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Profile: The UK rail union boss with Irish roots who’s crushing interviews and citing Connolly

From “the craic” to James Connolly, Mick Lynch’s Irish heritage has shaped his political views.

Mick Lynch being interviewed by Kay Burley on Sky News this week.
Mick Lynch being interviewed by Kay Burley on Sky News this week.
Image: Sky News

WITH THE UK in the midst of a public relations war over ongoing rail strikes, union leader Mick Lynch has sensationally shot to prominence for calmly crushing politicians and interviewers alike.

The biggest rail strikes in 30 years have seen travel on Britain’s train network almost entirely grind to a halt on three separate days as 40,000 workers downed tools in protest over pay rates and job security.

As head of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), which is leading the strikes, Lynch has gone from being virtually unknown to an international celebrity in a matter of days.

With the battle for hearts and minds over the industrial action in full swing, clips of the stern-faced 60-year-old casually castigating hectoring broadcasters and hapless MPs have racked up millions of views and shares on social media platforms.

The viral moments have included Lynch repeatedly accusing Chris Philp of lying – as the junior transport minister’s face curdles – and the union boss standing aside to show Sky News’ Kay Burley what a picket looks like.

“Do you not know how a picket line works?” he said. “Picketing is standing outside the workplace to try and encourage people who want to go to work, not to go to work. What else do you think it involves?”

Lynch also accused Richard Madeley of talking “twaddle” on ITV’s Good Morning Britain and criticised Piers Morgan’s line of questioning when the TV host asked him why his Facebook profile picture was an image of Thunderbirds villain The Hood, whom Morgan described as an “evil, criminal, terrorist, mastermind”.

But who exactly is the union boss with the Irish name?

First things first, what’s his job?

Lynch is the general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), perhaps one of the strongest unions in the UK. He has held the post since May 2021 after previously holding the role in an acting capacity.

As general secretary his salary is £84,174 (€98,158) after he took a pay cut last year.

His career path to the top job in the transport union began when he left school aged 16 to take up an apprenticeship as an electrician.

He moved into construction after the engineering sector declined – which Lynch blames on the Thatcher government of the 1980s – however he was illegally blacklisted due to involvement in union activity.

As he was unable to find work in construction he began working for rail company Eurostar and became active in the RMT.

“When you tell your friends about a blacklist, they say it’s bollocks. I knew I was blacklisted but you can’t prove it, because it was all secret,” he told the Guardian after being elected as RMT chief last year.

Lynch was eventually awarded a £35,000 settlement two decades later after the conspiracy among construction companies was exposed, but says the money didn’t cover the amount of wages that were lost.

The compensation cheque now hangs on a wall in his office at RMT headquarters.

Irish heritage

Given his name, it’s no surprise that Lynch has strong Irish roots. His parents were Irish immigrants who moved to London during World War 2 to find work.

“My dad was a proper Paddy, as I’m not ashamed to say,” Lynch said in a recent interview with the BBC’s Nick Robinson. “He went down the pub a lot. He was a labourer working on building sites with the original John Murphy, the big contractor.”

“My family is from a republican tradition. They weren’t active republicans, but it’s the milieu I think that posh people call it. So, our life was being Roman Catholic. It wasn’t a lifestyle choice like it is for many people now; ‘I want to get my kid in that school’.

“Being Roman Catholic was an everyday permanent experience. Mass every Sunday, holy days of obligation, confession Saturday night, taking communion Sunday morning, stations of the cross, the whole bit,” he said.

Despite anti-Irish sentiment running high in the UK in the late 1960s and 1970s, Lynch doesn’t recall discrimination being a significant issue in his childhood as his neighbourhood was predominantly made up of Catholics from Ireland, Italy, Poland and the Caribbean.

“I didn’t feel it (discrimination) as much. But you saw it on the media but not at home and not on the council estate that I lived on,” he said.

The socialist strand of the Irish republican tradition remains a huge influence on Lynch’s philosophical outlook. When asked to name his hero during an ITV interview this week, Lynch chose James Connolly.

“Do you know who James Connolly was?” he asked the interviewer.

“He was an Irish republican socialist and he educated himself and he started non-sectarian trade unionism in Ireland and he was a hero of the Irish revolution. He was a hero.”

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Despite his London accent, Lynch’s Irish background also breaks through in his choice of words, notably “craic”.

“My culture is around this idea of the craic. The craic involves more than just telling jokes, it’s about the atmosphere in a community and in a society. I think we’re missing that and people are becoming atomised, stuck in their bedrooms – not helped by Covid,” he told Robinson.

“But that thing of being obsessed by your phone and your laptop, living your life through a website, we’ve got to turn that around. Surely everyone wants that. Just get back doing some sport, camping or whatever you need to do.”

Socialism and views on the Labour Party

With Lynch making short work of Tory spokespersons this week, some on the left wing of the UK Labour Party have put forward the idea that he would be a more effective leader than the current figurehead Keir Starmer.

Lynch has dismissed the suggestion, maintaining that he is a union organiser whose job is to represent RMT members and secure a deal in the current dispute.

Source: Good Morning Britain/YouTube

He offers a withering analysis of the current Labour leadership, saying he doesn’t believe they will support striking workers.

“I don’t think the Labour Party will back us. I don’t think Keir Starmer or Wes Streeting and the new breed will go on the telly and say ‘these workers deserve a pay rise and it should be like this’.

“They will say warm words, trite words, such as ‘there’s got to be a settlement. We encourage both parties to go to the table.’ I’m never not around the table.”

His contempt for, what he calls, the “Blairite” wing of the Labour party also seemed apparent in an interview when he told Jenny Chapman – a member of Starmer’s front bench – that he didn’t know who she was (albeit because he was in a TV studio and couldn’t see her).

He argues that the Labour party has lost ground among working class people whose working conditions have been eroded in recent decades.

“I am left wing but I’m not affiliated. I don’t take orders from particular groups, I’m not in the Labour Party. I am a socialist,” he explained.

“I’ve got a set of principles based on traditional labour values, but I’m not a member of the party. So, I want council housing; I don’t want public housing, I want social housing. I want a massive campaign, council housing, that sort of thing. Very traditional, even municipal type, socialism.”

With no end to the strikes in sight – and the likelihood that industrial action will spread to other workplaces – there may well be quite a few more weeks of withering put-downs yet to come.

About the author:

Céimin Burke

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