Point in Time: The fight to save the Mill

Point in Time: The fight to save the Mill

By Stephen Leonard

THE metal gates that barred entry to the Clondalkin Paper Mill in late January 1982 could do little to check the flood of workers who were determined to make a stand for their livelihoods there in the depths of that bitterly cold winter.

Only several days before, talks around rescuing an industry that had stood near the banks of the Camac for the guts of two centuries and provided work for so many families in Clondalkin and the surrounding region had broken down, leading the liquidator to close the factory.

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The collapse of the Clondalkin Mill's chimney stack Photos by Richard Watters

Now, with some 470 jobs on the line, workers chose not to accept redundancy and instead fight for their employment, electing a committee to steer their protest which would involve occupying the mill, demonstrations, the despatching of teams around the country to generate support, a seemingly endless series of political and legal wrangles and ultimately a hunger strike undertaken by two employees, Myles Speight and Brian Nolan.

Without knowing it, the workers had become involved in a struggle that was to represent perhaps the country’s most salient episode of strident trade unionism before such a form of activism succumbed to a new era of a social partnership that effectively doused the flames of militant solidarity protest.

By 1982, CPM was the only remaining paper mill in the state and the last on the island save for one other in Larne in County Antrim.

Part of the Clondalkin Group, which then also included Bailey Gibson, CB Sacks and Cahill Printers, the mill was among the huge number of home-grown industries struggling to survive without the support of protectionist policies that had been eroded by the Seán Lemass government of the 1960s in favour of free trade.

Unable to compete with the far more efficient paper making industries of Scandinavia and elsewhere who were now afforded unrestricted access to the Irish market, CPM was soon undergoing rationalisation with the writing very much on the wall especially when Henry Lund took over from Dr Albert Cusack as managing director in 1978.

Within three years of his accession, the company was scrambling for state aid and major concessions from workers that saw them accept some 157 redundancies and a seven-month pay freeze

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Clondalkin Paper Mill Action Group members display their banner Photo by Paul Billings

Yet this was to prove insufficient in averting a move to put CPM into liquidation – a decision many viewed as designed to simply asset-strip an industry that was proving a massive drain on the group.

Last-minute demands for a cut to weekly bonuses for workers, who believed they had already sacrificed so much, proved a step too far and resulted in the endorsement of their committee’s rejection of that proposal, leading to the shutting of the mill by the liquidator and its subsequent occupation by the workers in January ‘82.

The Clondalkin Paper Mill struggle had begun and was to last some two years, spanning three different governments and resulting in the Mill remaining open until its final closure in 1987.

Des Derwin, a shop steward in the Irish Transport and General Workers Union at the time and who himself has written at length about the CPM struggle, explained just why it stood out as chapter of militant protest at a time when industrial turmoil was rife in the country.

“At the time there were a lot of campaigns and struggles like that going on, but there is no doubt that Clondalkin Paper Mill stood out from them all for various reasons,” he told The Echo.

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Women taking over occupation of the Clondalkin Paper Mill in support of the protest on International Women’s Day on March 8, 1982 Photo by Paul Billings

“First of all the way it reached out to other workplaces, communities, anyone who could support them. They didn’t just stay in, occupying the mill.

“They organised a national campaign and the support they got was tremendous.

“And they didn’t just go and meet people around the country. They brought people into the mill.

“There was an unemployed march from Waterford to Dublin and they welcomed them into Clondalkin on their way into Dublin and made links there, so they were tremendously active.

“The second thing was the way they organised themselves. They tried to involve everybody. They had committees of all the different workers there, they had regular general meetings where everyone took decisions, they involved the women and their families and their local communities, so they had tremendous organisational abilities and consciousness and spirit.

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L-R Christy Fox, John O’Keeffe, Myles Speight and Brian Nolan at the Clondalkin Paper Mill. Photo by Paul Billings

“They were extraordinarily combative and tough and that showed in the hunger strike. It really stood out for everybody.

“There had been a tradition of protest there in the mill. They had two enormously long strikes in the 1960s and ‘70s.

“The mill was very important to the community and it was a terrible blow that it went because it was a source of employment and social contact and interaction in Clondalkin,” he explained.

Two former employees of the Clondalkin Paper Mill, David Kennedy and Tommy Keogh underscored that very importance of CPM to the community.

“I worked there from 1968 to ‘71” recalled Kennedy, founder of The Echo Newspaper almost a decade later. “I was there only a short while really, but my father was there for 35 years and he retired from it before it closed down.

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Clondalkin Paper Mill

“There were a huge number of Clondalkin families who would have worked there at the time, generations of them.

“At one stage they had 700 people employed and most of those were from around the area and it was working seven days a week. There were two shifts on every day and the machines were going non-stop.

“And if you think of a Friday night in Clondalkin, the pubs were filled with the lads from the mill who were out socialising, spending their money, so, in terms of the community itself, it was huge to Clondalkin and the surrounding areas,” he stressed.

