Chapter 5: High Court writ served - injunction threatened

'The Irish Post' (I.P.) newspaper had a long tradition of covering issues concerning the building industry and unions and the workers in both. It also had a democratic tradition (the only one of the mainline press) of publishing letters about these matters from building workers and trade unionists of which I and others in UCATT, including the General Secretary George Brumwell, had taken advantage to air our views in the early to mid-1990s.

In line with this, I wrote the letter dated 16.9.96. shown here to the I.P. The letter was subsequently published in the I.P. of 5th October 1996.

{Text of the letter:-

UNION OF CONSTRUCTION,
ALLIED TRADES AND TECHNICIANS
NORTHAMPTON
BRANCH No. UF 214

2 Bitten Court,
Lumbertubs,
Northampton.
16. 6. 96.

The Irish Post,
Uxbridge House,
Hayes,
Middlesex.

Dear Editor,

In the Irish Post of September 7th you report on UCATT and Denis Flavey winning an industrial tribunal and that Johnny Gould was the UCATT official Involved. I was on the picket line at Vascroft which secured reinstatement for the workers outside the gate before Vascroft decided to single out Denis Falvey and the other bricklayer who was in the TGWU. Congratulations to Denis, Johnny Gould and all concerned in this tribunal victory.

However I also notice a photograph of Dominic Hehir, a full time UCATT official in London, figures very prominently in the article and he is quoted as saying, among other things. "We made a decision right from the start to defend our man." What a resolute fellow Dominic appears to be.

Not so in the case of John Jones, a UCATT shop steward in Southwark DLO, who was singled out with another worker, a plumber in EPIU, and sacked by Southwark Council under the guise of TUPE last October. These sackings happened in spite of the fact John Jones and the other worker had a grievance procedure out against the council at the time of their sackings but which the council totally ignored. This utterly contrary to the union/management procedures clearly laid down in these matters.

John Jones and the other worker put on a picket. They asked for support on this picket line and my UCATT Branch and the rank and file Building Worker' Group, of which I’m secretary, were among quite a few trade union and other working class organisations who gave support.

In conjunction with this the two sacked workers initiated proceedings for an industrial tribunal on the grounds of unfair dismissal. As a UCATT member John Jones rightly asked Dominic Hehir, who was the full time official concerned with this situation in Southwark, to represent him at the tribunal. Hehir and UCATT were also asked to test the case in a court of law as TUPE, a European Employment law, was clearly being breached In this instance.

To their eternal disgrace Dominic Hehir and Lou Lewis the UCATT Regional Secretary for London and the South East, backed by the Southwark DLO Building Works UCATT Convenor Tony O’Brien, steadfastly and resolutely refused to represent John Jones at an industrial tribunal or to test the case in a court of law.

The two workers bravely carried on picketting but had to give up their struggle for reinstatement of their grievance procedures and jobs. When a mass meeting in April of this year voted against supporting them any further.
Johnny Gould was not of course the UCATT official who let John Jones down so badly in Southwark. But what did happen there doesn’t exactly square up with his statement “UCATT will vigourously defend the trade union rights of its members in the courts and employers should think twice before attacking genuine trade unions." He would have been more correct to have said "some of its members”!

Pity Dominic Hehir didn't decide to defend John Jones, a UCATT member and shop steward, right from the start in Southwark, or even half way through.

Incidentally is it coincidental Hehir just happened to be standing for election as a UCATT regional organiser this September that he appears and says what he did in your paper of September 7th? Strange how officials like him never

appear or give quotes about their more dastardly deeds. Perhaps this letter might change that.

Yours Fraternally,
Brian Higgins,
Secretary.
end of text.}


The letter as it appeared in The Irish Times of 5th October 1996

Family and I shocked and dismayed, but I was undeterred.
No sooner had the paper 'hit the streets' (out Wednesday before 5th October) when I received the letter from Christian Fisher Solicitors dated 4th October 1996 as shown here. I have to admit my family and I were quite shocked and utterly dismayed that a full-time UCATT Official Dominic Hehir could have threatened me with High Court action for exercising the right of Northampton UCATT Branch to criticise his conduct as a UCATT Official. We thought surely it's only employers who resort to the courts to discipline and punish workers and trade unionists. Even they don't issue writs for libel or threaten injunctions when criticised, which happens quite often!!

