The chequered career of Joe Gormley as President of the National Union of Mineworkers is shortly to end. Jonathan Petre gives us a profile of the man.
AS I WAS ushered into Joe Gormley's second floor office in the National Union of Mineworkers' headquarters, the first thing that caught my eye was the original of a Daily Mail cartoon which, in contrast to the few normal portraits, was propped rather casually against the window.
Dated October 1978, it depicted the portly outline of Jim Callaghan in conference with Pope John Paul II, as the pair stroll through one of those interminable corridors in the Vatican. The Pope is turning to Mr Callaghan with a look of arch disbelief on his face, and exclaiming: "A Sainthood? Tell me, what kind of miracles has this Signor Gormley performed."
There was little other evidence of Mr Gormley's religious affiliations in the room. But although he has never been at pains to proclaim his Catholic origins, neither is he at pains to disguise them. In fact, as he freely admits. his religious beliefs have shaped his whole outlook: "It must have had a fundamental effect on my approach to things because in all my dealings, both as a young man and all through life, I can honestly say that never at any time have I tried to do a wrong thing to someone purposefully."
Joe Gormley was born and bred in Ashton-in-Makerlield, only 16 miles from Liverpool "which at that time." he says, "was known as the Capital of Ireland."
His parents were Catholic, his parents' parents Catholic and he was educated at St Oswalds Catholic school.
These influences must have been powerful but, he confessed, "what I have never needed is to feel that I must have this urge to go to Church every morning, even every Sunday, in order to prove myself a good Catholic."
He first worked down the pits at the age of 14. At 17 he had been chosen to be a representative of the miners, and 37 years later he had become President of the National Union of Mineworkers', one of the most powerful unions in the country. But although the ten years of his leadership have been turbulent — he himself has been instrumental in the collapse of at least one government — he would still count himself among the moderates.
His own motto is "to think the best of everybody until proved wrong."
"Many of my colleagues don't like that sort of attitude," he told me. "They say that it might be a sign of weakness; I don't think so. I think it is a sign of strength rather than weakness," His humanitarian outlook is in basic accord with that expressed by the Pope in the recent, much heralded encyclical on work.
I asked him for his reaction to the Pope's indentification of the "fundamental issue" as the finding of work for everyone capable of it. Mr Gormley's answers were delivered with slow deliberation, rather like the process of mining itself.
"Let's put it slightly differently," he said. "I think the right to work is a fundamental issue. The ability to find work along with the right to work are, to me, important facets of life. It is a fact that we weren't born to work: we were born, and because of the position we hold in society, where we must create for our families and ourselves a good standard of living, it means that we have to work in some way."
He remembers his father saying to him when he started work in the mines, "Joe, a fair day's work and a fair day's pay go together." This background informs his view that "just getting a job isn't sufficient. It's a question of making sure you're doing the job correctly, and I'm not saying 'take the skin off your back', I'm talking about working at it and giving your best to that job."
He is. however, in disagreement with the encyclical's attitude towards new technology. The encyclical states that "technology can cease to be man's ally and become his enemy, as when the mechanisation of work 'supplants' him ... when it deprives many workers of their previous employment."
"This is written in a Luddite manner," Mr Gormley said. "The old Luddites said that we shouldn't have any modern technology — it's going to displace human beings with machines, and all the rest of it. And yet it is a fact that the new technologies were introduced into industry the number of jobs have kept up because you. alter the working circumstances. '
He believes that before long all the wealth needed i n this country will be produced by everyone working one, two or three days a week. "It creates e mployment, it creates a leisul-e industry. and it also creates ths: necessary wherewithal! for countries like Britain. and for other highly industrialised countries in the world, to be able to help the countries of the Third World to grow out of the shadows they are living under."
When I asked him about the situation in Poland, he produced a 'Solidarity' badge from his desk and generously gave it to me.
"What I am terribly worried about," he said, "is that they may be running before they can walk. Now that might h ave a backlash . I don't think the Communist state and the Cornmunist party is going to allow much more freedom ... I can't see military intervention, but as the same time Russia can ill afford to allow a communist state to exist with a free. democratic union. It's up to the Solidarity people to show that it is possible." He painted a vivid picture of the role of the Church in Poland: "You can't travel along the roads without noticing in every village, in nearly every house, a little statute of Our !Lady."
Catholic influence is also strong elsewhere in the Eastern bloc.
"I went dovvn to an area of Yugoslavia, near Dubrovnik, and on Sunday mor ning I went to the church. It was packed to the doors. We couldn't get through the doors. The authorities don't like this because they see it as an alternative ... Communism is a religion in itse If."
Returning I o problems closer to home, I was able to record Mr Gormley's first official pronouncement on the government's proposed 4pc limit on public sector wage settlements.
The Conservatives, he said, are going against their avowed philosophy. "Although they say they don't want an incomes policy they have had to create an incomes policy. Well, they can't have their cake and eat it, and all I have to suggest to them is that there may be. serious problems." But whatever problems the future might hold, they will not be the full-time concern of Joe Gormley for much longer. He retires in April and will hand over to his successor a powerful, well disciplined and reasonably united union.
I asked him, finally, how he planned to use his retirement.
"Well, I don't intend to work as long and a.s hard as I have had to in this job," he said.