Diarmuid Breatnach

For a period in my life I was a co-worker in youthwork with Malcolm, a part-time worker managed by him later, a fellow trade union and community activist and personal friend.  


The period in which I first came to know Malcolm was one of very big changes in my personal and working life, which would lead to some significant political changes for me too.  In the work area I was leaving my background as a factory manual worker due to unemployment and, from voluntary community work to fill in the time, moving into part-time youthwork in the New Cross Detached Youthwork Project with the Inner London Education Authority as my employer.

The Riverside Youth Club in Deptford had been closed by the Area Youth Officer due to some concerning incidents, including penetration by British Movement recruiters and the Area Youth Officer wanted a team without previous history there to reopen the Youth Club.

The team consisted of Malcolm, his partner then Debbie, Shan and myself.   Shan had an excruciating Rodene accent but as I learned, was a good youthworker, skilled artworker and with long experience.  Malcolm was reasonably new then but I think Debbie had some years of experience.  I of course had done less than a year of youth or community work but I came with good references and I had completed the Part-Time Youthworkers’ course with commendation.  I suppose that is why I was picked, plus my lack of any history with the previous Deptford team.

Riverside Youth Club was a large purpose-built building on the edge of the mostly white working class Pepys Estate and we arranged to meet the Senior Youthworker, who would be our line-manager.  We were not greatly impressed with him but he left us alone to get on with the work.  When we opened the club, in addition to the normal challenges of working with inner city young people we met hostility from local youth who saw us as having evicted the previous team as well as political opposition from a core of organised racists.  We pretty soon learned that some were dealing cocaine from the toilets and so regular patrols of the male toilets in particular became part of our routine and these could become somewhat confrontational.

Riverside Youth Club, now in the hands of UK Youth

We worked well together and stabilised the club with occasional incidents and temporary bans as a result.

An additional worker was allocated to the team and yet another placed at a kind of team leader level above us becoming in effect our line manager.  Neither of these two would take part in the regular toilet checks, which lost them our respect but the guy ‘managing’ us began to interfere more and more in our work which brought him into regular conflict with us, especially with Shan and dismissing our collective opinion, making our weekly meetings lively but frustrating.  Our Senior Youthworker was absent through illness or marriage breakdown, I can’t remember and when his deputy sacked our co-worker Shan we appealed over his head to the Area Youth Officer who declined to intervene.  We threatened to resign but got nowhere with that and so we did resign, practically the full youthworker team, with the support of a couple of volunteers (one of whom Fiona, years later became, I am told, a leading community activist in Lewisham).

Malcolm went on to get his qualification through the course at Goldsmiths College in New Cross and was appointed full-time Youthworker to St. Andrews Community & Youth Centre in Brockley.  He offered me some hours there and that was the base of my years of association with Malcolm.

We fought many struggles together, mostly outside St.Andrew’s but some inside too.  One of the internal ones was against homophobia.  I was surprised to hear Malcolm respond “So what?” to calls of “poofter” from the youth or, when accused of being “a wanker” to reply “everyone is – it’s natural!”  I began to follow Malcolm’s lead in that approach and years later one of our volunteers and most active gay-baiter ‘came out’ first to us and then to the youth – I surmised that we had created the atmosphere where that could happen but it was Malcolm alone who had led the way.

Another struggle took place around sharing of workload and safety standards during summer schemes and, in particular on trips outside.  At our weekly meetings during these schemes, my practice was to jump in early because I didn’t want to let some bad stuff get settled in but Malcolm would wait until everyone had been battling for some time before intervening and usually ended up carrying the meeting with him.  I have to admit, that used to infuriate me, even if the result was usually along lines I agreed with.

The Rev. Barry Carter (‘the Baby Jesus’ in Malcolm’s nickname) to my recollection was a basically decent man and quite liberal; he was one might say boss of the St. Andrew’s Community Centre and though not Malcolm’s line manager, to an extent his boss too.  As Tony Taylor has outlined in an earlier tribute, Malcolm denied the right of our managers to manage and so there were struggles between them.  One in which Malcolm and I both took part was against participation in the Metropolitan Police’s community sports program for the area.