Keogh, a CPM employee from 1956 to ‘82, remembered his time there and the effects of its closure, saying: “I would have started as a clerk and I worked in the payroll office for many years and then I became Credit Manager in about ’78.

“Some of the paper mill’s employees would have had maybe two or three people from the same family working there and then all of a sudden they’re out of work. It had a drastic effect on their finances and a massive effect on the village,” he recalled.

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Former Clondalkin Paper Mill workers, Myles Speight and Brian Nolan, speaking about their hunger strike in November 1983 and calling for the factory to be saved Photo by Derek Speirs

It is little wonder then that its closure elicited such an ardent response from its employees and their families, many of whom also became involved in the struggle.

Indeed on International Women’s Day in 1982, wives of many of the workers themselves scaled the CPM gates to take over the occupation of the premises for 24 hours while a number of local women banded together to establish a committee that would support the employees by way of lobbying and fundraising.

Speaking to Maurice O’Keeffe of Irish Life and Lore in a previous interview, Paul Billings, secretary of the CPM Action Committee recalled: “We initiated a roster to occupy the mill. Our headquarters was in the Glue Pot.

“We sent teams around the country to different ports to try and get the dockers to ‘black’ the imports of foreign paper.

“We were militant, we were all out and the goal was to force the government to reopen the paper mill.

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The Round Tower and the old Paper Mill of Clondalkin in 1940. Photo by Margaret Joyce.

“The liquidator was offering packages. He wanted clean possession of the mill, the premises, the equipment and the stock inside.

“There was pressure from some workers to just settle, get a redundancy deal and get out. Others, like myself, said ‘No, we’re not selling our jobs. We want to fight for our jobs.’ So we had this kind of tension within the workforce.

“Basically the mills weren’t viable. You had three small machines, trying to compete with mills in Sweden or wherever that could churn out one type of paper 24-7.

“We were chopping and changing every two or three days which meant you had to shut down the machines, flush them out, clean them out, try and get the mix ready. They just weren’t competitive.

“We didn’t realise that at the time. But with hindsight I can see that now, objectively, the mills weren’t viable.

“But to us, at the time, we just wanted to stay there and fight for our jobs and we looked for some sort of a deal,” he explained.

The CPM sit-in, similar to that of Ranks Mill in Phibsborough and several other similar protests taking place around Ireland at that time, had barely begun when the Fine Gael-Labour coalition government collapsed because of opposition to John Bruton’s budget.

And when Fianna Fáil returned to power, albeit without an overall majority, the Clondalkin Mill workers had reason to believe that their cause would be met with a more sympathetic response.

In an effort to cobble together a government, Fianna Fáil leader Charles Haughey reached out to a number of Independent TDs including Tony Gregory who demanded a list of stipulations in return for his support, with the reopening of the mill a part of the deal.

CPM workers had been bolstered by this, along with previous verbal and written assurances from Fianna Fáil that the mill would be re-opened, but new Minister of Industry and Energy Albert Reynolds’ initial target of June for the reopening was not met nor the subsequent date the following Autumn.

Instead Fianna Fáil lost their tenuous grip on power in another general election that November resulting in the return of another Fine Gael-Labour coalition government, this time with Dick Spring at the helm of the latter.

The new Tánaiste had indicated to workers’ representatives that the deal Labour had reached with Fine Gael leader Garret Fitzgerald for a return to power, included, among its conditions, that any agreement regarding CPM made by the previous government would be honoured by the new one.

Yet the New Minister of Energy, John Bruton poured cold water on such a prospect when he made it clear to the workers’ unions that he was unaware of any such commitment by the government and later insisted that he was certainly not beholden to the promises made by the previous establishment.

His rhetoric sparked a demonstration by CPM workers outside his department and matters came to a head when the liquidator moved to sell the mill, securing an injunction to remove the workers who had been occupying the premises for a year by this point.

Proceedings were undertaken to jail six members of the CPM Action Committee, namely Eugene Charles, Denis Kelly, Gerry Courtney, John O’Keeffe and Niall and Brian Nolan, but such a situation was averted when, due to ICTU pressure and the prospect of widespread strikes in support of the workers, the Government backed down and paid the liquidator £1.75 million.

Yet, while the state’s purchase of the mill was regarded as a monumental victory by the workers, they had still some way to go to ensuring its reopening in the face of an intransigent Bruton for whom ‘viability’ became the operative word.

The Minister was adamant that the mill would not reopen as a state industry and would only be reactivated if in the hands of a private firm, a prospect that very much hinged on negotiations that the IDA was undertaking with interested parties, the likes of Canadian company Freedman McCormack Investments (FMI).

The workers continued to reference the deal they had with the previous government, insisting that Fine Gael and Labour had committed to the purchasing of the plant and it’s reopening.

