I went to see ‘Red Ellen’, at the Lyceum yesterday; it told some of the story of Ellen Wilkinson, working class MP for Jarrow and main organiser of ‘The March for Jobs’, the North East Crusade for Work. Wilkinson operated on many fronts, trying to liberate Jewish refugees in Nazi Germany and fighting Fascists in Spain. Constantly at odds with the excessively unctuous, Herbert Morrison, she still managed to play an important role in Churchill’s Wartime Cabinet. (Morrison is a granduncle of Mandelson) This whirlwind of activity, often found herself, however, on the outside looking in – on the right side of history but with a personal life in turmoil.
On my way home from the theatre, I passed through Rutland Square where fifty years ago, I made a stand for justice. It was February 2nd, 1972; two days earlier, British State forces, the 3rd Paras, in broad daylight, had shot dead 14 innocent Derry people who were taking part in a peaceful protest against internment, imprisonment without trial. Two of the murdered were past pupils and others were friends. My headteacher at the time was aghast when I informed him the previous day that I was taking solidarity strike action with colleagues in Derry.
“You can’t do that”, he spluttered.
“Just watch”, was my reply.
The boss contacted my union, the EIS in Edinburgh, who dismissed it as wildcat action and washed its hands of me.
On the day, a bitterly cold, east wind frozen one, made Edinburgh a bitterly cold place to stand around in for long. I paraded outside the Army Recruiting Office in Rutland Square with a placard reading, ‘Join The Professionals – Licensed to kill’. An officer from the office politely asked how long I would be there but did not interfere. Later, I was visited by two police officers who asked a few questions but seemed happy for me to continue with the demonstration. A photographer from some agency also came along, made a few notes and took a couple of pictures. I never saw the outcome of his visit but I learned later that a picture and brief caption had appeared in a couple of the Dublin papers. Around lunchtime, a well dressed business man approached and inquired in one of those untraceable, strangulated vowel-sounding accents whether I was from the Provisional or Official wing of the IRA. My reply that I was merely a local teacher, opposed to murder by our State Forces seemed to leave him perplexed. About an hour later, he returned, from the pub, I suspect, with a couple of local, young heavies who pushed me around a bit and smashed my placard.
In a way, I was grateful for the intervention because I had been wondering for some time how proceedings could be brought to a dignified end.
Bloody Sunday was a distressing time for most Derry folk and some outlet for my anguish was necessary. Similarly, Red Ellen Wilkinson needed outward expression for the frustration she felt at the inactivity of the pre-war Labour Party.
I am happy to have been there with her.