Our line was that the police were a major enemy of the youth, both on a class and race basis and we should not facilitate them in putting on ‘a caring mask’ or even gaining intelligence on different youth in the community.  Barry I think felt that the Met was providing resources of which we should avail.  Funnily enough, some of the youth were also in favour of participation.  We held meetings with the latter, swung a majority against participation and then presented Barry with the fait accomplit, who didn’t like the decision but accepted it. 

Barry and Malcolm had a number of other battles in which I was not involved but they respected one another throughout.  And Barry too could have a wicked sense of humour, if one can say that about a parson.

I was defended twice by Malcolm against unfair treatment that I know of, once against an interviewer from the Area Youth Office trying to get me to attend a second interview in one afternoon for a job I was already doing and another time against some people picking on me in a team-building weekend meeting where we were supposed to be open about our feelings and intentions in youthwork.  But he would have done that even if we had not been comrades.

Tolerance was one of Malcolm’s strengths, though we did not always agree on what should be tolerated or how to deal with serious challenges.  He told me once that his ideal project would be to let youth wreck a youth facility and then work with them to build it up again.  Even so, St. Andrews was a fairly safe place to work considering the backgrounds of some of the youth we worked with and the local environment and pool balls and cues were present to become weapons when others were not to hand but were hardly ever even raised in threat.  

Of course we took risks but we had team meetings in which we could discuss how to deal with different kinds of issues and even if sometimes the decision reached was not one with which I agreed I knew that my concerns had been heard and considered.


When Thatcher got around to swinging the axe on the ILEA in 1990, most of its youthworkers got transferred to their local boroughs so Malcolm and I came under the Education Department of the London Borough of Lewisham.  We were both members of the Community & Youthworkers’ Union which its members recognised as being too small but opinion was divided over which big union to amalgamate with.  Malcolm belonged to the Socialist Caucus of the CYWU and they had already committed to going into the National Association of Local Government Officers (NALGO).  I agreed with them, not because I thought we would never be sold out by NALGO but because if fellow Council workers took industrial action I wanted us to support them and vice versa, united in one union against our employer.  We fought hard for that position but when the majority decided that professional status was more important to them and chose a university lecturers’ union, we walked out of the CYWU and into NALGO, which was the union of most of the Education and clerical workers in the local authorities.

As a shop steward in Lewisham Nalgo, Malcolm took on representation of workers in what is laughingly called “the Voluntary Sector”, i.e the NGOs funded by the local authority to do its work but without responsibility for the workers hired.  Unfortunately, the NALGO branch officers were not too interested in representing their members in the NGOs either and the treatment of some of those workers Malcolm told me about by their management committees was shocking, as I also learned myself when I later also took up a few of those cases.

There were vacancies for two Assistant Branch Secretaries in Lewisham NALGO and Malcolm and I got elected without opposition – apart from anything else, no-one wanted a union post which did not even have guaranteed paid hours off to do representational and organisational work, which meant we did a fair bit of it in our free time but also at times Malcolm covered for my absences from my contracted hours.

During the big Miners’ strike 1984-85 the Caucus of which Malcolm was a member adopted one of the hardest branches to support because the striking miners there were actually a minority of their local union branch.  Caucus members and Malcolm were away at times to support mass pickets and in some hairy situations.  I believe they were at the Orgreave picket and a good idea of what that was like can be seen in the famous photo by John Harris of a mounted policeman at a gallop with arm cocked back about to deliver a full force swing of a long baton upon a woman (Lesley Boulton) who is armed only with a camera.

In 1986 I had left St. Andrews to work full-time at a community project in East London but met Malcolm again at the disastrous Wapping dispute when Murdoch sacked the union opposition at his newspapers; on one occasion there the police also baton-charged the picketers.  Friday night was our regular night there for awhile, trying to hold up the delivery runs of the Sunday papers.  Malcolm told me he once cycled up beside a  TNT truck which ran Murdoch deliveries (and killed a picketer, Michael Delaney in 1987) and shouted “Scab!” at the driver, then had to pedal fast as the driver accelerated after him (I often enough gave their drivers the reverse V sign myself).