“Tactically, it was very fortunate that they had that agreement [with Fianna Fáil], because they could try and hold the government to that, whereas, if they were just arguing in an abstract fashion that it should be kept open and nationalised, Congress wouldn’t have been so quick to take that up,” stressed Derwin.

“This agreement out there was very tactically advantageous.

“But John Bruton and Fine Gael were very ideologically opposed to any state involvement and were adamant that any reopening had to be based on viability and profitability,” he added.

And as the months rolled by without any prospect of CPM reopening, the struggle took a new and most dramatic turn when two former employees Myles Speight and Brian Nolan began a hunger strike in the mill on November 3, 1983.

“As I’ve said, there were a lot of things that characterised and made Clondalkin Paper Mill stand out, but of all things, the hunger strike was the most dramatic,” insisted Derwin.

“It certainly galvanised support and led to the threat of a big support movement and a strike.

“It was a risk. It always is a risk, even politically, to take on a tactical hunger strike because you’ve either got to see it out or back down,” he said.

For Billings, the hunger strike was not the direction he wanted to see the CPM struggle take, recalling: “The Action Committee had a meeting about it and I was totally against it, because I said what would happen would be the struggle would switch from trying to save the mill to saving the hunger strikers.

“It [the hunger strike] went on for 15 days and Brian Nolan’s family were coming in every day quite frantic and Miley Speight, I have no doubt, would have went all the way and I think the trade union leadership knew this as well.

“So a deal was cobbled up with these Canadian investors Freedman McCormack to come in to buy the mill.

“We were summoned in to a meeting with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the deal was put to us. I knew it was a pup’, but was I going to go back and tell the hunger strikers ‘No lads, carry on and die’?

“We had to go back to the Mill and I remember Miley Speight coming to me and saying to me ‘Paul, is this a genuine offer?’ And I had to say ‘Yes’.”

With the threat of an all-out work stoppage and march organised by the Trade Council looming large, the sudden announcement that an agreement had been reached with Canadian firm FMI to take over the mill was met with a fair degree of distrust, yet neither the unions nor the government, it seemed, were prepared to take this game of brinkmanship any further.

After two weeks on hunger strike Speight and Nolan brought their fast to an end.

“There was a certain amount of scepticism from the beginning, but most would have looked and thought ‘we’ll wait and see’,” remembered Derwin.

“There was a sense of ‘we have achieved something’ but there was a certain amount of caution knowing what the previous experience had been,” he stressed.

Around 70 people were initially employed when the mill, now renamed Leinster Paper Mill, reopened and that figure grew to some 230 by the outset of what was to prove its final year in 1987.

But the strain of operating an uncompetitive mill without sufficient private investment eventually told as 170 workers were laid off in the winter of 1986/’87 and a receiver appointed the day after Haughey had been elected Taoiseach at the head of Fianna Fáil minority government.

While there was a small occupation of the premises again, the trade union support that underlay much of the 1982/’83 campaign was nowhere near as robust four years later and workers found themselves more on the back foot when in talks with management and ultimately the receiver.

The mill was eventually sold to Jim Mansfield who oversaw the removal of the plant and equipment before The Mill Shopping Centre was constructed on the site.

It marked the categorical end of a rich community-based industry that stretched way back to the early 19th century and which had become an indelible part of life in Clondalkin throughout that time.

The importance of the Clondalkin Paper Mill to the local area had been underscored by the ferocity of the struggle that had been undertaken in an effort to save it and tenacity of the workers who had fought to the end.

“From the standpoint of trade unions, it was a salutary lesson,” remarked Billings.

“In my estimation, our struggle, was probably the last genuine trade union struggle in Ireland.

“When I look back on it, it was probably my proudest moment. There was a challenge there. I had no education, I had left school at 14, but I found myself quite capable of being able to organise and lead to a large extent.

“I did my stint for two years for the cause and that can’t be taken away from me.”

Derwin too views the CPM campaign of the early eighties as perhaps the brightest ember of a waning trade union movement in Ireland at that time.

“I would see the Clondalkin Paper Mill protest as both a victory and defeat. It eventually closed, but it was put off for about five years. So their stand paid off.

“It was part of a defeat or a lowering of the strength of the trade union movement at that time.

“So many closures, a whole generation of shop stewards, representatives, trade unions, all gone. That tradition being broken.

“The move to social partnership took the wind out of the sails of the workers and had all negotiations going on at the top.

“In general, it was like the miners’ strike in Britain.

“It was a period of downturn and defeat really, but within it, you had these fantastic heroic struggles of which Clondalkin Paper Mill was certainly one.”

For more on the Clondalkin Paper Mill check out ‘Irish Life and Lore’ podcasts which are available on www.irishlifeandlore.com, on Apple, Spotify and the usual platforms under ‘Irish Life and Lore’ or ‘Maurice O’Keeffe