I was further dismayed that he had included the first edition of this pamphlet and other 'Building Worker' literature, as well as my Northampton UCATT Sec's letter to the I.P., in his threat of legal action against me. With such a 'catchall' approach this smacked of a political conspiracy to me, Northampton UCATT, the BWG and our supporters.

Louise Christian?
Neither could I quite comprehend how Louise Christian, who had been UCATT's Official Solicitor and wrote in the union newspaper 'Viewpoint' for a number of years and had a reputation as a 'well respected civil rights lawyer', (what about mine, Northampton UCATT's and the Building Workers?) could lend her name and legal weight to this utterly unprincipled and disgraceful legal attack on my, Northampton UCATT's and the BWG's civil and democratic right to freedom of speech and to criticise the conduct of a union official concerning union business.

{Text of the letter:-

CHRISTIAN FISHER

SOLICITORS

42 MUSEUM STREET BLOOMSBURY LONDON WC1 A 1 LY
TELEPHONif.- 0171-831 1750 FAX: 0171-831 1726
DX 35737 BLOOMSBURY

YOUR REF: DATE: 4 October 1996

OUR REF: LC.RG5564.S

Mr Brian Higgins
Secretary
Northampton Branch UCATT

Dear Sir,

RE: MR DOMINIC HEHIR

We act for Mr Dominic Hehir and write in relation to a letter from you which appeared in the edition of the Irish Post dated 5th October 1996. We are also writing concerning a pamphlet entitled "Rank and File or Board [sic] Left: Democracy v Bureaucracy" and two leaflets entitled "Building Worker" of which you were the author.

The letter in the Irish Post and the other material contains highly damaging allegations against our client which are quite simply untrue. You allege that our client "steadfastly and resolutely refused to represent John Jones at an Industrial Tribunal or to test the case in a Court of Law". This is completely untrue as it was Mr Jones who decided that he was not prepared to be represented by Mr Hehir.

The allegation that Mr Hehir was not prepared to defend his members' interests and the further allegation that he was opportunistically appearing in a photograph in the newspaper to secure advantage in an election (which election did not in fact take place) are extremely damaging to our client's reputation as a well known and highly respected official of UCATT. The allegation in the Irish Post and the further allegations in the booklet and leaflets, which have been widely circulated, have caused considerable loss and damage to our client.

We are instructed that unless we receive from you an unconditional apology and retraction and an offer to pay substantial damages and legal costs within the next seven days, proceedings will be issued against you in the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court without further notice. We look forward to hearing from you or solicitors instructed on your behalf by return post.

Yours faithfully

CHRISTIAN FISHER

PARTNERS: MICHAEL FISHER LOUISE CHRISTIAN
ASSISTANT SOLICITORS: SARAH CLEARY SADIQ KHAN
SENIOR LEGAL EXECUTIVES: RAY FARR COLIN VIVIAN

end of text.}

Writ served - shock and dismay turn to great anger.
On what I consider to be that infamous day of 9th November 1996 my door was knocked at about 6.00pm by some individual who seemed to be skulking about in the evening shadows (quite appropriate for such a dirty deed) and he served Hehir's High Court Writ for libel and the threat of an injunction on me.

My wife could hardly believe Hehir had done this but I experienced only two feelings at this. One was a great anger that a full-time union official, on the broad left to boot, and NOT a building employer, could threaten my very liberty and the well being of my wife and family in this way. The other was extreme revulsion!

Family fear for my life - what next, they thought?
As a UCATT Official in this region, Hehir knew and knows of my history as a trade union militant and that this has resulted in my severe blacklisting and that serious death threats have been made against me on occasion because of my militancy. If he claims he didn't know he must have after reading the pamphlet!! He must also surely have known that by resorting to such unprincipled, unprecedented and intimidatory (because this is what the High Court is) means to try to silence me that this would reawaken the worst fears of my wife and family for my physical well being.

