLP parliamentary colleague Gerry Fitt and a belief in the kind of civil rights approach to solving the conflict in the north originally advocated by Desmond Greaves and the Connolly Association, and subsequently taken up by the Northern Ireland Civil Right Association, also led Martin to become a strong and consistent critic of the IRA’s military campaign, which he felt was unnecessary and counterproductive.

However, he never lost his republican sympathies or his belief that the conflict in Ireland was the result of British colonialism and the illegal partition of Ireland under the threat of "immediate and terrible war" in 1921. He also spoke out regularly in the Commons against the renewal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and railed against the inequalities and discrimination experienced by the Catholic and nationalist population of the north.

Throughout time in parliament he built up a reputation as a diligent constituency MP and, as a socialist and an internationalist, he championed the fight for human rights, freedom and democracy throughout the world. Martin was a strong supporter of the campaign against Pinochet’s fascist dictatorship in Chile and was an active member of the Anti-Apartheid Movement long before it became the mass movement into which it was to develop into.

Throughout the 1970s and 80s he fought to preserve Britain’s steel and coal industries, playing an active role in mobilising support for the National Union of Mineworkers in defence of jobs and communities. Martin also fought hard for justice for the victims and families of the Sheffield Hillsborough Stadium disaster.

Martin Flannery was chairman of the Tribune Group of Labour MPs from 1980 to 1981 and then became a major force within the Campaign Group. In 1982, he was one of 32 Labour MPs to vote against the Falklands War, defying the party whip to abstain. He was the left candidate for Chief Whip of the Parliamentary Labour Party in 1983, but was beaten by Michael Cocks.

He never wavered in his vision for a socialist world or in his support for a Irish unity and independence and was an enthusiastic supporter of the peace initiative launched initially by Gerry Adams and Martin’s old friend John Hume, which eventually resulted in the signing of the Good Friday agreement.

Throughout his political life he fought for the interest of working people. He did so without consideration for personal benefit or the impact this might have on his political ‘career’ – indeed his forthright and principled outspokenness, and a passion for the kind of socialism that sent shivers down the spine of many a Labour leadership, ensured that he remained a backbencher throughout his 18 years in the House of Commons.

Not that he would have wanted it otherwise. He was far more interested in being able to speak freely on behalf of working people, especially those in struggle, than the transient trappings of political office.

He remained in the Labour Party – just – but died, say his family, ranting against New Labour and all that it stood for, not only the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Martin Flannery died on 16th October 2006.

David Granville

Additional information from `The Independent’ Oct 18th 2006

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