Joe Law was a tireless opponent of sectarianism in a society infamous for conflict and division around the world. He knew that tackling sectarianism was essential in efforts towards building the unity of the working class.
Born in Bradford Street off the Shankill, Joe left formal education in search of work at the age of fifteen. Serving his time at the Harbour Commissioners, he went on to secure employment at Mackie’s foundry on the Springfield Road where he would encounter the formidable juxtaposition of trade union militancy and brutal sectarianism. Reflecting on that formative period, he would often lament that he only got the job because of his name, who he was and where he was from – “because I was a Prod” – and that Catholics were treated abominably on the shop floor.
Like many others from his background, Joe then went to England in search of work and found that, despite his early commitment to Queen and country, he was “just another Paddy”. The Merchant Navy at the age of nineteen offered the prospect of secure employment and an opportunity to see the world. In South Africa he bore witness to the obscene injustice and oppression that set him on the path to becoming an anti-apartheid campaigner. He recoiled at being addressed as ‘sir’ by the local black population and resolved himself to challenging inequality wherever it was to be found. It was also there that he recalled first declaring himself an Irishman, during an altercation with a group of British Army soldiers. His political journey had begun.
For a couple of years he travelled, participating in the 1966 seaman’s strike before taking a sojourn in Galway. He returned to Belfast to see the civil rights struggle reach its peak and witness the outbreak of violence. These events, for Joe, demanded a wider examination of Irish history and politics. He became acquainted with the United Irishmen, with the struggles of the British and Irish labour movements, and developed a class analysis of Irish history through the works of James Connolly and Karl Marx. Becoming ever more radicalised, he joined Communist Party of Ireland and remained a loyal and active member until his dying day.
Joe carried these radical politics into his job as a riveter at Shorts, where he became active as a shop steward with the Amalgamated Transport & General Workers’ Union (ATGWU) and an executive committee member of the Belfast Trades Council. Now a self-professed ‘rotten Prod’ – a socialist of the radical Protestant tradition – he showed great courage to represent the interests of all workers and oppose sectarianism in the face of routine harassment and intimidation. This was most evident during a 1987 dispute at Shorts which saw loyalist workers stage a series of wildcat strikes in protest at the removal of flags and emblems from the shop floor. On this occasion, as on many others, Joe faced down death threats and vitriolic abuse to take a principled stand. He understood the workplace as an interface and strove to create an atmosphere free of sectarian intimidation, giving class politics a chance to find roots.
It was with great sadness that Joe came to realise that his trade union and political activities meant increasing isolation from childhood contemporaries and the community from which he came. They were also, however, what led him to meet his one true love and soul mate, Brenda Callaghan, at a meeting of the anti-apartheid movement in Belfast. Married in 1987, he and Brenda would spend twenty-nine happy years together. He was utterly devoted to her, to his nephews and nieces, and to his dog, aptly named ‘Che’, who was by his side for fifteen of those years.
A principled socialist, he was also, to a fault, a practical man of action, believing that best way to tackle prejudice and discrimination whilst building class consciousness was through political education. He committed twenty-five years to this uphill task, first with Counteract and subsequently with Trademark, which he established in 2001 as the anti-sectarian unit of the Irish trade union movement. Invoking the spirit of Jemmy Hope, the Belfast weaver and United Irishman, he would often remark how “We’ve been trying to unite our class for over two hundred years and still haven’t found the answer.” He would also quip that “I make a living delivering anti-sectarian training, but I’ve never met anyone who’s sectarian”, thus getting to the essence of the challenges facing us. He understood the divisions in our society run deep and that addressing the legacy of imperialism and the recent conflict is an inter-generational process that begins with people confronting their own prejudices as well as challenging structural forms of inequality. To this end, his pioneering anti-sectarian and anti-racist training went hand in hand with his anti-capitalist politics.
Joe was renowned for cutting through bullshit and getting to the heart of the matter. His wry smile was more full-faced at times like this. His tendency to find laughter in even the most unexpected of topics of conversation made every encounter with him a memorable one. These qualities are what enabled him to challenge deeply held shibboleths and encourage critical thinking among the most narrow of minds, and what endeared him to people across the political spectrum.
The breadth of Joe’s influence cannot be overstated. He was involved in groundbreaking work across all employment sectors as well as the community sector, using his caustic wit to smash through the ‘politeness, avoidance, and denial’ approach that has often characterised community relations work in Northern Ireland. He mediated in a number of high profile workplace disputes, including Northern Ireland’s largest ever anti-sectarian workplace intervention in which he delivered training to over 4,000 ASDA workers, and also played an important role in enabling paramilitaries to make the transition from violence to peace. Indeed, he continued to work constructively with ex-prisoner groups up until his retirement and counted former combatants, on both sides, among his closest friends.
Throughout this time, he served as a panel member for industrial tribunals and a board member of the Community Relations Council. He had previously sat on the board of the Belfast Group of the Citizen Advice Bureau, chairing the board in 2001-2004. He was also on the steering group of The Other View magazine, a cross-community publication founded by Billy Mitchell and Tommy McKearney, in its second iteration between 2006 and 2008. Joe was remembered on these boards as someone who could be sought out for advice. In fact, there were plenty of times when Joe gave advice even when it wasn’t asked for.
For most people, the abiding memories of Joe Law revolve around his constant presence at rallies, marches and events regardless of the sectarian geography or demographic. Comrades will look back fondly on the times they had pints with him in The John Hewitt, discussing politics, society, history and culture, learning valuable lessons from his anecdotes, and found themselves on the receiving end of his merciless ribbing. They will remember his tendency to offer instructions in how to carry a trade union banner properly, joking about how he had never lost the talents he acquired during his time with the Junior Orange Lodge and how, unlike some of us, he had a genetic predisposition to such duties. They will remember him as one of a long line of Belfast radicals who drew inner strength from political conviction and a socialism that privileged intellect, integrity, common decency and respect for one’s fellow human being. In the midst of a bitter sectarian conflict Joe would remind those around him that the ideas of collectivism and internationalism were indeed the highest forms of patriotism.
Joe was a wealth of knowledge, a working-class intellectual who stood true to his anti-sectarian, anti-fascist and anti-imperialist convictions. For many of us, including a generation of younger trade unionists, he was a role model, a teacher, a father figure, a constant source of inspiration. He was a remarkable individual, an irreplaceable servant of the labour movement; the embodiment of the incorruptible working class.
‘You can go proudly. You are history. You are legend.’ – Dolores Ibárruri Gómez (‘La Pasionaria).