This is exactly what it did and they had a terrible sense of impending doom and that if a full-time union official could do this 'they', i.e. building employers, who me and my Defence Campaign felt must be behind this legal attack on me as libel is an extremely rich man or company's law would stop at nothing to silence me. This was a very real and living fear for my family, although I helped to assuage their fears by telling them 'they' didn't need to kill me as they've already corrupted and murdered democracy in the building unions (apart from small pockets of resistance) and industry anyway. I should also have added as have employers done to the trade union movement (i.e. TUC controlled) in general!

Powerful threat, but answer same as to Laing’s injunction.
The High Court is a very powerful, frightening and oppressive arm of the British State. The building employers collectively (they have a few organisations) are also very powerful and have considerable political clout. You don't take a threat from such entities lightly. However, I felt as we didn't give in to the High Court and building employers with Laing's injunction in 1986 then there was no way we would concede the same basic freedoms at stake to a full-time UCATT official and whoever was supporting him. Of course, there was also the very important fact I/we could substantiate and justify everything cited in Mr Hehir's writ.

I decided to fight and defy Hehir's High Court Writ and threat of an injunction with the full support of Northampton UCATT, the Building Worker Group and 'Defence Campaign'. We decided to do the same as we'd done against Laing's injunction in 1986. We went straight to rank and file workers in their work places and unions to ask for their support. We didn't create illusions and waste time pretending full-time union officials would support a stand against the law! No bloody way!!

With the 'Defence Campaign' we quickly got the support of rank and file workers and their rank and file organisations and this gave us the inspiration and encouragement needed to carry on our struggle. Some of this was from construction workers in the USA, Canada and Sierra Leone, which was organised by the International Workers of the World, the 'Wobblies', who have some influence in these countries.

UCATT General Secretary Brumwell and EC give Hehir tacit support.
For tacit read political. The UCATT Executive Council and General Secretary showed whose side they were on (in a struggle such as this there are only two sides, 'them and us') by steadfastly refusing to censure, discipline or condemn Hehir in any way for his utterly unprincipled and reprehensible legal attack, contrary to all known and respected trade union and working class principles, on me in spite of being asked to do this by Northampton UCATT on more than one occasion. In fact, they suspended a disciplinary charge brought against Hehir for his conduct under the rules of the union until Hehir's High Court action was exhausted or withdrawn. They also suspended a charge Hehir had brought against John Jones and me under UCATT Rules for the same BW literature and I.P. letter as cited in his writ. The High Court, i.e. British Bourgeois Democracy including the Constitutional Monarchy, and anti union laws, obviously reign supreme with British Trade Union Officials and workers' democracy and rights can go to hell when faced with British Justice! Not so say us and we fight on!!

Got legal advice and support.
As it was a legal attack, on the recommendation of a building worker who'd already been helped by this legal firm, I went to B. M. Birnberg's for legal advice and representation. He gave this unstintingly to me as a 'litigant in person', meaning I legally represented myself for some of the time and I think having such a prestigious 'civil rights' lawyer as Birnberg representing me gave Hehir and Christian Fisher serious food for legal thought.

I'd rather go to jail than surrender freedoms at stake.
The 'Defence Campaign' (set up to support and promote our stand and the principles involved) and I let it be known to Hehir, his backers, UCATT and all workers we could reach that I'd rather go to jail than surrender any of the freedoms at stake with Hehir's legal attack on me. The 'Defence Campaign', who were tremendous to me and my family throughout the period of the legal threat, eventually called on Hehir to take me to trial or withdraw his action, i.e. 'put up or shut up'!!

Hehir ‘discontinued’ his action on 28th January 1999.
Faced with this and the refusal of myself and the 'Defence Campaign' to back down in any way, Hehir finally and humiliatingly backed down and withdrew his High Court Action when I received his 'Notice of Discontinuance' dated 28 January 1999 processed through the High Court, Queen's Bench Division to be precise! Wonder who the coach was?

'The Irish Post’ looked sick and silly!
After apologising to Dominic Hehir in the paper of 12th October and paying him about £3,000 to 'stop' him carrying out his threat (pure bluff) to take legal action against them, the I.P. must have felt quite sick and just a wee bit silly after Hehir discontinued (i.e. withdrew) his legal action again me. What a vindication of our stand!!