A TNT truck at Wapping 1986

As soon as I completed my probationary period and was confirmed in my community worker post in 1987, I resigned due to irreconcilable difference with the management committee and, unemployed, was able to get a few youthwork hours from Malcolm back at St. Andrews.  That was when I began to get active in the union with Malcolm as outlined earlier.  Lewisham Council — “Blairite before Blair” I heard someone say once — was stripping down Council and funded services.  Things came to a head in I think 1989 when the Council Managers removed a day’s holiday and sick pay entitlement from the Direct Team workers, i.e those in its sanitation and parks departments.  NALGO only had three, at most maybe five workers in the Direct Team but some of us pushed for a strike in their support, hoping to pressurise the union leaders of the rest of Direct Team to come out on strike and defeat the Council’s attack.

When we were successful and a number of Lewisham one-day strikes were called, Malcolm, a comrade activist called Janet and I met each morning at 5.30 am to picket the depots since by 6am virtually all sanitation teams with their lorries would be out on their work routes.  After that we’d have breakfast in a cafe and Malcolm would head back to work, the job he was getting paid for.

The Direct Team workers got sold out by their union leaders and in the end the new left-wing leadership of our own NALGO branch sold us out too.

Malcolm was not just a youth worker but also a community worker, interacting strongly with the Parent and Toddler Club at St. Andrew’s and I was impressed to see him on outings helping to carry buggies, bags and children.  He liked the children and had a lot of time for the mothers too.

Some of those mothers also became part of the workforce of our summer schemes.

Malcolm was very active in battles against cuts in funding for services and I worked with him in the struggle to save the Albany Centre from closure and its few remaining workers from being sacked.  In opposition to super exploitation of new workers and undermining of existing workers’ pay and conditions, Malcolm launched a campaign against the predecessor of workfare, against the State’s forcing of “interns” and “trainees” from the unemployed register to work unpaid in NGOs and against collaboration with this plan by the NGOs themselves.

We encouraged youth to be active in agitating to keep their services funded and working and had a few mass lobbies of Council meetings, one of which had a Council meeting delayed for hours and another that had the whole green outside the Council building packed with service users and workers and many young people.

I wondered once to Malcolm why the Education Department managers didn’t just hunt us down as they could hardly be afraid of our union leadership.  His answer was that they knew nothing that happened at St. Andrew’s would come back at them, which is more than could be said about some other workplaces.  And he was right.  He was an excellent manager in that sense, always sorting out problems before they got to be too big, always taking personal responsibility when that was required. 

Malcolm was interested in social and political theory and hired me once to edit and type up a piece of work he was writing regarding youthwork and society — but I was never sure whether he really needed me to do that or was just putting some earning work my way.  I had learned to touch-type and I don’t think he had but with regard to editing, he didn’t need that much done really.  He was very interested in theory as well as in practice and as any good Marxist knows, there should be an organic relationship between the two.

Jim Connell, author of The Red Flag

Working as closely as that in so many struggles we became for a period personal friends as well as co-workers and comrade activists.  During a period when he was single we would sometimes repair after work to his place in Stondon Park (very near the former house of Jim Connell, author of the Red Flag) and sharing a joint, play a game of chess.  Those games were slow and one time after half an hour we came to realise that neither of us had moved because each thought it was the other’s turn!

Our paths in life took us in different directions without any formal leave-taking and after some time in full-time work I came home to Dublin to work there; after that we were only in contact a couple of times.  Great to hear now that he began to conduct community history tours of areas in the borough and without knowing that, I have been doing the same in Dublin.  History is alive; people need to be in touch with what has gone before as they act on what is now and affect what is to come.  I do hope someone will continue those tours.

I was shocked recently to receive the news of his death.  I remember Malcolm as a young man, always quite stylish, very fit and healthy, a good player at five-a-side football with the youth.   He had a very agile body — from the swimming pool edge a few feet above the water, he could jump straight up, double over himself and come down into a straight dive.  The only serious health crisis I ever knew him have was when he developed an allergy to the sting of a bee or wasp and went into anaphylactic shock, so that he had to carry the antidote with him always for part of each year afterwards.  

How I remember Malcolm most perhaps now is with his cheeky smile, his ready and at times biting wit, sometimes what might be considered in some quarters inappropriate humour and his ability with language, both formal and informal.  A sad and premature loss.

For an important period in my life we were comrades in struggle and at times in struggle with one another. 

In love and struggle.

Diarmuid Breatnach

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