TheLiberty is a local paper for Dublin's south inner city

February 2001

From Liberty boy to Liberty Hall

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By Sean Fay

Brought up on tales of Big Jim Larkin, Des Geraghty always wanted to work for a trade union. He now works on the top floor of the tallest building in Dublin, as president of the largest union in Ireland at SIPTU's head office in Liberty Hall.

This is a far cry from his first job delivering milk, buns and cakes around the Liberties before school, for a little dairy store on Cornmarket for 2/6 a week.

Des talks about his days growing up in the Liberties with a mixture of fondness and regret. Forced out of the area along with hundreds of others while still in his early teens, he still holds a certain amount of bitterness towards Dublin Corporation for the way they redeveloped the area in the 50s and 60s.

"The planners in the Corporation in those days hadn't a clue, they knocked buildings down all over the place and they scattered the people to places like Ballyfermot, Crumlin, Drimnagh and Kimmage and didn't preserve the community."

Des can still recall the reluctance of the locals to leave. "The Liberties had an indigenous population and there was a lot of resistance to moving, I can remember people on the horse and cart moving to Ballyfermot and two or three days later they were back because they couldn't leave the place."

This emotional hold towards the Liberties continued to persist, with many of those who reluctantly left, returning "home" whenever they could. Des noted that "for years and years afterwards the Ballyfermot and Drimnagh buses would be packed with people heading back into the area at the weekend to shop in the markets and drink in the pubs".

With another redevelopment programme planned for the Liberties, Des, a former Democratic Left MEP for Dublin, greets the proposals to turn the area into a "Silicon Valley" with cautious optimism.

"I think that has great possibilities because young people around there were always as bright as anywhere else. I would love to see the Liberties redevelop in the way that Temple Bar has but not as pricey, I hope there is scope for people to live in it."

Des talked about the significant historical role that the Liberties has played in the trade union movement, and how many of the great trade union leaders came from the Liberties. Amongst them is Jack Murphy of the Unemployment Movement based in Mallon Hall, the first unemployed candidate to be elected to Dail Eireann.

Des is keen to maintain this tradition if and when the traditional anti-union multinationals set up shop in the area. "If the multinationals come in and build up the technology that's very good, but I think we are going to have to insist that people have the right to join a trade union."

He also expressed concern over the type of companies that may come into the area. "The problem with the Liberties as far as I can see is that there may be a lot of smaller operators coming into the area, and they are not always easy to organise."

He went on to stress that unions have to make sure that new employers coming into the area don't see them as a threat. "We in the trade union movement have to change as well, we have to deal with a situation, where trade unionism is not about demarcation and a lot of old fashioned approaches."

It's been a tough year for those involved in trade unionism, with high profile industrial disputes dominating the year's headlines. Nearly everybody has been effected in one way or another by striking bus drivers, rail staff, nurses, taxi drivers or teachers. Despite this Des does not feel this has led to an emotional backlash in public opinion towards the unions.

"I think it is understandable that in a period of high inflation and labour shortages that people would be demanding more than maybe they demanded in the past. You are getting a reaction to things that haven't been dealt with for many, many years."

He said it has been a conscious effort by the Unions to break down the old ransom -seeking stereotype they are often labelled with; "in recent years we have tried to develop a positive trade unionism, which I would call constructive socialism. In other words it's about building not destroying and there is no doubt that we have made a major contribution to the development of this modern economy."

Des has a certain cynicism about how the new national pay agreement has been implemented: "we have an agreement called Prosperity and Fairness. We have the prosperity I'm just not so sure the fairness is being delivered."

As the Celtic Tiger roars on, Mr Geraghty sees the fact that there are still so many people on low pay in Ireland as the biggest problem facing us today and his personal New Year's resolution "is to raise the dignity and status of workers in Irish society". A slightly bigger challenge than cycling around delivering milk and cakes to the people of the Liberties. It would appear the local boy has come a long way.