I wrote a letter dated 11.10.96. to Donal Mooney, editor of the I.P. at that time. In the letter, among other things, I asked for answers to the following points, which are printed verbatim here, for myself and the members of Northampton UCATT Branch on whose behalf I wrote the letter published in 5th October's I.P.

1. How can you apologise for a letter that I wrote, without any
consultation whatsoever with me about the apology.

2. How do you know it contained (to quote your letter of 8th October)
"allegations which are unjustified"?

3. Why did you allow Dominic Hehir's first legalistic 'shot across your bows'
to panic you in this manner? Why such unseemly haste? Why wasn't I
consulted?

4. As without a full investigation of all the facts with all the parties
involved, what you have written in the apology could be construed as
being quite injurious to me. Why did you take such a calculated legal
risk?

5. Could you please explain exactly what you mean in your letter of 8th
October by "we can only do so, (exercise free speech) I'm afraid, within
the context of the law." What law?

I went on to write in the same letter...... In the interest of the right of free speech, to reply and of balanced, fair and principled journalism, I ask you to publish the following letter/statement in The Irish Post:

"As the writer of the letter in the issue of 5th October referred to in your apology to Mr Dominic Hehir in your paper of 12th October 1996, I want your readers to know:

I was not consulted about and had no part whatsoever in writing this apology. I disagree with it. How can The Irish Post state my letter "contained allegations which are 'not justified'" without a full investigation of all the facts involving all the parties concerned? Why didn't The Irish Post mention they'd received a letter from Mr Hehir's solicitors that led to the apology. I also received a letter from Mr Hehir's solicitors that, among other things, threatened me with court action. I reacted differently to this.

I assure the readers I can and will substantiate any public criticisms I make of Dominic Hehir if called upon to do so by any appropriate organisation or interested parties. The High Court most certainly shouldn't be one of these but if it is I will. It is also worth remembering Dominic Hehir has the right of reply to my letter in The Irish Post. Why didn't he exercise this?
In fact, it is painfully obvious Mr Hehir can stand any amount of praise in The Irish Post. But woe betide and off to the High Court with anyone who dares to criticise him!"

B Higgins,
Secretary, Northampton, UCATT UF 214 Branch

Of course the letter wasn't published by the I.P. The long, if not free, standing democratic tradition of publishing letters from trade unionists in the I.P. ground to a sudden halt when Hehir and his friends resorted to the utterly undemocratic High Court in his completely failed attempt to silence me and those I represent in UCATT and the BWG. So much for bourgeois traditions and standards of democracy"!!

Tremendous victory for free speech and R&F organisation.
Make no mistake about it. As well as an attack on free speech and the right to criticise a union official concerning the conduct of union business, this attempt to silence me and those I represent in UCATT and the BWG was also an attempt to stop us organising in the building industry and unions, particularly UCATT. Because to silence us would effectively stop us organising. You only have to consider to whose advantage this would have been or be to realise who must have been behind this sinister and insidious legal attack on our democratic rights.

Like our victory against Laing's and the High Court in 1986, we have shown the use of the courts and legal action to suppress and remove what should be our trade union and democratic rights and freedoms as workers by the bosses and now even renegade full-time union officials can and must be successfully defied. This is absolutely essential in the current era if our movement, our class is to have any industrial rights and measure of democratic control and say in the years ahead. Thanks again to all who helped us achieve such a notable victory.

Political footnote; Broad Left letdown.
Support for my and the Defence Campaign's stand against Hehir's legal action from political organisations such as SWP. 'THE MILITANT' (S.P.) and Scargill's Socialist Labour Party was conspicuous by its absence. This was undoubtedly because of their support for a broad 'left' (putting pressure on full-time officials) rather than a R&F (action and organisation independent of all full-time officials) approach to industrial politics and organisations.

Perhaps this explains why Louise Christian (who was in the SLP) supported the broad left Dominic Hehir and the SLP influence within the leadership of the Liverpool Dockers led, much to our surprise, to the dockers not responding to a request for support for our stand against Hehir.